May 19, 2024

Who is this guy?



Today’s Events in Historical Perspective

America’s Longest-Running Column, Founded 1932

By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift

WASHINGTON – Who is this guy, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin? Clearly, he is not as he appears, attired in Western clothes, speaking fluent German, and ardently supporting wildlife conservation, all attributes that might qualify him for a picture spread in GQ Magazine. But go beyond the surface, and he more and more resembles an old style thug of the KGB, the Soviet organization he served for 16 years.

Upon becoming president, Barack Obama ordered a “reset” with Russia after the Bush administration’s contentious relationship with Putin. Hillary Clinton in her book, “Hard Choices,” says the reset worked, that the Obama administration got a new START treaty, tougher sanctions against North Korea, and cooperation on Iran and Afghanistan.

But that was before Putin reclaimed the presidency in 2012. Since then, it’s mostly been downhill with Obama and other Western leaders not knowing what to make of Putin, what his intentions are, and how far he will go to achieve the greatness of Mother Russia he clearly craves.

European leaders thought he would be a man they could do business with, as the saying goes, yet his behavior is mystifying. Engineering the takeover of Crimea made a certain amount of sense. Crimea was part of Russia until Krushchev gave it to Ukraine in 1954, and the population is Russian speaking. And although the major world leaders excluded him from the G-8 organization of leading industrialized nations, they otherwise stood aside as Putin bullied his way into Crimea.

Ukraine is an entirely different situation. Here Putin really is tampering with another sovereign country, and nobody can understand why. He doesn’t need Ukraine; the country is a basket case economically, and while there are Russian speakers living there, they aren’t the majority, and they are not all agitating to return to Mother Russia.

Putin’s motives are a mystery. Is he simply an expansionist? The closest modern analogy is Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1991. Kuwait had oil, but Iraq has plenty of oil. Did Saddam attempt that land grab for any reason other than that he thought he could?

Saddam caught the West by surprise, and it didn’t work out too well for him in the end. President George H.W. Bush put together an international coalition to oust the Iraqi army from Kuwait, and with U.S. troops at the tip of the spear, the mission was easily accomplished.

Saddam was someone whom former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once famously said was a man he could do business with.

But as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton said Putin was dismissive of her, and she struggled to make a human connection with him. In her book, she recounts a conversation when she asked him out of the blue during a particularly contentious debate over trade about his interest in saving the tigers in Siberia. To her amazement, he treated her to a lengthy discourse in English on the fate of the tigers, and asked if her husband might want to accompany him on a trip to tag polar bears.

Obama once described Putin’s demeanor as that of a bored schoolboy in the classroom, slouching in his chair and appearing disinterested. But that’s a ruse. ‘He’s always testing you, always pushing the boundaries,” Clinton writes. In a memo to Obama at the end of her tenure in the administration, she cautioned against flattering Putin with high-level attention, writing that, “Strength and resolve were the only language Putin would understand.” With Putin seemingly oblivious to Western condemnation for his actions, Clinton’s advice has proved prescient.

Twitter @WMerryGoRound

© 2014 U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

Distributed by U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.



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