Saturday, June 9, 2007

Putin Plays Bush Like a Harmonica

Watching Russian President Vladimir Putin is like watching a great artist in action, and at the recent G8 summit in Germany he painted another masterpiece. In general in art, the artist begins with an idea that he sees with his mind's eye, but as he begins to paint, his work inevitably comes out differently than intended. Some artists struggle to retain their original idea, patching up their work to make it as close as possible to their original vision. They end up dissatisfied, left with a piece that only aspires to match the original inspiration. Truly great artists, however, accept the imperfections and seize new opportunities that were not there before. The result is a piece of art that is still fundamentally what the artist had in mind, but with exciting and stunning changes that make the piece far more exciting than if it had all gone according to plan.

Vladimir Putin, the ex-KGB colonel, came to power in 1999 with a vision of a strong Russia like the one he grew up in. He went to work with the artist's equivalent of a blemished canvas and contaminated paint wells. Russia at that time was emerging from a banking crisis that shook the faith of people worldwide in the benefits of capitalism. In 1996 the Russian army lost a guerrilla war in Chechnya, a province about the size of Connecticut. Government employees were not being paid, the military was deteriorating, average life span was decreasing, and corruption had seeped into every aspect of life. To top it off, Putin came to power by appointment (instead of election), taking over a post previously occupied by a raging alcoholic.

Putin captured the hearts of the Russian people when soon after taking office, he crushed the Chechen rebellion in a war that made dictators around the world blush. He retook control of the economy, strengthened the central government, and balanced the budget (it helps that oil prices have skyrocketed recently). Returning to the art analogy, all of this was the equivalent of a very dramatic painting. What political art connoisseurs really appreciate however, is the improvisation that went into his work.

When President Bush laid out his post-Sept. 11 vision of a democratic world, free of oppression and authoritarian leaders, Russia posed a problem. It was apparent that Putin was scaling back Russia's democratic freedoms by closing down newspapers and jailing rivals. Furthermore, reports leaking out of Chechnya told horror stories of Russian soldiers kidnapping, torturing and massacring civilians. Pictures of Chechnya's capital, Grozny, were reminiscent of Stalingrad or Dresden in WWII. Putin moved preemptively to silence possible US criticism, framing the war in Chechnya as part of the worldwide War on Terror. As an ally in the War on Terror, he became immune to American criticism, including to criticism of his anti-democratic domestic policies. Meanwhile, Bush and his aides spent their first term ducking questions about the friendship between the two countries.

Grozny, post-Putin

Most recently, America's relationship with Russia has been strained by US plans to build a missile defense system in Eastern Europe, ostensibly to defend against rogue nations like Iran. Russia isn't buying it. The plan would place radar stations and anti-missile batteries in the Czech Republic and Poland, which geographically seems to be aimed more at Russia than at Iran. Putin has threatened a new nuclear arms race, the US has ignored the threats, and the situation has escalated. For Putin, this situation was the artistic equivalent of a painting gone wrong; it seemed that no matter what he did, this missile defense system would get built, and US power would extend into further into what used to be Russia's sphere of influence. But then at last week's G8 summit in Germany, Putin called NATO's bluff.

At the beginning of the summit, Putin announced that Azerbaijan had agreed to be have the missile defense system based in its territory, and that the stations in Poland and the Czech Republic were now no longer necessary. This unexpected development threw the Americans into confusion, and has placed them in a very uncomfortable situation. Azerbaijan is too close to Iran for the system to be useful, and the country itself is weak, unstable and uncooperative with western powers. But if the US turns down the proposal, it will seem to vindicate the Russian argument that the missile defense system is directed against them. US diplomats have suggested that they would offer to incorporate the Russian plan into the current plan, putting radar stations in all three countries. But that won't fly. If the US agrees to incorporate Azerbaijan into the system, then it will effectively be saying that the Azerbaijan station would be useful defending against Iranian missile attacks. But then if the Azerbaijan station is usable, why are the the Polish and Czech stations still necessary? Wham. Putin has turned the tables, trapping the US in an awkward lose-lose situation, and making Russia suddenly look like the side conscientiously trying to negotiate a settlement. Magnifico.

Many people justifiably find Putin to be a villainous figure. It might sound like I have a man-crush on him, but I only admire his methods, not necessarily his policies. He gets things done in a country where nothing has gotten done in decades. He is a political artist. You might not like what he paints, but you have to admit that he paints well.

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