Putin as a threat to the USA and the West
History offers us several examples of times when the stability of a continent, and even the whole world, depended on the personality of the leader of one country—Stalin, Hitler and Mao are the most remarkable examples from the world as it existed in the 20th century. As strange and improbable as it seems, Vladimir Putin belongs to this list of leaders whose personality exerts a tremendous influence on international developments. What makes these leaders so dangerous to the world is that neither domestic institutions nor social groups are able to restrain their behavior.
Take Soviet history, for instance. Other than Stalin, all of the Soviet leaders were forced to consider the positions taken by members of the Politburo, or even a larger leading body like the Central Committee. The procedures for voting and elections at the highest level of the Soviet hierarchy were a sort of pseudo-democratic mechanism (in official Soviet jargon, it was called an inner party democracy), and were important parts of the Soviet totalitarian system. The Brest Peace Treaty was remarkable in this respect. In 1918,Lenin had tremendous authority as a charismatic revolutionary leader
Lenin’s authority as a charismatic revolutionary leader was enormous. Yet, without the endorsement of his colleagues, he was unable to make the decision to sign the peace treaty with Germany that he thought was necessary to save the newborn Soviet republic. Lenin initiated hot debates in the Central Committee about the expedience of the treaty, and won, following adamant arguments with opponents to the peace. The introduction of the NEP in 1921 also led to fiery debates within the party [since many leading party apparatchiks were against the NEP as the return to capitalism..
Under Stalin, especially in the early 1930s, neither of the highest party institutions—the Politburo and the Central Committee—had an impact on his strategic decisions. Publicly, however, Stalin still attributed the Politburo with great importance. The whole country knew the members of the Politburo; they were even referred to as “the leaders” (vozhdi). During demonstrations, the participants held up not only pictures of Stalin, but also of the members of the Politburo. The popular mind was convinced that Stalin relied on the experienced and respected colleagues who helped him to run the country effectively.
As a sign of recognition for their contributions to the revolutionary cause, Stalin named dozens of big cities after key members of the Politburo, and the Moscow Metro after Lazar Kaganovich. Stalin used the Politburo as an instrument to increase his legitimacy as the supreme leader. His demonstration of respect for the Politburo was also a tribute to their so-called “collegial leadership,” one of the dogmas of Soviet leadership. The importance Stalin attributed to the party body was clearly manifested at the 19th party congress in October 1952. The transformation of the Politburo into the much larger Presidium of the Central Committee was the central event of the Congress. After Stalin’s death, the role of the top party institutions, the Politburo (after 1952, the Presidium) and the Central Committee, was restored.. Both of these institutions played a crucial role in the installation of Khrushchev as the leader of the country in 1957, and in his dismissal in 1964, as well as in the later transitions of power to Brezhnev in 1964, Andropov in 1984, Chernenko in 1984, and finally to Gorbachev in 1985.
The party institutions played a role in the decision-making process in other cases too, some secondary, others very important. During the Cuban crisis in 1962, Khrushchev was evidently the major decision-maker in Moscow. However, he regularly conferred with the Politburo. Yet, it was his insufficient respect for the opinions of “others,” later labeled “adventurism” and “voluntarism,” that was given as one of the reasons for ousting him as the country’s leader two years later. Most of the important geopolitical decisions made by the Kremlin after Khrushchev’s dismissal, such as the invasions of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Afghanistan in 1979, the fate of Solzhenitsyn in 1974 (to arrest him or exile him to the West), as well as the fate of Jewish emigration in 1973 (to permit it or to persecute those who applied for exit visas from the socialist motherland) were intensively debated at the meeting of the Politburo in full house or a reduced format (as was the case with the war with Afghanistan).
Vladimir Putin looks to be a complete exception to the Russian history of the 20th century, including Stalin. Indeed, for the entire past 15 years, Putin has ruled Russia as an absolute despot. He has not been restrained by any external political forces, institutions or social groups.
In no way can Putin’s regime be labeled as a junta because it is impossible to name any other person who has been politically influential in the Kremlin. It was definitely not Dmitry Medvedev, the Prime Minister, whom the public unanimously viewed as a puppet unable to gainsay his boss on any issue. Nobody has mentioned anything about a political role for Sergei Ivanov, the head of the presidential administration, or foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, or the Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, or Igor Sechin ,the head of the Rosneft, the biggest state oil company.
It would be wrong to see Putin’s regime as some sort of oligarchy; that presupposes the active participation of rich people in the direct running of the country. This did happen during Yeltsin’s regime, when people like Boris Berezovsky participated in the Kremlin decision-making process, and played a key role in the appointment of Putin as Yeltsin’s successor. Under Putin, however, the oligarchs ceased any political activity.
