Vladimir Putin is the most popular leader in the world today. His personal approval ratings are in the stratosphere, usually well-above 80 percent. He is admired for his quiet, confident manner and for having restored Russia to its former greatness following the chaotic breakup of the Soviet Union.
The Russian people love Putin. Parents name their children after him, vodka and caviar producers use his name to boost sales, and his face appears on the tee-shirts of students and young people. It’s unthinkable that he would step down after his term as prime minister is over a year from today. The Russian people want him to stay on and run for a third term as president, and that’s probably what he’ll do.
Putin and George Bush were supposedly good friends, but US-Russian relations have steadily deteriorated since February 10, 2007 when Putin gave a speech at a conference in Munich. In his 45 minute presentation, Putin gave his views on how world leaders should manage global security issues. It was a succinct but hard-hitting analysis that rankled US diplomats and infuriated the Bush White House. Here’s an excerpt from the speech.
Vladimir Putin: “The universal, indivisible character of security is expressed as the basic principle that “security for one is security for all”. As Franklin D. Roosevelt said during the first few days that the Second World War was breaking out: “When peace has been broken anywhere, the peace of all countries everywhere is in danger.”
Midway through the speech, Putin gave a pointed critique of US foreign policy and the dangers it poses to global security.
Putin: “What is a unipolar world? However one might embellish this term, at the end of the day it refers to one type of situation, namely one center of authority, one center of force, one center of decision-making.
It is world in which there is one master, one sovereign. And at the end of the day this is pernicious not only for all those within this system, but also for the sovereign itself because it destroys itself from within.
And this certainly has nothing in common with democracy. Because, as you know, democracy is the power of the majority in light of the interests and opinions of the minority.”
By this time, everyone attending the conference could see that Putin was not talking about the threat of terrorism, but the threat of preemption, aggression and global dictatorship. And, even though Putin tried to characterize his views as ‘a frank discussion among friends’, it was clear that he was singling out the United States as the world’s biggest troublemaker.
Putin: “Unilateral and frequently illegitimate actions have not resolved any problems. Moreover, they have caused new human tragedies and created new centers of tension. Judge for yourselves: wars as well as local and regional conflicts have not diminished. And no less people perish in these conflicts – even more are dying than before. Significantly more, significantly more!
Today we are witnessing an almost uncontained hyper use of force – military force – in international relations, force that is plunging the world into an abyss of permanent conflicts. As a result we do not have sufficient strength to find a comprehensive solution to any one of these conflicts. Finding a political settlement also becomes impossible.
We are seeing a greater and greater disdain for the basic principles of international law. And independent legal norms are, as a matter of fact, coming increasingly closer to one state’s legal system. One state and, of course, first and foremost the United States, has overstepped its national borders in every way. This is visible in the economic, political, cultural and educational policies it imposes on other nations. Well, who likes this? Who is happy about this?
In international relations we increasingly see the desire to resolve a given question according to so-called issues of political expediency, based on the current political climate.
And of course this is extremely dangerous. It results in the fact that no one feels safe. I want to emphasize this – no one feels safe! Because no one can feel that international law is like a stone wall that will protect them. Of course such a policy stimulates an arms race.
The force’s dominance inevitably encourages a number of countries to acquire weapons of mass destruction. Moreover, significantly new threats – though they were also well-known before – have appeared, and today threats such as terrorism have taken on a global character.
I am convinced that we have reached that decisive moment when we must seriously think about the architecture of global security.” ( read the whole speech here )
This is why Washington hates Putin and why western media disparage him as an “autocrat”, because he has identified himself as an opponent of the unipolar world view. He does not accept the theory that (as George H. Bush said) “That whatever the US says, goes”. He seeks a multipolar world where individual states are treated equally and with respect. But Putin’s naivete is a bit surprising. Did he really think that criticizing US meddling around the world would lead to constructive changes in policy? US foreign policy doesn’t change. It is immutable, relentless and vicious. America owns the world and demands that foreign leaders obey Washington’s directives. “Follow orders, or else”; that’s all one needs to know about US foreign policy.
Putin: “I am convinced that the only mechanism that can make decisions about using military force as a last resort is the Charter of the United Nations… Along with this, it is necessary to make sure that international law have a universal character both in the conception and application of its norms….”
This type of idealistic blather is unworthy of a shrewd leader like Putin. Where do we see any evidence that the UN prevents wars or that international law serves any purpose other than to provide an excuse for future aggression by the US or Israel? The UN means nothing to Bush, Obama or anyone else who occupies the White House. It’s just one of many props that’s used to achieve strategic objectives.
