Vladimir the Great

Posted on 2014 September 25

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%22vladimir the great%22 Vladimir_Putin_-_2006-simplize

Everybody’s talking about how the Cold War might be starting up again. Here’s Russia, attacking its neighbors, intimidating its economic partners, threatening the U.S. with bomber fly-bys. Alarmists claim Russian president Putin is the next Hitler. Speeches get shrill, sabers get rattled.

Hold on, everyone! Maybe things aren’t as bad as they seem. Yes, Putin has his nation on a war footing, and, yes, he is making threatening gestures at various parts of the world. But closer examination suggests a perfectly good explanation that’s not connected to the old Soviet conquer-the-globe thing.

Putin may be doing something much simpler. In fact, it’s possible he’s simply trying to be … Peter the Great.

A quick review, for those who slept through World History class (me, too — I had to look this stuff up): Peter the Great was the Czar of Russia from 1682 to 1721. Zzzzzzz … Hey, wake up! Pay attention. Here’s what Czar Peter did:

• Reformed the Russian military

• Built up the naval fleet

• Reformed the civil service

• Reformed public education

• Built St. Petersburg

• Took Black Sea territory from a threatening Islamic empire in the south

• Got into a fight with Sweden and won

• Increased Russian prestige in Europe

Russia had been overrun, beat up, or threatened for centuries by the Mongol hordes, and Peter wanted badly to improve Russia’s military strength and shore up its southern borders. As well, he wished to slap down Sweden, at the time a major military threat on his northwestern border. Peter’s accomplishments laid the groundwork for more improvements by his successors. No wonder they call him “The Great”.

Now, along comes Putin. What’s he been up to lately?

• Reformed the Russian military

• Built up the naval fleet

• Reformed the economy

• Increased Russian prestige with its Winter Olympics

• Took Black Sea territory 

• Got into a fight with Ukraine

Russia had been overrun or beat up twice in recent centuries by huge European powers — France, under Napoleon; and Germany, under the Kaiser and Hitler — and suffered millions of casualties in the process, on top of the millions lost in previous centuries at the hands of the Mongols. (No wonder Russians get paranoid about their neighbors.) 

Putin has needed badly to improve Russia’s military strength — weakened by the collapse of the Soviet system — and then shore up its southern borders against a growing Islamic threat … and then protect its western frontier from encroachment by the rest of Europe. Ukraine’s westward tilt would expose his flank to assaults from that direction. Europe is still in economic turmoil and wracked by Islamic agitators and separatist provinces. Who knows what might happen in the next ten years? Putin wants to avoid trouble from some possible future alliance of crazies, like the one that devastated his country during World War II. 

Notice any patterns here? In each case, a Russian leader tries to secure his country from ever-present threats from abroad, while making strenuous efforts to upgrade the national infrastructure. 

If some other country did that today, we’d applaud them for it. But since it’s Russia — in recent memory a philosophical and military enemy of the West — we won’t cut Putin any slack. The U.S. has spearheaded a campaign of punishments meant to force Russia to abandon its military actions in eastern Ukraine. When Putin pushes back by brandishing his strategic air units near our borders — a kind of “brush-back pitch” — it plays well to his Russian audience but rubs us completely the wrong way.

That’s not to say the skeptics aren’t right. After all, Putin has given favored status to corporate cronies, suppressed dissent, and taken aim at gays and anti-religionists. There are reports that, in private, Putin is not a very nice man — cruel, in fact. And maybe he really is secretly planning a war of world conquest. 

But I doubt it. 

We can stand down from DEFCON 4. It’s far more likely Putin wants to be remembered as the man who returned Russia to greatness, as the leader future historians might refer to as … Vladimir the Great.

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UPDATE: Putin reasserts Russian power on the world stage

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Posted in: Politics