Here are the facts to support this thesis: the 10-year prison term for the richest person in Russia, Mikhail Khodorkovsky; the miserable attempts of Mikhail Prokhorov, a leading oligarch, to play even a modest oppositional role in the country; the total political passivity of Putin’s so-called oligarchs—they all owe their fortunes directly to Putin—like Oleg Deripaska, Yurii Kovalchuk or Arkadii Rotenberg; the arrest in September 2014 of Vladimir Evtushenkov, a big Moscow magnate; and the flight of some oligarchs abroad. It would be ridiculous to talk about the oligarchs as being able to act as a restraining force for Putin. The oligarchs did not say one word of critique for Putin’s foreign policy after 2011, despite the fact that their businesses were among the main targets of the sanctions against Russia, as well as, with the ban on travel abroad, their quality of life. We see, instead, passive support for Putin’s foreign policy and his extirpation of the last vestiges of democracy in Russia.
The behavior of Putin’s oligarchs delivers a mortal blow to the simplistic dogma that big capital will support liberal, even democratic, tendencies in a society. In fact, Putin’s regime belongs to the category of political constructions that have been labeled as Bonapartist (or Caesarist or Peronist) regimes in the past. This type of regime presumes a strong authoritarian leader who is independent of any special social group, and who flirts with almost all of them but mostly relies on the regime’s popularity among the masses. By definition, such a regime has no coherent social program and mostly operates with a simplistic nationalist ideology, usually fomenting the xenophobic instincts of the masses. The major goals of the domestic and foreign policies of such a regime are submissive to the leader’s desire to keep his personal power through any and all means. Of course, such a regime does not tolerate any opposition. At the same time, with a record of the criminal deeds committed during his rule, the leader of such a regime should fervently try to stay in power as long as possible and/or, depending on the circumstances, try to transfer the power to the members of his family.
Keeping in mind the nature of his regime and the specifics of his personality—extraordinary narcissism one of them— as the leader of Russia, Putin is a source of danger to the West, and, in many respects, especially for the USA. We can single out four of the reasons this is true:
The Danger number one: Dragging the world into war
The phenomenal rise in Putin’s popularity after the seizure of Crimea, combined with rabid anti-Americanism, shows how easily Putin’s Caesarist regime can sustain its popularity among the masses with small victorious wars. This new military adventure, with its proclaimed goals of restoring the Soviet empire (even partially), along with the pride of the Russian people after years of humiliation, and of imposing fear on its neighbors, makes it clear that Putin, with nuclear weapons under his control, can seemingly sustain his power indefinitely.
Meanwhile, there are no forces inside the country that can restrain the military adventurism of a leader like Putin. Democratic institutions, including a free media and real opposition, are absent. As the developments in 2011-12 showed, the Russian parliament is ready to endorse any aggressive initiative its leader wishes to take. At the same time, no single social group, like the national or local elites, or the oligarchs, is able to proscribe the leader from confronting all of the neighboring countries and the West, and from replacing the real geopolitical interests of Russia with his personal ambitions and whims. In the last two years, Putin has systematically pumped up the military hysteria in the country, describing threats from NATO, and the USA in particular, as real and imminent. What is more, by the end of January, Putin had suggested to his people that a war with the West is already going on because it is “ the NATO legion, and not the Ukrainian army, which is fighting against Russian allies in Donbas.” He has regularly talked about the necessity of increasing military expenditures. See, for instance, his speech at the meeting of “The Military Industrial Commission” on January 20, 2015. The content of the speech forces one to think that “the war will be tomorrow.” Putin spoke about the threat to “the sovereignty of Russia, its territorial integrity and national interests.” Dramatic terminology like this was only used during the war with Germany, never later; no Soviet leader, including the most belligerent one, Yurii Andropov, displayed concerns about the sovereignty and territorial integrity of their country.
It is not surprising that the possibility of a new global war has already become a part of the mindset for many Russians. According to data from the Levada Center, more than one quarter of the population believed there would be military conflicts with neighboring countries in the near future at the beginning of 2015, and 16 percent, a very large number, even thought there would be a war with the USA/NATO. Very few Russians would be shocked if a war, initiated as the Kremlin TV will suggest by America but with Russia’s active participation, were to start in one corner of the planet or another. The Russians’ psychological preparedness toward a war is, by itself, a powerful factor pushing Putin to new military adventures.
