Friday, 06 January 2023 19:17

Putin’s War In Ukraine Is Brutal (It Looks Like The Crimean War) Featured

By Dr. S. Fredrick Starr

January 3, 2023

https://www.19fortyfive.com/2023/01/putins-war-in-ukraine-is-brutal-it-looks-like-the-crimean-war/

Screen Shot 2022-12-22 at 3.52.07 PM

As the Russian army struggles to hold on to the Crimean peninsula, we all ask where it is all leading. Most answers are mere speculation, for there are simply too many of what Donald Rumsfeld called “unknown unknowns.” But history may offer some insights. After all, this is not the first time Russia sought to hold onto those lands and the West mounted a military response. We’ve been there before. During the Crimean War of 1853-1856, Britain, France, and Ottoman Turkey confronted tsarist Russia over these same lands. Even though that war is scarcely remembered today, there are striking parallels between that conflict and the present. These earlier events can be divided into three phases.

First, in its nineteenth century war over Crimea, Russia suffered from an unbridgeable technological gap. Nicholas I decked out his troops in fancy uniforms and declared Russia’s army unbeatable, a claim supported by the memory of Russia’s victory over Napoleon earlier in the century. Nicholas hated Europe but was ignorant of its strengths. When a Moscow professor wrote that “We can expect nothing from the West but blind hatred and malice,” Nicholas reportedly wrote in the margin: “This is the whole point.” He was a deep-dyed expansionist, but Russia’s railroads were woefully inadequate, its telegraph system undeveloped, its field commanders had no spy balloons, and its soldiers lacked the percussion handguns with rifled barrels that were standard for the French and British forces.

Even though they were hopelessly outgunned and their generals outmaneuvered, Nicholas’ soldiers fought on, with a will that is absent among their counterparts today. Unlike Putin, Nicholas I was remorseful, yet his war dragged on for a year after the tsar’s death. This slow finale utterly discredited Russia’s military and the bribe-taking and corrupt officer corps that embodied it. Had Britain, France, and Ottoman Turkey struck a premature treaty with Russia, Nicholas’ tyranny would have survived and the old order would have remained intact.

Second, the humiliating defeat and Russia’s faltering economy gave rise to the threat of domestic unrest. Nicholas’ thirty-eight year old son, Alexander II, had no choice but to launch what became known as the “Epoch of Great Reforms.”  Defending his remarkable programs, the young tsar declared that “It is better to abolish serfdom from above than to wait until it begins to abolish itself from below.” He and his like-minded staff set about instituting westernizing reforms in areas as diverse as the courts and judiciary, banking, local government, and the military itself.

The capstone of Alexander II’s reforms was the abolition of serfdom. This system had condemned ninety percent of Russia’s population to a fate akin to slavery. Emancipation gave peasants the use of land and kept peasant life intact but prevented them from migrating to the cities. For all the inadequacies of its reform, Russia managed to end serfdom two years before the United States emancipated its far less numerous slaves and without the estimated 750,000 deaths of the American Civil War.

Third, for all their prudence and, in some cases, brilliance, the Great Reforms did not last. Within a decade Russia succumbed once more to imperialist fantasies. The immediate cause of the breakdown of the nineteenth century reforms were Polish subjects of the tsar who wanted to enjoy the same rights as Russians. Alexander II had abolished serfdom in Poland but was not about to accede to the Poles’ demand for decentralization and self-government. Others of the tsar’s subject peoples decided that they, too, wanted to gain more control over their destinies. By the end of the nineteenth century calls for autonomy and self-government were heard from Finland to Central Asia. Alexander II’s successors down to the Revolution of 1917 responded with brutal clampdowns.

The Polish crisis not only left the Great Reforms dead or dying, but it unleashed a tide of Russian chauvinism that would lead to the breakup of the tsarist empire. After Alexander II was assassinated in 1881, he was succeeded by his son, Alexander III. Cultural and political imperialism, not decentralization and self-government, became the order of the day. In the end, the great cause of reform in tsarist Russia was defeated by the fantasy of a centralized and homogeneous empire. After 1917 Lenin and the Communists also embraced it, and used their newly formed Red Army to impose it on the populace.   

 

TRAGIC REPLAY?

How significant are the similarities between the Crimean War of 1853-1855 and the present conflict in Ukraine? And what lessons can be drawn from Russia’s failure in its nineteenth century war in Crimea, from the Great Reforms, and from the country’s reversion to autocracy?  

