The "Method" Behind Vladimir Putin's Madness
Does it make any "sense" to you that Russia is going to start Soviet-style parades through Red Square again, with tanks and missiles and such? Can you "explain" why a Russian general would go on national TV and say that he wouldn't hesitate to use nuclear weapons in a first strike to repel a conventional attack? After all, wouldn't such actions be likely to provoke a new arms race with the United States, a country that has an economy 12 times bigger than Russia's and lots of allies?
What kind of "sense" does it make for the Kremlin, as we report below, to open a criminal investigation against the only legitimate opposition candidate in upcoming presidential elections, former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov? Even if he's really guilty of fraudulently obtaining signatures to support his candidacy, he's a former appointee of Vladimir Putin himself, so what does that say about Putin's judgment? And the world is already hypercritical of Russia's slide into dictatorship -- so much so that Putin is attempting to create his own "democracy agency" to find fault with the democracies of the West, apparently seeking to divert attention from Russia's egregious crackdown. Is Putin really so afraid of dissent that he can't even stand the idea of a person being able to collect enough signatures to run for president without his approval, even though that person has no chance of winning? Can he be that much of a girly man? Come to think of it, what kind of sense does it make for Russia to lecture the world about democracy? Surely the Kremlin realizes that nobody on the planet, except maybe a few of the most ignorant among the Russian citizens it has played for suckers, would believe anything such an agency said. Don't they?
Surely the Kremlin understands how pathetically weak such actions would make it look, and that this would be utterly inconsistent with its bid for a place at the big-league negotiating table with the grownups, right? Surely, Mr. Putin understands that his critics will seize these actions as further proof of Russia's inherently savage nature, which makes him bristle so. Doesn't he?
Writing about the British Council scandal in the Washington Post, Masha Lipman of the Carnegie Foundation stated:
Consider also the domestic perspective on this row. Angry assertions of Russia's global standing dovetail with Soviet-style isolationism, which breeds suspicion about Western values and influence. The Kremlin is increasingly wary of autonomous groups, especially those that receive Western financial backing. After Putin's notorious 2004 reference to such organizations -- "they don't bite the hand that feeds them" -- nongovernmental and human rights organizations receiving foreign grants have been consistently discredited. Harassment of such groups is growing. In Soviet times, anti-Western propaganda was an element of the totalitarian state, with its sealed borders and rigid ideology aimed at defeating capitalism. In today's Russia, a nation with free trade and free travel, where cable television and Internet access are unrestricted, such policies appear irrational and anachronistic. Russia's business ties with Western countries are expanding. Relations with Britain, especially, extend beyond economic investments: London has become wealthy Russians' favorite choice for residences, high-quality education and enjoyable getaways. Last year, though, Britain suspended talks on facilitating the visa process, and Russians' entry to Britain may be further restricted. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has called the attacks "totally unacceptable" and noted that the only countries in which the British Council faced serious trouble were Burma and Iran. Yet Kremlin leaders apparently believe that making the world reckon with Russia is worth the harm such company does to the country's image.Is the Kremlin really acting irrationally? Let's see.
Lipman says Russia is "a nation nation with free trade and free travel, where cable television and Internet access are unrestricted." That's clearly not correct. Trade, travel, TV and Internet access are restricted, by the most severe and effective limit there is, the pocketbook. Russians who earn an average wage of $4/hour and who, the men at least, don't live to see their sixtieth year, may well have far more immediate concerns than acquiring political knowledge and taking political action. It's called staying alive. What's more, as we've documented here so often, the Kremlin is aggressively moving to seize control of the Internet, first and foremost by launching criminal prosecutions against those who use it to criticize the Kremlin, with a profound chilling effect. So, if the Kremlin is relying on that restriction, then it's perfectly rational to want to see it continue by keeping the Russian population poor and sick. To be sure, a healthy, wealthy population could make use of Russia's political climate being less restrictive than it was in Soviet times and perhaps generate real, widespread opposition to the Kremlin's belligerent foreign policy.
