When does Putin become our Stalin?

Putin’s Calculated Realism

Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, governs over the largest landmass on earth, the world’s 2nd largest nuclear arsenal, and over 140 million people. Putin has been criticized as being cold, calculating, and autocratic. He has taken offensive measures in Crimea and Georgia, aggravating European leaders and resuscitating Cold War nostalgia and fear. Furthermore, Putin vehemently refuses to concede to rebel forces in Syria, despite President Bashar al Assad’s wartime atrocities and his illicit use of chemical weapons. 

Putin’s decision-making demonstrates his commitment to maintaining the international system of nation-states, versus a tumultuous descent into chaos.

While many argue these acts are evidence of Putin’s ruthlessness, they also reveal calculated and strategic foresight. First, Putin is demonstrating to the world he is a man of his word. In a political climate where global leaders rapidly about-face on decades-old allies as well as their own “red lines,” Putin’s unwavering support of Assad is steadfast and consistent. Second, Putin likely sees that by supporting Assad he is committing to the lesser of two evils. If Assad were to lose power, all of Syria would disintegrate. Nefarious factions would take over, and the chaos would be an order of magnitude greater than what we are seeing today. Third, Putin’s decision-making demonstrates his commitment to maintaining the international system of nation-states, versus a tumultuous descent into chaos.

Putin’s moves carry important geo-political consequences. Currently, the Middle East is amidst one of the greatest crises of governance in the history of the modern world. With the American withdrawal from Iraq, the four-year-old Syrian civil war, and the Arab Spring, several long-standing governments were drastically weakened or have completely collapsed. In their wake, competing militias, religious tyrants, and terrorist organizations have flourished. The power vacuum engulfing the region plunged several countries into various stages of chaos and political anarchy. Regimes in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Syria, and Iraq are finding it increasingly difficult to maintain a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. To the chagrin of many Western policy makers, instead of giving birth to democratic reform, in many cases the political fallout has given rise to populist, fundamentalist governance that comes at the expense of millions of ethnic and religious minorities in the region. Millions of refugees have flooded into surrounding countries, including nearly one million to EU countries in 2015 alone. The influx has strained economies and gave rise to xenophobic sentiments not seen since World War II. Russia’s proximity to the region, as well as economic and geo-political interests, has put the Middle East at the forefront of Putin’s national security agenda. 

The Third Way — Nefarious Organizations

Stalin and von Ribbentrop after the signature of the Soviet–Nazi German pact (Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-H27337 / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

In 1941, Adolf Hitler blind sided the Soviet Premier, Josef Stalin, in an ill-fated invasion of the Soviet Union. The Americans and the Soviets cooperated to a large extent to defeat the expansionist Nazi regime, and it is highly unlikely U.S. policymakers would have even considered a D-Day type assault in Europe without massive Soviet military assistance in the East. By May 1945, after several million casualties on the Eastern Front, the Soviets raised their flag over the Reichstag in Berlin, signaling the end of World War II and the beginning of the decades-long Soviet occupation of East Germany.

While the U.S. and the Soviet Union were allies during World War II, during the Cold War U.S. security strategists actively worked to contain Soviet support for governments across the globe. In theory, countries that were no longer under the Soviet sphere of influence could transition to Western-oriented, democratic governance. Generally speaking, the U.S. was successful at containing the Soviet threat. The U.S. would either prop up Western-oriented dictators, like Reza Shah Pahlavi in Iran, or aggressively undermine Soviet-allies, like the pro-Communist Najibullah government in Afghanistan. U.S. policymakers found that by empowering rebels and revolutionaries, like the religiously oriented Mujahideen in Afghanistan, they could create chaos and uncertainty for governments sympathetic to Soviet interests.

Thus, a third kind of governance , neither communist nor democratic, began to take seed and spread across the Middle East and South Asia.

Unfortunately, many of these Cold War policies were disastrously shortsighted. In 1979, angry revolutionaries overthrew the Shah of Iran, and the government was seized by the strictly fundamentalist and religious Ayatollah. In 1986, the introduction of U.S. Stinger surface-to-air missiles in Afghanistan shifted the balance in favor of the anti-communist Mujahideen, who no longer suffered under the air threat posed by Soviet helicopters and ground-support aircraft. [1] While Najibullah officially abandoned the communist ideology in 1990, he lost control of the country, was ousted and hanged by the fundamentalist, religiously-oriented Taliban in 1996. Thus, a third kind of governance , neither communist nor democratic, began to take seed and spread across the Middle East and South Asia. 

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is yet another example of how a crisis in governance enables nefarious organizations to succeed in ungoverned regions. To maintain order in the aftermath of political change, the most organized groups begin to declare their authority in matters of religion, justice, and the law. The most organized and experienced groups in the Middle East are typically the ones that have survived through illegal means, in direct opposition to standing (legitimate) governments. Once the standing governments fall, underground organizations emerge as local strongmen, religious zealots, and crime syndicates that can control the people.  

It must get worse before it gets better 

The Russians have an old saying, “Аво́сь да как-нибу́дь до добра́ не доведу́т,” literally translated as, “maybe and somehow won’t make any good.” World War II demonstrated how difficult it was to defeat a political ideology without a concentrated international effort from both global superpowers: the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Only the U.S. and the Soviets had the global bandwidth, interest, and military power to act as a resolute force in the region. It is possible that the breakdown of the nation-state system in the Middle East and South Asia, as well as the rise of nefarious and fundamentalist actors such as the Islamic State, could eventually pose a threat on the order of Hitler’s Nazism. In 1941, the Americans and the Russians agreed that the threat emanating from Germany was existential, and they cooperated to annihilate it.

The Islamic State itself may not be an existential threat, however the “third way” — nefarious state-like actors that do not play by the rules of the international system, could radically undermine both Russian and U.S. intentions in the region. But, paradoxically, until this “third way” poses a large enough threat, it is unlikely the Russians and the Americans will cooperate to defeat it.

Dr. Diane Maye is a member of the Military Writers Guild and frequently writes about U.S. foreign policy, Iraqi politics, and grand strategy. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

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[1] Sparrow, Bartholomew. The Strategist: Brent Scowcroft and the Call of National Security (New York: Public Affairs, 2015), pp. 337–8.