Russia has issues.
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Wouldn’t it be nice, American presidents keep thinking, if we could just find a way to get along with Moscow? But the more things change, the more Moscow does not cooperate.
And now Putin’s stubbornness is beginning to spite his face.
To be fair to the Russians, Western democracy was a kick in the pills… not only sowing chaos and anarchy in the vast eastern stretches of the just-dissolved USSR, but cashing in the Soviet economy and minting a class of crony billionaires with the proceeds.
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Wall Street gleefully converted the old country to chips, spun the wheel, and took its winnings. And the new Russia went straight to the dumpster. Currency collapse. Civil society breakdown. Crashing birth rates, rampant alcoholism, and do or die wars against breakaway Islamists and terrorists along its Caucasian flank.
All of these things Putin survived, showing manly courage on a level few American leaders have matched.
Unfortunately, he did it all with the classic soullessness and brutality of Russia’s modern strongmen.
Beggars, an apologist might say, can’t be choosers… but as the 2000s wore on, every administration in Washington sought to hit the reset button… in Obama’s groan-inducing case, literally. And Putin disappointed them all.
His plan was at least in hindsight straightforward. Buy time, reclaim essential strategic advantages in the wreckage of the USSR, and consolidate power until the cohesion of Russia and its regime was unquestionable.
Despite nagging domestic problems and China’s embarrassing explosion of wealth right next door, Putin largely pulled it off…
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But now the seams are showing. A nuke sub crisis that could have been an ecological apocalypse. A secret weapon—nuclear again—that’s already being called the worst such accident in Russia since Chernobyl.
And now the protests.
Bigger and bigger, open, brazen, in the streets, in Moscow. As the people of Hong Kong wave American flags and sing the Star Spangled Banner.
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It’s got to stop.
Or does it?
If Putin really wanted to outfox the world at an ultimate level, he’d get the Russian Orthodox Church’s top priest to coronate him as the first Tsar since the Revolution. Then he’d start granting his people some leeway.
Because it’s not clear there’s a stable point in Russia for a mere strongman… whether as president or prime minister… and while the people are agitating for change, they likely understand that people in the Western democracies aren’t so happy with their forms of government either.
Plus Putin isn’t getting any younger. And unless he has some super-apparatchik hiding up his sleeve, he hasn’t been able to groom a proper successor, one up to the task of picking up where he left off.
The endgame for Russia is this: eclipse by China, deep isolation, or a strange and powerful return to its Western roots. If anyone can pull it off, Putin can.
That reset button is still his alone to push.