Putin & Patrick: A Conservative Defense of the Russian Bear?

Brian Birdnow

3/24/2014 9:21:00 AM - Brian Birdnow

Last week, in the august pages of Human Events, Patrick J. Buchanan, the conservative titan, offered a spirited defense of Vladimir Putin and his escalation of the current Ukrainian-Crimean troubles into the most perilous East-West faceoff since long before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union. Buchanan notes that Putin has met the test of democratic formalism in the sense that his provocations are widely cheered in Russia and that a highly improbable 95% of the Crimean electorate voted in favor of a sort of Anschluss, reuniting them with Mother Russia. Mr. Buchanan actually goes beyond this benchmark by arguing that Putin is a nationalist who has been forced into aggressive behavior by repeated American threats, broken promises, and encroachments into the Russian sphere of influence. According to Pat, these twenty years of American muscle-flexing began during the Clinton Administration, peaked during the neoconservative ascendancy of the second Bush Administration, and continues even until today. PJB seems to argue that Putin’s response is a just and moderate response to American brinksmanship, and that we would do no differently if the situation were reversed.

Many, if not most conservatives feel a sense of regret when it comes to speaking ill of Patrick J. Buchanan. Pat was a true conservative stalwart of the old-school type, a conservative before conservatism was cool. He never pulled his punches and never shied away from a fight. Buchanan wrote fiery editorials for the old St. Louis Globe-Democrat, worked in the Nixon Administration, went back to journalism, directed communications during the second Reagan Administration, and built a conservative media-publishing empire after 1989. The fall of the Soviet Union and the rising threat of Islamic terrorism in the early 1990s, however, exposed certain fault lines, hitherto not noticed in American conservatism , and PJB found himself in a highly publicized battle with the neoconservatives in the 90s and on into the George W. Bush Administration. This overheated spat brought credit to no one, though it ruined friendships and damaged reputations. Since the early 2000s Buchanan has emerged as an eloquent critic of the Bush Doctrine, the War on Terror, and free trade while remaining in the conservative camp on most of the cultural issues.

In the Human Events piece last week, Buchanan left no doubt concerning his position on the Crimean crisis and Vladimir Putin. “Vladimir Putin is a blood-and-soil, altar-and-throne ethnonationalist who sees himself as the protector of Mother Russia…” “He saw a Mother Russia that had been looted by crony capitalists, including Americans.” “He saw a United States that had deceived Russia with its pledge not to move NATO into Eastern Europe if the Red Army would move out, and then exploited Russia’s withdrawal to bring NATO on to her front porch.” Pat then takes a swipe at Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, and the rest of the crowd at the Project For a New American Century by stating “Had the neoconservatives gotten their way, the Warsaw Pact nations of Central and Eastern Europe, and the ex-Soviet Republics would have been brought into a NATO alliance to contain and, if need be, fight Russia.” Pat then fires a shot at the entirety of American foreign policy since the late 80s by saying “We lost Russia, but got Rumania as an ally? What benefit have we derived from having Estonia and Latvia as NATO allies that justify losing Russia as the friend and partner that Ronald Reagan had made by the end of the Cold War?” He finishes with a flourish “America and Russia are on a collision course today over a matter that no Cold War president would have considered any of our business.” Since Pat has been urging a hands-off Eastern Europe policy for years this comment comes as no surprise.

When we take a closer look at these charges we see a less clear and more complex picture. PJB defends Putin for somehow standing against the looting of Russia by a corrupt oligarchy. Who stepped in and took over the state run industries in the wake of the Soviet collapse? Mostly investment groups with ties to the KGB, many of whom personally knew and worked with Vladimir Putin, the ex-KGB colonel, himself. Putin has also acted as a latter day Herman Goering by seizing private Russian industries and helping himself to a hefty share of the profits upon their resale. Putin is hardly a Disraeli, working to shield his people from the excesses of unbridled Manchester liberalism, or a Theodore Roosevelt maneuvering to check the malefactors of great wealth.

The charge that we Americans double-crossed Russia by breaking a promise to refrain from expanding NATO in exchange for a pledge of Red Army good conduct is also open to interpretation. We moved to alleviate Eastern European nervousness concerning Russian intentions by incorporating those countries into a common defensive perimeter. The Czechs, Poles, Hungarians, and Rumanians did not buy paper guarantees of their freedom, and, if one considers the history of 1938-89, they had good reason to be concerned. Offering those countries positions within a common defensive shield should not concern Moscow, unless the Russians have an aggressive game plan for the future.

When Buchanan states that our butting into a Russian-Ukrainian argument is a breathtaking example of American neo-imperialism, he is restating his argument from the mid-1990, largely that the Russians have historically run Eastern Europe and that this area is no concern of ours. He is certainly correct in discerning that American public opinion is completely against intervention in the Crimea, or, for that matter, in the Baltic States, as PJB often counseled. Still, the Ukraine is a large land area that has publicly stated its friendship with the United States. There are many Ukrainians living in America, the Ukrainian Catholic Church has publicly announced that they fear this Russian power grab in Crimea is a pretext for further aggressive moves, and we cannot simply hope that this crisis will work itself out on its own, even if President Obama is more interested in the NCAA Basketball Tournament. March Madness, indeed!

In fact, a closer look at the Crimean crisis should cause the casual observer great anxiety. While Pat Buchanan sees no aggressive Russian moves against the USA since the collapse of communism the fact is that the CIA has noted a decided uptick in Russian espionage against America since 2000. We know that information leaker Edward Snowden is still in Russia, and likely to remain there. The Russians are once again negotiating to build military bases in former client states Cuba and Nicaragua. Russian naval fleets regularly cruise the Gulf of Mexico, sometimes within sight of the American coast. They are now involved in official talks bent on building a submarine base in Venezuela. The provocations rival the acts of Nikita Khrushchev in the 1960s.

Pat Buchanan’s tendency to give Vladimir Putin a pass on these aggressive actions stems not from an urge to ask Americans to engage in true multiculturalism and to see the world from another nation’s perspective; rather this is born out of Buchanan’s oft-repeated conviction that Putin is a like-minded culture warrior. PJB has pointed out that Putin advocates a straight laced public morality that was also the fashion in the secular West until the 1970s. While many Americans agree with Putin on these cultural issues a few other facts bear remembering. Vladimir Putin, the Russian strongman, is an ex-secret police colonel. He is the heir apparent of a formerly openly atheist state. (Godless Communism, anyone?) Putin strongly laments the fall of that state, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, as the greatest tragedy of modern world history. One would think that Putin’s lament would warm Pat Buchanan’s heart. After all, a Russian defeat in the Cold War equaled American victory, did it not? Vladimir Putin is a proponent of the “Great Russia” philosophy, and, as such, he is dedicated to pursuing a foreign policy consistent since Peter The Great and moving steadily to Leonid Brezhnev. Simply put, that policy is expansion wherever possible and whenever possible. This should concern Pat Buchanan, and all other Americans.