At Large

Icon-in-Chief

Vladimir Putin's place in History.

By 2.17.08

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As the time draws close for Vladimir Putin to relinquish his title as president of Russia, it appears he is still running for office -- the office of icon. Putin's barely disguised aim is to be regarded as the third sainted pillar of modern Russian leadership, joining Lenin and Stalin.

In Putin's calculation, the time is ripe for Russia to regain its status as a world military superpower. Its oil and gas export income is immense, while the United States is in the throes of an economic downturn and at a military disadvantage due to its Iraq and Afghanistan commitments and preoccupation with Islamic terrorism.

There are other factors that make it a propitious moment for Russia to return to military superpower competition: Putin and his team have monitored the American scene well and recognize the cyclical nature of the American public's focus on national security. They clearly evaluate this as a period of diminished interest and support for strategic matters from the American party that controls Congress, the Democrats.

It is not illogical that Russian strategists would advise Putin that the United States is currently in economic and diplomatic decline. It is, however, his personal desire to insure a triumphant place in history that drives him. He desires to be viewed as the man who successfully regained the international power that Russia originally had during the days of the Soviet Union.

Putin was widely quoted this past week in respect to NATO and U.S. refusal to acknowledge Russian security concerns: "In effect we are being forced to retaliate...Over the next several years Russia should start production of new types of weapons systems, which are in no way inferior to what other states have, and in some cases superior."

This is as close to a declaration of cold war as one can expect. Apologists -- and there are many -- say that Putin merely reflects a broad Russian fear of the NATO countries' interest in dominating Russia. Putin suggested in another of his tutorials that much of Western interest in Russia is due to "a mounting struggle for resources." He went on, "Many conflicts, foreign policy acts and diplomatic demarches smell of oil and gas."

He has turned around the European Union's fear of Moscow's ability to control European energy sources into an aggressive European stance. Righteously Putin has announced he will take his warning against NATO expansion and its responsibility for restarting "a new arms race" (his term) to the NATO summit meeting in April. Interestingly, he never once mentioned anything about the new Russian president about to be chosen.

DOES RUSSIA HAVE ANY legitimate reason to fear Western domination? The answer is obviously negative. The only driving force in the current Russian strategic offensive is the desire of Vladimir Putin's Kremlin to take advantage of American political weakness and launch a massive rearmament program. This will be not only the symbol of Russia's return to international superpower status, but the hallmark of Putin's personal ambition.

What is so hard to understand is why this Russian leader has chosen the route of autocracy over the peaceful democracy so available to him as an outgrowth of his popularity. Why return to the totalitarian fabric of the Soviet Union? The answer is in the Russian predilection for strong leadership as a counter to a national paranoia.

There is really no tradition of freedom in Russia despite various abortive efforts. There is a tradition of seeking security through domestic repression and power through colonial expansion. The sacrifice of civil rights to attain these ends is once again a given in Russian governance. Lenin showed the way. Stalin enforced that way. And Putin seeks to reestablish the international respect/fear that accompanied what the other two accomplished -- without the ideological baggage.

Hail to Caesar Vladimir, the new god-king of Russia. How will the next administration in Washington act towards a Russian leader who has announced that he will target missiles at Ukraine if its application to join NATO is accepted; and do the same to the Czech Republic and Poland if the American missile defense system is deployed there?

The left in American politics is trying hard to downplay or ignore totally the fact that the United States is in the most dangerous position internationally it has been since the end of the Cold War. That stance may be understandable in strictly domestic political terms, but quite irresponsible when it comes to national security.

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.