Last week a story appeared, tucked in the back pages of American newspapers that are concentrating almost entirely on our leap year election ritual. Vladimir Putin, the Frank lookalike, former KGB agent, and current Russian dictator, once again tried to grab headlines and to indirectly interpolate himself into the American foreign policy debate, along with the election itself. Mr. Putin proposed to reopen the shuttered Russian military bases in Saharan Africa, Vietnam, and yes, in Cuba, thereby extending Russia’s global reach and turning up the dial in his personal Cold War against America and the West. Putin, who has never hidden his chagrin at the fall of the Soviet Union, and yearns to restore Russian power, satisfyingly argued that extending Russian military might to Southeast Asia and the Americas will have the salutary effect of curbing the hegemonic ambitions of the current superpower, the United States of America. Putin’s remarks drew more attention in Europe than in the USA, but he’ll gladly accept the publicity, regardless of the source.
Putin’s ambitions have, however, found their way into the current American political conversation. He has figured in the first two American presidential debates, and, in fact, he has inverted the old paradigm, with the Democratic candidate accusing the Republican nominee of being “soft on Russia”, if not on communism. This takes the nation back to 1960, when GOP nominee Richard Nixon publicly jousted with his Democratic opponent, Senator John F. Kennedy, over who would more effectively contain the Soviet Union and their adventurous leader, Nikita Khrushchev.
The real question that we must address here is fairly straightforward. What is Vladimir Putin’s real game? Is he simply a blusterer and a poseur who enjoys making the West nervous and jumpy? On the other hand, is he aggressively moving to reassert Russian primacy in the world, following the examples of Peter the Great, and Marshal Stalin? Possibly he is pursuing an entirely different course altogether.
The likelihood is that Putin is all of the above. Vladimir Putin is a “Great Russia” proponent. He has always endorsed an active and arguably an aggressive foreign policy, as the Crimean and Ukrainian situations clearly illustrate. Putin has publicly longed for the establishment of Russian world power, and has pledged himself to achieve that end. He is also an opportunist who sees his chances and takes them. When Putin realized that the Obama administration was preparing to bow out of the Middle East he rushed in to fill the void, thereby making Russian a major player in that region once again. Finally, Putin might be charitably referred to as an egomaniac, who loves publicity and headlines and who is willing to employ Russian national power to garner these things for himself. In this sense he approximates a fascist dictator of the 1930s, who merges national power and world influence with his own persona.
Does Vladimir Putin represent a real threat, or is he merely a blustering impostor leading a declining state while desperately struggling to remain relevant on the world stage? How, precisely to engage the Russians, is a question that has bedeviled Western foreign policy gurus for centuries. There is an old saying concerning the Russians: “Russia is never as strong as she looks but Russia is never as weak as she looks”. The aphorism, correctly understood, would mean that foreign nations should not overestimate Russian power, but that a nation that underestimates Russia does so at its own peril. In light of current realities, one might argue that Russia is awash in her own troubles, and, is therefore not much of a threat. Surely Russia deals with a declining and an ageing population, an economic boom that has hit a pothole due to slumping energy prices, and a questionably capable tech sector that serves as a shaky base for developing and building advanced weaponry. On the other hand, we underestimate Russia at our own risk. The Russian people are tough and resourceful, and Putin, for all of his bluster and nonsense, is shrewd and persistent, with a deep reservoir of support among the people. Certainly, there are questions concerning lack of Western resolve that must figure into any calculation.
So, what is to be done? First of all, American policymakers must keep their heads clear and their options open. They should not declare a new cold war, and, in fact, they should avoid any statements whatsoever on this subject. We see how well extending an olive branch in the form of the vaunted “reset” worked out! Putin, the lover of publicity, would revel in the recognition that he has made himself relevant, once again, by getting under the skin of the American leadership. The Russian public who are not as American as some Western opinion shapers believe, would however, rally to the leader’s side in time of tension. The Russian challenge must be taken seriously. The American foreign policy establishment should reread George Kennan and "The Sources of Soviet Conduct" for a road map, simply substituting “Russian” for “Soviet” in this modern instance. In short, we must return to a policy of containing the Russian colossus, applying term, patient, but firm “containment” of Russian expansive tendencies. There are different methods of practicing containment, but practice it we must!
What does this mean for the moment? It means another reset of our Russian policy, but not as the Obama administration had hoped. Do the American people want this firm approach? Do we have the stomach for a resumption of the Cold War? Will the foreign policy establishment, the Congress and the new president ever agree to a controversial and costly shifting of gears? These are the questions that a new generation will be forced to answer.