Vladimir Putin: Master of the World’s Greatest Imitation Democracy

Vladimir Putin - World Economic Forum Annual Meeting Davos 2009

Vladimir Putin – World Economic Forum Annual Meeting Davos 2009 (flickr, World Economic Forum)

Vladimir Putin is the most tactful political leader of our time. While some may gawk at his strange leadership style, including a growing string of “Putin Action Man” photos as representative of a clownish leader, Putin’s ability to project a strong foreign policy and maintain control over a great power should be taken very seriously. Most recently, Putin has been able to uphold Russia’s interest in Syria while projecting himself as a world peacemaker as the U.S. recovers from a massive political fumble. This is no easy task, even for a former KGB man. On the home front, he has consistently bent the rules to empower himself – and his regime – at great cost to his own citizenry. Over the past decade, he has purged political opponents, denigrated Russian civil society, and allegedly siphoned off billions of dollars for his own gain, perhaps making him one of the richest men in the world. He accomplished all of these actions while maintaining popular support from Russians. Indeed, reports indicate Putin would have won the previous 2012 election even if the vote had not been rigged. He has also just announced the possibility of running for another 6-year term in 2018, which, if he wins, would make him the longest-serving leader of Russia since Josef Stalin. Even though history has shown that Russians tend to be pre-disposed to accepting authoritarian leaders, Putin’s rise to power in an increasingly democratic world is the mark of a master autocrat.

Unlike many other world leaders who have come to power through familial connections, personal wealth, or coup d’état, Putin’s ascension is unique. As a trained intelligence officer who operated overseas under the KGB, and as the former head of the FSB (Russia’s successor to the KGB), Putin is arguably better prepared to maintain political dominance more than most other world leaders. Putin’s foreign policy machine was able to manipulate world leaders and the UN Security Council into stalling on Syria for over 2 years while continuing to sell advanced weapons to the murderous regime. Russia then proposed a peace deal that overshadowed a flustered and disjointed U.S. Additionally, Putin’s craftiness in foreign policy is alarmingly evident in Russia’s expanding sphere of influence. Putin shunned Western Europe when he forced Armenia and other nations away from the EU and into an exclusive Eurasian economic union that is growing in size and prominence. To accomplish such objectives, Putin is known to use coy power tactics in his diplomatic dealings; one such example is his taking advantage of Angela Merkel’s fear of dogs by bringing his trusted companion to diplomatic negotiations with Germany. Putin truly puts the bite in foreign policy leaving his counterparts flabbergasted at his aggressive wielding of power and influence. This bold leadership style has certainly contributed to the rise of Russia’s global power projection when compared to its status at the beginning of the 21st century.

On the domestic stage, Putin is gradually bringing back a Stalinist-like society, feeding off of growing xenophobic and conservative attitudes held by many Russians. However, Putin dominates political life in a stealthier manner than Stalin. Putin has removed competitors from power under the guise of well-timed, government sponsored anti-corruption campaigns as opposed to mass killings. The removal of Russia’s richest man, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, along with activist Alexei Navalny’s conviction and subsequent temporary release from his prison sentence to compete in a mayoral election, both stand as illustrative examples of Putin’s tactful political purges. Although these men were not taken to a house and shot in the back of the head, both were convicted in blatantly manufactured court rulings, affording the Putin regime solid political victories under the façade of judicial legitimacy.

Proponents of democratic reform in Russia should be particularly alarmed by Putin’s heavy regulation and interference in Russia’s civil society. Indeed, the Russian leader has thoroughly stomped on democratic principles by heavily regulating and restricting budding civil society groups, most notably by branding all NGOs that receive foreign funding as “foreign agents,” which evokes immense suspicion from Russian citizens because of the negative connotation of this label. The jailing of political dissidents such as the “Pussy Riot” band also discourages an atmosphere of protest and certainly prevents a healthy civil society from taking root. Putin’s grip on Russia’s domestic affairs has tightened and appears to be strong-as-ever for the foreseeable future.

