There’s a bigger Russian threat than meddling - GulfToday

There’s a bigger Russian threat than meddling

Leon Aron

Resident Scholar and Director of Russian Studies at American Enterprise Institute.

Resident Scholar and Director of Russian Studies at American Enterprise Institute.

Putin

Vladimir Putin

Russia’s meddling in the 2016 US presidential election was an attack on our sovereignty and can’t be ignored. But we shouldn’t allow it to distract us from the larger threat Russian President Vladimir Putin poses to both the United States and the world.

To understand that threat, we have to examine Putin’s motivations. His policies are dictated by deeply held convictions and ambitions rooted less in Russian patriotism than in Soviet patriotism. In his mind, the end of the Soviet Union was a profound historical injustice, visited upon his country by plotters from without and traitors from within.

His self-imposed mission is to avenge this “tragic,” man-made disaster by recovering for Russia some of the economic, political and geopolitical assets it lost when the Soviet Union collapsed. For Putin, as his policies have made clear again and again, the most important of these is to reoccupy the Soviet Union’s place as an existential alternative — military and moral — to the United States. In the most popular trope of state propaganda, he is “raising Russia off its knees” to make America pay dearly for the humiliation it dealt the Soviet Union.

Whether because of his rough childhood in the slums of postwar Leningrad or his training in judo, Putin regards direct confrontation as the ultimate measure of manliness. He views victories in such bouts as proof of superior virtue — for men as well as nations.

For Putin, Russia’s greatest geopolitical success in recent years was the occupation and annexation of Crimea. And the operation’s success, he emphasized, was largely because of his hands-on approach. “Do you know what our advantage was?” he said during an interview. “The fact that I personally dealt with (the operation)!”

Putin’s aggression in Crimea paid off handsomely politically: His support among Russians skyrocketed from a record low of 61 per cent at the end of 2013 to a record high of 86 percent in October 2014. Russia is in “total confrontation” mode with the US, Putin’s chief of general staff, Valery Gerasimov, declared last year. Putin’s policies match this assessment.

Russia’s president is never happier or more animated than when he describes Russia’s nuclear hardware, aimed at the United States — and invulnerable to US missile defense, as he emphasizes again and again. No Soviet leader ever bragged of his country’s nuclear might the way Putin does. In his two most recent annual State of Russia addresses to the Federal Assembly, he concluded with triumphant tributes to Russia’s nuclear arsenal, modernized under his loving care and home to the world’s heaviest, fastest and longest-range missiles.

He has also touted a new cache of futuristic weapons: underwater nuclear drones, a hypersonic “meteorite,” a mighty ognennyi shar, or “ball of fire,” which Russian wits have called the “flying Chernobyl.” Putin has authorized two multiyear “state armament programs,” costing about a trillion dollars. (Russia’s GDP last year was $1.6 trillion.)

The biggest threat posed by Putin’s militarism, however, is to his nearest neighbours. He has resurrected the Western Military District, established in the Soviet era and abolished by Boris Yeltsin, making it the largest and best-armed of Russia’s military districts. NATO members Latvia and Estonia today face between 350,000 and 400,000 troops just across the border in Russia, a tank army, more than 100 fighter jets, four squadrons of long-range bombers, and Russia’s most modern surface-to-air missiles. And they are worried about a Crimea-style annexation of parts of their territories.

The timing of Putin’s war preparations could hardly be worse. Economic growth is projected to be anemic for years to come, personal incomes are down for a fifth consecutive year, and 68 per cent of Russians believe that their country is in an economic crisis. According to a recent survey by the Russian State Statistical Agency, 80 per cent of Russian families have a monthly income that leaves them unable to buy a “minimal assortment” of goods.

Putin’s approval ratings have fallen to 64 per cent, only a few percentage points higher than they were before he embarked on his Crimean conquest. While that may sound high to those living in a democracy, it is a troubling number for a politician who operates unchallenged within his country.

The Russian constitution bars Putin from running again in 2024. But if Putin, who clearly would like to rule Russia for life, wants support from Russians in doing so, he will need to boost his popularity before then.

How? Putin has recast himself as a wartime president defending the motherland, and he is determined to restore his country to a victorious superpower status. What better way to accomplish all his goals than to fight and win another military conflict.