Putin as a mob boss
Vladimir Putin -- Russia's president, although the more accurate title would be godfather -- made headlines last week with a speech in Munich that set a new standard in anti-Americanism. He not only charged the United States with the "hyper-use of force," "disdain for the basic principles of international law" and having "overstepped its national borders in . . . the economic, political, cultural and educational policies it imposes on other nations." He even blamed the spread of weapons of mass destruction, which the United States has been combating with few allies and against constant Russian resistance, on American "dominance" that "inevitably encourages" other countries to acquire them.Ironically, Putin has made the Saudis look like the most responsible oil supplier in the world. They may play games with the price but they are dependable when it comes to delivery. Russia has become a bully under Putin, but it is hollow at its core. Russia has shrinking demographics and a depreciating military. Its ships are rusting in port and its army is corrupt and inept. While it has attempted to modernize its technology, it air planes are a couple of generations behind the US planes. It can make deals with other rogue states, but that does not make it a player that is to be respected. It is certainly not going to make the US shrink from its own national interest.
There is something amusing about criticism of the use of force by the man who turned Chechnya into a smoldering ruin; about the invocation of international law by the man who will not allow Scotland Yard to interrogate the polonium-soaked thugs it suspects of murdering Alexander Litvinenko, yet another Putin opponent who met an untimely and unprosecuted death; about the bullying of other countries decried by a man who cuts off energy supplies to Ukraine, Georgia and Belarus in brazen acts of political and economic extortion.
Less amusing is the greater meaning of Putin's Munich speech. It marks Russia's coming out. Flush with oil and gas revenue, the consolidation of dictatorial authority at home and the capitulation of both domestic and Western companies to his seizure of their assets, Putin issued his boldest declaration yet that post-Soviet Russia is preparing to reassert itself on the world stage.
Putin's bitter complaint is that today there remains only one superpower, the behemoth that dominates a "unipolar world." He knows that Moscow lacks the economic, military and even demographic means to challenge America as it did in Soviet days. He speaks more modestly of coalitions of aggrieved have-not countries that Russia might lead in countering American power.
Hence his increasingly active foreign policy -- military partnerships with China, nuclear cooperation with Iran, weapon supplies to Syria and Venezuela, diplomatic support as well as arms for a genocidal Sudan, friendly outreach to other potential partners of an anti-hegemonic (read: anti-American) alliance.
He wants Gromyko's influence -- or at least some international acknowledgment that Moscow must be reckoned with -- without the ideological baggage. He does not want to bury us; he only wants to diminish us. It is 19th-century power politics at its most crude and elemental. Putin does not want us as an enemy. But at Munich he told the world that, vis-à-vis America, his Russia has gone from partner to adversary.