Putin’s contradictions are too many to count. He holds elections only to rig them. He praises the impartiality of the Russian judicial system, and then uses it to jail political opponents. He projects himself as a world peacemaker and continues to support murderous regimes. He expresses a desire for public diplomacy but constantly stimulates anti-foreigner sentiments among his people. He worships state sovereignty and then uses obstructionist tactics to bully other nations into economic and military cooperation. Russia, a place former Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov referred to as an “imitative democracy,” will never be able to transform itself into a true democracy as long as a Vladimir Putin is at the helm. So next time you see Putin projecting his dominance while riding a horse in Siberia, avoid labeling his antics as foolish and instead recall his ever-tightening grip as master of the world’s greatest imitation democracy.

Is NATO Still Relevant?

 

For the last two decades, NATO has been conflicted about how and where to act. This identity crisis has led to inter-alliance strife, messy operations, and inaction. Currently, NATO is paralyzed in responding to the Syrian Crisis due to—among other reasons—an uncharacteristic rift between the American and British governments. In light of such shortcomings, along with a perceived United States pivot away from Europe, increased European Union security engagement after the Lisbon Treaty of 2010, and shifting methods of warfare (i.e., drones and computers in place of land forces), pundits and politicians have disputed the continued relevance of NATO.

Yet NATO is unquestionably relevant today. First, NATO provides a forum for world leaders to discuss matters of global defense and security. Second, NATO is currently engaged in operations around the world from anti-piracy missions in the Horn of Africa to nation building in Afghanistan, the alliance is directly connected to today’s issues. Third, NATO actively shapes transatlantic—and consequently global—foreign policy. For instance, Article V of the NATO treaty (‘an attack on one is an attack on all’) serves as a deterrent to those considering harming a member of the alliance. Most recently, the intervention in Libya exemplified how NATO’s military involvement has real ramifications, serving as a partial catalyst for the subsequent full-scale revolution seen in the state.

NATO’s relevance is incontrovertible. However, proving relevance seems unsatisfactory to pundits and politicians. Perhaps, the crux of the dispute is NATO’s continued value.

NATO’s value lies in the absence of an alternative. NATO is the most formidable and sophisticated military organization in the world, thanks in large part, but not exclusively, to the US. As Ambassador Ivo Daalder and former Supreme Allied Commander Europe James Stavridis explained: “Some countries have significant military reach. But when a group of countries wants to launch a joint intervention as a coalition—which confers political legitimacy—only NATO can provide the common command structure and capabilities necessary to plan and execute complex operations.” Moreover, the EU has shown an inability to pool the security and defense resources of its member states. If the alliance were to disband, no member state besides the US would be able to assume full responsibility for their national defense.

The future for NATO will certainly be challenging. NATO faces various threats, from shrinking budgets to intra-alliance friction and changing political environments. Further, the coverage of Article V is unclear. Consider a hypothetical Russian cyber attack on the British banking sector. Would this constitute an act of war? NATO has this and other critical questions to answer. Can and should NATO act without unanimity? Should the Europeans establish military autonomy or continue to rely on the equipment and chaperoning of the US? And most fundamentally, is NATO an alliance that truly wants to act outside of its borders? NATO must answer these questions in order to stay relevant in the 21st century.

To address modern security challenges, NATO must embrace non-military capabilities. As Afghanistan revealed, terrorism cannot be eradicated with missiles. Errant drone strikes only further incentivize people to join terrorist organizations, and brigades of troops cannot dismantle global wireless organizations. Piracy too requires a more comprehensive approach. The best way to fight crises such as terrorism and piracy is to deal with the root causes, such as food insecurity, lack of access to education, and corrupt state leadership. This holistic theory for crisis management is not revolutionary, yet NATO (especially the US) has forgotten that war is a long-term humanitarian and security project. To NATO’s credit, reforms are in place to fuse civilian and military crisis management capabilities. These reforms must continue, as well as continued cooperation with the UN and EU.