In both conflicts Russia was motivated by imperial ideology. And in both cases Britain and France teamed up, joined today by the active participation of the U.S. and other European states. In both cases the Turks opposed Russia. True, their involvement in the 1850s did not thwart the tsar in the Crimean theater itself.  But today’s Turkish-made Bayraktar TB-2 drones have knocked out scores of Russian fighters, and their inventor, Selcuk Bayraktar, plans to erect a factory in Ukraine to build more.

Without Russia’s resounding defeat in 1855, it is inconceivable that the Era of Great Reforms would have followed. The same may be true today. To unleash a period of fundamental change, the same conditions that prevailed in 1856 must be present: the defeat of Russian forces in the field; the death of the tsar/leader and the discrediting of his advisors; and the fear of popular unrest within Russia itself. While Putin’s fate remains uncertain, all the other conditions are emerging today. And as in the 1850s, nothing would more surely derail future reforms in Russia or prolong the imperial ideology than for Putin somehow to survive his war, and for the core of his circle to remain intact. Russia’s defeat and the discrediting of its ideology are absolutely essential for Russia to come to its senses and launch reforms.

If and when that happens, Russia’s new reformers will need the West’s support and patience. What it certainly will not want will be ham-handed efforts to shape its reforms from abroad or to take advantage of its temporary weakness. If Russia’s new reformers seek advice or help from other countries, let them ask for it and, preferably, pay for it. Both the U.S. government and American foundations will do well to practice self-restraint this time, as they certainly did not after 1991.

The most sensitive issues that will arise in post-Putin Russia will be the same ones that dominated reformist thinking back in 1856: the definition of Russia’s national borders and the degree of decentralization and self-government to be allowed within them. How widely will the elective principle be applied across the Russian state? Will it be applied only to safely “Russian” provinces? Or will it applied also to the many unassimilated ethnic groups that exist even in the nominally Russian core? If post-Putin reformers fail to address this core issue, their reforms in all other areas will be doomed.

Russia may emerge from the present crisis with different borders than at present, and with ethnic or geographic regions and jurisdictions within them that are largely self-governing. In this connection, it is worth recalling that Boris Yeltsin called for the regions of the USSR “to grab as much sovereignty as you can swallow,” and for the election of regional governors and mayors who would be responsible to locally elected councils, as well as to Moscow. But Putin reversed all this. In the end, however, the Russians themselves must decide these issues.

What can be done to prevent Russia’s discredited chauvinists from reemerging a decade from now, on the heels of a post-Putin era of reforms? Very little indeed, other than to make sure that the reforms are certifiably the work of Russians themselves and not some kind of foreign “project.” Responding positively to requests for new ties with the post-Putin government will help, as will new links in education, culture, the economy, and security. But neither these nor other measures will obviate the need for America, in President Reagan’s words, to “trust but verify.”

 

AN ”ERA OF GREAT REFORMS” LOOMING?

What might follow a Russian defeat? Here we confront a fundamental difference between the two eras: Nicholas, broken by failure, conveniently died in 1855, clearing the way for a change of Russia’s leadership. Had he not died it is likely that he would have been overthrown. But Putin is still alive and intent on clinging to power. But he lacks the resources to hold onto whatever Ukrainian territory he seizes. Should he divert funds to that purpose he will likely face revolt at home. In short, even if Putin wins (which is daily less likely) he loses.

In both of its wars over Crimea, Russia’s troubles trace to overconfidence. But today, unlike in 1853, some members of Russia’s officer corps and many influential publicists still believe they could prevail if the national leadership were not holding them back. Unlike in 1853, this could lead to a declaration of all-out war, an expanded draft, and even to the use of nuclear weapons. This can occur with or without Putin. But leaders of a military coup would face the same constraints as Putin does today. Only the use of nuclear weapons is likely to change this. But even before that point is reached, unrest at home is likely to grow to such a degree as to threaten outright revolution. In short, a military takeover will likely foment and ever more fundamental upheaval within the Russian polity and demands for sweeping reforms.

What is the likelihood that such an upheaval would lead to a twenty-first century version of the Great Reforms? There are reasons for doubt. The war against Ukraine has exposed deep strata of corruption in Russia. Whole sectors of Russia’s economy are riddled with fraud, peculation and outright criminality.

