Staunton, April 15 – Vladimir Putin, in his effort to save his rule by intervening militarily in Ukraine, is pushing the world not toward a new cold war as many say but rather to something far worse and more dangerous, one in which one or another side may in fact view the use of force as a reasonable alternative, according to Andrey Piontkovsky.
In a blog post on Ekho Moskvy today, the Russian commentator says that Putin has “simplified” the task of those who seek to understand Russia. Now, such people only need to understand what is motivating the behavior of a single individual – in this case, Putin – and the fact that his actions are guided by “a single criterion – the preservation of his power for life.”
Putin’s concern is not a “pathological” one but rather “a completely natural worry about personal physical security” because he “understands perfectly the laws of the functioning of the system he has helped to build.” And in that system, those who lose will suffer the fate of Muammar Qaddafi.
Putin’s approach to Ukraine has been both “consistent and logical at every stage,” Piontkovsky continues. He saw what was happening in the Maidan as representing the possibility that Ukraine would escape “the chains of the post-communist thieving regimes … and move toward the European model of economic and political competition.”
In Putin’s view, such a development could eventually infect Russia as well and consequently it had to be “liquidated in its cradle” through the defeat of the Ukrainian revolution and the discrediting of that revolution in the eyes of the Russian people. Those goals were clearly in evidence in the Kremlin leader’s March 18 speech.
That speech, apparently “unexpectedly” for Putin himself, became something more because it included a new Russian myth on which he could keep himself in power for life: a myth intended to replace the one he created at the time of his rise when he and his handlers presented him as the vigorous young officer who could stop the disintegration of the Russian Federation by “drowning” the Chechens in “an outhouse.”
But that myth has worn thin with time, and Putin knows from the Soviet case what happens when the myth dissolved. The USSR kept going until people ceased to believe in its supposed commitment to the formation of a just society. When they no longer believed, the Soviet leaders were finished.
They did not adopt a new myth in time, but Putin, recognizing the threat to himself and his kind of rule, is doing just that and deploying the Russian media to “zombify” the population in such a way that it will conclude it has no choice but to support his military plans in Ukraine and his continuation in office forever.
Putin’s call for an in-gathering of the Russian lands on the basis of ethnic Russians abroad, of course, entails the same risks that were highlighted by Hitler’s call for uniting all ethnic Germans on the basis of a claim that ethnicity was more important than citizenship. Such an inversion challenges the entire international system, but Putin thinks it may save him by recasting him as “the Messiah of the Russian World.”
Many have suggested that such a program “will lead to a new cold war,” but Piontkovsky says he “categorically” disagrees. Instead, what Putin is doing “will lead to a situation of relations between Russia and the West that will be much more dangerous than those in the Cold War.”
During that conflict, US and Soviet leaders, at least after 1962, both “considered nuclear weapons exclusively as a means of preventing military conflict between them and as an instrument supporting strategic stability,” and consequently, they did not use such horrific weapons to threaten one another in the pursuit of their goals.
But now, “a politician who has taken upon himself the mission of restoring the Russian World by redrawing state borders and having an enormous nuclear arsenal and a relatively weak conventional army simply is condemned to proclaim” that he has “a free hand on the entire post-Soviet space” and threaten the West with “mutual suicide” if it interferes in any way.
This “nuclear bluff is working today in the war with Ukraine,” Piontkovsky says. The very first words from Washington and Brussels about that conflict were that “military intervention by the US and NATO was absolutely excluded since Ukraine is not a member of NATO.”
But what might happen “if tomorrow the residents of [the Estonian city of] Narva have a referendum about joining Russia? Will tens of millions of people in the US and Europe take the risk of war with a nuclear super-power and die for Narva? Putin,” at the very least, “is convinced that no, they are not ready.” And Piontkovsky says he has to agree with him on that.
But the consequence of that Putin conviction is that “international relations are entering a stage of instability and volatility greater than at any time in the last 60 some years.” Indeed, the Russian commentator suggests, the last time they were this great were during the last months of the life and rule of Stalin.
At that time, Stalin “was concerned and not without reason about the problem of the preservation of his power and life. And he came up with a three-part reset” to change that: “ forced march preparation for a third world war, the liquidation of the party hierarchs, and a radical solution of the Jewish question.”
In March 1953, “the Russian God interfered” and saved Russia and the world from that outcome. It remains an open question whether that will happen again, Piontkovsky implies.