Putin’s anti-Olympic creed

By Strobe Talbott
February 28, 2014

The Putin era in Russia, now in its 15th year, has given birth to the ongoing diplomatic challenge of reading what’s going on behind the Kremlin leader’s steely eyes.

President George W. Bush famously perceived something trustworthy and sympathetic in President Vladimir Putin in 2001, while former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in his new memoir, recalls seeing “a stone-cold killer.” But there is no doubt what was preoccupying the Russian president during the closing ceremonies in Sochi on Sunday: the upheaval underway 250 miles to the west, the distance to the border between Russia and Ukraine — where Viktor Yanukovich’s government had just been toppled.

The grassroots revolution has yet to be color-coded, and its outcome is far from clear.  Thursday, Yanukovich announced from Moscow that he was still president of the country he had fled, and the Russian air force went to combat alert along the Ukrainian border. Early Friday, Ukrainian officials claimed that Russian soldiers had seized two airfields in Crimea and condemned Russia for committing an act of occupation.

Suddenly, the winter games that Putin hosted have given way to his penchant for using armed force in what is beginning to look like a 21st-century version of the Great Game. This is the second time in six years that Putin has exerted Russian hard power to intimidate a neighboring country. In August 2008, Putin punished and weakened the pro-Western government in Tbilisi by sending Russian armored columns into Georgia, ostensibly to protect and ultimately to “liberate” the secessionist enclave of South Ossetia.

The bullying of the Georgian and Ukrainian governments reflects not just Putin’s worldview, motives and methods but those that have predominated for centuries in the country he rules.

According to the Olympic creed, “The most important thing is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle.” Vladimir Lenin believed in the exact opposite. He said all history — and the future — could be summed up in two pronouns, “who/whom,” shorthand for the question, “Who prevails over whom?”

For Lenin and the Soviet regime he founded, international life was indeed a struggle, but the most important thing was, precisely, to triumph. That meant not just winning the gold medal, but ensuring that there were no silvers or bronzes for the losers.

This mentality went back to the czars — and one uniquely acquisitive czarina, Catherine the Great, whose reign from 1762 to 1796 is often regarded as Russia’s golden age. “I have no way to defend my borders,” she is reputed to have said as her armies gobbled up much of Eurasia, “except to extend them.”

Russia was not unique in adopting the principle that the best defense is a good offense. But over the centuries, it felt itself uniquely vulnerable — to Swedes and others from the north, Mongols from the East, Napoleon and Hitler from the West.

The more of Russia’s periphery its rulers could conquer, the fewer — and the farther away from Moscow — their enemies would be. The result was the largest territorial empire in history and the largest state on the planet today.

The Soviets, particularly under Joseph Stalin, embraced their championship of communism as an ideological basis for domination of their neighbors and hostility to other great powers.

Then, a quarter of a century ago, came an exceptional, hopeful, even miraculous period. In the waning days of the Soviet Union and in the first years of post-Soviet Russia, two presidents — Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin — began to break away from the “who/whom” mentality. They realized that their country’s future depended on integration into a globalized world where something like the Olympic notion of creed would replace zero/sum competition. Gorbachev not only introduced the word “partnership” into the vocabulary of U.S.-Soviet relations — he translated it into a policy that Yeltsin continued when he joined the G8 and cooperated with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in bringing peace to the Balkans.

While Gorbachev and Yeltsin became bitter enemies, they will go down in history as a heroic tag team that made it possible to end the Cold War, free the Warsaw Pact member-states from Stalin’s “prison house of nations,” and bring a measure of democracy to the Soviet Union itself, which led to its dissolution into 15 states. Each has a seat in the United Nations and sovereignty under international law.

Of all those amputations from the body of old Soviet Union, Ukraine was, for many Russians, the most painful. I remember Yevgeny Primakov, a Ukrainian-born Soviet — and then Russian — senior official with whom I dealt in the 1990s, telling me that he identified with his native land as though it were a phantom limb. Kievan Rus, a loose assemblage of Slavic tribes in the Middle Ages, was the cradle of Russian civilization. And of all the regions in Ukraine, Crimea was the object of the most resentment and nostalgia in Russia.

