Gwynne Dyer: Vladimir Putin's resurrection

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      If he just had the flu, why didn’t they say that he just had the flu? We’d all have sent him get-well cards, and that would have been the end of it.

      The lengthy and mysterious absence of Vladimir Putin ended on Monday (March 16), when the Russian president emerged in St. Petersburg to greet the visiting president of Kyrgyzstan, Almazbek Atambayev. The only explanation he offered for his 11-day disappearance from public view was that “It would be boring without gossip.”

      The rumour mill certainly went into overdrive during his absence. He had suffered a stroke. He was in Switzerland for the birth of his child with his alleged girlfriend, gymnast Alina Kabayeva. He’d had a face-lift, or maybe just another Botox job. There had been a palace coup, perhaps connected in some way to the murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov last month.

      All mere speculation, whose only useful function was to hold the ads apart. The Kremlin remains, as it was in Communist and Tsarist times, a place of perpetual intrigue, and Kremlinology is as imprecise a science as ever. There are clearly rival factions struggling to influence Putin’s decisions, but nobody can clearly say what they want or even who belongs to which one.

      Why, for example, was Putin’s first action after his resurrection an order to put the Russian navy on full combat readiness in the Arctic, of all places? That’s a long way from Ukraine, which is the focus of the current confrontation between Russia and the Western powers. Is Putin opening up a new front, or just demonstrating his resolve? And if so, who is the demonstration aimed at? NATO? Some faction in the Kremlin? Both?

      The problem with an opaque regime like Putin’s is the difficulty in reading its motives and intentions. Even democratic governments like that of the United States can be reckless and unpredictable—consider President George W. Bush’s decisions after 9/11—but American policy is a miracle of transparency compared to the decision-making process in Moscow.

      The difference is stark, and it has serious effects in the real world.

      At the moment, for example, there is a major debate underway in Washington (and in other NATO capitals as well) about whether Putin must now be seen as an “expansionist” leader who has to be stopped before he goes any farther. The debate strongly resembles the one about Soviet intentions after the Second World War, which ended in a Western decision that the Soviet Union was an expansionist power that had to be “contained”.

      The debate back then drew heavily on analogies with the rise of Hitler in the 1930s and the failure of the policy of “appeasement”—and the decision to surround the Soviet Union with alliances and military bases, right or wrong, led to an extremely dangerous 40-year Cold War.

      Hitler has been dead for 70 years and the world is now a very different place, but here comes the same old debate again. If you argue in Washington today that Putin’s actions in Ukraine are not the first step in his plan for world conquest, but just a clumsy over-reaction to the overthrow of pro-Russian former president Viktor Yanukovych by the rebels in Kyiv a year ago, you can be sure that various people will accuse you of being an appeaser.

      They don’t even understand what the “appeasement” policy actually involved. British defence spending, for example, more than doubled in the five years between Hitler’s rise to power and the decision to go to war with Hitler. They knew they might have to fight him in the end, but they used the time before they were ready to fight to see if he could be appeased by giving him back some of the territory Germany had lost after the First World War.

      If it had worked, it would have been a lot cheaper than fighting a second world war. In the end it didn’t work, and so Britain and France went to war.

      But it is extremely unlikely that the NATO powers are in a similar situation now. For one thing, they never really disarmed after the end of the Cold War, so they don’t have to re-arm now even if Putin does turn out to have big plans.

      If Putin really is planning on world conquest—or at least on recreating the old Soviet Union—then he has left it very late. Hitler started grabbing territory within a couple of years of coming to power. Apart from a little war with Georgia (which Georgia started), Putin has waited 15 years to make his first move. If he does have a plan, it’s a very slow-moving one.

      Besides, his strategists will be warning him that Russia could not hold up its end of a new Cold War for very long. Russia has only half the population of the old Soviet Union, and it is now a largely de-industrialized petro-state with a GDP comparable to Italy’s. He is probably just blundering around, trying desperately to save face after his humiliation in last year’s Ukrainian revolution.

      Unfortunately, what goes on inside the Kremlin is so obscure that nobody can be sure of his ultimate intentions. That leaves a nice large space for the hawks in the West to play in, and they are taking full advantage of it.