Besides this, Putin quashed all opposition. His security forces brought downEvgeni Roizman, the reformist and anti-war former mayor of Ekaterinburg; attempted to poison Aleksei Navalny and then jailed himwithout access to his lawyer; and murdered Boris Nemtsov, the former vice-premier and founder of an independent political party. Putin’s first “mobilization” or draft led to the emigration of some 370,000 highly educated younger Russians, the very group from which new ranks of reformists might emerge.

Acknowledging all the factors, there exist important forces that might bring a new Russian reformism into being. Russia’s military leadership is itself conflicted. On one side is an aggressive war party; on the other side are large numbers of officers who are appalled by developments in Ukraine and believe that zealots and amateurs are destroying the great traditions of Suvorov and Kutuzov. If they have their way, they would cut their losses, withdraw from the war, and begin the laborious task of rebuilding Russia’s disgraced army.

Whichever faction wins, some kind of reform era is all but inevitable. Putin, who once prided himself as being young and virile, is now seventy. Millions of young Russians today are well educated and widely travelled. They admire the developed countries of Europe, Asia, and America, and consider the great power fantasies of Putin and his ilk to be just that, and a guaranty of backwardness. Worse, they view Putin and his generation as roadblocks blocking their own advancement. If they sense the dawning of reform, many of the men and women who fled abroad will return. And unlike the era of the Great Reforms, change-oriented members of their generation are spread across the entire economy and not confined to the civil service, intelligentsia, and officer corp.

 

THE FATE OF REFORM

These considerations auger well for a possible new era of reform in Russia, but most of them fall into the category of “known unknowns.” But suppose for a moment that all turns out for the best and Putin’s successors turn out to be genuine reformists. What then? Will such a reform era survive and endure into Russia’s future? 

If Moscow’s fate in Ukraine/Crimea today follows the course of tsarist Russia’s humiliating failure in 1853-1856, Russians will find themselves pondering the same questions their forefathers faced. Their success or failure will depend on their ability to solve the age-old conundrum of apportioning powers between the center and periphery, and between state and society. Only the Russians themselves can craft a solution to this Rubik’s Cube. But America and its European partners, if asked, should share their experience. Instead of demanding instant change in countless spheres, as happened after the collapse of the USSR in 1991, they would do well to focus on this core issue, offering their insights, while leaving it to the Russians themselves to adopt, adapt, or ignore their counsel.

Frederick Starr is Chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC. 

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  • ASIA Spotlight with Prof. S. Frederick Starr on Unveiling Central Asia's Hidden Legacy
    Thursday, 28 December 2023 00:00

    On December 19th, 2023, at 7:30 PM IST, ASIA Spotlight Session has invited the renowned Prof. S Fredrick Starr, who elaborated on his acclaimed book, "The Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia's Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane." Moderated by Prof. Amogh Rai, Research Director at ASIA, the discussion unveiled the fascinating, yet lesser-known narrative of Central Asia's medieval enlightenment.

    The book sheds light on the remarkable minds from the Persianate and Turkic peoples, spanning from Kazakhstan to Xinjiang, China. "Lost Enlightenment" narrates how, between 800 and 1200, Central Asia pioneered global trade, economic development, urban sophistication, artistic refinement, and, most importantly, knowledge advancement across various fields. Explore the captivating journey that built a bridge to the modern world.

    To know watch the full conversation: #centralasia #goldenage #arabconquest #tamerlane #medievalenlightment #turkish #economicdevelopment #globaltrade

    Click here to watch on YouTube or scroll down to watch the full panel discussion.

  • Some Lessons for Putin from Ancient Rome
    Thursday, 04 January 2024 17:01
    By S. Frederick Starr 
    American Purpose
    January 4, 2024
     
    Vladimir Putin, having sidelined or destroyed all his domestic opponents, real or imagined, now surrounds himself with Romano-Byzantine pomp and grandeur. The theatrical civic festivals, processions of venerable prelates, cult of statues, embarrassing shows of piety, endless laying of wreaths, and choreographed entrances down halls lined with soldiers standing at attention—all trace directly back to czarism, to Byzantine Constantinople, and ultimately to imperial Rome. Indeed, Putin considers himself as Russia’s new “czar,” the Russified form of the Latin “Caesar.”
     
