Tuesday, October 18, 2016
What's Putin Up To?
Since Putin's antics may impact our own upcoming elections, it's a good idea to take a good look at him.
First, he's an old KGB man, and of course he dreams of the Good Old Days of the Soviet empire -- when Russia was a major power in the world, when everyone feared that it might conquer the world or start World War III, when Russia had respect. Of course he wants to see that back. No wonder he's interested in Trump's campaign; Putin wants to Make Russia Great Again.
But he's also a realist, and no fool, or he wouldn't have lasted this long. He also knows very well that back in those Good Old Days the power of the USSR was largely a facade. The Soviet economy was always lurching just one step ahead of disaster, couldn't adequately feed its own people, and often had to buy food from its declared enemies. Factory production was never what the official statements claimed, between 15% and 50% of its products -- including its military hardware -- just plain didn't work, and everybody lied outright about how well the economy was doing. The Russian black market provided more and better goods and services than the official system. Despite desperate brags and propaganda from all government news outlets, the people -- including the military -- saw the reality around them and knew damned well how bad the economy was. Given its performance in everything from the 1939 Winter War with Finland to the attempted invasion of Afghanistan, it was clear that the Soviet military could not fight a serious war anywhere, even on its own borders. As various Soviet defectors confirmed, most of the Soviet government's visible actions were "Showoffsky". Finally the economy took that fatal stumble, and the disaster caught up with it. Gorbachev's actions in dismantling the old system were only a sensible reaction to the reality that everybody in Russia knew.
And Russia's economy is still godawfully bad, as Putin certainly knows. About 50% of it is run by the no-longer-so-Black Market, and by barter. At any given moment, as much as 40% of its military personnel are moonlighting at other jobs. Nobody, including its own people, trusts its currency -- or uses it, if there's any choice. And, as always, its food supply is shaky.
This is one of the reasons why Putin sent the best available troops he had to go re-conquer the Ukraine, which has always been the chief grain-bowl of Russia. Another reason was, as has been the aim of Russian foreign policy for the last four centuries, to get a year-round ice-free seaport -- namely, in the Crimea. Now Russia's ships, including warships, can reach any land on the shores of the Black Sea. Whether they can get any further is a moot point, since the Black Sea is landlocked, and the only way out of it is through the straits of the Dardanelles -- which is held (firmly) by Turkey, which has not been friendly to Russia for nearly a thousand years.
The third reason was, frankly, Showoffsky: Making Russia (look) Great Again. This is also why he published those otherwise silly pictures of himself riding shirtless on a white horse, showing off his manly chest, looking macho. This is why he's also been doing so much harrumphing and rocket-rattling in public lately, even though he surely knows that his military couldn't begin to take on the US, China, or even NATO by itself; it never could, even back in the old glory days. This is why he sent that Russian warship to sit in the harbor while the US sent its ambassadorial team to Cuba. This is why he sent a token force of aircraft to strafe an ISIL stronghold, and then did nothing further there. This is why -- in a remarkably stupid move for an otherwise intelligent man -- he sent planes to bomb Aleppo, weakening the already-losing rebel side in the Syrian civil war. He's trying to look strong by attacking or threatening opponents who can't, or won't, strike back. Showoffsky!
We have to wonder how much of this political theater is aimed at the US and NATO, and how much is aimed at China, which is doing considerable Showoffsky itself -- such as building those "ghost cities", that nobody occupies and have no supportive industry, as WPA-style employment projects. Is this a primarily eastern Battle of the Smokescreens?
In any case, somebody should quietly inform Putin that he'd make much more political hay out of helping the other western nations smash ISIL. ...That is, if his military is capable of it.