Seeing the World Through Putin's Eyes

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Few people comprehend Russia's vulnerabilities like its leader, Vladimir Putin. He must try to govern a country that extends through nearly half the longitudes of the earth but that has fewer people than Bangladesh. What's more, Russia's population is declining, not increasing. All the Arctic seas to Russia's north are ice-blocked many months of the year, so with the exception of its Far East, Russia is essentially a landlocked nation. Moreover, Russia's flat topography affords little natural protection and is therefore bereft of natural borders. Land powers, as they have no seas to protect them, are more insecure than island nations and continents like the United States and Great Britain.

But Russia is particularly insecure.

Putin knows that it hasn't been just the French and the Germans who have invaded Russia from the west in centuries past, but Swedes, Poles, and Lithuanians, too. So Putin must seek a buffer zone in Eastern Europe; Russian history demands no less of him. This is not the recreation of the Warsaw Pact we are talking about. For the need to economically support disparate states in Eastern Europe for half a century was a burden that helped topple the Soviet Union. Putin knows, therefore, that Russia cannot rule Eastern Europe. But he does require a degree of diplomatic and economic acquiescence in order to keep countries like Poland and Romania hobbled. Given that such countries are members of NATO and the European Union, this is a constant -- perhaps impossible -- challenge.

Putin is happy that Russia's geography grants him access to massive natural gas deposits, as well as the pathways to export that natural gas to Europe, particularly to Eastern Europe. This provides him with economic and, thus, political leverage over former Warsaw Pact states. But he is nervous. Countries by the Baltic Sea are building or planning to build regasification plants that will allow them to import natural gas in liquid form from other parts of the world, thereby undermining Russia's energy monopoly in Eastern Europe. Then there are the shale gas deposits in Poland and Ukraine that might further increase the energy options of those geopolitical bellwether countries. Putin needs to be a worrier.

American journalists, politicians and government officials must drive Putin to distraction. They assault him on moral grounds. After all, "He is a dictator!" they say. "He tolerates and even encourages corruption and rampant thuggery!" But do they know I am dealing with Russia -- not with the United States? Putin must think. Are they aware that when I took power there was political chaos and criminal anarchy, with ordinary Russians robbed of their dignity? In Putin's mind, he restored a large measure of order -- without which no progress is possible in the first place. And whatever his numerous faults, he is painfully aware that he is not in total control. Like many a Russian leader throughout history, he gives orders and in the vastness of the far-flung provinces there is little response. The Communists required totalitarianism to exercise real control. But he is no mass murderer like Stalin; he is not relocating whole populations to Siberia. He is just a ruler with strong autocratic tendencies, something common to Russia. What do the Americans want of me! Why do they interfere with my domestic affairs through the support of these human rights organizations? And, by the way, don't the Americans realize that toppling Bashar al Assad in Syria might mean a worse human rights situation there; not a better one?

Putin wants a discussion with the Americans based on geopolitical interests, not values. President Richard Nixon went to China to negotiate with Mao Zedong because it was in America's interest to do so; the fact that Mao had just killed millions in the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was not an over riding detail. So where is my Nixon? Putin must think. After all, I have not killed millions like Mao. I have not even murdered thousands. In 1972, the American media praised Nixon for going to China and negotiating with a mass murderer. Now the same media would not let President Barack Obama go to Moscow to negotiate with a normal autocrat unless he delivers scolding lectures on human rights. Putin must have smiled to himself cynically for a moment at the Boston Marathon bombing, whose perpetrators had origins in the Russian Caucasus -- a rough and tumble Muslim land Russia has been trying to subdue for generations. If only the Americans realized their eternal interests in an advantageous Eurasian balance of power and helped me permanently crush the north Caucasus.


China is also a problem for Putin. Yes, he welcomes the new Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, on an official visit to Moscow, and the two feel a strong bond, as any two autocrats naturally would, faced as they are with lectures and demands from the democratic powers of the West. But geography dictates that Russia's alliance with China is mainly tactical. While Russia is delivering increasing amounts of oil (and probably natural gas soon, too) to China, something for which Beijing is grateful, the two giant nations share long borders in the Far East and in Central Asia that through the centuries have been volatile.

The Russian Far East, an area roughly twice the size of Europe, has a paltry population of fewer than 7 million that may fall to fewer than 5 million in coming decades. Russia had expanded into this region in the 19th century and early 20th century during a fit of nationalistic imperialism when China was comparatively weak. That era is past, and on the other side of the border Russia faces a population of 100 million people in Chinese Manchuria. Resource acquisition is the principal goal of Chinese foreign policy, and the Russian Far East is rich in reserves of natural gas, oil, timber, diamonds and gold. Unless China itself implodes -- a possibility but not a probability -- China must be seen as a long-range threat to Russia.

In Central Asia, meanwhile, besides building oil and natural gas pipelines from Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan into western China, Beijing has invested billions to mine copper in Afghanistan and has invested in oil exploration there, too. The Chinese have also won concessions to mine gold in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Beijing is attempting to build a rail system that will link Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan with China. For Putin, who must try to establish a buffer zone in former Soviet Central Asia of the kind he is trying to establish in Eastern Europe, China must be seen as a rival, to say the least.

So once again, we return to the question: where is Putin's Nixon?

Nixon would understand Russia's geopolitical insecurities and partially assuage them, in order to gain some leverage over China, just as four decades ago he had moved closer to China in order to gain some leverage over Russia. Were the United States to give Russia more leeway in the Caucasus and Central Asia -- rather than trying to compete with Russia in those regions -- Russia might find ingenious ways to make China more nervous along its land borders. And that, in turn, would make China somewhat less able to devote so much of its energy to projecting power in the Pacific Basin, where it threatens American allies. None of this would remotely fall into the category of aggressive or irresponsible international behavior, mind you. Trying to adjust the global balance of power in one's favor is a perennial goal of statesmanship.

But even if Obama intellectually realizes such truths and opportunities, the public policy climate in the United States is not that of the Cold War, which would have allowed for a broader dynamic between Washington and Moscow to each side's mutual benefit. The result is that China profits, to the endless frustration of Putin. As for the United States, it gains little advantage in the outcome.

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