A retreat of NATO to its historical role of defending European territory is outdated and ignores the global and diverse nature of 21st century conflict. Non-state global issues such as cyber and energy security, piracy, and climate change require a response for which NATO is uniquely prepared. Armed with demonstrated military capabilities and global transnational partnerships, NATO is already well positioned for carrying out integrated “hard security” and “soft security” operations. If NATO can unite under a new strategic framework, and stand determined to tackle the “hard” and “soft” security challenges presented in today’s environment with more than military force and surveillance, the alliance will remain both relevant and valuable.

Alexander Hamilton on Interventions in Revolutions

 

In the halls of Congress and the courts of public opinion, the battle of ideas and opinions raged between two camps: on one side, the interventionists, standing up for the ideal of liberty for all Mankind, and on the other, the noninterventionists, counseling prudence and moderation in all military affairs and undertakings. For across the ocean, seas of blood spilled across the plains of an ancient land embroiled in chaos.

In that ancient land, an oppressed people had risen up, casting off the chains of the oppressive dynasty which held them in subjugation. But their revolution had ended neither speedily nor happily. The forces of tradition and order had bounced back mightily, their iron fist seeking to stamp out the insurgency threatening their dominion. A long and bloody war had destroyed hundreds of thousands of lives, and threatened the stability of the region, while inspiring legions of foreigners to join to fight in the battle between Right and Wrong.

The Americans watched, horrified. The interventionist faction noted that the common cause of liberty bound together the Americans and the revolutionaries in the crusade to bring democracy to all Mankind. They advocated that the government of the United States provide any sort of support possible: troops, supplies, weapons, finance. Meanwhile, the noninterventionists, tempered by the experience of a recent war and a politically divided nation, counseled that the United States should avoid expending blood and treasure in a region where it held no vital interests.

The year was 1793.

Revolutionary France fought the first of its wars against the monarchs of Europe, and accounts of the death tolls were received by diverse opinions in the young United States. Some, including Jefferson and Madison, recommended entering the war on the side of France; others counseled against it. Ultimately, America abstained from entering the war and remained faithful to President Washington’s Neutrality Proclamation. But throughout the war, intense debate raged among the Americans.

Presently, the United States finds itself in a situation with some parallels to that of 1793. We shall turn, then, to one of the most notorious and revered of the Founding Fathers, the most outspoken defender of the Neutrality Proclamation- Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton.

In his essay Americanus No. 1, Hamilton outlined two questions for the nation to consider:

“I. Whether the cause of France be truly the cause of liberty, pursued with justice and humanity, and in a manner likely to crown it with honorable success.

II. Whether the degree of service we could render by participating in the conflict be likely to compensate [adequately for] the evils which would probably flow from it to ourselves.”

Hamilton chose not to ponder the first question, noting that the values of liberty, justice, and humanity were so sufficiently subject “to opinion, to imagination, [and] to feeling” that proper policy could not be built upon them. Instead he focused much of his analysis on the second question, one of greater practical – and lesser moral – value.

The United States of 1793 possessed less than a third of its current continental territory, and was far weaker than the hulking superpower it has since become. The decision to exert force to alter the outcome of a great power war overseas was therefore a proportionally more costly exercise then than it is today. Hamilton noted America’s comparative weakness and additional problems of logistics, geography, and diplomacy which the voices of democracy had ignored, and counseled restraint.

Historical comparisons are never quite as similar as they might seem. But between the debate on intervention in France and today’s debate on intervention in Syria, a general principle holds as obviously in the 21st Century as it did in the 18th: there are those in the United States who see America’s foreign policy duty to uphold our values- to be that “Shining City upon a Hill,” and “to make the world safe for democracy,”- as outweighing our duty to maintain our concrete and measurable national interests. Although there is not necessarily anything wrong with a moral approach, and in fact much good in it, our statesmen today nonetheless must, like Hamilton, consider also the amoral and practical consequences of the policies they pursue.

