Staunton, May 26 – Vladimir Putin “has lost the shortest cold war in history,” Yevgeny Ikhlov says. After having seized Crimea for Russia 12 weeks ago and effectively challenged the West to a contest, the Kremlin leader has backed away from his larger plan to counterpose a “Russian world” to everyone else.
In a commentary on Forum-MSK.org, Ikhlov argues that Putin “had been preparing for this for 12 years and intensively so for seven, since the time of his Munich speech about his rejection of American globalism.” But it hasn’t taken much to limit Putin’s advance to Crimea alone.
“The lightest sanctions by the West” and the complaints of some in Russia who feared what they might lead to have been enough, Ikhlov says, for Putin “to declare his de facto recognition of the results of the Ukrainian presidential elections.” And thus, “the ‘Russian world’” project has in effect collapsed before it ever really got started.
For many reasons having to do with the nature of Ukraine and the Russian Federation, this outcome was entirely predictable, the commentator continues, despite all the bombastic language from the Kremlin about “the beauty of a death” which is the result of the defense of “the values of the Russian world.”
But the real reason is to be found in Putin’s approach to rule, his tendency to move in one direction and present it as a principled action and then reverse course and move in an entirely different one. Specifically, Ikhlov says:
First, the Kremlin leader, who came to power to integrate Russia and its “Chekist-oligarchic nomenklatura” into the West, has become “’a Eurasian’” who has linked Russia with China, in violation of his approach over the last 15 years.
Second, Putin, “the victor over Chechen ‘separatism,” has now adopted a position on self-determination that recalls those of Woodrow Wilson in 1918 “or of a Soviet diplomat of the period of the decolonization of Africa.
Third, Putin who has spoken against any revolutionary action, presented himself as “a principled apologist for conservatism, and sought to block the American “export” of orange-style revolutions has “been transformed into an exporter of ‘a Russian national revolution’ … headed by Orthodox mystics.”
And fourth, Putin “who came to power in the struggle with ‘Wahhabism,’ has given astart to the appearance of the Orthodox analogue of the Islamic revolution.”
Putin’s inconsistencies are the basis for Ikhlov’s conclusion that the Kremlin leader has lost “the shortest cold war in history.” But another reading of these same shifts in Putin’s behavior is possible, especially if one considers not just this or that specific act or statement but the broader context.
If one does that, then three aspects of Putin’s approach become obvious. First, he is quite prepared to change directions if that gives him an outcome he wants. Second, he is not bound by his statements: anything he says today, he may reverse tomorrow and act as if and demand that others accept that he never said what he obviously did.
And third, Putin’s feints or pauses, as now in the case of Ukraine, may have less to do with pressures against him internal or external – however much many in both places will rush to take credit – but rather with his adoption of an updated version of “the phony war” of 1939-1940, one designed to intellectually disarm the West and thus open the way for a new advance.
After Hitler and Stalin divided Poland in September 1939, Hitler held off for some months before launching new attacks. The communist parties in the West, because the Soviet Union was then an ally of Nazi Germany, alongside isolationists and others used the period to argue that Hitler wasn’t as bad as many thought and that cooperation was the best way forward.
Putin may have made the same calculation, confident that any apparent “retreat” on his part will be celebrated in Western capitals and invoked as a reason for not taking the threat he poses to his neighbors and the world seriously. Indeed, he may believe that “losing the shortest cold war in history” will be the basis for new victories in the future.