I recently reread a 2000 book by a German analyst, Alexander Rahr, titled “Vladimir Putin, the German in the Kremlin.” While I respect the author, I wondered why I was rereading a book that came out 14 years ago. After all, we know so much more about Putin now than we did then. Boy, was I in for a surprise.
Despite efforts to portray a civilized Putin and to argue that he is just seeking what is best for his country, Rahr argues that Putin is not the kind grandfather who only wants the best for everyone. Rather, Putin is a hard-nosed politician specializing in power politics. Rahr says this was evident from meetings with Putin even before Boris Yeltsin appointed Putin president.
Germans who met with Putin were quick to pick up his nationalistic responses to issues involving the future of Russia. One comes away from Rahr’s book wondering why anyone ever looked upon Putin as a kindly former KGB officer who was dedicated to avoiding conflict with the outside world. Rather, he understands power politics and is willing to push his policies — especially if he thinks others will back down.
Rahr’s view of Putin was on target. According to the latest Pentagon reports, Russia has entered a new stage in its support of Ukrainian separatists. It’s known that Russia has provided arms and training. Many of the weapons, including missile systems are complex. In most cases, those who operate such missiles undergo months of training. A rag-tag group of separatists primarily trained as infantry soldiers — at most — is not in a position to fire anti-aircraft missiles effectively. Yet the operators of these missiles shot down not just a passenger plane flying at 32,000 feet but also several Ukrainian Air Force fighters as well.
Until recently, the Russians still could claim “deniability.” Regardless of what happened, they could — and did — claim they were not involved and that it was the separatists who did this or that. Then it began to become apparent that Ukrainian forces, using Western aid, were winning in battles against the separatists.
Moscow’s response was to provide separatists more Russian weapons and equipment, in-cluding tanks and artillery pieces. Putin had decided he would not permit the separatists to lose.
Another change occurred on July 25. It was on this date that information emerged suggesting that the Russian military was not only providing the separatists weapons and personnel, but that Russian armed forces had become directly involved. Photos of Russian artillery firing from Russian territory into Ukrainian territory began to appear. Moscow had upped the ante — firing into another sovereign country.
This was followed by reports that Russia had given the separatists rocket launchers. These are wheeled or tracked-vehicle mounted with multiple tubes capable of firing a half dozen or more guided or unguided missiles in quick succession at targets scores of miles away. There are also reports of up to 15,000 Russian troops massed along the Ukrainian border. Indeed, reports of Russian activity along the Ukrainian border are widespread.
As for the propaganda war, Moscow has accused Washing-ton of launching a “smear” campaign. Yet if one looks at Russia’s explanations for what happened with Malaysia Flight 17, they include a shoot-down by a Ukrainian fighter, a U.S. plot to put corpses on the airplane and the claim that Ukraine was trying to shoot down a plane that it believed Putin was a passenger on.
Putin appears to have decided that Eastern Ukraine, or at least major parts of it, will not remain part of Ukraine. He has challenged the West, effectively saying he will ensure that Russia resumes her rightful place in the world and that if the West doesn’t like it, it can try to stop him. Putin does not think the U.S. or Europe will take serious steps to do so.
The Europeans are so dependent on Russian gas and oil that they are not willing to seriously anger Moscow. Also, President Obama appears equally afraid to stand up to Putin. What could the West do? I do not suggest sending in ground troops. Rather, the West could provide many types of weapons and equipment. It should provide Ukraine the kind of weapons that will raise the ante for Putin.