In 1954, Nikita Khrushchev transferred Crimea from the Russian Federation to Ukraine as a gift on the 300th anniversary of Ukraine’s absorption into the czarist empire. At the time, it was a symbolic gesture, since Ukraine was, like the rest of the Soviet Union, governed from Moscow. The Crimean port city of Sevastopol was home to the Soviet Baltic fleet. Odessa, Yalta, and other seaside towns were retirement communities for the Soviet military. Hence the heavy concentration of transplanted Russians, as well as Russian-speaking Ukrainians, in Crimea today. But in 1954, virtually nobody anywhere, least of all in the Soviet Union, was predicting the eventual dismemberment of the state — not to mention in less than 40 years.

When the breakup of the Soviet Union occurred the day after Christmas 1991, it came with breathtaking speed, generating at least as much anxiety as euphoria around the world. Only six months earlier, President George H. W. Bush, fearing massive violence and instability, issued a public appeal in Kiev for the restive Ukrainians to give Gorbachev’s reforms a chance and not to declare independence.

“The chicken Kiev speech,” as William Safire of the New York Times called it, antagonized Ukrainian-Americans and other East European immigrant communities and damaged Bush’s re-election campaign the following year.

As it happened, except for some bloodshed in the Baltic States and the North Caucasus, the Soviet republics’ stampede for the exits was remarkably peaceful. That was overwhelmingly because Yeltsin, the president of a Russian Federation shorn of its own ties to the Soviet Union, insisted that the inter-republic borders would become the international borders. Millions of ethnic Russians overnight became citizens of neighboring former Soviet republics. By the same token, many members of other ethnic groups became minorities within Russia.

Messy and controversial as that arrangement was, it spared the fractured Soviet Union the years of mayhem, ethnic cleansing, and civil war that accompanied the dissolution of another multi-ethnic communist state: Yugoslavia.

One of the Clinton administration’s first diplomatic efforts was to broker a deal between the governments in Moscow and Kiev, whereby Ukraine gave up its Soviet-era nuclear weapons and Russia promised to respect the “sovereignty and territorial integrity” of Ukraine.

Putin is, at a minimum, dangerously close to violating that compact less than a week after presiding over what is supposed to be a quadrennial celebration of international good will, friendly competition, and playing by the rules. He seems to believe that Mother Russia has the right and obligation to protect her children in what post-Soviet Russians have called “the near-abroad.” That is a code word for what Putin sees as Russia’s sphere of influence and a no-go zone for NATO and the European Union.

Therein lies a profound irony. Putin, like many of his countrymen, is convinced that the West, institutionalized in NATO and the EU, constitutes a strategic threat to Russia. In fact, the West and the North are the only points of the compass that do not point to danger.

Radical Islamic forces from the South are making deep inroads in Chechnya and other culturally Muslim regions of Russia. The Siberian Far East is a vast expanse of land that is people-poor and resource rich, sharing more than 2,000 miles of border with China, which is people-rich and resource poor. That is a recipe for geopolitical trouble down the road if there ever was one.

But the number one threat to Russia’s sustainability as a unified state is internal: the combination of a demographic time bomb (low birth rates among Slavs and high rates among other ethnic groups), an intractable public health crisis, a failure to modernize its economy, and Putin’s “vertical of power” — a euphemism for authoritarianism — makes efficient, transparent, accountable, and democratic governance impossible.

The more immediate irony, evident in the drama of recent weeks, is that the more Putin tried to strong-arm Ukraine away from the West and back toward a Soviet-like past, the more the Ukrainian protestors hoisted EU flags and pulled down statues of Lenin. When Yanukovich, with evident support from Moscow, resorted to violent tactics against the people-power movement, Ukrainians came together in outrage and opposition — not just to Yanukovich, but to his backer in the Kremlin.

That has now led to a final irony. One key goal of Putin’s foreign policy in recent years has been to prevent Western powers for bringing about regime-change — especially when the regime in question has ties to Moscow. With that imperative in mind, Putin has so far been successful in keeping Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in power in Damascus. Yet last weekend, much closer to home — indeed, in the most precious part of the near-abroad — there was regime-change in Kiev.

It wasn’t caused by Western meddling, as the Russians claim. It was caused by Russia’s own muscling of Ukraine and its support for the escalating brutality in the Maidan.

Just a few weeks ago, there was much commentary in the world press — some of it admiring, some of it woeful — to the effect that Putin is a master diplomat and grand strategist, skating rings around the feckless West. While the events of the last day are still confused, and while the longer-term outcome is anyone’s guess, right now it appears that Putin’s winner-take-all way of dealing with the world will turn him into one of history’s losers.