The danger number two: The hotbed of anti-Americanism
The hysterical anti-Americanism in Russia should be treated as a special danger to peace in the world. Putin himself is the major curator of anti-Americanism in Russia. While anti-Americanism had been an important part of the Soviet ideology since the end of World War II, none of the Soviet leaders, including Stalin, were as passionately hostile to the USA as Putin is. Inspired by Stalin, the Konstantin Simonov play “The Russian question” (1947), even with all its critical animadversions against America, now looks rather warm toward American society, when compared with what Russian journalists and writers are currently writing about the USA.
In 2011-2012, Putin made anti-Americanism the core of the country’s official ideology and propaganda. Hatred of the USA is cultivated by governmental TV, by pro-governmental newspapers, by the State Duma, and by all Russian officials. In the last few years, Putin has not missed any opportunity in his public statements to show that the USA is a committed enemy of Russia, with intentions of destroying their country and eliminating its role in the world.
Since that time, anti-Americanism has become the core of the Kremlin’s official ideology, and the key to explaining any negative developments that might be dangerous to either Putin’s rule in Russia or to his standing in the world. Only the “class struggle” theory that was dominant in Soviet ideology was used as widely as anti-Americanism is being used to explain everything in Putin’s Russia. The Kremlin’s latest application of anti-Americanism was to make it the key to understanding a political development: Russian media declared that the terrorist act against the French newspaper “Charlie Hebdo” in January 2015 was organized by the American special services.
As seen in the data produced by all of the Russian polling firms, anti-Americanism has become a part of the mindset of 80 percent of the Russian people. The educated class in Russia, effectively corrupted and intimidated by the Kremlin, has mostly joined the masses in their hatred of America. Only a tiny minority of Russians, probably no more than 10-15 percent of the population, has managed to retain common sense in their attitudes toward the USA. Putin has successfully exploited nostalgia for the defunct empire, for the Greatness of Russia, and for her special role in history. What happened with the spread of anti-Americanism in Russia in 2011-2012 clearly mirrors almost the same outburst of nationalism found in Germany in the 1920s, where the Versailles treaty replaced America as the target of hatred, and as a mobilizing force for the creation and sustenance of the totalitarian regime.
[The ruling elite and the educated class ignore that Anti-Americanism, and any such feelings toward the West in general, has a negative influence on the economic development of the country, as well as on the state of science and education.] Anti-Americanism and the Russian Orthodox Church, which has become a strong ally of the regime and is known for her deep hatred of Western culture, pushes Russian society further and further into the abyss of obscurantism.
This is particularly dangerous to the West for two reasons. First, as stated above, the people’s belief that the USA has evil intentions toward Russia has created the conviction of possible attacks on Russia by the USA.
Second, as the champion of anti-Americanism in the non-Muslim world, Putin’s Russia encourages hostility toward America across the world, and especially in Europe, where the Putin administration supports any political movement with anti-American slogans. The party of Marie Le Pen in France is only one example. In its hatred of America, the Kremlin is even ready to flirt with radical Islam.
The Danger number three: The chaotic change of regime, when it happens
Since the demolition of the monarchy in 1917, the transition from one leader to another has always been a weak spot for the Russian state. With his domestic policies, Putin has tremendously increased the probability that his disappearance from the Russian political scene will see this country in possession of nuclear weapons engulfed in chaos and the process of disintegration.
Putin has not only eliminated the opposition, he has made it impossible for the Russian population to be informed about the programs and activities of oppositional politicians. Moreover, he has prevented politicians loyal to him from emerging in popularity. Indeed, according to the Levada Center survey (December 2014), in which the respondents answered questions about possible candidates for the presidential election, only two politicians got more than 1 percent—Putin and Gennadii Ziuganov, the leader of the Communist party, who received 4 percent.
The country would have huge problems finding people whom the Kremlin could invite onto TV to appeal to the Russians, particularly to the elite—central and local—the army and the security forces, and who would be able to retain the unity of the country and convince them obey the new leadership.
The comparison with Stalin is very instructive. The existence of the Politburo as a prestigious institution, even if it was mostly passive, played a crucial role when the despot, who had not designated his heir, died. It was evident to the army and the KGB that the members of the Politburo represented the supreme political power, and all of the institutions obeyed the orders issued by Beria, Malenkov and Khrushchev.
As a relatively rare case in contemporary history, Putin personifies the leader of a country whose unpredictable behavior is totally subsumed by the preservation of his personal power, and who is a source of danger not only to his country but to the world. Putin’s behavior is unrestrained by any institutional or social forces. This means that Western governments should always prepare plans “B,” “C,” and even “D” for dealing with contemporary Russia. The risk of military conflicts has increased enormously under Putin’s leadership. Putin is, without a doubt, a danger to the USA and the West. Putin’s Russia should be included on the list of the major threats the West faces today.