The Russian presidential elections are two weeks away and the outcome is hardly in doubt. Vladimir Putin on Wednesday gave his annual state of the nation address to the Russian Duma. During his speech, the strongman-president raved about Russian strength. Then, with bizarre computer-generated images of weapons projected behind him, Putin detailed five new Russian weapons systems.
The new weapons are dangerous, of course. But their appearance is misleading. In reality, Putin’s announcement was a sign of desperation and weakness. Fact is, the Trump Administration’s yearlong show of strength against Russia from Ukraine to Syria has worked well. Now would be an excellent time for the president to open negotiations with Putin.
How I Learned to Stop Worrying…
Among the new systems were hypersonic glide weapons that both the United States and China have also been developing for several years. These weapons can deliver bombs anywhere in the world in under an hour (and can overcome any known air defense system, thanks to their ability to travel at five times the speed of sound).
The Russian version of these weapons can carry nuclear warheads. They can fly higher, faster, and undetected compared to what we would consider standard nuclear missiles. This would also have the effect of mitigating antiballistic missile defense systems, such as THAAD ground-based interceptors, which the United States has been developing (and China has recently begun testing).
Russia views any antiballistic missile defense system as a direct threat to its nuclear deterrence, which Russia believes is the only thing standing between Russia and a foreign invasion.
The most frightening (and equally hilarious) weapon Putin previewed was his “doomsday device.” Like something from “Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Atomic Bomb,” the weapon is an unmanned submarine that can carry a nuclear weapon underwater, and attack any position on Earth without raising any alarms. The video behind Putin detailed nuclear strikes being carried out over my old home state of Florida. Intelligence agencies have believed that Putin possessed this weapon since at least 2015, yet many observers mocked the unmanned, underwater nuclear weapon as having no practical use other than to indiscriminately destroy massive amounts of human life (as if rationality ever played into Russia’s atomic ambitions).
National Self-Defense or Imperial Buffer Zones?
Throughout his speech, Putin insisted that the Russian Federation was strong and each new weapon was meant to display that strength. Even as he hissed about the greatness of Russian weapons of mass destruction, Putin unconvincingly assured his rapt audience that such weapons would only be used in self-defense. They were designed, according to Putin, with Russian “historical and cultural” experience in mind. In other words, since the Mongolian invasions, which subjugated and weakened Russia a millennia ago, the Russians have long feared foreign encirclement, encroachment, invasion, and dismemberment.
Of course, it is fair to wonder what the Kremlin regards as Russian “self-defense.” No one seriously desires to invade Russia. Yet, given Putin’s rhetoric, one would think that Russia was about to be invaded by NATO. When Putin speaks of “self-defense,” he is talking about creating buffer zones between Russia’s “core” of Moscow and NATO’s European members.
Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 because both countries—former Soviet states—were on the verge of joining the European Union and NATO (which Putin believes are aimed at destroying Russia).
Now, the Russians appear poised to strike again. Some believe that it will be in a Baltic state with a large ethnic Russian population. Thus, Latvia, Estonia, and Moldova are all potential targets. Trump’s policies toward Russia have kept Putin back. It is now imperative to switch tacks and engage in a reasonable deal with Putin to allay further aggression (without abandoning our allies).
Putin’s Global Ambitions
Elsewhere in Syria, Russian military operations in support of Bashar al-Assad continue unabated. Also, Putin has brilliantly maneuvered Russian influence into the resource-rich Middle East: he has empowered Iran at the same time he is partaking in history-making energy deals with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia; Putin has rekindled the old Russo-Egyptian military alliance; and Russia has a strengthening relationship with Israel.
To Russia’s east, Putin has signed historic energy deals with the world’s leading importer of oil (and a country whose thirst for raw materials is boundless): China. All the while, Russia provides diplomatic cover for a procession of rogue states, including North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, Cuba, and several others. From all appearances, then, it would seem that Russia is dominating the world yet again (Fareed Zakaria dubbed Putin the “Strongest Man in the World” last year, for instance).
Given all of his moves on the diplomatic and economic fronts—maneuvers that have had a far more positive impact than anything Putin has done militarily in Europe—why does President Putin always feel the need to beat his chest to the world with these mad nuclear threats?
When Weakness is Strength
Well, for starters, Putin is gaslighting his people. Putin wants to mitigate the potential for any protest—no matter how small or isolated—to form on the eve of his “victory.” Second, Putin knows that Russia is, in fact, weak. Moscow is doing reasonably well, but the rest of the country is teetering on the brink. Stories are coming out of towns less than 60 miles outside of Moscow, indicating that the Russian people are suffering. Protests in the east have erupted over shortages and onerous regulations imposed on them by Moscow for the last year.
It’s clear that Putin’s regime rests on a brittle framework. He rose to power because of his promises to make Russia great again after Boris Yeltsin’s disastrous presidency. Putin did elevate the standard of living for most Russians, in part, by tethering Russia’s economy to the global price of oil. Unfortunately, though, oil is a volatile commodity. When the global price swings for oil as drastically as it has since 2014, the Russian economy in particular suffers.
Also, Putin’s invasion of Crimea has prompted Western sanctions that have put an additional squeeze on Putin’s government. All of this has compounded into an awful situation for Putin.
Then, in recent days, news broke that upwards of 200 Russian soldiers operating under the aegis of a purported private Russian defense contractor engaged American forces operating in Syria and were massacred. Now, the Russian people are questioning their government. Whereas times have been bad since at least 2014 for the average Russian, they could at least soothe themselves with the knowledge that things were not as bad as when Yeltsin was president and at least Russia appeared strong to the world. Neither is true any longer. Vladimir Putin is now engaged in a vainglorious effort to appear stronger than he is. After all, every time that Putin stands up to the West, the Russian people ignore their own plight and cheer him on.
Where Do We Go From Here?
President Trump has stood up to Russia, and we appear strong again. Whatever the Left may think of Trump’s ties to Russia, the fact remains that the Trump Administration policies have forced Putin’s hand. Right now, Putin is taking drastic steps to appear stronger than he is—even running into the arms of China, which is not in Russia’s national interest.
Since the United States has reaffirmed its strength in Putin’s eyes, the White House should pivot and offer Putin a gracious way of saving face with his people. If the Trump Administration fails to reach out and build off its displays of strength, then all of this posturing will have been worthless, and we might have helped formalize a Sino-Russian entente cordiale.
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