Vladimir Putin blindsides the US, where internal divisions paralyze reform of gun laws and make coherent foreign policy impossible.
Once upon a time, not a very long time ago, Peter the Great decimated Swedish troops in the Battle of Poltava in 1709. Charles XII, the last of the Swedish warrior kings, was forced into exile in Ottoman Turkey and later died fighting as his country was attacked on all sides. After Poltava, Russia emerged as a great power, while the death of the Swedish warrior king led to what his countrymen call frihetstiden, the age of liberty.
For centuries, Russia has been a great power with impoverished people. Russian soldiers have been used as cannon fodder by their leaders from Peter the Great to Joseph Stalin.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is no different. This former KGB colonel became president because he acted decisively to crush Chechen rebels in 1999. In keeping with Russian tradition, Putin’s actions in Chechnya were brutal and thousands of Chechens became refugees. In 2003, the United Nations called Chechnya’s capital Grozny the most destroyed city on Earth. Putin’s battle hardened troops have now entered the fray in Syria. The Middle East’s Thirty Years’ War has just turned a touch more deadly.
Russians are grandmasters at chess. This week, Putin blindsided the Americans by turning up at the United Nations and calling for a united front against the Islamic State (IS). Soon, Russian pilots in Syria started bombing rebels, many of whom were not IS. The Russians gave the US, which has some special forces in the area, an hour’s notice to get out of Syrian airspace and move its assets off the ground. The BBC declared that there was something “totally jaw-dropping, gob-smacking, eyebrow-arching, ear twitchingly extraordinary—and not to mention, casual—about the way the Americans learnt about Russian plans.” Not since 1900 have Russian and American military forces operated in such proximity.
No wonder US President Barack Obama is not thrilled. His displeasure was there for all to see during his first formal meeting with Putin in two years. For the last few weeks, Obama has been working Capitol Hill to boost support for the nuclear deal with Iran. Despite the tens of millions of dollars that the Israeli lobby poured to scuttle the deal, Obama was able to block Republican rejection by a mere two votes. All Republicans in the Senate opposed the deal and four Democrats strayed from the fold. The Obama administration was so consumed with Iran that it overlooked Putin’s bold Syrian gambit.
In the past, this author has called Putin a modern-day Tsar fighting to retain Russian influence. Tumbling oil and gas prices have left the Russians broke. Russia’s conscript army is staffed by the poor who cannot bribe their way out of military service. They further Russian interests in Chechnya, Ukraine and now Syria. Their families do not know where they serve. Soldiers’ families are not even informed when they die. In the words of Fair Observer’s Anna Pivovarchuk, despite Russia’s “newly-found devotion to the Orthodox Church and its moral code, the price placed on human life and dignity still remains conspicuously unholy.”
There are more ills plaguing Russia. Once, the country expanded by conquering numerous peoples and subjugating many ethnicities. Today, separatist sentiments are simmering as the Russian Empire unravels. Chechnya might be quiescent now thanks to the brutality of Putin’s henchmen, but Georgia and Ukraine have moved away from the arc of Moscow’s influence.
Furthermore, Russian men are dying of drink. As of 2011, every seventh woman in Moscow was marrying a foreigner. The brightest Russians are fleeing their country, and even billionaires close to the Kremlin like Roman Abramovich stash money abroad in the form of yachts, real estate and Chelsea Football Club. Yet Putin continues to be popular with Russians and playing the military strongman is his best bet to retain power.
While Russia hurtles to ruin, the US is in a thick soup too. It still has the world’s largest economy and the dollar is the global reserve currency. This means Uncle Sam can get cheap debt and not worry too much about paying it back. Even so, the US economy is anemic. Job growth in September was dismal. The strong dollar and weak global demand is hurting industry, which is therefore not hiring too many people. The US also averted a government shutdown at the last minute when Congress approved a temporary spending measure that will keep federal agencies operating till December 11.
Along with bad news about the economy, the US had to deal with yet another mass killing. Nine people died after a gunman went on a shooting spree. It turns out he had 13 weapons, all of them purchased legally. Obama spoke with anguish and rightly pointed out that mass shootings have become routine in America. Gun violence is rife in the US, yet the country does “not have sufficient common-sense gun-safety laws—even in the face of repeated mass killings.” This phenomenon captures all that has gone awry in the nation of Manifest Destiny.
Democracy weakens when social bonds disintegrate. American society is increasingly a collection of interest groups clamoring for their share of the pie. The common bonds and fundamental values that held Americans together are weakening relentlessly. In 1947, Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg, the chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, supported Democrat President Harry Truman and declared that “we must stop partisan politics at the water’s edge.” Today, that is no longer true.
Obama is already being “vilified for the vacillation and vagueness over his Syria policy.” At the same time, his decisiveness on Iran has attracted such opprobrium that 58 out of 100 senators have voted to scuttle his historic deal. Internal divisions within the US not only paralyze reform of gun laws and threaten government shutdown, but they also prohibit any action on climate change and make a coherent foreign policy impossible.
American politicians have turned their guns on each other with the same puritanical fanaticism with which their ancestors slaughtered Native Americans. Meanwhile, the global economy wobbles and the Middle East burns.
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