      But Putin probably just had a bad case of flu.




      Mar 16, 2015 at 1:13pm

      Everybody should know by now that the Americans are applying pressure on Russia in order to get rid of an independent minded Putin and replace him with a more compliant tsar, like the former Medvedev or Yeltsin. Hence the media suspense about his absence from public view. Well you don't rise to the top of the Kremlin without being a cunning and ruthless opportunist so the Americans are going to be disappointed for a while longer.
      As for accusing Putin of being "expansionist",etc, this is projectionist nonsense. Typically the Americans and Israeli's attribute [project] their sinister motives onto their enemy. It is the Americans who are expansionist and militaristic, they have been so for their entire history, they covet Russia's resources for corporate exploitation. Russia has always been surrounded by American military bases [Forts] not to "contain" Russian expansion but to push the Russian frontiers backward as in the expansion of NATO and the American incitement of the Ukrainian civil war. The American establishment is on the war path and Russia is on the defensive, Putin has been very restrained, he knows Russia is in great peril and he is trying everything to both avoid and prepare for war with America. The annexation of the strategic Crimea was in desperation and panic to the anti-Russian Ukrainian coup last year. There are a lot of western analysts who are afraid the Americans will push the Russians too hard and bring us to the brink of nuclear war. I doubt that Putin can be intimidated and he will fight back when his country is directly threatened. I hope he stays in power if only to teach the Yankees a lesson they will never forget!


      Mar 16, 2015 at 5:25pm


      You said the US "covets Russia's resources".


      Is Russia reluctant to sell them? Can the US and its allies (which produce more oil than Russia) not find them elsewhere?

      I realize people think they sound clever when they frame every conflict as a struggle over natural resources, but in a global economy it is by no means obvious that natural resource are anything to fight over.

      The world has changed a fair bit since the 1950s.

      Black Arrow

      Mar 16, 2015 at 5:59pm

      It is not so much that the US covets Russia's resources. There are groups on both sides that are greedy and manipulative. Peto, putin is now in power from this point forward and he will show the yankees a lesson or 2.


      Mar 16, 2015 at 7:55pm

      Gwynne Dyer: You are soooooo incorrect that it baffles the mind.


      Mar 16, 2015 at 8:33pm

      @ McRetso
      Thanks for the query, McRetso,I am glad to amplify further.
      Have you read: The Race for What's Left: The Global Scramble for the World's Last Resources [2012] by Michael T. Klare ,professor of Peace and World Security Studies? No[?],then perhaps you should.
      American history is replete with examples foriegn wars waged to protect American corporate interests,or to control strategic resources or to subdue and advance it's control of uncooperative hostile foriegn governments,etc. Strangely, Russia wanted to integrate into the Western capitalist block but they were cold shouldered by the Americans. Why? According to my reading the Russians themselves believe that the West is bankrupt and they look to acquire Russian wealth to regain their solvency. "Globalization"or global trade is far from perfect and conflicted, perhaps the Russians don't want to sell their wealth for inflated American dollars, prefering GOLD instead. Just some suggestions.

      Michael Walters

      Mar 16, 2015 at 9:52pm

      Putin finally explains everything about his 11 day disappearance by uttering those classic words “It would be boring without gossip.”.......the Russian Oligarchs can now sleep at night.....


      Mar 16, 2015 at 11:06pm

      "Unfortunately, what goes on inside the Kremlin is so obscure that nobody can be sure of his ultimate intentions."

      Putin does answer questions:
      His speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2007 spelled out his plans for taking over the world:

      @McRetso: "The world has changed a fair bit since the 1950s."

      The world hasn't changed much - Dr. Strangelove and Co. are still spewing propaganda:

      -Jason Kenney claimed the Canadian Navy was confronted by Russian warships and the Canadian frigate HMCS Fredericton was buzzed by Russian fighter jets in the Black Sea. NATO however, says no such thing happened.

      -German intelligence told DerSpiegal that Dr. Breedlove is bonkers. His wolf cries (of Russian invasions) make NATO lose credibility.