    But besides all the parallel heroics, Roman history offers profound lessons for today’s world. All of America’s Founders saw the Roman Republic as the best model for their own constitution. Napoleon, Mussolini, and Hitler, by contrast, found in imperial Rome a stunning model for their own grandeur. True, some of Rome’s ancient chroniclers, including the celebrated Livy, so admired specific politicians that they saw only their good sides and ignored the problems and failures. Yet there were others, notably the pessimistic Sallust, who not only wrote bluntly of history’s painful issues but delved deep into their causes and consequences.
     
    Is Putin likely to delve into the history of Rome for insights on his own situation? Unfortunately for Russia, Putin is not a reader, preferring instead to engage in exhibitionist athletic activities, preside at solemn ceremonies, or offer avuncular obiter dicta. However, if he would study the Roman past, he might come to realize that that model presents more than a few chilling prospects that he will ignore at his peril.
     
    To take but one example, a glance at Roman history would remind Putin that self-declared victories may not be as victorious as he and Kremlin publicists want to think. Back in the 3rd century B.C., when Rome was still a small state in central Italy, it was attacked by a certain King Pyrrhus, a rival ruler from Epirus, a region along today’s border between Greece and Albania. In his first battles Pyrrhus routed the Roman legions, and celebrated accordingly. But matters did not end there.
     
    Like Pyrrhus, Putin’s army scored some early victories in its war on Ukraine. As recently as December 1, Putin’s Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu was still claiming, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, that Russian forces “were advancing on all fronts.” Pyrrhus made similar false claims, only to discover that his own soldiers were no match for the determined Romans. As the Romans drove Pyrrhus’ army from the field, he groused, “If we win one more such victory against the Romans we will be utterly ruined,” which is exactly what happened. Pyrrhus’ statement gave Romans the term “Pyrrhic victory,” which we still use today. Putin should apply it to his “victories” at Bakhmut and Avdiivka.
     
    Another crisis in Rome’s early formation as a nation occurred when a peasant uprising threatened Rome itself and, according to the historian Livy, caused panic in the Roman capital. In desperation, the elders turned to Lucius Cincinnatus, who was neither a military man nor a professional politician, but who had earned respect as an effective leader. It took Cincinnatus only fifteen days to turn the tide, after which he returned to his farm. George Washington rightly admired Cincinnatus and consciously emulated him, returning after the Battle of Yorktown to Mount Vernon. By contrast, Putin’s “special military operation,” planned as a three-day romp, is now approaching the end of its second year. Putin, no Cincinnatus, doomed himself to being a lifer.
     
    Roman history is a millennium-long showcase of motivation or its absence. In this context, Putin might gain further insights by examining Rome’s centuries-long battle against the diverse tribes pressing the empire from the north. For centuries Rome’s legionnaires were well trained, disciplined, and committed. The list of their early victories is long. Both Julius Caesar and the philosopher-emperor-general Marcus Aurelius succeeded because they motivated and inspired their troops. But over time the Roman army was increasingly comprised of hirelings, déclassé men who fought not to save the empire but for money or a small piece of the bounty. Inflation and rising costs outpaced pay increases. Punishment was severe, in some cases including even crucifixion. In the end, Rome’s army eroded from within.
     
    This is what is happening to the Russian army today. Putin attacked Ukraine in February 2022 with what was then an army of several hundred thousand trained professional soldiers. But after the Ukrainians killed more than 320,000 Russian troops, their replacements were unwilling and surly conscripts and even criminals dragooned from Russia’s jails. Putin quite understandably fears such soldiers. Putin’s army, like that of the late Roman Empire, is collapsing from within.
     
    By contrast, Ukraine’s army at the time of the invasion was small and comprised mainly Soviet-trained holdovers. Both officers and troops of the line had to be quickly recruited from civilian professions and trained. Yet they quickly proved themselves to be disciplined and resourceful patriots, not tired time-servers. True, Ukraine is now conscripting troops, but these newcomers share their predecessors’ commitment to the nation and to their future lives in a free country.
     
    Sheer spite and a passion for avenging past failures figured prominently in Putin’s decisions to invade both Georgia and Ukraine. Roman history suggests that this isn’t smart. Back in 220 B.C., Rome defeated its great enemy, the North African state of Carthage. Anticipating Putin, the Carthaginian general Hannibal sought revenge. Acting out of spite, he assembled 700,000 foot soldiers, 78,000 mounted calvary, and a force of war elephants, and crossed the Alps. Though he was a brilliant general, Hannibal’s war of spite turned into a disaster.
     