 

PHOTO (TOP): Russian President Vladimir Putin at a meeting with Fyodor Andreev, president of Alrosa diamond mining company, at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, February 26, 2014. REUTERS/Mihail Metzel/RIA Novosti/Kremlin

PHOTO (INSERT 1): A poster of Russian President Vladimir Putin reading ” For Motherland, for Russia, for Sovereignty” is seen during a pro-government demonstration in Sochi at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, February 23, 2014. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

PHOTO (INSERT 2): Catherine the Great by Johann Baptist von Lampi the Elder..  Wikipedia/Commons

PHOTO (INSERT 3):Russian President Vladimir Putin toasts Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev (L) and figure skating coach Tatiana Tarasova (R) with glasses of champagne in the presidential lounge before the 2014 Winter Olympics closing ceremony in Sochi, February 23, 2014. REUTERS/David Goldman/Pool

22 comments

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Wat would the U.S do when Guantánamo Bay was at risk to fall in hands of Cuban revolutionaries?

and

“Therein lies a profound irony. Putin, like many of his countrymen, is convinced that the West, institutionalized in NATO and the EU, constitutes a strategic threat to Russia.”

Ofcourse he is convinced of that, look at history: Chili, Panama, Venezuela, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Syria, etc. etc.

Lots of twisting of historcal facts mixed with a bit of truth in this article .. It all becomes a bit too apparent.. sorry.

Lots of

Posted by cruijff1 | Report as abusive

It was fun to take in some triumphalist court history from a guy who exemplifies the term “insider.”

This was a hoot:

“The West and the North are the only points of the compass that do not point to danger.”

No, it’s just Vlad’s imagination that the EU and US are hell-bent on hemming in Russia from every direction. One example he presents, the Chechens, have easy access to oily Saudi cash. Of course, the collaborationist whorehouse of Saud is Israel’s main partner in crime in the Levant.

So, whether it’s an AIPAC-owned Congress, Izzy’s Sunni running dogs, or Soros né Schwartz pumping his lucre into big-screen shows in the Maidan, all roads lead back to Zion.

Posted by f00 | Report as abusive

he’s perceives weakness and attacks.

i don’t see a “stone cold killer” however.
he’s never done this before…and indeed “the West” in no way represents a threat to “Putinism.”

it would seem the primary threat to “Putinism” is Putin himself. He has already lost all that the Olympics granted him….and indeed outside of the Americans who had the courage to show up it would appear the “ghosts of Europe’s past” now come to the fore again.

we’ll see how the intervention goes down but if history is any guide “Russia makes things messy.” Obviously the perception that someone “likes it like that”…well, while i would agree “they cried at Stalin’s funeral”…Stalin got outed too.

Sometimes you can be truly seen in this world EXACTLY as who you are.

Indeed…isn’t this the very problem with the “internet thingy”? We can no longer hide from our “self” even anymore?

Posted by lkofenglish | Report as abusive

This good guys versus bad guys mantra is getting a bit old and tired.

Perhaps you should be even handed enough to mention the real actors behind the scenes that themselves have been instrumental in destabilizing Ukraine to the tune of $ 5 billion USD through NGOs on the ground that funded the more radical dimensions of the violent Maiden uprising.

I suspect the Russians, Chinese and others large emerging market countries are getting a little fed up with the western central banking cabal and their unlimited world reserve currency check book ponzi.

printing your way tom prosperity is nothing to be too proud of…..

Might be a good time to take a stand before it’s too late……..

Posted by bdelande | Report as abusive

As Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland made clear in her speech last December and in the leaked recording of her telephone conversation with the US ambassador in Kiev, Washington spent $5 billion of US taxpayer dollars engineering a coup in Ukraine that overthrew the elected democratic government.

Who’s agenda is really to blame here?

Posted by bdelande | Report as abusive

Are you forgetting that this great ‘revolution’ of Ukrainian ’tilt west’ already ran its course in 2004? How long did that one last? That’s why Putin is going to act decisively in Crimea but continue to deal in an even-handed way with the rest of his neighbor, slavic state. How you western journalists do salivate over Russia and Putin. How you do envy his class and panache, not to mention his popularity in Russia and in every quarter of the world. Compare it to our ham-handed, unilingual ‘leaders’ and it’s no wonder Putin is so despised by your kind. How small and poorly they do come off in comparison. Just think… ‘George W. Bush’. Wow! As for America’s own imperial aspirations, Bush got the rot underway and the chameleon that occupies the office today is continuing the slide with lots of help from the NSA and the Federal Reserve. What better way to distract yourself from that fact than to ineffectually demonize the one guy on the world stage that shines for his honesty, sense of humor and greatness of soul. Probably the most admired man on the planet. Great men are the best targets for small characters with short sight and bad aim… journalists like Strobe Talbott, for example.

