Douglas Cohn: Like others before him, Czar Putin will not be contained

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WASHINGTON — Addressing an audience of young people in Brussels, President Obama told them never to take for granted the progress toward democracy that’s been made, citing Russia “challenging international rules that only weeks ago seemed self-evident.” First among those rules, Obama said, is don’t go into other countries and redraw boundaries by force.

Russian President Putin didn’t get that rulebook, or maybe he did and decided to ignore it. Either way, Russia will not be dislodged from Crimea by military force, and Obama and NATO and the European Union will live with that.

The question now is whether the condemnation heaped upon Russia for its action, together with sanctions aimed at Putin’s inner circle, will stop Putin from pursuing further territory. The answer to that lies with Putin, and Putin alone.

Not since Lenin and Stalin has such an in-charge strongman led Russia. Putin answers to no one but himself, and maybe the oligarchs. The Soviet leaders were beholden to the Politburo, and could be removed by the Politburo. Krushchev was ousted in 1964, two years after he agreed to withdraw Russian missiles from Cuba in an historic confrontation with President Kennedy that brought the two nations to the brink of nuclear war.

In assessing Putin and his motivations, it’s important to understand his strong power base at home. He is the decider, and he’s very popular with the Russian people. His poll ratings are in the mid-60’s; compare that with Obama, who comes in at 43 percent in George Washington University’s latest Battleground survey.

Democracy is messy. Putin can get the Duma, Russia’s legislative body, to rubber stamp whatever he wants. Putin doesn’t have to worry about a critical media monitoring his every move. He has shut down voices of opposition so the Russian people only hear his version of events, and he’s claiming that Americans are conspiring with Fascists in Ukraine to undermine Russia’s influence, a charge that Obama in his speech Wednesday called “absurd.”

The second thing to know about Putin is that he shares the same traits as the famous Russian czars of the past. He’s expansionist, xenophobic, and paranoid, attributes that unfortunately make him the ideal leader for the Russian people at this time in their history. He reflects the promise of restoring Russia once again to the period of greatness his people feel is rightfully theirs. In other words, he wants to reinstitute the Russian Empire.

Lastly, what is now abundantly clear about Putin is that his words mean nothing; his demeanor means nothing; he will change on a whim and make no apologies. Critics say Obama was surprised by Russia’s actions in Ukraine and the subsequent annexation of Crimea. That’s not exactly true. The Obama administration was well aware of Russia’s attempts to quash anti-government protests in Kiev, and calculated that while the Olympic Games were underway in Sochi, Putin wouldn’t make any overt moves.

Where they were wrong is the belief that Putin, after spending billions to showcase modern Russia in Sochi, would forfeit all that good will to make an aggressive move on Crimea. Threats to exclude him from the group of world powers, the G-8, did nothing to dissuade him.

Meanwhile Putin certainly must view the expansion of NATO as provocative because the new members include the former Soviet Bloc nations of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, and the Baltic countries. This was an indication that the NATO alliance, created to thwart Soviet expansion, is also distrustful of post-Soviet Russia. But all this did not bubble to the surface until Ukraine became an issue.

Most of Ukraine’s Ukrainian speakers favor the West, while most of its Russian speakers favor Russia, as did the country’s recently ousted leader, Viktor Yanukovych. Then, with the new leaders favoring the West, Putin made his Crimea move, a result of the underlying symptom: for centuries the West, fearing Russian expansionism, has attempted to keep the land of Catherine the Great and Peter the Great contained. But like them and Soviet leader Stalin, Czar Putin will not be contained.

U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.