At Large

Russian Mind Games

Is the Putin bear a grizzly or a Potemkin bear?

By 10.8.07

Send to Kindle

Are the Russians trying to scare us? Are they really that stupid? Or are they just trying to take advantage of our domestic politics and international anti-Americanism?

Let's see if we can get this straight: Russia repeats nearly weekly in one form or another that they are upset because the Poles will allow us to base approximately ten anti-missile batteries in their country and the Czechs will play host to a dedicated system of radar aimed at Iran. The Russian nuclear arsenal easily could overwhelm these puny anti-missile defenses even if the dastardly Americans secretly had them aimed against Russia. They know this, and that we know that they know...

Next the Russians have pulled together their entire operationally capable force of strategic bombers -- fourteen 1950s era turboprop-driven Tupolev-95's (aka "Bear") and are rushing them to and fro in the U.S. and UK airspace like a bunch of street toughs taunting the police. Big mistake. These cops are all heavily armed with the latest modern weapons and are quite combat ready and experienced -- which the Russians certainly are not. They know that, and we know that they know….

Just last week the Russians threatened through their state-controlled gas giant, Gasprom, to take "serious action" against Ukraine by cutting off its gas supplies if the $1.3 billion debt the company is owed isn't paid. That this closure of the Ukrainian leg of the Russian gas pipeline will also seriously injure other countries in Western Europe is supposed to be an action the Russian "petro-gauleiters" are willing to take to punish the new pro-western Ukrainian government. Then in three days the crisis is called off and the European markets can breathe again. Some Russian "insiders" made a not so small bundle on that one. They know that we know that they know...

The Russians supported by the ever-righteous Chinese are adamantly against increasing sanctions on the Iranians and their dash to obtain their own nuclear weapon capability. It makes Moscow look like the protectors of the little guy. They know full well that there is not a chance in the world that even a Hillary-led White House will ever allow the Iranian mullahs to have a single nuke? Of course they do, and they know that we know they know...

So where does all this Russian posturing get them? First, it makes their electorate feel that Vladimir Putin is very successful -- and, therefore, so is Russia. Second, it sends a signal to countries that once were called "non-aligned" that the big bear is back from his years of enforced hibernation. And thirdly, it's a serious warning to the U.S. and the West that Russia actually is willing to risk a resumption of the political aspects of the Cold War that placed Moscow as equal to Washington on the global scene.

This last point is, of course, the most troublesome. For a brief period the United States and its democratic friends around the world came to believe that after seventy years of communist dictatorship Russia had finally thrown off the oppression of authoritarian government. Then came V.V.Putin, first the reformer and then the new petro king, with all the wealth Russia's vast oil and gas deposits could bring.

The first chance it got, Russia exploited the regional political shortfall that occurred as a result of the U.S deposing the bloody dictator, Saddam Hussein, in Iraq. With the aid of the anti-American faction in France led by Jacques Chirac, Putin succeeded in spinning away one of America's traditional allies in Europe. How far that had gone was proven by the totally changed atmosphere and swift recovery provided by the recent presidential election of the U.S.-friendly Nicolas Sarkozy.

Putin wishes to remain in power in Russia for the indefinite future. Floating the idea that he could continue on as Prime Minister with enhanced power under a changed constitution has brought considerable favorable response throughout his country. The Russian military, however, has to be satisfied that they are not being ignored. Perhaps Putin's provocative posturing is to reassure them that a restoration of Russian political/military might is in their future as Russia's new Czar luxuriates in the expectation of his own long term longevity.

So, to what does it all add up? The answer may be in the Pavlovian-trained psyche of a nation that yearns for strong central leadership rather than the vigorous expression of democratic representation. As long as economic and social stability is seemingly guaranteed and the veneer of international prestige is maintained, the Russian electorate, well organized to applaud, will happily follow Vladimir Putin.

Tweaking the nose of Uncle Sam has become an international sport and the Russians are not averse to playing that game. But are they counting on us to know that's all that is going on? Or are Putin and the cadre of nachalniki that report to him interested in resuming a direct challenge to the United States and its allies? What is it that they expect us to know that they know, that we know, that...?

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
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.