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Since February’s invasion of Ukraine by Vladimir Putin, every conversation between a diplomat and someone from the same field was inevitably about Russia and its mysterious leader. The former empire and heir to the Soviet Union, Russia has been publicly preaching a gospel of cooperation with the West for the last two decades, yet no one watching truly believes Putin’s Russia to be a benevolent giant that spans 11 time zones. Be it his pride, his ambition, or his cruelty, Putin’s motives have seldom been seen as pure as the snow in Moscow.
Starting a war in Ukraine did little to comfort those who had fallen for Putin’s promises. There have been many who are skeptical about the decision from the very beginning. U.S. President Joe Biden came to the Oval Office after serving for many years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and then eight years as Vice-President. Biden has as much international experience as any American since George H.W. Bush. Bush is, unlike predecessors, who wanted new treaties and expanded economic opportunities. He was a partner in the war against terrorism. Kompromat on a rival, Biden is fairly clear-eyed on what is possible with Russia—and, perhaps more important, what is not.
That’s why, on Tuesday, the United States circulated an outline for as much as another $800 million in military aid to Ukraine, adding to the already enormous pile of almost $14 billion sent there since fighting officially began on Feb. 24. Officials stated that they are moving fast and rushing to obtain more tools for Ukrainians to defend the country. Civilians in Mariupol, where fighting rages on every hour, face increasingly difficult conditions.
Russia, meanwhile, rejected a ceasefire and, in what it calls “another phase,” continued shelling civilian neighborhoods, factories where Ukrainians were seeking shelter, and even a feeding site.
This behavior of Putin was tragically predictable for veteran diplomats. Their memoirs are full of stories of the longtime Russian President’s intentional delays, direct insults, petty affronts, and even menace by a dog. Some examples, like Putin’s deployment of his labrador to intimidate German Chancellor Angela Merkel are famous. Some others, such as the denigration off-hand of high ranking U.S. officials, The diplomatic corps has a lot of stories about them. Once, Putin kept Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice waiting for almost three hours in a Red Square holding room, only to be told that the meeting had been moved to Putin’s dacha 40 minutes away in Barvikha. The explanation: two members of Putin’s team were celebrating birthdays and wanted to avail themselves of the resort’s Georgian wine cellar, according to former U.S. William J. Burns, Ambassador to Russia
The State Department’s archives are full of memos assessing the Putin era and how he has sought to take advantage of the United States’ over-extended agenda. As Burns—a career diplomat who rose to become Deputy Secretary of State and now serves as the CIA’s chief—described Russia’s place in the new world order in a 2008 memo to Rice: “For most of the Russian elite, still intoxicated by an unexpectedly rapid revival of Great Power status, the world around them is full of tactical opportunities. … From the Kremlin’s perspective, Russia’s own neighborhood looks a lot better than it did a year ago, with NATO expansion less imminent, Ukraine’s color revolution fading, Georgia at least temporarily sobered, and Central Asia more attractive to Russian interests.”
This was a situation that even existed in the Joseph Stalin era. golovokruzhenie ot uspekhovOr Success can cause dizziness
But, as Burns warned Rice, it wasn’t all as Putin put it forward in meetings with Americans. “Behind the curtain, however, stands an emperor who is not fully clothed.” And naked tyrants are dangerous ones.
Putin, humiliated by his country’s failure to preserve the communist system, vowed to rebuild Russia to its former glory. In ways as simple as changing the national anthem back to its tsarist tune, it’s easy to see Putin attempting to rewrite history to Make Russia Great Again. As TIME’s Simon Shuster wrote in a piece last year, the former Soviet nation has mastered that art.
Diplomats in Washington have watched with concern. The return to Soviet power could mean a return of Cold War tensions. Putin declared himself already president-elect for life. He has also severely suppressed any opposition. Putin, Russia and Putin are now one, at least temporarily. He sees the Cold War in the Good Old Days.
The Biden team has been doing everything it can to confront Russia’s aggression in Ukraine without, in the President’s own words, starting World War III. Cash and supplies have been sent, Burns is sharing intelligence with allies and the public alike, and there has been no shortage of bipartisan support for the Ukrainians—though there is zero political interest or backing for U.S. troops to get involved.
The U.S. appears to be falling back into its Cold War position, where a strong spine against Moscow was patriotic. Opposition to the Evil Empire was American like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or apple pie. According to Gallup polls, the support for the U.S. as the leader of NATO had risen in twenty NATO nations before the Russian invasion. Merkel’s departure left Europe without its top truth-teller to Putin, and French President Emmanuel Macron is in his own nasty re-election bid at the moment. NATO feels reenergized after many years under the ax of Donald Trump.
But diplomats don’t all want to be able to travel at the same time. Cold War caused major divisions around the world and depleted budgets. The Non-Aligned Movement, along with its 120 members, made a decision during the Cold War. After all, the phrase “you’re with us or you’re against us” didn’t originate with George W. Bush.
Russia could continue its aggression against the Ukrainians. This would mean that the 1980s Great Powers Theory, which divided the world in two, may be reintroduced. The existence of polarity has created an atmosphere of stability that is both uneasy and stable. While smaller nations hated being treated like pawns in the game, most countries complied with diplomatic and economic obligations. It is hard to lose national pride when you have to pass something by your foggy bottom or Pentagon patrons. Despite this, it prevented the world’s descent into the worst land war since World War II.
Washington isn’t at that point just yet and is doing everything it can to end Russia’s war without making the United States an official party to it. However, it is possible to learn from history and Russia appears keen on rebuilding its Soviet-era metropole. It’s coming at tremendous cost to his own people, but Putin hears the echo of the Stalinist legends. It’s almost as if he is trying to create his own title: Vladimir the Great. There’s just one problem with that chase, and that’s the United States that simply cannot allow Moscow to eclipse Washington’s power.
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