Yesterday, I mentioned that Thomas Friedman is taunting Vladimir Putin for being exposed by the drop in oil prices as a “delusional thug” who, with oil tide receding, is now “swimming naked.” Friedman is also taunting conservatives for having been impressed by Putin’s successes, which is rich coming from a columnist who has long been in the tank for Communist China’s one-party rule.
Not surprisingly, Friedman misses the point of Putin. Walter Russell Mead shows that the Russia leader is anything but delusional.
First, a delusional leader could not have accomplished what Putin has. Mead quotes Eugene Rumer of the Carnegie Endowment:
Who has done better in the past 15 years? Gross domestic product has increased sixfold. Income per head has risen sevenfold. Never before have Russians seen such prosperity. More currency reserves would be good, but $200bn is available immediately; and, by conservative measures, the same has been put in rainy day funds.
Oil prices played a major role in Russia’s successes, to be sure. But what leader succeeds without extrinsic advantages? Putin has played his hand superbly.
Second, Putin’s policies going forward make sense once we understand his unwillingness to see Russia marginalized. Mead explains:
[Putin] knows that a cautious, plodding Russian foreign policy will sooner or later end in Russia’s permanent marginalization, caught between a Europe taking shape around Berlin (and backed by the United States) and a rising Beijing. Russia has to change the direction of history or it will inexorably decline.
This means that Putin must take bigger risks than better-situated powers. “Like Frederick the Great,” says Mead, “he has to hunt for opportunities and jump in with both feet when he sees them (see: Georgia, Ukraine).”
Putin also wants to exploit the opportunity presented by the weakness of the West. Mead aptly describes this weakness:
[T]he EU as a crippled dwarf, unable to act decisively, committed to progressively eliminating what little military strength it retains, unable to function as a genuine state; Barack Obama’s America, braggadocio on things like human rights mixed with deep reluctance to fight or spend money.
Given this reality, and Putin’s justified fear of the power of a rising China, Putin’s foreign policy makes sense.
Many years ago, as the Soviet Union was collapsing, I would listen on short-wave radio to broadcasts by its state run station. One long-time commentator, speculating about Russia’s future place in the world, tried to comfort listeners by saying that, though Russia would cease to be a top-tier player, it could, perhaps, be Spain.
I doubt that many listeners were comforted, and for those who were, the comfort was probably short-lived. Russia doesn’t want to be Spain; the national character will not allow Russians to settle for that.
Is it delusional for Putin to aspire to a major role for Russia? Maybe, but I don’t assume so just because of an oil price meltdown. And to the extent that Putin can be called delusional, the delusion is a national one, not his own.