Putin wants to reduce weapons and troops on both sides of the Russia-Europe border, but the US plans to deploy missile systems to Eastern Europe and push NATO/US forces and military bases into Central Asia, thus, encircling Russia and destabilizing the region. Bush/Obama’s plan for missile defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic would integrate US nuclear facilities around the world providing the US with a first-strike capability that Russia will have to counter with more targets in Europe. Putin can’t allow this threat to Russia’s national security to go unanswered. Whether he wants to reduce the number of nuclear weapons or not is irrelevant, he will be forced to escalate. Missile Defense has made an another arms race unavoidable.
Putin may have stumbled in his early years as president, but he’s shown that he’s a quick learner who now understands how to handle the US. Along with US/NATO military bases sprouting up throughout Central Asia, and CIA-sponsored “color coded” revolutions toppling regimes that had been friendly to Moscow; Putin has had to deal with US-funded NGOs operating in Russia that are working to destabilize the government. These faux-human rights organizations are now watched carefully by Russian intelligence agencies and often harassed by right wing, nationalist youth groups, like “Nashi”.
Putin’s real “awakening” came about when Georgia’s President Mikail Saakashvili invaded South Ossetia 4 years ago. At the time, all of the western media reported that Russia had started the war, but now we know that wasn’t the case. Here’s a brief summary of what really happened by former Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev:
“For some time, relative calm was maintained in South Ossetia. The peacekeeping force composed of Russians, Georgians and Ossetians fulfilled its mission, and ordinary Ossetians and Georgians, who live close to each other, found at least some common ground….What happened on the night of Aug. 7 is beyond comprehension. The Georgian military attacked the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali with multiple rocket launchers designed to devastate large areas….Mounting a military assault against innocents was a reckless decision whose tragic consequences, for thousands of people of different nationalities, are now clear. The Georgian leadership could do this only with the perceived support and encouragement of a much more powerful force. Georgian armed forces were trained by hundreds of U.S. instructors, and its sophisticated military equipment was bought in a number of countries. This, coupled with the promise of NATO membership, emboldened Georgian leaders into thinking that they could get away with a “blitzkrieg” in South Ossetia…Russia had to respond. To accuse it of aggression against “small, defenseless Georgia” is not just hypocritical but shows a lack of humanity.” (“A Path to Peace in the Caucasus”, Mikhail Gorbachev, Washington Post)
Gorbachev’s account is accurate, but leaves out some important details. There aren’t any military installations in Tskhinvali. In fact, there aren’t any military targets at all. It’s an industrial center consisting of lumber mills, manufacturing plants and residential areas. It’s also the home of 30,000 South Ossetians. When Saakashvili ordered the city to be bombed by warplanes and shelled by heavy artillery, he knew that he’d be killing hundreds of civilians in their homes and neighborhoods. But he ordered the bombing anyway.
The Georgian army entered the city unopposed after most of the townspeople had fled across the border into Russia. The old and infirm huddled in their basements while the tanks rumbled bye firing at anything that moved. Some critics have compared the assault to Israel’s invasion of Gaza where the full force of a modern army was used against a civilian population. It’s a fair comparison.
Less than 24 hours after the initial invasion, Russian armored units swarmed over the border and into Tskhinvali scattering the Georgian army without a fight. Journalist Michael Binyon summed it up like this, “The attack was short, sharp and deadly—enough to send the Georgians fleeing in humiliating panic.” Indeed, the Georgians retreated in such haste that many of them left their weapons behind. They simply dropped their guns and ran. It was a complete rout and another black-eye for the US-trained army.
By the time Tskhinvali was liberated, the downtown area was in engulfed in flames and the bodies of those who had been killed by sniper-fire were strewn along the streets and sidewalks. The city’s only hospital had been reduced to smoldering rubble. All told, more than 2,000 civilians were killed in an operation that was clearly engineered and supported by the Bush White House.
The clash in South Ossetia was a valuable lesson for Putin who had hoped that US/Russia relations would gradually thaw. Now he knows that’s not possible. When another nation kills your people, everything changes. Each side becomes more inflexible and the prospects for peace dim. At the same time, US strategic objectives in Central Asia haven’t changed at all, so Putin must prepare for the next confrontation. That’s why he’s strengthening alliances that challenge US dominance in the region and in the world. That’s why he’s looking for opportunities to weaken US power and erode US prestige. That’s why he wants to dump the dollar. It’s all preparation.
When trouble breaks out, Putin will be ready. Russia is fortunate to have such a leader.