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PAWLICKI: Putin’s Disastrous Obsession With the Past

National leaders can change lives for good or bad. Never more so than authoritarians. Vladimir Putin stands out in this assessment—a dictator who continues to harm his country disastrously.

Experts have clearly shown Russia’s prime minister is obsessed, some might say pathologically, with the past. He often has described the collapse of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” 

His hero is Peter the Great, credited with transforming a declining country into a feared world power. With such a mindset and authoritarian power, Putin is devoted to expanding Russia’s borders to what he considers his country’s geographic empire of yesteryear.

Putin came to power in 2000, a time of great economic distress. An unknown bureaucrat until his surprising selection by Boris Yeltsin, Putin transformed Russia’s moribund economy, averaging 7 percent growth during his first term. It appeared Russia might join nations that have leaped into the modern world.

That optimism was supported by impressions that belied what was to come. President George W. Bush found Putin a straight shooter, famously reporting he had “looked in Putin’s soul and found him trustworthy.” A fanatical adherent of a Russian form of judo, Putin generated feelings of respect for others. He spoke to Bush as a family man.

The hopeful signs were soon overshadowed by Putin’s dark side, reminiscent of his 17 years as a KGB operative. In his 20-plus years in power, Russian troops entered Georgia, where 20 percent of the country is under Russian military occupation. Putin’s forces incorporated Crimea in 2014. Russia first invaded Ukraine in 2014, and a full-scale invasion began in February 2021. This brief account does not detail Russia’s military influence in the Middle East and Putin’s other expansionist efforts.

A surveillance organization, The Alliance for Securing Democracy, reported that “Russia has meddled in the affairs of at least 27 European and North American countries since 2004 with interference that ranges from cyberattacks to disinformation campaigns.”

The early financial hopes for Russian citizens have dimmed. Economic growth has been vastly unequal. Plutocrats gather great wealth, and many Russians live financially vulnerable lives.

On the 2022 world’s happiness index, a broad snapshot of how people feel about their life, Russia ranked 80th, in the bottom half of nations assessed, neighboring such African countries as Libya and the Ivory Coast. The United States ranked 16th by comparison, even during our current period of partisan politics.

For all of Putin’s arrogance and bluster regarding Russia being a world power, his country languishes in the lower half of nations. Take away Russia’s nuclear arsenal and its permanent membership in the U.N. Security Council, and Russia would receive little attention on the world stage.

It didn’t have to be that way. Russia’s resources could have taken it along a different path.

Russia’s resources go far beyond oil and gas. It has major deposits of metals, minerals and timber in its vast expanse of land. Climate change will be a disaster for the planet. Russia may be one of the few winners, along with Canada.

Already one of the world’s leaders in food exports, Russia may gain vast new acreage as the climate warms. It ranks No. 3 in arable land supplies, a ranking that is likely to rise given the large swatch of land under permafrost, land to become arable soon. The same climate transformation will open new means of food transport from its northern border.

Russia has discussed the value of diversification beyond oil and gas for decades but has failed to alter its short-term focus on fossil fuel wealth. Perhaps Putin’s focus on Russia as a world power played a role in that decision.

Over time, authoritarian leaders destroy institutions. Great leaders build institutions and move forward.

The friendly, respectful Putin is a thing of the past, replaced by his dark and aggressive side. His people and his country will pay an enormous price for his decisions. Instead of creating a land of opportunity, he has tarnished the potential to become a dynamic country. What a shame. What a tragedy for the Russian citizens and the world.

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KING: The Threat of Nuclear War and the License It Has Given Putin

History isn’t short of people to blame. You could say of the present world crisis that it was former president Barack Obama’s fault for not getting tougher with Russian president Vladimir Putin in Syria. You could blame former president Donald Trump for giving Putin a sense of entitlement and for undermining NATO, seeing it as a financial play. You could blame former German chancellor Angela Merkel for encouraging Russian gas imports, shutting out the nuclear energy option.

You could, of course, blame President Biden for explicitly telling Putin, and the world, what the United States wouldn’t do if he invaded Ukraine. And you could blame Biden and NATO for dribbling vital military aid to Ukraine over the first devastating months of the Russian invasion.

If you want to continue, you could blame the world’s military strategists for believing that Russia, after the fall of communism, had changed. You could, perhaps, blame NATO itself, for expanding its reach to the former Soviet republics of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia.

Putin is unequivocally the one to blame. He is the one who wants to remake Russia in the image of the imperial tsars. It is a flawed scheme but a real one.

As the world grapples with the reality of Putin, the past informs but it doesn’t instruct. If NATO were to engage Russia with conventional forces, it would triumph. That is one lesson of Ukraine. Russian military forces are woefully inefficient, even incompetent.

Would it were that simple.

The beast in the room, the feared monster, the threat that hangs over the whole world is nuclear war. It is the clear-and-present danger. It shapes our handling of Russia and will shape our response to China, if and when it invades Taiwan.

Nuclear war avoidance is again dominating the world in ways we had nearly forgotten. Will Russia — a caged, fierce bear — resort to nuclear, and how much nuclear to what effect against which targets?

