Soviet Union

Moment of truth for the West

russianart At the Museum of Russian Icons, in Clinton, Mass., in the show "The Tsars' Cabinet,'' which highlights 200 years of decorative arts under the Romanov dynasty. Russian oligarchs around Vladimir Putin also love to collect these items.

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In September 1938, at the Munich Conference, Adolf Hitler promised French and British leaders, who felt compelled to appease him, that Czechoslovakia’s mostly German-speaking Sudetenland region would be ”my last territorial demand in Europe.’’ Within a few months, of course, the Nazis occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia and then invaded Poland.

Vladimir Putin is a power-mad political mobster of extreme cynicism and considerable paranoia, albeit not the world-historical sociopath that Hitler was. I have little doubt that the Russian dictator  plans to try to seize more land in eastern Europe, perhaps part of Moldova and all of Ukraine and not just the eastern part, where, he and his associates like to say, they might need to “rescue’’ Russian speakers from virtually nonexistent “mistreatment’’.  In the same way, Hitler often cited the need to “rescue’’ German speakers who lived in countries that Hitler wanted to seize in the pursuit of his “Thousand Year Reich’’.

Putin, like Hitler, seems obsessed with “encirclement’’ by perceived foes. Of course, most people in neighboring nations, who see close-up what goes on in Putin’s kleptocratic police state, would certainly not want to be absorbed by it. Meanwhile, why don’t more journalists and others note that Russia is far and away the largest country by square mileage.  Without the powerful vector of Russian imperialism (which includes Soviet imperialism), it might seem passing strange that Russia would want/need to get even bigger.

But for a thug, no power or money or acreage is enough. Thus former KGB official Putin called the collapse of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th Century.’’ He’s talking about a regime that murdered tens of millions of people and that for a couple of years was a Nazi ally.

But a regime as nasty as Putin’s is not exactly good for business investment, and so Russia, for all its size, remains remarkably weak, if aggressive. Of course, the Chinese regime is also corrupt and brutal, but China has an entrepreneurial and disciplined people who have made the country an economic powerhouse anyway. The Russians, burdened by bad government and the associated alcoholism, despair and fatalism, and thus without a vibrant, diversified entrepreneurial culture, don’t have it. Without copious supplies of oil and gas, they would hardly have an economy at all.

Those fossil fuels give Russia a lot of power to get temporizing Europeans to tolerate Russian imperialism. It’s yet another reason to move faster to home-grown renewable energy – and gas exports from the U.S. What will it take to get the Germans, etc., to accept some short-term pain in return for the long-term security that would come from the demise of Putin’s dictatorship? That short-term European pain could include a cutoff of Russian gas supplies in response to sanctions on the Putin regime.

Many of Putin’s cronies and maybe the dictator himself have Riviera real estate, bank accounts, money-laundering operations and other assets in the West. Indeed, something that the West has going for it now that it didn’t have in Soviet days is that the Russian regime and the former Soviet functionaries who stole state assets under the drunken Boris Yeltsin have so much property abroad.  And Russian oligarchs like to travel in and indeed live in the West. They should be squeezed very hard.

The Russians have far more to fear from tough Western sanctions than the West has to fear from the Putin regime. The question is whether the West has gone too soft and complacent to act firmly.

The sanctions by the Obama administration to squeeze some of Putin’s fellow mobsters are a start but far from enough.  And the Europeans have not yet shown much backbone. Rhetoric is cheap. Western security demands that everything possible be done to weaken Putin’s regime. Now.

When George W. Bush did little when the Russians invaded  tiny Georgia, a democracy, and stole some of its land,  it emboldened Putin, who, like most bullies, is quick to sense weakness. He probably laughed his cynical laugh when Bush said early in his presidency that he had “looked into his {Putin’s} soul’’ and saw a man he could trust.

NATO must step up its military assistance to members Poland and the Baltic Republics and provide arms, air-defense technology, military intelligence and other defensive military support to Ukraine to make Putin think twice before marching on Kiev.

