Judging Putin

If we judge Vladimir Putin, from what point of view do we judge him - and from whose perspective? 

Comments on an article by Dmitri Trenin, “Russian is the House that Vladimir Putin Built – and He Will Never Abandon It”. The Guardian, March 27, 2017.

This article is an eloquently written appreciation of Vladimir Putin. It also avoids all of the criticisms that might be brought against him by a frightened West.

One thing struck me at first. There are many similarities and many differences among the following three: Trump, the baby with tantrums grasping at power; Erdogan, the adolescent autocrat wrestling with Gulen, his own personal Trotsky; and Putin, the successful master of the levers of state (if not the economy).

My own reaction begins with this quote at the end of the article: "It is much too early to pass final judgment on Putin. He has kept the country in one piece and restored its global status." There is a wonderful story about Zhou Enlai. When asked what he thought were the effects of the French Revolution, he responded, "It is too early to tell".

It is true the Putin almost single-handedly glued together the pieces of the collapsed Soviet house of cards. He restored stability, and unlike the work of many other strong men in history, this stability apparently has staying power.

Yesterday I had a long coffee-fueled conversation with a Russian neighbor who works with the Russian consulate here in Maastricht. As a long-term European resident, she is worried that Europe will make the same tragic mistakes that brought down the Soviet Union. Breaking up the political unity may destroy the prosperity dependent on the economic unity. In the Soviet case there was a time when the Baltic countries made precision instruments – but grew no food, and the Ukraine grew food but little in the way of precision instruments. When all the Soviets republics were in a single political and economic union, this was not a problem. As soon as the union dissolved, the interactive economic system dissolved.

To restore the former Soviet interdependency of the economic and political units, could in time make for a stronger unity. It might be possible to bring back some of the advantages of the old Soviet system: universal education, health care, decent pensions, social security - to name a few.

But if the aim becomes co-extensive with the post WWII Soviet greater sphere of influence, then there could be a problem. In the days before the fall of the Berlin wall, Hungary, Romania, Poland, the DDR and the others in the long run ended up costing Russia much more than they returned in benefits.  

At the same time, military spending broke the back of the Soviet system because of the perceived need to match the US rocket for rocket, submarine for submarine. The US intentionally drove the Soviet Union into the ground through military spending. 

Take the bloated US military budget (about to get a few extra bloats from Trump's new budget). These figures may be a bit out of date, but the ratios remain:

A straight-out spending competition could lead to the same dire consequences that took place in the 1970s. Hopefully, Putin is a lot smarter than that, but successful people also misjudge their own limitations.

I have not said anything about American perceptions of the "threat to democracy" in Russia today. It is clear that the Russian people would rather have a stable and reliable leadership than what the Americans landed themselves with in the 2016 elections (with or without Russian interference). I have also not said anything about the true mutual need of both Russia and America to suppress terrorism and to stabilize the world order. Nor have I said anything about the other elephant in the living room - China.These also are factors that will someday enter into an evaluation of the success of Vladimir Putin. 


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