18 December 2007

Peace in our time

The Economist mentioned briefly in passing, almost parenthetically, that Vladimir Putin has followed through with his plan to scrap the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty ("Spot the President", Dec 13). Should this not be a cause for alarm? Could he announce his intentions any more clearly?

I am reminded of another world leader who rose to power under similar circumstances. He emerged in a power vacuum of a once great, but now humiliated and economically crippled nation. Gathering a cadre of equally ruthless associates, he gradually increased his hold, until he was able to assume complete totalitarian control. He turned the national economy around, winning the love and trust of his countrymen. Thumbing his nose at the world community, he brashly annulled treaties which would prevent him from building up his armed forces. As he pushed harder and further, even invading neighboring nations, world leaders continued to preach appeasement, "Peace in our time."

Are we not doing the same now?

Putin has been clear about his nationalist motives. He shamelessly embraces totalitarianism. He laments the breakup of the Soviet Union, and endorses revisionist history that describes it as "an example for millions of people around the world of the best and fairest society" ("The rewriting of history", Nov 15). He regularly bullies his former Soviet neighbors ("Speak truth to power", May 31). He wields Russia's oil resources as a weapon to blackmail Europe and Japan ("Don't mess with Russia", Dec 13, 2006). He bullies and divides the EU ("Enter, pursued by a bear", Sept 13). He has reopened the nuclear arms race by sending long-range bombers aloft ("Putin's people", Aug 23) and threatening to cancel the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty ("Cutting arms cuts", Jul 19). He has even threatened to aim nuclear missiles at Europe ("Vlad and MAD", Jun 7).

Furthermore, his domestic power increases. He and his former KGB associates control every facet of Russian life ("The making of a neo-KGB state", Aug 23). He has ruthlessly stifled opposition ("Old habits, new hypocrisy", May 24). He fixed parliamentary elections, effectively banning OSCE observers ("United to win", Nov 29). He has announced his intention to install a puppet president, with himself pulling the strings as prime minister ("Enter Putin two", Dec 13). The only limits to his power have apparently derived from factions within his own ex-KGB clique, and the past month's events suggest that these are no longer an obstacle ("The secret policeman's election", Dec 6).

How far is Putin willing to go? Once his dynasty is entrenched, will he remain content with Russia at its current borders? Or will he seek to reestablish the influence of the former Soviet Union, or push even further into eastern Europe?

What of deterrence from other military powers? China seems far more prone to support him than oppose him ("Not quite the pact that was", Aug 23). NATO is losing its collective resolve ("Shadows over NATO", Oct 18). America is enmeshed in a global war on terror, with two current hot spots, and the potential for eruptions in Iran or North Korea. Who would be willing to defend Latvia or Kazakhstan when Putin finally decides he's ready to move?

What about the Bomb? Will it deter Putin? Or will he smugly gamble that the West is unwilling to escalate to Mutual Assured Destruction for the sake of a few ex-Communist republics?

So far, world leaders appear content to be bullied, to validate Putin's mock "sovereign democracy". The Economist has argued that Russia is incapable of launching another cold war, ("Learning from the cold war", Jul 19), and that kicking Russia out of the G8 would be "more likely to do harm than good" ("Speak truth to power", May 31). I can't pretend to understand world politics well enough to debate the fine points, or to offer a better solution. But I can say this: Refusing to stand up to a bully only encourages him.

World leaders need to get a sense of Putin's soul, and stop him before the tanks start to roll. The signs are there.

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