Monday, March 4, 2024

Putin’s ramblings offer lessons on managing his successor and China

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Reviewers and commentators eviscerated Tucker Carlson’s two-hour interview with Vladimir Putin. Any journalistic pretenses Carlson may have had before the interview were shattered. In Leninist terms, he was a “useful idiot” and a straight man to the Kremlin’s strong man.

Putin’s rambling 40-minute excursion on why Ukraine was part of Russia was dismissed by the West. His repeated rationale for invading to reunite Ukraine and Russia, protect Russian-speaking Ukrainians and destroy the stain of Nazism remained incredible. And he continued to blame the U.S. and NATO for causing the current crisis with Moscow.

That said, strip away the boilerplate and rhetoric. What could be learned from watching Putin’s two-hour polemic? Several points emerge.

First, while Putin insisted that Russia always took the high ground of diplomacy, tolerating all of the West’s errors and misjudgments, the disrespect of ignoring Russia and its interests was clearly the most riling issue to him. The need and indeed the desire for respect and recognition were visceral.  

Ironically, while he admitted to liking George W. Bush and had good things to say about the former president, most provocations towards Russia fell under the Bush administration beyond just the five expansions of NATO following the dissolution of the Soviet Union.  

While Putin did not mention Bush 43’s abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the list was long. Deploying the missile defense system called Aegis Ashore in NATO Europe against what Putin rejected as a nonexistent Iranian threat was really a move against Moscow. That required a Russian military response that Putin said led to technologies far more advanced than those of the West.

An unscripted comment by President Bush during the 2008 NATO Bucharest Summit promising membership to Ukraine and Georgia provoked a neuralgic reaction by Putin. That year, Russia occupied part of Georgia in Abkhazia. And, in 2014 after what Putin called a CIA coup to remove Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, Russia occupied Crimea. The reaction in the West was passive.

From this interview, the important takeaways are in the form of two questions and a recommendation. First, how many of Putin’s colleagues in the Kremlin actually agree with the president in substance and not as supplicants? Second, at some stage, Putin will leave office. Will his successor share these views?

The recommendation however is critical. For reasons of ignorance, amnesia or hubris and its conviction it is the “indispensable power,” the U.S. fails to respect other nations and regards lessers with dignity. Perhaps one reason Donald Trump seemingly got along with Putin and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un initially is that as a salesman, treating the customer kindly was always a consideration. Surely, in the effort to reduce tensions with China, dignity and respect may be as or more important than specific diplomatic gestures.

At present, it is unknown who or when anyone will follow Putin. However, the line of succession since the Soviet Union was formed in 1922 may provide some insight. It went Lenin, Stalin, the triumvirate of Khrushchev, Bulganin and Malenkov, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko and last, Gorbachev.

Lenin had been shot in the head in 1918, dying six years later. Some transition was needed until Stalin defeated (and later killed) Trotsky. Following Stalin’s death a transition followed. Brezhnev had been ailing for years and his successors also died quickly leaving a clear path for Mikhail Gorbachev.

Despite some news reports, Putin appears healthy and is 71. While the law specifies a succession process, unless he designates a successor as Boris Yeltsin appointed him in 2000, the next president is likely to rely on a transition group, perhaps similar to who followed Stalin. The difference is that an election is needed under the Constitution. The real successor may only emerge then. 

Whether or not the next leader has a similar worldview to Putin’s or not is important. Stalin was probably far more ruthless than Lenin. Interestingly, Khrushchev was a reformer who tried to shift spending from defense to the public sector and failed. Brezhnev and his successors were bureaucrats. And in his zeal to modernize and reform the USSR, Gorbachev collapsed it.

The more likely bet is that following what could be three decades of Putin’s rule, the technocrats and bureaucrats may take over. That may allow relations with the West to improve. 

The question is whether the West can wait that long. Unless the Ukraine War can be resolved sooner than later, the answer is a resounding no.

Harlan Ullman Ph.D. is a senior advisor at the Atlantic Council and the prime author of the “shock and awe” military doctrine. His 12th book, “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large,” is available on Amazon. X/Twitter: @harlankullman.

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