Is the US Fed Up with Putin?

One can venture to say that if Vladimir Putin fails, no one in Washington will come to his rescue. The United States is losing patience and does not fear destabilization in Russia as much as Europe does.

Recent events explain why. Russian rockets were used to shoot down the Malaysian Airlines passenger plane killing at least one American citizen, 19-year-old Quinn Schansman. The rockets were launched by Kremlin-backed separatists fighting for new Russia, a fact confirmed by President Obama. A suicide bombing followed shortly afterward, inspired by the same people. Ukrainian troops are finding the bodies of hostages, murdered by the separatists on reclaimed land, and are releasing those who are still alive.

A Change of Perspective

From the American point of view, the analogies are quite obvious. Putin has suddenly joined the ranks of “leaders” such as Saddam Hussein or Moammar Gadhafi. Of course, Putin rules a powerful country, and the American public is still isolationism-oriented, so it is hard to say if any political decisions can be made for now, and there is no chance that the U.S. will send military help to Ukraine. However, the imposition of new sanctions, including many that will be most damaging, is underway.

One can sense true resentment, blame and frustration in the statements of American politicians and analysts. While the United States still understands the importance and even usefulness of Russia, it has clearly lost patience with Putin.

In response to the downing of the Malaysian airliner, Ambassador Samantha Power, the U.S. representative to the United Nations, said harshly, “Russia did not rein in what it unleashed.”

“No resolution would have been necessary had Russia used its leverage with the separatists on Thursday, getting them to lay down their arms and leave the site to international experts,” she stated, referring to the U.N. Security Council resolution on the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 in Ukraine. She added that it is Russia who must end this war.

President Obama usually avoids harsh statements, but there was a noticeable change in his tone during recent remarks. This is particularly true when one compares his recent speeches on the situation in Ukraine with his speeches this past March. In March, Obama explicitly stated that this is not “another Cold War with Russia,” but in June, during his visit to Warsaw, Obama spoke about opposing the “Russian provocations.” Even sharper statements appeared after the Malaysian plane was shot down. For the first time, Obama referred to “Russian-backed separatists.” More importantly, instead of inviting both sides to seek peace once again, Obama stated that diplomatic solutions are “still possible” and that he “prefers them.”

Who’s Afraid of Destabilization?

With respect to sanctions, experts believe the United States may introduce a ban on oil and weapon trade, similar to the sanctions imposed on Iran. This could hurt Putin, especially given that the economic situation of Russia is getting worse. Russia’s central bank predicts zero percent economic growth this year and a recession next year. Even if Putin is still committed to the propaganda of blaming Kiev, it will be hard to blame Ukraine for the actual decline in Russia’s standard of living. As a result, even without any special action from the West, a political solstice in Russia is possible. Of course, we are talking about years rather than months before we see any change.

According to political scientists Steven Levitsky of Harvard University and Lucan Way of the University of Toronto, authors of “Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes after the Cold War,” a well-known monograph on authoritarian states, the key factor during such periods of change is a favorable international climate, and whether the world is willing to support the new government. In Russia’s case, the perception of a destabilized federation may well inhibit how favorably the West reacts. The idea of Russia restoring itself as an aggressive empire and the presence of an unpredictable leader in power who’s become addicted to his own aggressive rhetoric is also not very appealing.

It is not Barack Obama’s style to try to undermine Putin. However, it is possible to say now that if Putin stumbles, no one in Washington will back him up. There are at least three reasons for this. First, the United States is far enough from Russia so that it need not fear destabilization of the Russian Federation. Second, Washington is bothered by an intimate relationship between the Kremlin and Beijing, and may prefer a certain instability in Central Asia, rather than a growth of China’s power. Finally, the United States, unlike Western Europe, does not import Russian gas, but exports its own, so it may find Russian destabilization to a certain extent advantageous.

Russia Is the Enemy!

The American media do not spare Vladimir Putin. Even The New York Times, which has been quite gentle in its reporting on Russia to date, blames it for shooting down the Malaysian plane. In The Washington Post, an editorial recently described Russia as “rogue state,” a term it has traditionally reserved for countries such as North Korea. The Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens writes that Russia was again becoming “an enemy of the United States.” Foreign Policy magazine compares the situation after the shooting down of the Malaysian plane to that following the Cuban Missile Crisis and the shooting down of a Korean Airlines flight by the Soviet Union in 1983. As we know, in both of these cases, the escalation of tensions between the West and the Kremlin nearly led to nuclear war.

“There were no catastrophes then – but this third time the world could be unlucky,” wrote Sergey Radchenko in the July 18 issue of Foreign Policy. Radchenko argues that Putin is a slave of his own propaganda even more than the then Soviet leader Yuri Andropov, who instead of stubbornly fabricating one alternate story after another, eventually admitted that the Russian air force shot down the plane by mistake.

At the same time, Radchenko envisions that a new perestroika in Russia may bury Putin. Similarly, political scientist George Friedman, founder and CEO of the private intelligence corporation STRATFOR, an organization being hailed as the “civil CIA,” asks, “Can Putin Survive?” Friedman asserts that Putin will not withdraw from Ukraine for fear of losing face, but at the same time, Friedman says, Putin cannot support the separatists anymore without instigating open warfare, and the implications of such war will be very painful for Russian society. Therefore, no matter what happens next, Putin’s position in internal politics will weaken, Friedman concludes. The most probable scenario, according to Friedman, is that he will suffer defeat at the hands of his closest colleagues, and Friedman names Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov as popular politicians who may become Russian Brutuses.

It is worth adding that American analysts have been blaming Putin and his inner circle for the barbarization of Russian politics. That is why the United States aimed sanctions directly at these individuals personally. Additional sanctions may extend to the general Russian public, which may then begin demanding change.

Such a scenario may, of course, seem like political fiction. But let’s not forget that in the last 25 years, we have seen tanks on the streets of Moscow during the abortive coup by the late Gennady Yanayev against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991. The world then supported a young, liberal leader named Boris Yeltsin. Today, the United States would probably be ready to support even a diehard general, if only to avoid having to watch Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin anymore.

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