Unless you live in a hole, there were two events over the past few weeks that may or may not be connected. The first was the discovery that Sergei Skripal, a former Russian who was expelled for spying for Great Britain, was poisoned with a nerve agent directly traced to Russia. Skripal, his daughter and the policeman who found them are/were hospitalized. There have been reports that they were poisoned when the nerve agent may have been introduced through their car heater. British Prime Minister Theresa May responded expelling 38 Russian diplomats and more actions have been proposed and are being considered.
The second event is the unsurprising reelection of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to another six-year term. In the lead up to the election, Putin puffed his chest and talked of new underwater missiles and missiles with wings and other such gadgetry. Although there was nary a word here in the US, British tabloids blared an impending arms race. Lost in the nonsense was the simple fact that nothing strategically changed as concerns Russia and the West. The speech was delivered for Russian domestic consumption and posturing. However, the message went out and European newspapers and televisions took notice. This proves that propaganda is Putin’s greatest weapon. Considering the fact Russia teeters on the brink of major economic problems, Putin knows damn well he cannot afford an arms race, but talk is cheap and propaganda even cheaper.
To the Kremlin, they win every time the West jumps on a story out of Russia. Sometimes it is the word of Putin, sometimes some strategically placed words by some bureaucrat, and sometimes through their state-controlled media narratives. With every Russian panic publicized in the West, Putin’s domestic stock rises. And who wouldn’t vote against a guy supposedly powerful enough to dictate who an American President will be, or whether Britain would remain in the EU? The Guardian, Washington Post, and New York Times do not even realize that they have become dupes of Putin.
Realizing that the West must contend with Putin for the next six years, what is Britain to do? The fingerprints of the Skripal poisoning lead back to Russia, possibly the GRU or the Kremlin, or even to Putin himself. Britain expelled Russian diplomats- the usual fallback reaction by countries when another country pees in their cornflakes. There are suggestions that Britain ban Russia Today (a media outlet) or not attend the soccer World Cup in Russia. Are they to repay in kind and poison someone on Russian soil? Remember that Russia likely poisoned a naturalized British citizen on British soil. This is different than the Litivenko case.
Russia is, in the end, a debilitated autocratic/oligarchic dictatorship. They seek isolation and with Putin’s clampdown on free speech in Russia, the pain of this isolationism has no outlet. Sanctions will not deter Putin and his designs since sanctions end up punishing those at the bottom, not the top. Putin’s wealth is estimated at $200 billion by some sources. Do you think a man worth that much cares about sanctions? Engagement, likewise, is at an all-time low, possibly worse than at any time during the Cold War. But, even during darker times, there was engagement.
Consider these facts: three years after Kruschev crushed an uprising in Hungary by rolling tanks into Budapest, Eisenhower hosted him on a 10-day visit to the United States. Two years after the Berlin Wall and eight months after the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy reached out to Russia. Weeks after Russia threatened to intervene in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, Johnson hosted Kosigyn for a summit in Glassboro, New Jersey. And six months after Brezhnev sent tanks into Prague, Nixon was using words like “detente.” No matter who was in the White House, the preferred response was engagement. It was the Right that was skeptical. How things have changed. One supposes that those who see themselves as the guardians of conservatism have to check off the “hate Russia” box when correctly the box formerly checked was “hate Communism.”
Russia has been leveraging the West for years so it seems rather naive that people today in the United States would be aghast that Putin and Russia would interfere in our elections. They- Russia- whether known as the Soviet Union under Communist dictatorship or Putin’s dictatorship, have been sowing the seeds of distrust for decades. The entire “social justice” phenomena is a Communist creation. Yuri Bezmenov, a Soviet defector, described how demoralization was a key stage in undermining the cultural mores of a free society. Under the Soviets, it was a dismantling of the moral values that separated the West from the rest of the world by making the West more liberal. Today, it is the opposite.
Putin views himself as the savior of traditional moral values, much like his czarist ancestors before him. He has deftly and brilliantly positioned himself and Russia as the champion of values held by the political Right in the West. It is funny, in a sense, to take note that while Russia in its Soviet incarnation was pushing the Left’s social agenda, there was silence if not acceptance. Only now that Russia is pushing the Right’s social agenda do we see the media taking exception and crying foul. At one time, Russia was a media darling of the hard Left; today they are the bogeyman hiding under everyone’s bed and in the White House. It should come as no surprise to the Left that Russia can manipulate Western culture with ease. After all, they were unwitting dupes in those efforts much like those here today on the Right have become the sanctimonious dupes.
As a former KGB officer, Putin has learned and played the game with aplomb. His message as the champion of “family values” has attracted the most ardent Cold War soldiers. The more the Left pushes their narrative, the more Putin hopes to hear “This wouldn’t happen in Russia.” Perhaps not here in the US, but this certainly happens in Europe. Yet, his domestic policies are extreme: xenophobic, homophobic, nationalistic and isolationist. This only forces the Left to “out Left” itself. The result is extreme polarization to the point that a “Resistance” emerges against the duly elected President of America. Polarization is the key to chaos and Putin is proving himself an adept master in the game.
Isolation only furthers Putin’s grip on his population. Engagement, on the other hand, opens new opportunities for Putin to exploit and burnish his domestic and international image. What Putin craves the most is publicity and that publicity has been readily supplied by dolts in the West. If a couple hundred thousand in Facebook ads can influence an American election as some seem to believe, then American democracy has more to worry about than Russian interference.
If isolation via sanctions and engagement will not work against someone like Putin, then what is left? One should take a cue from Saul Alinsky’s Rule For Radicals, itself basically a Russian-baked handbook. Litivenko was a proverbial pain in Putin’s ass, but one he could live with but for one article penned by the deceased dissident. That article accused Putin of pedophilia and brought about the death of Litivenko.
Mockery in its most gross form works well against dictators. Obviously, charges of pedophilia hit home in Putin’s mind. The constant bombardment of Putin’s cronyism and his wealth is also an avenue of attack. If the West wants to undermine Putin both internationally and in Russia, a relentless parade of parody and satire sprinkled with truisms about Putin may be the panacea to bring down his dictatorship. Putin lives for publicity; he kills purveyors of bad publicity.
In the end, mockery may be the water that feeds the seeds of true democracy in Russia. At the very least, we need to stop being unwitting enablers of Putin by making him appear more powerful than what he truly is: a two-bit dictator who has bankrupted his nation into third world status.