09 November 2007

The World's Most Dangerous Man

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a punk, maybe a street thug ... compared to Vladimir Putin.

While the West vacillates about what to do with Iran's nuclear ambitions, it's quietly letting slide a monstrous buildup that may one day prove Tehran's shenanigans seriously inconsequential.

Could it be that we're at 1938 again?

Since Putin took over the presidency of ostensibly democratic new Russia in 2000, he has systematically eliminated his rivals, intimidated his neighbors, dismantled democratic institutions and consolidated his power. At the same time, he has bolstered Russia's international prestige and lifted it out of the economic doldrums that plagued the nation after the collapse of Soviet communism.

If this sounds like history is repeating itself, it just might be.

In 1938, Germany had freed itself from the shackles of the Treaty of Versailles and quickly regained its preeminence among the world's leading nations. Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933 promising a reassertion of German nationalism and economic recovery, and in five years, he had mostly achieved those aims.

For that, he was lauded as a hero domestically, even as concentration camps were popping up all over the Reich and one-party rule was becoming more draconian by the day. The Germans, many of them, anyway, were enjoying the Autobahns and the summers on the Baltic, even if their Jewish neighbors were harassed and beaten during Kristallnacht and other activities on the dawn of the Holocaust.

Fast forward to 2007, the Russians likewise are enjoying a recovery of their own. With petrorubles pouring in, thanks to Putin's shrewd exploitation of Russia's rich natural resources, there is no debate that ordinary Russians are better off now than they were in the 1990s. And because of Putin's intransigence in all things that may be construed as pro-American -- Iraq, Iran, defense missiles shield -- he is slowly but surely reclaiming Russia's position as the most serious adversary of the United States.

The West's attitude toward Putin, to date, has been that of tacit tolerance, for various reason. In western Europe, where more than half of its natural gas is supplied by Russia, there is a real fear of having the spigot turned off by Moscow. Besides, European weakness toward an obnoxious neighbor is to be expected, from Munich in 1938, Budapest in 1956, Prague in 1968, to Belgrade in 1995. It's almost like clockwork.

The United States, on the other hand, has been unwilling to confront Putin head-on for absolutely no good reasons. The U.S. has no dependency on Russia of any sort. Putin has proved to be anything but an ally in the War on Terror. And as for checking China's growing influence ... yeah, China and Russia are all but in lockstep in terms of exercising their veto power in the United Nations, against actions that are of vital interest to the United States.

It may be that George W. Bush has a hard time living down this now infamous evaluation of Vladimir Putin the person, during a summit in June 2001: "I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. We had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul." In terms of sheer idiocy, this one blows away "Brownie, you're doing a heckuva job," by a country mile.

Of course, there's more to it then that. World leaders routinely misjudge their counterparts. (Truman once remarked about Stalin: "I think I can do business with Stalin. He's very honest, but he's also smart as hell.") But the good ones do not vest their nation's best interest in a non-existent personal relationship. But for Bush, a man who has trouble coming to terms with his own errors, this will take some sort of reckoning to fix.

But whether it's Bush, or his successor in the Oval Office, the Russian problem will have to be confronted, soon. Putin clearly has an agenda beyond next year, when he's obligated to leave office per Russia's constitution. He has intimated that he might run for prime minister. And while he has ruled out changing the constitution altogether to allow him to stay on as president, his pals are busy recasting him in a new role as "Father of the Nation."

Either way, he'll win the (re-)election in a landslide, for he is as popular in Russia as Bush is unpopular in the U.S. Emboldened by this, Putin's government will continue the harassment of uncooperative neighbors such as Georgia and the Ukraine, only with more intensity. And Iran will become a bigger flash point even if Iraq's situation stabilizes because the mullahs and Ahmadinejad wouldn't have this much courage without the Kremlin's backing.

The difference between Putin and Hitler, at the moment, is that it's uncertain whether Putin is bent on a destructive war. That said, Putin is potentially more dangerous because of what he has at his disposal: a nuclear arsenal, a substantial war machine, crucial natural resources, and a population that trusts his judgement. As a former KGB operative, Putin's ruthlessness (see: Alexander Litvinenko) cannot be underestimated.

So while we go on our merry way and continue to vest our energies dealing with third-world thugs such as Ahmadinejad and Kim Jung-il, maybe our leaders should devote a little more attention to Putin and his gang, and at least signal some willingness to stand up to them. Otherwise, the West may be repeating a lesson that should've been learned from Munich in 1938.

Britain and her allies might've stopped Hitler short of total war by refusing to flinch and appease. Instead, Neville Chamberlain waved a piece of paper and declared it to be "peace for our time."

Let's not have "I looked the man in the eye and ... was able to get a sense of his soul," etched as the epitaph of this generation.

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