Hamilton’s foreign policy advice continues to be useful to this day, and all crafting policy for the Syrian War should bear it in mind:

“…Let us not corrupt ourselves by false comparisons or glosses- nor shut our eyes to the true nature of transactions which ought to grieve and warn us- nor rashly mingle our destiny in the consequences of the errors and extravagances of another nation.”

Obama’s Delay on Syria and Why the Response is a Little Too Late

Last summer, President Barack Obama vowed to employ a military intervention in civil war-stricken Syria if either side resorted to use of chemical weapons.

This summer, there has been confirmation that the conflict has crossed that “red line.” It’s your move now, Mr. President, but remember – whatever you decide to do, it’s a little too late to avoid checkmate.

Instead of drawing a line and waiting around playing the “sitting duck” game, the United States should have provided the Syrian rebels fighting in the civil war with military aid from the start. By passively watching the progression of what started as a peaceful protest of President Bashar al-Assad met by harsh government crackdowns, the international realm has allowed the situation to escalate into a full-scale civil war. The incumbent Assad regime – backed by Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Iran and Russia – is fighting a rebel opposition backed by al-Qaida. By remaining inactive in the civil war, the West has played a clear role in allowing the death toll in Syria to continue to skyrocket. So the way I see it, the White House will tolerate the appearance of radical Muslim organizations in the conflict, and will tolerate the countless numbers of civilians killed daily, but the moral compass for some reason only prevails when the use of chemical weapons is introduced into the situation.

So what exactly will the Obama Administration do? Well, the answer is simple: do what has always been done. The White House has decided to supply military support through arming the rebels with “light” weapons. The United States is going to arm al-Qaeda-backed rebel forces who have already faced an astronomical death toll and most probably view the US with little credibility, thanks to our delay. Does anyone else see the obvious problem here? President Obama needs to take a note from history and consider the repercussions of what he is planning to do. Remember when the United States decided to arm Bin Laden and his supporters in the 1970s to push the Soviets out of Afghanistan? Those forces were then used to build up al-Qaeda as we know it today, which turned swiftly against its creator and spawned a massive terrorism campaign met by President George W. Bush’s infamous and seemingly endless “War on Terror“.

Is it too far-fetched to suppose that the Syrian rebel fighters will undoubtedly turn on the United States with animosity for its delay in assistance? Perhaps. But I don’t think it’s throwing the ball too far out of the park to say that with nearly 100,000 civilians already dead, from a humanitarian standpoint it may have behooved the White House to act more promptly. But then again, there is that consideration that the United States doesn’t really feel any sort of humanitarian obligation to the international realm, and particularly to the Middle East. Not only that, but our intervention within the region has been sporadic and confusingly contradictory. For instance, while the Obama administration saw no problem in thrusting its military forces into Libya in 2011, and liberally continues to dowse Yemen and obliterate countless innocent citizens with drones, it holds reservations in assisting the Syrian people from what appears to be escalating into a new-age genocide. Likewise, the administration has worked effortlessly to combat al-Qaeda by locating and killing Osama bin Laden, yet it continues to bolster al-Qaeda bases by arming al-Qaeda-backed rebel fighters in Syria.

Had the United States decided to act two years ago, in 2011, when the civil unrest began, it may have actually had a legitimate shot at quelling the war against Bashar al-Assad and his regime while at the same time preventing the rise of extremist groups such as al-Qaeda. That time has passed, so all we can hope for is that the Obama administration decides to intervene strongly enough. So let’s hope the White House is going to arm the Syrian rebels with more than just light weapons; without supplementing mere ammunition with antitank rockets and antiaircraft systems, there is little hope that the Syrian rebels will be able to finally put an end to this bloodshed and emerge victorious. With vital United States national security interests – namely containing al-Qaeda and preserving the security of Israel – being threatened by the civil war, it is now more urgent than ever for the Obama administration to take action to protect not only national interests but also human dignity and put a stop to the coldblooded carnage plaguing Syria.