On top of that, Lipman seems to assume that Russians are generally disposed to be fair-minded in regard to foreigners, and that's simply nonsense. It's the opposite of the truth. Most Russians are only too willing to swallow the Kremlin's xenophobic propaganda hook, line and sinker. The fact that there might be a bit of access to competing views on expensive TV and English-language websites means little when the Kremlin's propaganda is everywhere, 24/7, and backed up by a patronage network many Russian depend on for their survival.
In short, the Kremlin's efforts to attack the British Council, and all things foreign, is not only rational given the Kremlin's worldview, it's merely the reverberation of a constant drumbeat that is the hallmark of Russian history that predates the Romanov dynasty.
Now, to be sure, if we define "rationality" as the desire to have the Russian people at their best and happiest, then the Kremlin's policy of keeping them weak, sick and miserable makes no sense. If it's "rational" to make friends in international affairs rather than enemies, especially for a weak nation that lacks the ability to sustain itself on its own (but rather depends, for example, on the international oil markets), then the Kremlin's policy of alienating every nation on the face of the Earth is crazy.
But if the Kremlin needs a weak population, then it's perfectly logical to try to cut off access by any foreigners who might make them stronger, just as was done in Soviet times. Conveniently, xenophobia also provides the opportunity to terrify the population regarding the need for protection from evil enemies and the need for ever-greater Kremlin power to do so. The combination of Stalin-like threats of blunt trauma combined with Stalin-like domination over the mass media, combined with the historically proven, craven Russian refusal to question their own government except in times of most dire urgency, means that, regardless of a small amount of competition that might exist, the Kremlin can win the day in the short term.
This reality is why the story about the Emperor and his new clothes was invented. Imagine that, in the story, any person who even started to giggle when viewing the naked Emperor was immediately shot dead. The Emperor could go on for quite some time in his birthday suit before any chickens came home to roost, couldn't he?
Putin presides over a fundamentally weak and illegitimate regime. He can't afford to have a kid like Oleg Kozlovsky, much less a former prime minister like Mikhail Kasyanov, making public criticisms of him, even though he knows it can't actually influence the result of the next election. He's afraid it could plant the seeds of doubt, seeds that could sprout into mighty oaks of dissent should, say, the price of oil happen to fall owing to a major decline in U.S. demand owing to a U.S. recession. It's actually all very logical, if you think about it.
What still seems strange, of course, is the idea that Putin and his KGB cohorts wouldn't realize that, sooner or later, their fraud would bring them down. But it's not really that strange, not if you know Russia. Two simple reasons explain it.
First, hatred of the West, and most especially America. If there's any irrationality afoot regarding Russia, it's the irrationality on our part of failing to understand that if Russians hated us before we beat them in the Cold War, then they hate us twice as much now, because we beat them. And of all the Russians who hate us, the KGB would naturally hate us the most. That kind of hate can make you blind to your own best interests, just as it did in Soviet times. What else would explain actions like Nikita Khrushchev taking off his shoe at the U.N.? Remember, he was one of the USSR's more moderate leaders. Why would he say "we will bury you" like that? Isn't it just giving a warning, an opportunity for your adversary to prepare better and possibly defeat you? It seems irrational, and yet it was done, and if you know anything about Russian politics then you know that kind of thing is actually quite commonplace, like say the president of Russia joking about rape in front of a diplomatic delegation, something that happened quite recently.
And second, much more important, seething contempt for the people of Russia, who've always been a mighty disappointment to the nation's rulers. Something that's very little known about Russian history, and in the Russian people's favor, is that a relatively small fraction of the population actively supported removing the Tsar and installing a Bolshevik regime. Nothing like a majority ever joined the Communist Party, and an even tinier cadre participated in bringing down the Soviet dictatorship. Mostly, what the people of Russia, often inebriated, have done during such events is to simply stand on the sidelines with their hands folded gaping in slack-jawed bemusement. Imagine being a Russian leader who felt he was risking his life to "save" the people only to meet this reaction. It'd be pretty darned frustrating, wouldn't it?
A well-documented phenomenon of human psychology leads us to want to think of Russians as being our friends rather than our enemies, and as being rational rather than irrational. The latter is so much safer and more comforting. And malignant little trolls like Vladimir Putin trade on that human tendency, it conveniently helps them consolidate their power.