Not ‘Constrained by Communism’ – Why Putin is a Greater Threat than Brezhnev Ever Was
June 3 – Some years ago, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who later became president of
Estonia, suggested that “if the Russians were to come back to Estonia again,
they would not be constrained by communism.” That is, they would pursue an even
more repressive Russian nationalist agenda there than had the Soviet Union during
like so many of Ilves’ pithy observations, this one was has far broader
implications and involves far more than Estonia alone.Now, no longer “constrained by communism,”
Vladimir Putin’s regime is a far greater threat than was its Soviet predecessor
despite and even because the Russian Federation today is far weaker than was
of these are rooted in the kind of policies Moscow can engage in because it is
not constrained by the Marxist-Leninist ideology which was never far from the
surface. Some are rooted in the collapse of the West and especially of the
United States in the face of such threats. And some reflect certain unique
opportunities a Putin but not a Brezhnev can exploit.
is a list of ten such reasons. It is not complete and is offered only as the
basis for further reflection and discussion, something the West needs to engage
in if it is to avoid a defeat for itself and its principles and if it is again
to promote its interests and principles for a freer, more stable and more
is promoting chaos rather than a specific agenda, increasing the number of
potential agents and allies and limiting the ability of others to mobilize against
him. No Soviet leader would have made alliances with racists, extreme
nationalists or Islamists at least to the extent that Putin has done – Soviet ideology
would have precluded even the exploration of such things even if the KGB
can and does spend money to win over such people in far greater quantities than
Brezhnev ever imagined. In Soviet times, those who worked for Moscow usually
had to do so for ideological reasons or because of blackmail. Now, blackmail
remains but money is a far more effective tool. Direct bribes or timely
investments are now the rule for the KGB officer in charge in Moscow.
gains an army of supporters whose bona fides include past anti-communism be it
as advisors to Western leaders, employees of Western broadcasters or intelligence
services, or even Soviet emigres. In addition, this army includes many in the
academy and journalism who either want to display “balance” or need the
cooperation of Moscow to advance their careers.In the past, they could rise by opposing Moscow; now they do so by
promoting its interests.
understands and uses the new media in ways Soviet leaders never dreamed
of.They did not have the Internet or
social media, and thus their actions were both more obvious and more easily
contained. Putin knows that flooding the market has the effect of driving the
discussion even if what he pours in is neither true nor in the interests of
those who unwittingly accept it.
of his short time horizon – Russia is getting weaker not stronger, the exact
opposite of what Soviet leaders believed to be the case – he is prepared to
throw the dice in ways they were not. They were first and foremost interested
in defending what they had. Putin like a shark can retain what he has only if
he is moving forward. Consequently, he is prepared to launch attacks on other
countries that even Brezhnev would not have done, confident that his nuclear
weapons will prevent an adequate response.
West has changed. It has lost its focus. When the great Soviet Americanist
Georgy Arbatov came to Washington with Gorbachev in the 1980s, he remarked that
Gorbachev was going to do something far more serious to the US than any of his
predecessors: he was going to take away Washington’s enemy, something without
which the US couldn’t function.That was
a laugh line then and no one anticipated just how far Gorbachev was prepared to
go. But it is no laughing matter now: without an enemy, the US and the West
more generally has lost is compass.
the West has lost its moral center. It is no longer sure of itself or of what
it represents. The irresponsible labelling of Russia and other post-Soviet
states as democracies or countries in transition to democracy did more harm to
the West than many yet imagine. When the West stopped using language correctly,
it lost the ability to see what was in front of its face.
the West no longer wants to take on new commitments but to avoid them. Like
British appeasers in the 1930s who wanted to avoid another Verdun, American and
European leaders and intellectuals are so desperate to avoid another cold war
that they will go out of their way to advance Moscow’s position even when it
undermines their own.
and most important, Putin understands what is going on. The West doesn’t. And
because it doesn’t, the Kremlin dictator is gaining victories he doesn’t
deserve and the West and its allies around the world are suffering loses they
should not be putting up with.