by Stephen Bryen
Russian President Vladimir Putin is painting himself into a corner and it is his fault. Now Putin is threatening another Cuban missile crisis, and hell-bent on building even more terrible nuclear weapons delivered from hypersonic platforms. Meanwhile Russia has been caught cheating on its INF Treaty obligations, so much so and after so many American warnings that the US exercised its right to withdraw from the Treaty. So did Russia in the aftermath of the American decision, but the Russian action was based on retaliation, not logic.
The real question is why are the Russians doing what they are doing, raising the ante on threat after threat, inserting themselves in far away places where they don’t belong (like sending strategic bombers to Venezuela and boosting the hopeless case of Venezuela Presidente Nicolás Maduro Moros in order to stick a finger in the eye of President Trump.)
None of this makes sense, and one has to wonder whether Russia’s President Putin has a screw loose, or whether his lashing out is more related to internal failure than any sensible international goals.
Reports say there is growing unhappiness with Putin’s regime at home, where the standard of living is falling and the government is less than sure it can pay pensions. Back in August the Russian government “made a direct appeal to Russians to ask for their support in raising the retirement age, warning that without urgent action, the country risked economic collapse and hyperinflation, as well as threats to its national security.” Russian opinion polls say that 90% of Russians opposed any changes to the pension system.
A “recent poll by the independent Levada Center found that more than half of the respondents (53 percent) feel that the government is not executing its responsibilities to its citizens and should resign.“
It follows that an explanation for Putin’s behavior internationally is his weakening position domestically and his game is to externalize his troubles and find ways to blame it on the United States or others in the West.
What makes the situation especially sticky and complex is that the Trump administration has been hobbled by the continuing investigations attempting to show somehow collusion between Trump and his Presidential campaign and the Russian government. While the outcome of this two year investigation is likely to leave Trump free of any proven collaboration, it has had a bad impact on managing relations with Russia. To say the obvious, the US and Russian relationship is at an all-time low, and if it is going anywhere it is spiraling still further downward. That, of course is a bad result, because deterioration in political relations risks unplanned conflict, as mistrust piled on mistrust leads to miscalculation.
Nor can anyone be entirely certain that Russia is internally stable. There was already in recent memory an attempted coup d’etat against former USSR leader Mikhail Gorbachev. The coup failed but the forces behind it included Vladimir Kryuchkov, Soviet KGB Chief, Valentin Pavlov, Soviet Prime Minister, Dmitry Yazov, Soviet Defense Minister, Oleg Shenin, a Politburo Member, Boris Pugo, Soviet Interior Minister, Oleg Baklanov, Soviet Defense Council Deputy Chairman, Gennady Yanayev, Soviet Vice President, Anatoly Lukyanov, Supreme Soviet Chairman, Valentin Varennikov, Soviet Deputy Defense Minister, Vasily Starodubtsev, Soviet Peasants Union Chairman and Aleksandr Tizyakov, Soviet Industrial Consortium Leader –in short a mixture of KGB, Defense and political figures looking to gain power and upset Gorbachev’s reform agenda.
Today the problem is a bit different. The Putin regime is held together it seems by a “get rich with me” scheme that rewards political cronies, and a continued effort to fund the military, far from what should be the top priority of the country.
Meanwhile the chance for entrepreneurship and economic development has been destroyed because of corruption, arrests of competitors, and a lack of rule of law for international companies operating in Russia. On top of that EU and US sanctions are taking their toll, and repeated stories of abuse are chasing away all but the hardiest of possible investors and industrialists. This prevents the economy from growing and adds to the unnecessary suffering of young Russians who are denied the opportunity to grow and prosper.
But despite economic malaise, lack of opportunity and cronyism and corruption, it is unlikely that the visible opposition will be successful in changing things in Russia. But as Putin slips one cannot rule out an internal coup, perhaps under the banner of a new deal for the people. The sources of such a coup could look a lot like the Gorbachev attempted coup.
There have been a number of reported assassination attempts on Putin, going back to at least 2008. Even his special armored car was wrecked on a Moscow highway, a crash that killed Putin’s favorite chauffeur, appearing to some as an attempt on Putin’s life.
Such events are not unheard of here in the United States and it would be a mistake to read too much into them. But it does leave the impression that all is not well in Russia.
A great issue is what can the United States and its allies do to calm the situation? Clearly the current imbroglio between Russia, NATO and the United States is unhealthy and risky. Washington and its friends should be seeking ways to ameliorate the tension and find a way to dialogue with Russia and its leadership. Israel, for example might serve as a bridge because Israeli relations with Russia are rather amazing, given the presence of Russian forces in Syria and Russian sponsorship of Israeli enemies Iran and Hezbollah. Maybe there is a lesson here.