Posted by MWA33 | Report as abusive

Hate him (USA and friends) or admire him (many others) you have to give him credit for standing tall as a President and as the Russian nation. He refused to simply be absorbed into the USA circle of influence, and, for better or for worse is prepared to paddle a different boat. I don’t care much for his ‘KGB style’ but I think most other leaders would do well to show the backbone he has shown. The above author seems simply to be ‘towing the party line’ that Putin=bad.

Posted by BidnisMan | Report as abusive

I think the guy that wrote this article more like created the party line and isn’t toeing it, if anything. I’m pretty sure he has his PhD in something Russia and was the Deputy Secretary of State under Clinton. I’ve read a lot of US conspiracy theories surrounding this situation but they aren’t the ones putting soldiers in Ukraine right now.

Posted by jarenolds | Report as abusive

OK, let me re-submit my revision to the Reuters ‘Opinion Comment Censorship Committee’… obviously a neat bunch of former librarians. But guys, really, how dare you compose for yourselves and insert such a mealy-ass version of my idea and call it the work of a ‘BidnisMan’. So laughably lame of you. I suppose you feel exonerated in your journalist consciences that the ‘other side of the story’ has been amply stated in these laughably lame words. What idiot wrote this? Have a spine and a little sense of humor, gentlemen, and publish the comment as written below but this time WITHOUT the reference to the esteemed commentator, admittedly going too far. Revision below. Or is it just too much blasphemy to suggest that Vladimir Putin is anything but the devil incarnate? Your call, of course. It’s your page. Thanks.

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>
Are you forgetting that this great ‘revolution’ of Ukrainian ’tilt west’ already ran its course in 2004? How long did that one last? That’s why Putin is going to act decisively in Crimea but continue to deal in an even-handed way with the rest of his neighbor, slavic state. How you western journalists do salivate over Russia and Putin. How you do envy his class and panache, not to mention his popularity in Russia and in every quarter of the world. Compare it to our ham-handed, unilingual ‘leaders’ and it’s no wonder Putin is so despised by your kind. How small and poorly they do come off in comparison. Just think… ‘George W. Bush’. Wow! As for America’s own imperial aspirations, Bush got the rot underway and the chameleon that occupies the office today is continuing the slide with lots of help from the NSA and the Federal Reserve. What better way to distract yourself from that fact than to ineffectually demonize the one guy on the world stage that shines for his honesty, sense of humor and greatness of soul. Probably the most admired man on the planet. Great men are the best targets for small characters with short sight and bad aim…

Posted by MWA33 | Report as abusive

A few mistakes here: Sevastopol was (and still is) the home of the Soviet (now Russian) Black Sea (not Baltic) Fleet.

Why is it such a hassle to sign in to Reuters just to post a comment??

Posted by Ed62 | Report as abusive

Why were my comments ignored?

Posted by bdelande | Report as abusive

Anti-Putin screeds are like a cottage industry among Neocons and related US militarists and would-be empire builders.

At the root of this phenomenon is one simple fact and a joke:

The Simple Fact: Putin has stymied American military interventionism in Syria and in Iran. This, among military-industrial complex types and Neocon/Zionists, is unforgivable.

The Joke: Americans, even if subliminally, wish they had a leader half as intelligent as Putin. It’s the political equivalent of penis envy. To which one could counter that we once did (i.e. have a leader half as intelligent as Putin): G.W. Bush.

Posted by jrpardinas | Report as abusive

Strobe Talbot has been discredited as a Russophobe with an axe to grind. I did not like to hear him quoting Secretary Gates because Gates is an honorable man who stood up to Russia in an honorable way without name calling or threats.

Talbot is divisive. Russia needs to be engaged. I do not think that we would like someone coming to the US saying that we are evil. That is not the way to talk to Russians, and it is also not the way to talk to us.