In 1956, President Eisenhower did virtually nothing when the Russians moved in to quash the Hungarian Revolution, killing tens of thousands of people. In 1968, President Johnson did nothing when the Russians quashed Czech attempts to wrest themselves from Soviet/Russian dictatorship. In 2008 President G.W. Bush did virtually nothing when the Russians invaded Georgia and stole some of that democracy's land. But these days, we do have potent weapons to discourage further Russian expansionism. But they require our will and patience.

Meanwhile, many Ukrainian leaders must profoundly regret that their nation gave up its nuclear arms in 1994 in return for security guarantees from the U.S., Britain and Russia. The hope then was that Russia would not go back to its traditional oriental despotism. One of Russia’s fellow tyrannies, Iran, which is hurrying to make nuclear bombs, will take a lesson from the Ukrainian crisis.

Robert Whitcomb ( is a former editor of these pages and a Providence-based editor and writer. He runs the site. He is a former editor at the International Herald Tribune and The Wall Street Journal.



Tough flowers; facing Putin's fascist mobocracy

March 22, 2014

The ground is mostly open, if brown, except for some old clumps of dirty snow. Last year's oak leaves crinkle in the big old ugly trees, waiting to be pushed out by the new crop. Anyway, if we get two days of 60 degrees, the greenery on the ground will explode. The stuff higher up will take longer, of course.

It never ceases to amaze me that even with it below freezing at night, the green shoots of bulb flowers keep pushing up. On a south-facing slope two weeks ago, I saw crocuses starting to bloom  even though it had been 10 above a couple of nights before.

The older I get, the more I like walking in the very early morning, not long after dawn. It's so quiet and unpeopled that the direction of one's life and even the world in general suddenly becomes clearer.

I think about geo-politics, and these days about how the Cold War never really went away (not that I thought it did) -- and that some countries, such as Russia, are run by gangsters who make plans with the assumption that nations that should be their forthright foes will put off a strong response to the gangsters with the always doomed hope that they can be satisfied.  For gangster leaders, no  quantity of power and money is ever enough.

More attention should have been  paid to Putin's statement a few years back that the collapse of the Soviet Union "was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th Century.'' The Soviet Union was responsible for killing tens of millions of people. But then, there's little indication that former KGB man Putin has anything against killing, whatever the retention of power requires.

With Putin's promises not to invade more countries, I think of Hitler's vow at Munich in September 1938, as the British and French were giving him Czechoslovakia's Sudetenland -- "This is my last territorial demand in Europe.'' He marched into the rest of Czechoslovakia a few months  later and invaded Poland in September 1939.

Of course, as with Putin "rescuing Russians'' who didn't previously seem to need rescuing by  the mobster Russian regime, Hitler had to "rescue'' the German speakers in the Sudetenland and put them under the "protection'' of his psychopathic regime. Putin is eyeing the rest of the Ukraine and the Baltic Republics for similar rescues.

Because of  his vast narcissism, cynicism and power drive, Eastern Europe has much cause to be worried unless the soft European Union shows some backbone. But there is one thing that the current Kremlin has much more to fear from than the Soviet regime did. The Russian government and the billionaire oligarchs (but I repeat myself!) have far more investments in the West than the Soviets had.  And despite the oligarchs' claims of being Russian (or at least Putin) patriots (claims necessary to avoid being brought down, or even dumped in the river, by Putin's boys) they'd much rather have their money  in the vibrant West than under the current cold Russian fascist dictatorship where policies are set by the whim of Putin and his associates. Russian businessmen and pols (and they are often the same thing) can be squeezed hard if the West has the will to do so.

I also think that the Russian aggression should help pull European heads out of the sand on renewable energy. The Europeans import far too much gas and oil from Russia, which is so corrupt and inefficient, and so lacking in the rule of law, that extractive industry comprises most of  the profits in its economy. It is less and less an attractive place to do business.  Loyalty to Putin, not creativity, is what counts.

So the  more Western and Central European renewable energy the weaker the mobsters in Moscow.