    Why did Hannibal lose? Partly because of his sheer hubris and the spite that fed it, and also because the Romans avoided frontal battles and simply ground him down. They were prudently led by a general named Fabius Maximus, whom later Romans fondly remembered as “the Delayer.” Today it is the Ukrainians who are the Delayers. By grinding down Putin’s army and destroying its logistics they have positioned themselves for victory.
     
    The Roman Republic fell not because of any mass uprising but because of the machinations of Julius Caesar. A victorious general, Caesar looked the hero as he was installed as imperator. As was customary at such ceremonies, an official retainer placed behind the inductee solemnly repeated over and over the admonition to “Look behind you!” Caesar failed to do so and underestimated the opposition of a handful of officials and generals who feared the rise of a dictator perpetuus. Even if Putin chooses not to read Cicero, Plutarch, or Cassius Dio, he could productively spend an evening watching a Moscow production of Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar.
     
    Turning to a very different issue, Putin seems blithely to assume that whenever Russia defeats a neighboring country it can easily win the hearts and minds of the conquered, whether by persuasion or force. This is what many Roman generals and governors thought as well, but they were wrong—fatally so. Speaking of the impact of corrupt officials sent by Rome to the provinces, the great orator-politician Cicero declared to the Roman Senate, “You cannot imagine how deeply they hate us.” Does Putin understand this?
     
    Finally, it is no secret that Russia today, like ancient Rome, is increasingly a land of immigrants; its economy depends on impoverished newcomers from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and elsewhere in Central Asia who fled to Russia in search of work. Yet Moscow treats them as third-class citizens and dragoons them as cannon fodder or “meat” to die by the thousands on the Ukrainian front. Rome faced a similar problem and wrestled with it unsuccessfully over several centuries. Over time the despised immigrants who poured across the Alps from Gaul demanded a voice in Roman affairs, and eventually took control of the western Roman Empire.
     
    Sad to say, neither Putin himself nor any others of Russia’s core group of leaders show the slightest interest in learning from relevant examples from Roman history or, for that matter, from any other useable past. Together they provide living proof of American philosopher George Santayana’s adage that, “Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.” In Putin’s case, though, he seems never to have known it. 
     

    ABOUT THE AUTHORSS. Frederick Starr, is a distinguished fellow specializing in Central Asia and the Caucasus at the American Foreign Policy Council and founding chairman of the Central Asia Caucasus Institute.

    Additional Info
    • Author S. Frederick Starr
    • Publication Type Analysis
    • Published in/by American Purpose
    • Publishing date January 4, 2024
  • CACI Chairman S. Frederick Starr comments on "Preparing Now for a Post-Putin Russia"
    Friday, 03 November 2023 18:30

    Whether Russian President Vladimir Putin dies in office, is ousted in a palace coup, or relinquishes power for some unforeseen reason, the United States and its allies would face a radically different Russia with the Kremlin under new management. The geopolitical stakes mean that policymakers would be negligent not to plan for the consequences of a post-Putin Russia. On November 2, 2023, CACI Chairman S. Frederick Starr joined a panel organized by the Hudson Institute’s Center on Europe and Eurasia for a discussion on how US and allied policymakers can prepare for a Russia after Putin.

    Click here to watch on YouTube or scroll down to watch the full panel discussion.

  • Central Asia Diplomats Call for Closer Ties With US
    Monday, 26 June 2023 00:00

    REPRINTED with permission from Voice of America News
    By Navbahor Imamova

    WASHINGTON -- U.S.-based diplomats from Central Asia, a region long dominated by Russia and more recently China, say they are eager for more engagement with the United States.

    Many American foreign policy experts agree that a more robust relationship would be mutually beneficial, though U.S.-based nongovernmental organizations express deep concerns about human rights and authoritarian rule in the five countries: Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

    Michael Delaney, a former U.S. trade official, argued in favor of greater engagement this week at a webinar organized by the American-Uzbekistan Chamber of Commerce.

    He noted that three of the five republics are World Trade Organization members and the other two are in the accession process — a goal actively encouraged by the U.S. government.

    "I've always believed that this is a geographically disadvantaged area. There are relatively small national economies," he said. But, he said, collectively the region represents a potentially more connected market, about 80 million people.

    Key issues

    In this virtual gathering, all five Central Asian ambassadors to Washington expressed eagerness to work on issues the U.S. has long pushed for, such as water and energy sustainability, security cooperation, environmental protection and climate, and connectivity.

    Kazakhstan's Ambassador Yerzhan Ashikbayev said that despite all factors, the United States does not want to leave the field to China, its global competitor, which actively invests in the region.

