The Devil and Mr. Putin

New York Sun Editorial
January 5, 2005

Is President Putin's Russia the new Weimar Republic - a transitional entity that must succumb to authoritarianism through economic failure and humiliation over loss of great power status? This thesis was advocated on these pages earlier this week by Harvard historian Niall Ferguson, who cited Mr. Putin's meddling in the Ukrainian election, his support for separatist movements in Georgia and Moldova, his control of the three largest Russian television channels, and his effective destruction of the energy giant Yukos, the company that most closely matched up to Western standards of accountability and transparency.

There are many reasons to be concerned by the direction of Mr. Putin's Russia. That said, the current boss of the Kremlin is no Gustav Stresemann - the conservative nationalist leader of post-Wilhelmine Germany who did much to extricate the Republic from its post-Versailles straitjacket - let alone an Adolf Hitler. Mr. Putin's definition of the interests of his country seems rather slender by comparison: reconsolidation of influence in the former Soviet Union proper and reconstitution of that zone as a usable economic space for unreformed post-communist "enterprises."

Once this is achieved, few are suggesting that Comrade Putin would inevitably move onto the next target such as Poland or Slovakia, impelled by an ideology of Slavic racial supremacy. If nothing else, he is too keen on good relations with America and the nations of the European Union for that. Even if he fails in his attempt to pull Ukraine back into the Russian orbit, as appears likely following the victory of the reformist Viktor Yuschenko, the result within Muscovite political circles is not likely to be the emergence of some hyper chauvinistic imperator. On the contrary, it may well be a far more moderate figure who has imbibed the lesson of Mr. Putin's clumsy and ill-judged interference in the internal affairs of her largest westerly neighbor.

The analogy between the descent to malignant caesarism of the Nazi era from the highly imperfect Weimar-like polity works best if one believes that the Russia of the Yeltsin era was a genuine democracy. Actually, though, in most oblasts of the federation, there was a plunge into anarcho-despotism under the aegis of organized crime. Mr Putin initially brought greater stability, but was unable to see his reforms through a recalcitrant bureaucracy. Essentially, he then made his peace with the most corrupt elements and now seems not to worry if they impoverish their own regions just so long as they are loyal to the existing system.

Confronted with an unmanageable set of circumstances, he has reverted to a sort of default position from the Soviet epoch: define national security as a zero-sum game, in which any gain for Russia's neighbors must perforce be at her own expense. As James Sherr of the Conflict Studies Research Center at Sandhurst has observed, this communist mental equipment means that he is ill-suited to understand the "Orange Revolution" in Ukraine. He and his associates regard politics as basically a matter of relations between elites who create networks of understanding rather than treating civil society as an independent entity.

Understanding Mr. Putin does not mean condoning him. The current administration seems to have done the reverse: condoned without understanding. This is similar to its approach to President Musharraf of Pakistan. What can be said for the administration is that it views all of this complex thicket of motivations and actions through the single prism of the war on terrorism. And that's not a bad prisom through which to view Russia. It reminds us of Churchill's famous line about how if Hitler invaded Hell he would find it in himself to make in the Commons a positive reference to the Devil, which is about as far as it was prudent to go.