The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Columns

February 11, 2014

Study Russian history to understand Vladimir Putin

Point Blank column

Wake up, American political leaders. It’s a time for diplomacy and discretion, not for trading insults like two kids on the playground claiming “My daddy can whip your daddy.”

We’re talking about U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian Premier Vladimir Putin. U.S. politicians have reacted with surprise recently to the apparent bullying modus operandi of Putin, a former KGB agent and passionate Russian nationalist.

It appears that politicians in both parties are disgruntled because they mistakenly perceived Putin as someone they could work with. They seem to be overlooking the fact that Putin just might be the strongest Russian boss since Stalin, the first man-of-steel Russian persona who ascended the world stage during World War II.

So perhaps it’s time American statesmen read their history books.

Putin may not be a clone of Stalin, the dictator who was responsible for the deaths of countless millions of Russians during his purges while he was the former Soviet Union’s tyrannical despot.

But Putin seemingly is fixated, nevertheless, on rebuilding his nation’s lost empire.

On MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said of the Russian leader: “Being an old KGB guy, being brought up when the Soviet Union and the United States went head to head, he (Putin) resents that Russia is no longer the major power in the world that it used to be.”

By dismissing and embarrassing the U.S., Putin hopes to lift Russia back into super power status, Schumer said. “He’s trying to build (Russia) back. Now there are two ways to build it back. One is to grow the economy, make it a more robust, democratic place... The other is to step on somebody’s back, namely ours. And he’s doing it the second way.”

The Internet and print sources in the U.S. portray Putin as the consummate political adversary of Obama, who openly admits he doesn’t trust Putin. “I don’t think that Mr. Putin has the same values that we do,” Obama said recently. Putin, on the other hand, apparently perceives Obama as weak and capable of being manipulated.

It also seems that the two leaders have lost all mutual respect for each other. Putin’s recent op-ed in the New York Times was another calculated step to undermine Obama’s leadership. On the surface, Putin loathes Obama and resents his arrogance and his patronizing tone. The former KGB official has gone out of his way to taunt Obama with an in-your-face boldness, and the U.S. president has sloughed off Putin as a tiresome schoolboy slouching in the back of the classroom.

But Putin isn’t a bored kid. He is one of the most effective and successful leaders in the world. He took over his chaotic and decaying country in the 1990s and systematically rebuilt it to where it could host the Olympic winter games in 2014 with a $50 billion budget.

Putin also seems to have taken umbrage with Obama’s recent comment that Americans are an “exceptional” people. Whatever the reason, the remark seemingly put Putin on the defensive. Was it because America has the most diverse population in the world and Russia is populated mainly by peoples of European ancestry?

The real problem between the two dominant world leaders seems to be one of misunderstanding. American politicians apparently possess an unfathomable need to interpret foreign leaders and foreign cultures and governments as though they were American.

Without trying to oversimplify, did it ever occur to anyone that the U.S. and Russia are completely different geopolitically and will probably never be brotherly nations?

Putin is a former KGB chief of enormous toughness, something he probably developed during his immersion in the old empire. He is, by all accounts, a Russian nationalist who is coldly and methodically maneuvering to maximize Russia’s prestige and influence in the 21st century.

And why shouldn’t Putin take exception when Obama publicly censures him for the human rights defilements in his country? It’s Russia, for crying out loud.

Yet, American politicians keep rejecting the realities of Putin’s life, opinions and actions. They are trying to force Putin into an American frame of reference. This attitude only leads to further self-deception.

If American leaders would spend a little more time studying Russian history, they would have a better chance of understanding Vladimir Putin for who and what he is. Enough said.

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Top o’ the morning!

— Blankenship is a columnist for The Register-Herald. E-mail: jabbb@suddenlink.net

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