The United States and the Soviet Union reached a modus vivendi: mutual assured destruction (MAD), which kept the peace even as nuclear armaments proliferated and stockpiles grew exponentially. Is that still the option? Is MAD — so long after the collapse of the Soviet Union — still the underlying realpolitik, the restraining factor between nuclear powers?

Does that mean that anyone with nuclear weapons can wage conventional warfare in the belief that they won’t face NATO or any other serious restraining military action because they can unleash terrifying global destruction?

Or is there, as some believe, the prospect of limited nuclear engagement, using area tactical nuclear weapons? This has never been tested. There hasn’t been a limited nuclear ground war. Could it be contained? Should it be contemplated outside the deeper reaches of the defense establishment?

But it is what keeps the leaders of Europe, the United States and Canada awake nights. If you favor limited nuclear war, just look to the effects of a nuclear disaster, Chernobyl, and start multiplying.

It is the unthinkable scenario that must be thought about. It is the reality that holds back NATO and makes the West a spectator to the carnage in Ukraine.

Russia isn’t a rich country. It has a large, poorly trained and equipped military. But it bristles with nuclear weapons aimed at North American and European cities. Its ability to threaten us with nuclear horror changes the balance between nations: an indelible change to future foreign policy.

In the short term, when contemplating the return of MAD in international relations, the question is: How mad — as in insane — is Putin, and how ready is Biden?

The pieces on the world chess board have moved and they won’t be moved back. The intelligentsia has yet to grasp the extent to which Ukraine has changed the world — and made it a more dangerous place. They need to catch up fast.

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While the Russian War in Ukraine Rages, What Is China’s Takeaway?

China has been warned by the Biden administration not to support Russia in that nation’s illegal war, but China has merely parried that jab and is looking hard at the realities of the war in Ukraine.

The Chinese have learned two things already.

President Biden is not strong at home, which is mildly interesting to China, but is significantly weak abroad, which interests China greatly. They saw in Afghanistan that this White House offers no foreign policy expertise.

They are mystified by a nation that at one moment was energy independent — in the thirstiest energy consuming country in the world — and in the next it became intentionally dependent on many of its competitors.

Biden’s decision-making is even worse.

China also understands that Russia is not nearly the fighting machine that many, including an angry President Vladimir Putin, thought they were.

As of this writing, the Russian army, unable to muster combined arms fighting skills, is slogging its way through Ukraine, having lost thousands of soldiers, including four generals killed in action (by contrast, the U.S. lost exactly zero generals in eight years in Iraq).

Putin’s decision-making is even worse.

Nuclear weapons continue to occupy the thoughts of all in the region and worldwide. Part of Russian warfighting doctrine allows use of tactical low-yield weapons, designed to allow quick takeover of affected areas.

The Chinese are not overly concerned about Biden’s comments or with Russia’s conduct of battle.

The Chinese Communist Party is dispassionately going about the business of achieving its own goals of their plan for the Great Rejuvenation of 2049.

The Defense Department views the Great Rejuvenation’s purpose is “to match or surpass U.S. global influence and power, displace U.S. alliances and security partnerships in the Indo-Pacific region, and revise the international order to be more advantageous to Beijing’s authoritarian system and national interests.” It is not ambiguous.

It is worth looking at what China is doing, out of the spotlight.

China has threatened countries supplying Taiwan with military equipment. Their obvious aim is to intimidate countries, including the United States, to pull back on aid.

There have been indications that Russia has asked China for military support. It is not clear whether China has provided any equipment. For its part, China claims Russia has not asked for equipment and this is simply U.S. “disinformation.”

China is also projecting a neutral position in the war (which has a dubious basis given its brotherly relationship with Russia). The western nations must constantly point this out. China cannot have it both ways.

Militarily, China is likely assessing its own military readiness. Russia’s generals fooled Putin into believing their forces were ready to take Ukraine in days.

China’s untested generals, many selected for political connections, not military acumen, are likely feeding Chinese leaders with claims of supremacy. Look for major exercises in China in the next few months. Chinese leaders do not want the Russian experience.

China is also advising its fellow Asian leaders not to get too emboldened with their foreign policy.

For example, China issued a thinly veiled threat to Japan.

At a March 7 news conference, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi urged Japan not to take any actions that could be seen as interfering in things that are not their concern. In other words: Watch yourself, Japan.

The United States is not immune from efforts of intimidation.

On March 18, just before a scheduled phone call between Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping, the Chinese navy sailed an aircraft carrier through the Taiwan Strait. The move was meant to be a reminder that Taiwan is in the Chinese’s collective minds.

During the call, according to a vague White House readout, Biden “described the implications and consequences if China provides material support to Russia.”

The Chinese foreign ministry’s view of the situation was one in which “all-round and indiscriminate sanctions” would cause suffering to the “common people.” China merely changed the subject.

Naturally, the Chinese did not address the suffering caused by incessant bombing and missiles being hurled toward cities day and night.

China is not a friend of the west, especially the United States, or Ukraine, and the clarity of the country’s leaders is abundantly clear.

Now is the time to completely re-evaluate our multi-layered relationship with this giant and squash its dream of becoming the hegemon of the Pacific Rim.

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