      -State Dept Comedy Store Announces New "Long-standing" Policy Against Backing Coups

      "I hope he stays in power if only to teach the Yankees a lesson they will never forget!"

      A 'winnable' nuclear war died with Kennedy. Lessons will be short - Russian may still have the Dead Hand...

      Hasan Rahimov

      Mar 17, 2015 at 5:56am

      The ideas that the US, Israel, *and* Russia have an aggressive and expansion foreign policy aren't mutually exclusive. There's a pattern of Russia creating puppet state-lings in former Soviet Republics where Russian-majority demographic exists (e.g. S. Ossetia, Transnistria, Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia), even you'd have to admit this Peto, c'mon now. In Georgia Putin stuck his toe in the pool to check the temp, Dubya blinked, and that was that; the Baltic nations (and by ext NATO, plus Kazakhstan) have cause to be concerned.

      Ukraine also has a right to be pissed; other than urban centres in Donbass and Kharkiv, the surrounding rural areas are solidly primary-language Ukrainian, people who don't want to separate or join Russia (and the city majorities are only due to Russian plantations); that the areas are overall majority Russian-speaking doesn't tell the whole story.

      I doubt Putin even believes his own rhetoric about Novorossiya, it's a policy he's stuck with, part of the image he's created of himself as an old-style strongman; though he's high in the polls, in Russia that can change fast. Under the surface Western gov'ts don't really give a rat's ass about Ukraine, the last thing they want is to have a country whose economy is a complete basket-case whose strongest point is a crumbling infrastructure pumping low quality industrial products as part of NATO or the EU.

      The EU doesn't need a new market full of citizens with nothing to spend, and they already have lots of sources of dirt-cheap mobile labour from the less-developed former Soviet Bloc nations that joined the EU. But leaving Ukraine to it's fate doesn't play well with the public, and they don't want to pay a political price for ignoring the situation at the ballot box or the Budapest MOA.

      Germany has lots to lose economically alienating Russia with how much investment they have in the Russia, but again, against the conventional wisdom, this is a relatively rare case of policy being driven by public opinion rather than public opinion being molded by the MSM/Western gov't propaganda...people don't like the idea of existing countries going for a "Greater"-anything, not Hungary, not Romania, not Serbia, not Russia. It's a visceral gut-reaction against any Grossdeutschland-type expansion in the average Europeans' mind, especially in place like Poland that were f'd up royally by Stalin after Hitler


      Mar 17, 2015 at 6:40am

      This article is ridiculous--does Dyer only read Mainstream Media these days? There are all sorts of non-MSM resources out there to get some insight into what is motivating Putin, and it certainly isn't "aggressive expansionism" or "Putin restoring the USSR"--the fact that Dyer trots out this last ludicrous canard at this point indicates he is pretty much trying to be "Pentagon-acceptable"--not surprising since he still believes the entire 9/11 official story. I stopped taking Dyer seriously years ago, although he can still put out some decent briefs about obscure places we otherwise never hear about.

      But back to "Russian inscrutability." Has he read Putin's St. Petersburg speech? The Obama admin has been the most secretive press-leery government ever and you can rarely find Obama beyond his teleprompter; Putin by contrast will sit and field questions from international journalists for hours. Did you bother to read the above, or talk to some Russians about why his popularity is at 86%, before firing off your insight about how hard it is to get insight into Putin, Gwynne?

      Perhaps Dyer prefers the "clarity" of US/NATO war-mongering at this point. Just about everyone else on the ground is fed-up with the craven mendacity of MSM in trotting out this insane "Russian aggression" narrative, when it is clearly the reverse... It is insane because believing it sets you on track for WW III. NATO, that fig-leaf for American aggression, has been pushed to the borders of Russia, has troops and ships on active maneuvers from the Arctic Ocean to the Black Sea, right now. Even Merkel and Hollande finally realized what the neo-con loonies in Washington were up to, and rushed to Moscow to talk to the "inscrutable" Putin. Out of that, and the Minsk2 agreement, we have some limited hope that war will be avoided.


      Mar 17, 2015 at 12:53pm

      "American policy is a miracle of transparency compared to the decision-making process in Moscow." OH BOY. PARDON ME WHILE I THROW UP.