Want to make Putin furious? Refer to Russia as a regional power. Obama did just that. There was that time when he poked fun at presidential hopeful Mitt Romney for referring to Russia as the biggest geopolitical threat to the US. “the 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back” he told him during their October 2012 presidential debate. In 2014, during a news conference after a nuclear summit in the Netherlands, he stated: “Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors, not out of strength but out of weakness”. Even more recently, as tensions build between the U.S. and the Kremlin over election-related hacking, President Obama dismissed Russia as a “smaller,” “weaker country” that does not “produce anything that anybody wants to buy except oil and gas and arms,”.
I’m sure that comments like those, that take a jab at Putin’s ego may in some way influence the Russian leader’s aggressive foreign policy, but they are barely to blame. Every one of his moves. From Ukraine to Syria, fit on a much bigger scheme to bring Russia back to old Soviet glory.
“Above all, we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century”
Let’s start with something President Putin said himself on an April 2005 State of the Nation address to the country’s top politicians and parliament: “Above all, we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century”; emphasizing a deep contrast in perspectives of an event that many consider a glorious moment in history.
But perhaps more disturbing, is his new approach towards Stalin. Vladimir’s view of history seems to have undergone a startling transformation: Last year, Putin praised the 1939 nonaggression accord with Hitler as a bright arrangement that forestalled war with Germany. Also, Stalin’s 29-year dictatorship, which had generally been seen in Russia as dark spot in their history, has lately been applauded by Putin and his followers as a necessary foundation for building the great Soviet Empire. All this coupled with policy changes curtailed at erasing the memory of Stalin’s crimes.
(Bill Mays voice*) But wait, there is more…
You can’t have a new USSR without the old USSR states and allies. Putin’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, and then Ukraine in 2014 prove that ex-soviet countries don’t need to carry the Soviet label for Putin to consider them as nations under his influence. In 2008, he boldly stated: “Ukraine is not even a country. Part of its territory is in Eastern Europe and the greater part was given to us.” Six years later, the Kremlin appears to be making sure that Putin’s opinion becomes a reality.
But it’s not just ex-soviet states. After decades of desolation, the former Soviet Kotelny Arctic military base is being rebuilt. With the fall of the USSR, all the troops were eventually withdrawn leaving behind only a civilian meteorological station. Russia began constructing among other things, a landing strip, and a series of smaller bases on nearby islands. In total, Moscow’s plans involve the opening of ten Arctic search-and-rescue stations, 16 deep-water ports, 13 airfields, and 10 air-defense radar stations across its Arctic periphery. Once completed, this construction will permit the use of larger and more modern bombers in the region.
Although Russia has generally maintained a friendly relationship with ex-Soviet allies, two countries have played a notable role for the USSR 2.0 envisioned by Putin. Those are Cuba and Syria. Putin made sure that the recent warming of relations between the US and Cuba, didn’t make the Castros forget who their real friends were. Russia’s parliament has ratified an agreement that will see Moscow write off 90% of cash-strapped Cuba’s $35.2bn debt to the Soviet Union. Buying your friends might not be very classy, but it does work. Reports allege that Russia and Cuba have agreed to reopen the signals intelligence base in Lourdes, Cuba, which was primarily used to spy on the U.S.
Putin is also planning to open a military base in Cuba and Vietnam. The two served as pivots of Soviet military power during the Cold War. A Russian spy base in Cuba? It doesn’t get any more Soviet than that..
Another important ally is Syria. The relationship between Syria and the Soviet Union was close and deep. For strategic and symbolic reasons Putin’s new Empire will need to ensure that a Moscow friendly government remains in place in Damascus. Russian troops have been given the mission to preserve the current pro-Kremlin government there from being deposed by Western-backed rebels. Hmmm… remember Afghanistan?
More contrast with Stalin’s USSR can be found in the media and political opposition areas. Both, non-existent in Putin’s new Russia. Today, the Kremlin controls every mainstream news network. Opposition figures are regularly killed in Russia, and the few left don’t have much of a national profile, with the restrictions of state television meaning it is hard for them to gain a real platform.
But if you are not convinced yet, just keep in mind that Putin also changed Russia’s national anthem back to the old Soviet anthem adopted by Boris Yeltsin as the Soviet Union collapsed. The revived anthem was composed on Stalin’s orders during the Second World War.
Now let me make something clear. Russia does not possess the former economic might of the Soviet Union, and the United States military alone spends over twice as much as Russia’s entire national budget. Putin’s goals are unrealistic, but none the less dangerous, and very real.
As my (ironically communist) grandfather used to tell me back in Cuba. “If it drinks milk, and chases mice, it’s a cat”