Putin is a caricature, but nobody’s laughing
As Russia’s Vladimir Putin continues to consolidate Russian hegemony over the Crimean province of Ukraine, and rattle sabers about the rest of the country, there is no shortage of suggestions for how to deal with he growling Russian bear.
They include economic sanctions, a boost in our energy exports, more financial aid to those clinging to power in Ukraine, and a greater show of military force in the region.
Count us among those who think sanctions against Russia and financial aid to Ukraine are the best options right now.
Putin’s actions — using military force to change the outcome of a citizen uprising in the Ukraine that he disliked, employing Orwellian doublespeak to claim that he is protecting democracy and the rights of Russian-speaking residents of the Ukraine, and clamping down on all who criticize him in his own country— are the antithesis of what Americans believe in.
However, that doesn’t mean we can come charging into the Ukraine like some latter-day Light Brigade. Nor should we buy into the mythic image of Putin that the media, both here and abroad, have helped him create.
We’ve all seen photos of the bare-chested Russian president riding a horse or posing by the carcass of a tiger he supposedly tracked and killed. These cartoonish attempts at myth-making appear to have actually taken root in the minds of some American political commentators. In advocating a military response, they characterize Putin — almost with a glint of admiration — as “bold, aggressive … decisive.” In contrast, President Barack Obama’s measured diplomatic response has been roundly mocked as “weak, soft, unintimidating.”
The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart couldn’t resist weighing in: “Someone who makes quick decisions and reacts? That’s not what you call a leader. That’s what you call a toddler.”
Putin’s grip on reality became the subject of speculation after The New York Times, in its lead story on Monday, quoted an Obama aide who was reportedly briefed on a conversation between the president and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The aide said Merkel described Putin as “in another world.”
Mark Seibel, who works the Washington bureau of the McClatchy newspaper chain, examined the issue more thoroughly in a column, “Did Angela Merkel really say Putin was unhinged?” His conclusion: There’s no way to know. But planting the seed is a classic ploy. “Because in the world of propaganda, successfully portraying your adversary as being crazy, without any rational backing to his actions, makes it unnecessary to try to understand the complexities or sensitivities of the issues.”
Whether Putin is a “semi-delusional autocrat who has confused his own geopolitical propaganda for reality,” as Stewart observes, doesn’t change the stakes. Ukraine is in a crossfire between East and West. Putin lied about the presence of Russian troops in Crimea, calling them “local self-defense units.” He dominates the media and his country’s parliament. With no system of checks and balances, he is free to make unilateral decisions with a well-equipped army at his disposal. Ukraine shook off Putin’s puppet regime and stands as the biggest threat to Putin’s vision of a reconstituted Soviet empire.
One world figure who knows only too well how Putin operates is Mikheil Saakashvili, who was president of Georgia from 2004 to 2013. Russians invaded his country in 2008 and still occupy a portion of it.
“There is a logic to (Putin’s) perception of ideological threats: If Ukraine ceased to be a corrupt oligarchy and became a real European democracy, Putin’s opponents would see the contrast — and potential benefit to fighting their own reality,” Saakashvili wrote in the Washington Post.
The Wall Street Journal is advocating unleashing North American oil and gas on the world as a means of reducing Putin’s influence. “He feeds his kleptocracy and client states with petro dollars. U.S. exports would reduce the threat of energy blackmail, and if they reduced global oil prices, they’d reduce his influence,” it opined in its Thursday edition.
Such a move would have impacts here and every gas-producing region in the U.S., but it’s a long-term strategy that won’t solve the crisis in Ukraine immediately.
Saakashvili says sanctions are a good start. We agree.