Washington, November 30, 2014 (Alochonaa):
It is not national interests we are upholding — we claim that the interests of socialism, the interests of world socialism, rank higher than national interests, higher than the interests of the state. ~ Vladimir Ilyich Lenin
Russia needs a strong state power and must have it. ~ Vladimir Putin
In her book, The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, Russian-American writer Masha Gessen recounts a conversation she’d had with the late exiled Russian oligarch, Boris Berezovsky. He told her, “The Russian regime has no ideology, no party, no politics. It is nothing but the power of a single man.”
As I read about Moscow flying strategic bombers to the Gulf of Mexico and deploying warships to the English Channel and, earlier, off the coast of Australia’s Queensland, I shake my head and yearn for the Cold War, almost a half-century of strategic standoff and tensions between Russia and the West.
I was raised in this era of proxy wars, nuclear sabre rattling and the space race. I ducked under my desk during school atomic apocalypse drills, spent my university days devoted to studying the Cold War, and dedicated the bulk of my career in the U.S. government to stymying the Soviet Union at every turn, most directly in Afghanistan, which my colleagues and I worked assiduously for years to turn into Moscow’s “Vietnam.” After Stalin’s vast real estate larceny during and right after World War II, the “Sovs” became fairly predictable. Yes, they invaded East Germany, Hungary and Czechoslovakia to suppress democracy movements, but those took place in the era of “spheres of influence.” The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis was the big exception, with Nikita Khrushchev having pushed the envelope to the brink of global nuclear conflagration. After his removal from power, however, the USSR was ruled by gray senior apparatchiks, concrete-faced men who eschewed high-risk strategic lunges in favor of supporting low grade “wars of liberation.” Ah, those were the days.
I miss the fairy tale Marxist ideology, which placed the domestic and international orders neatly into compartments of “class struggle,” “anti-imperialist struggle,” “dialectical materialism,” “proletarian internationalism,” etc. I miss the cryogenic political structure from the politburo on down to factory komsomol committees. And I miss sparring with Soviet zombie-diplomats who clumsily repeated Moscow’s mendacious party line on any given issue. Wonks like me eagerly consumed the incessant propaganda bilge that streamed from Pravda, Izvestia, and Radio Moscow as we did our morning latte, seeking to discern subtle policy shifts and power struggles between the lines. The rigidity was predictable. The fear of high risk-taking was palpable. We all labored under Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). Yes, it was a divided world. Yes, huge economic resources went to the military-intelligence complex. Yes, global trade could not achieve its full potential. Yes, it was at times very Strangelovean. But it was all so predictable. We played chess with the Soviets on a global scale. It was in neither side’s interest to upturn the board and scatter the pieces.
Then, after the Yeltsin interregnum, like the Pale Rider, came Vladimir Putin. As a kid, he prowled the mean streets of Leningrad picking fights with other kids. His dream, which he realized, was to become a secret police agent. As a KGB officer in Dresden, East Germany, he reportedly cheated on and beat his wife. His mass thievery of Russian resources and his cozy relationships with sleazy Russian business oligarchs are well documented. Here’s a guy who baldfacedly stole the New England Patriot owner’s 5-karat diamond NFL ring, valued at $25,000. His subversive aggressions against neighboring countries are taken directly from the playbooks of Hitler and Mussolini — sans charisma. He rattles the Russian sabre as the economy slowly slides into negative territory and his country’s population continues to decline.
Unlike his concrete-faced Soviet predecessors, Putin takes high risks in a strategic and ideological void. This makes him unpredictable and the risk of unforeseen military clashes high. And this is why I miss the Soviet Union.
* James Bruno is the author of four bestselling books. Mr. Bruno served as a diplomat with the U.S. Dept of State for 23 years, and is a member of the Diplomatic Readiness Reserve. He holds M.A’s from the U.S. Naval War College and Columbia U., and a B.A. from George Washington University. He is a regular contributor to POLITICO Magazine.
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