Friday, October 09, 2015

Vladamir Putin's Imperial Adventure

Vladimir Putin is, in my view, a megalomaniac.  He also thinks of himself as the new tsar of Russian in all but formal name with all the delusions of grandeur that fantasy engenders - he's in his own mind perhaps Peter the Great, Catherine the Great and Alexander I all rolled into one.  Given his short stature, he also seems to suffer from a Napoleon complex. And while he has routinely utilized agendas and excuses modeled on Adolph Hitler's tactics, in the final analysis, he still is pushing for international goals akin to what he sees as his imperial predecessors.  As a piece in the New York Times explains, this includes Putin's adventure into Syria.  While Putin remembers the goals and fleeting success of Russia's imperial past, he seems to have forgotten some of the disasters of the past, including Russia's Afghanistan debacle and wars that could have been avoided.  Here are column highlights:
IN June 1772, Russian forces bombarded, stormed and captured Beirut, a fortress on the coast of Ottoman Syria. The Russians were backing their ally, a ruthless Arab despot. When they returned the next year, they occupied Beirut for almost six months. Then as now, they found Syrian politics a boiling cauldron of factional-ethnic strife, which they tried to simplify with cannonades and gunpowder.

Today, President Vladimir V. Putin has many motives in Syria, but we should keep in mind Russia’s vision of its traditional mission in the Middle East, and how it informs the Kremlin’s thinking. And not just the Kremlin: Russia’s Orthodox Church spokesman said that Mr. Putin’s intervention was part of “the special role our country has always played in the Middle East.”

Russia’s ties to the region are rooted in its self-assigned role as the defender of Orthodox Christianity, which it claimed to inherit from the Byzantine Caesars after the fall of Constantinople in 1453 — hence “czars.” The czars presented Moscow not just as a Third Rome, but also as a New Jerusalem, and protector of Christians in the Balkans and the Arab world, which, including the Holy Places of Jerusalem, were ruled by the Ottomans after 1517.

They left in 1774, when Russia dropped its Syrian allies in return for Ottoman concessions over Ukraine and Crimea. Yet a Russian Mediterranean base was now a strategic aim: Catherine and her partner Prince Potemkin annexed Crimea, where they founded a Black Sea fleet, then tried to negotiate a base on Minorca.

Catherine’s successors saw themselves as crusaders, with Russia destined to rule Constantinople and Jerusalem.

[D]uring World War I Russian forces occupied northern Persia and invaded Ottoman Iraq, nearly taking Baghdad. In 1916, Nicholas II’s foreign minister, Sergei Sazonov, negotiated the Sykes-Picot-Sazonov Treaty, which promised Russia Istanbul, sections of Turkey and Kurdistan, and a share of Jerusalem — a Near Eastern empire foiled by the Bolshevik Revolution.

Until the recent intervention, the closest Russia came to fighting was the Israeli-Egyptian War of Attrition from 1967 to 1970, during which Soviet pilots dueled with Israelis. When Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, expelled the Russians, they cultivated a trio of dictators, Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya, Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Hafez al-Assad in Syria. All three, running merciless, dynastic-Mafia regimes behind the facade of socialistic parties, central planning and Stalinesque cults of personality, took quickly to their new benefactors . . .

After the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russian influence collapsed and Moscow came to bitterly resent the Western interventions that destroyed Mr. Hussein and Colonel Qaddafi. American retreat from the region grants Mr. Putin, who sees himself in an unbroken tradition of Russian personal leadership and imperial-national power from the czars to today, the opportunity to diminish American prestige and project Russia as indispensable world arbiter. The rescue of Mr. Assad’s son Bashir while fighting the opposition and Islamic State dovetails with Russia’s struggle against Chechen jihadis who flock to the black caliphal banners — and success will bring leverage in Iran and Turkey, where Russia once had muscle.

That said, Mr. Putin may end up channeling Catherine and trade Syrian influence to end Western sanctions and secure annexed Crimea — for this military showmanship concerns Mr. Putin’s political survival. In some ways, his defense of Syria’s autocrat is a defense of his own authority against rebellion. 

The power formula in Russia is this: autocracy in the Kremlin in return for security and prosperity at home, glory abroad — and for now at least, there’s glamour in the excitement of this Oriental adventure, a televised “Beau Geste” with Sukhoi bombers.

When Alexander II launched exotic Asian wars, one of his ministers, Count Valuev, wrote, “there’s something erotic about all things on distant frontiers.” Moscow lacks the resources to replace America and will find in Syria a quagmire, but Russians feel that a great imperial Russia has always been a player in the Middle East — and boldness counts for much in this wild world.

Putin is very dangerous, but his latest venture has strong historical precedents.  One needs to understand history and Russia's long inferiority complex versus the west and the longing for real or imagined past glories.   Sadly, the Russian people continue to be betrayed by their failed leaders - something that has plagued Russia for centuries.  

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