At the beginning of this week, President Barack Obama explained that Russia, hit hard by Western sanctions, is losing in its confrontation with the West and NATO caused by Vladimir Putin’s aggression in Ukraine. In his State of the Union address, Obama displayed similar swag and bluster against both the Kremlin and Congressional Republicans, seemingly without regard for any recent events. As the President explained:
We’re upholding the principle that bigger nations can’t bully the small — by opposing Russian aggression, supporting Ukraine’s democracy and reassuring our NATO allies. Last year, as we were doing the hard work of imposing sanctions along with our allies, some suggested that Mr. Putin’s aggression was a masterful display of strategy and strength. Well, today, it is America that stands strong and united with our allies, while Russia is isolated, with its economy in tatters. That’s how America leads — not with bluster, but with persistent, steady resolve.
“Every one of these sentences is, to put it mildly, a stretch,” explained one seasoned Kremlin-watcher, and the news this week from Ukraine has been grim, contra Obama’s hopeful pose. While Russia’s economy remains seriously hurt from sanctions and, even more, the sharp drop in oil prices, the notion that this is taming Putin’s baser urges is not only untrue, it’s more likely the opposite of the truth, as I cautioned a month ago.
Facts have increasingly been getting in the way of this White House’s messaging, on many fronts, so just as Obama now calls for political bipartisanship, after six years of doing the opposite, all the while ignoring the massive blowout of his own party by the Republicans in Congress that just happened again, for the second time in his presidency, Obama likewise seems to think that a bit of swag, plus a public taunt, aimed at Putin when the former KGB man is down on his luck will have the desired geopolitical effect. This White House does not seem to dwell on the fact that, while the domestic enemy may be politically obstructionist, the foreign enemy has all sorts of Special War unpleasantness in his arsenal, not to mention thousands of nuclear weapons.
If nothing else, the current crisis has demonstrated to Russians, with Kremlin prodding, that the United States remains their Main Enemy that it was for decades, now led by the arrogant and weak Obama, who is hated by the Russian public. The Chekists who run Putin’s Russia, who protested for years that America wanted to defeat Russia’s post-Cold War resurgence, that the U.S. will stop at nothing to bring Russia to heel while humiliating it, have been proved right, at least as far as most Russians are concerned.
To the shock and dismay of hopeful Westerners, including nearly all NATO leaders, the hard hit of sanctions has caused Russians to hate the West, not Putin. Most Russians view their war in Ukraine as a legitimate defense of Russians and Russian interests, certainly nothing like America’s aggressive wars of choice halfway around the world, and they are backing the Kremlin now.
Word of this defiance has even crept into The New York Times, which otherwise is a pitch-perfect expression of the WEIRD worldview. As Russian troops are advancing deeper into Ukraine, fresh from victory at Donetsk, NYT asked what on earth is going on here, why would Russians want more war now that the cost of it all to their economy is becoming obvious? The explanation was proffered by a Moscow economist: “The influence of economists as a whole has completely vanished,” he opined about the Kremlin: “The country is on a holy mission. It’s at war with the United States, so why would you bother about the small battleground, the economy?”
Once again, Westerners have imagined Putin is just like one of their leaders — cautious, timid even, obsessed with Wall Street and finely tuned to what big donors care about — when our Chekist-in-Charge is nothing of the sort. With perfect timing, Patriarch Kirill, the head of the powerful Russian Orthodox Church, addressed the Duma this week, for the very first time, delivering a speech long on social conservatism, including a plea to ban abortions to help Russian demographics, as well as a caution to ignore the West’s dangerous “pseudo-values.” Putin’s Russia is inching ever closer to Byzantine-style symphonia, and in the war against America and the West that is coming — and, according to many Russians, is already here — the Kremlin wants its people to be spiritually fortified for a long fight.
Bankers and oligarchs, who get much attention from the Western media, have become peripheral figures in Moscow. Months before the Ukraine crisis broke with Russia’s seizure of Crimea, Putin privately warned wealthy men whom he deemed friends and supporters to start getting their money out of the West, as tough times were coming. In the Kremlin’s view, oligarchs who failed to do this, and are now facing ruin, have nobody to blame but themselves. Any billionaires who criticize Putin too freely will meet with prison or worse.
It’s increasingly clear that the security sector, what Russians term the special services, are running the show. They are Putin’s natural powerbase, his “comfort zone” in Western parlance, plus they are the guarantor of his maintaining power as the economic crisis worsens. Current reports indicate that Putin’s inner circle now is made up entirely of siloviki, to use the Russian term, men from the special services: National Security Council head Nikolai Patrushev, Federal Security Service (FSB) head Aleksandr Bortnikov, Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) head Mikhail Fradkov, and Defense Minister Sergei Shoygu.
Patrushev headed the FSB from 1999, the beginning of Putin’s presidency, to 2008, and was a previously a career KGB officer, serving in Leningrad counterintelligence just like Putin: and just like Putin, he is a Chekist to his core. Current FSB director Bortnikov, who took over from Patrushev in 2008, is another career Chekist who joined the KGB after college and, yet again, comes out of the Leningrad office. Fradkov is not officially a Chekist by background, having spent the early years of his Kremlin career in foreign trade matters, but he was “close” to the KGB during that time, and he has headed the SVR, the successor to the KGB’s elite First Chief Directorate, since 2007; it says something about Putin’s confidence in him that Fradkov survived the 2010 debacle of the exposure of the SVR’s Illegals network in the United States, which was nearly as demoralizing to the SVR as the Snowden Operation has been for U.S. intelligence. The last, Shoygu, who has headed the powerful defense ministry since 2012, is not a military man by background, yet has longstanding ties to military intelligence (GRU).
As Russia’s economic crisis has mounted, Putin has unsurprisingly turned to fellow Chekists, some of them very like himself by background. They share a worldview which is conspiratorial and deeply anti-Western; they view America as their Main Enemy and now believe Obama is on a mission to destroy Russia. That they will not allow, and they will stop at nothing to halt what prominent Orthodox clerics recently have termed the “American project” that wants to destroy Holy Russia. This volatile combination of Chekist conspiracy-thinking and Orthodox Third Rome mysticism, plus Russian xenophobia and a genuine economic crisis, means that 2015 promises to be a dangerous year for the world. The Kremlin now believes they are at war with the United States, an Orthodox Holy War in the eyes of many Russians, and that struggle is defensive and legitimate. It would be good if Obama and his staff paid attention. This is about much more than Ukraine.