There is a popular myth that Russian president-for-life Vladimir Putin is some sort of super-genius playing multi-dimensional chess while the West is ineptly playing checkers. This is utter nonsense. Putin may be very good at managing the complicated web of corruption which is the modern Russian state, but he is no statesman. His very limited geo-political vision is to somehow try to turn third-rate Russia into the global superpower he believed it was in his youth. And if you read his public pronouncements carefully, it is painfully obvious he is shockingly dishonest, woefully ignorant, small-minded, and a potentially mortal threat to the United States and the rest of the civilized world.
Actually, to put it bluntly, Putin is a moron. For example, last year, when oil prices began their precipitous decline, he confidently predicted higher prices because “the global economy would suffer” if the price of oil fell to $80 a barrel. The biggest economies on the globe are America, China, the European Union, and Japan, and every one of them is an oil importer which benefits from lower oil prices. The only countries that suffer from lower oil prices are oil exporters such as Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela. Somehow, Putin is ignorant of not only freshman level economics, but even plain common sense. (Considering that Putin plagiarized his entire PhD dissertation in international economics, this is not so surprising.)
The Kremlin is determined to upset world stability and where possible threaten its neighbors, because it has no ability or desire to be a responsible member of the world community. In economic, diplomatic and conventional military terms, Russia is a third rate power. Its economy ranks on a par with Italy, it has no real diplomatic allies (unless you count its puppet mini-statelets of Abkhazia and South Ossetia), and its military is hobbled by incompetence and riddled with corruption. Russians deeply resent their third rate status, and simply can’t understand the glaringly obvious reasons why they’re falling behind the rest of the world or why nobody needs or wants an alliance with them. Merely as one example, every single member of the Warsaw Pact (and three former Soviet republics) deserted Russia the moment the Red Army ended its occupation of their countries and made a beeline to join America-led NATO.
Russia’s foreign policy is driven by one overriding objective: to somehow regain Russia’s status as a superpower and to somehow make other people respect Moscow, or at least fear it. Russians seethe with anger at the fact that the United States is the sole true superpower. But Russia’s problem is that it has none of the attributes of a superpower, except for its arsenal of nuclear weapons. Therefore, its only prospect of gaining any sort of influence is by petty tactics of disruption and intimidation, by trying to undermine global and regional order, or in the last resort threatening the rest of the world with nuclear annihilation.
Russia is a bully, and a self-pitying one at that. Russians bitterly resent the fact that their former subject republics are independent states, and dream of bringing them back under Moscow’s thumb. And so the Kremlin has waged wars of aggression and occupation against its weaker neighbors Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova, and seeks to destabilize the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. And yet Russians believe that they are somehow the victims of external aggression. And even as the Kremlin foments war and misery in Ukraine, Russia state media broadcast nonstop the blatant lie that Russia is the innocent victim of nefarious Western conspiracies.
Putin’s response has been to order 40 new ICBMs for the Russian military and to threaten to move short range Iskander missiles to within 50 miles of the Polish border. We put a few tanks in storage in Estonia, and Putin and his military start rattling the nuclear saber. This is partly just chest-thumping bravado, and politically popular. It also reflect Russia’s deep sense of military inferiority, as its corrupt and incompetent conventional armed forces are no match for NATO.
The entire Kremlin is full of dishonest, woefully ignorant, small minded and petty bureaucrats. These are essential qualities for advancement in the criminally thuggish Russian state. This would be of little concern to the civilized world if Russia was just another third-world kleptocracy. But the one lasting accomplishment of its Soviet predecessor was to build a massive arsenal of nuclear weapons. There is a very real risk that in some future confrontation with the West, these dishonest, ignorant, small-minded and petty men will badly miscalculate and do something incredibly stupid. And their incompetent blundering may merely result in the devastation of some small Eastern European country, or it may end up being a nuclear war which spells the end of human civilization.