Posted by Cleveland2012 | Report as abusive

Did Yeltsin actually have a guiding ethos, or was he just carried with the spirit of the moment? Perhaps if he had had guiding principles and objectives, as you are suggesting, Russian state property would not have been so massively pillaged and misappropriated by the new generation of oligarchs. Perhaps the political and economic vacuum would not have been so filled with mafiosi and corruption.

Yeltsin’s was not so much a new philosophy, but a break from the past. Once he got that, he didn’t know what to do, and descended into alcoholism and incompetency.

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

Talbott is a ghost of the past (and no christmas!..). Putin is a pragmatist above all. He said many times that he understands clearly that the critics of him from the west just follow a particular political agenda but he will not be perturbed. No, he does not have the interests of the West at heart. He is the president of Russia and has the interest of his own country ah heart. Let’s all blame him for that.

Everybody knows that there are two ways of dealing with an independent power like Russia. One, you can throw toys from the pram, yell “he did not check with us first” etc. The second is to compromise and cooperate. People like Talbott can continue throwing toys but they would better serve their readers by analysing what can be done here, where the compromise can be found.

And lastly, don’t waste our time writing pages on how Russian rulers used expansion. As if they invented it. After Alexander of Macedonia and, perhaps Napoleon or Hitler, there is nothing there left to invent. Try and answer the question, where to from here!

Posted by Pragmatista | Report as abusive

To hold a G-8 meeting in Sochi would be a mockery. They should hold a G-7 meeting without Putin elsewhere.

Posted by pbgd | Report as abusive

Are you forgetting that this great ‘revolution’ of Ukrainian ’tilt west’ already ran its course in 2004? How long did that one last? That’s why Putin is going to act decisively in Crimea but continue to deal in an even-handed way with the rest of his neighbor, slavic state. How you western journalists do salivate over Russia and Putin. How you do envy his class and panache, not to mention his popularity in Russia and in every quarter of the world. Compare it to our ham-handed, unilingual ‘leaders’ and it’s no wonder Putin is so despised by your kind. How small and poorly they do come off in comparison. Just think… ‘George W. Bush’. Wow! As for America’s own imperial aspirations, Bush got the rot underway and the chameleon that occupies the office today is continuing the slide with lots of help from the NSA and the Federal Reserve. What better way to distract yourself from that fact than to ineffectually demonize the one guy on the world stage that shines for his honesty, sense of humor and greatness of soul. Probably the most admired man on the planet. Great men are the best targets for small characters with short sight and bad aim…

Posted by MWA33 | Report as abusive

Автор лжет!

Posted by George_II | Report as abusive

“It wasn’t caused by Western meddling, as the Russians claim. ”

Seriously. When you penned this story, who did you think you were going to sell this to? Do you actually believe what you just wrote?

Posted by Laster | Report as abusive

Putin has orchestrated his own putsch in Crimea – a new prime minister and a new mayor of Simferopol – calling for help from Russia.
Some more mistakes from a so-called “Russia hand.” The Crimean history is boilerplate-Russians don’t just happen to live there. Check Informed Comment.
Talbot doesn’t seem to know what Catherine the Great looked like – the portrait is of Princess Dashkova, the first president of the Imperial Russian Academy, and president of the Academy of Sciences; it looks like the one in Hillwood Museum in DC.

Posted by hmh212 | Report as abusive

Isn’t the author of this editorial the one who was so naive and credulous in his diplomatic dealings with Russian officials that the KGB/SVR considered him to be a “Special Unofficial Contact,” i.e., an extremely valuable intelligence asset who would faithfully answer any question his Russian BCF (best comrade forever?) asked, totally oblivious to the idea that the questions were coming from Russian intelligence agencies?

Posted by spameroo | Report as abusive

Wow, the author really seems to be promoting the US Capitalist party line, that Russia is doomed and Putin is evil and wrong.

How is it that when the West intervenes in Iraq, Afganistan, Libya, Mali, etc…. it is not seen as a provocation?????

@jrpardinas, yes, unfortunately we in the US have huge penis envy deep down for Putin. No one will admit it though, hahahahaha!!!

Posted by KyleDexter | Report as abusive

[…] a deep background piece by Strobe Talbott, who worked with Russia for the Clinton Administration in the 1990s. Talbott points out that Russia […]

[…] a deep background piece by Strobe Talbott, who worked with Russia for the Clinton Administration in the 1990s. Talbott points out that Russia […]

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