    "Recent visit by 20 companies to Kazakhstan as a part of certified U.S. trade mission, including technology giants like Apple, Microsoft, Google, but also other partners like Boeing, have shown a growing interest," Ashikbayev said.

    The Kazakh diplomat described a "synergy" of economies and diplomatic efforts. All Central Asian states are committed to dialogue, trade and multilateralism, he said. "As we are witnessing the return of the divisive bloc mentalities almost unseen for 30 years, it's in our best interest to prevent Central Asia from turning into another battleground of global powers."

    During his first tour of Central Asia earlier this year, Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, meeting separately with the foreign ministers of all five countries.

    That was deeply appreciated, said Meret Orazov, Turkmenistan's longtime ambassador, who also praised the regular bilateral consultations the U.S. holds with these countries.

    Uzbek Ambassador Furqat Sidiqov sees the U.S. as an important partner, with "long-standing friendship and cooperation which have only grown stronger over the years."

    "The U.S. has played a significant role in promoting dialogue and cooperation among the Central Asian nations through initiatives such as the C5+1," he said, referring to a diplomatic platform comprising Washington and the region's five governments.

    "This is where we address common concerns and enhance integration," said Sidiqov. "We encourage the U.S. to bolster this mechanism."

    Tashkent regards Afghanistan as key to Central Asia's development, potentially linking the landlocked region to the markets and seaports of South Asia. Sidiqov said his country counts on American assistance.

    'Possibility of positive change'

    Fred Starr, chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute in Washington, ardently advocates for the U.S. to adopt closer political, economic and people-to-people ties with the region.

    In a recent paper, he wrote that among dozens of officials, diplomats, entrepreneurs, experts, journalists and civil society leaders interviewed in Central Asia, "even those most critical of American positions saw the possibility of positive change and … all acknowledged that the need for change is on both sides, theirs as well as ours."

    This is the only region that doesn't have its own organization, said Starr, arguing that the U.S. could support this effort. "We have not done so, probably because we think that this is somehow going to interfere with their relations with their other big neighbors, the north and east, but it's not going to. It's not against anyone."

    "Easy to do, low cost, very big outcome," he added, also underscoring that "there is a feeling the U.S. should be much more attentive to security."

    "Japan, the European Union, Russia, China, their top leaders have visited. … No U.S. president has ever set foot in Central Asia," he said. He added that regional officials are left to wonder, "Are we so insignificant that they can't take the time to visit?"

    Starr urges U.S. President Joe Biden to convene the C5+1 in New York during the 78th session of the U.N. General Assembly in September. "This would not be a big drain on the president's time, but it would be symbolically extremely important," he said. "All of them want this to happen."

    Read at VOA News

  • Read CACI Chairman S. Frederick Starr's recent interview on the resurgence of Imperial Russia with The American Purpose
    Tuesday, 23 May 2023 00:00

    Why Russians Support the War: Jeffrey Gedmin interviews S. Frederick Starr on the resurgence of Imperial Russia.

    The American Purpose, May 23, 2023

    Jeffrey Gedmin: Do we have a Putin problem or a Russia problem today?

    S. Frederick Starr: We have a Putin problem because we have a Russia problem. Bluntly, the mass of Russians are passive and easily manipulated—down to the moment they aren’t. Two decades ago they made a deal with Vladimir Putin, as they have done with many of his predecessors: You give us a basic income, prospects for a better future, and a country we can take pride in, and we will give you a free hand. This is the same formula for autocracy that prevailed in Soviet times, and, before that, under the czars. The difference is that this time Russia’s leader—Putin—and his entourage have adopted a bizarre and dangerous ideology, “Eurasianism,” that empowers them to expand Russian power at will over the entire former territory of the USSR and even beyond. It is a grand and awful vision that puffs up ruler and ruled alike.

    What do most Russians think of this deal? It leaves them bereft of the normal rights of citizenship but free from its day-to-day responsibilities. So instead of debating, voting, and demonstrating, Russians store up their frustrations and then release them in elemental, often destructive, and usually futile acts of rebellion. This “Russia problem” leaves the prospect of change in Russia today in the hands of alienated members of Putin’s immediate entourage, many of whom share his vision of Russia’s destiny and are anyway subject to Putin’s ample levers for control. Thus, our “Putin problem” arises from our “Russia problem.”

    Click to continue reading...