Vladimir Putin: friend or foe?

There are lots of reasons to distrust and dislike Vladimir Putin. I won’t bother to list them all here. But I have a grudging respect for him. Putin gets things done. Not necessarily the right things, but not necessarily the wrong things either.

The West is very good at criticizing Putin’s actions, but not very constructive at engaging with Russia. Our politicians seem to be much more comfortable keeping Russia as a potential enemy, rather than doing the hard work needed to become true friends.

A year ago I wrote about Ukraine, asking whether Europe or Russia was the villain. My bets were on Europe. One year later, and part of Ukraine is now Russia. It’s the part that voted overwhelmingly to be. Not an ideal solution, but it could have been a lot worse. Ukraine’s not in the news so much these days. Instead it’s Syria. Enter Putin, stage left.

The bad guy is at it again, invading another country. Just like last time, the West opposes Russian intervention. Just like before, Russia was invited in. And just like the previous time, the West doesn’t have any better ideas.

Russian intervention in Syria may not solve the problem. It will almost certainly create new and unexpected ones. But the fact remains that in the past three years, with America and Europe looking on, wringing their hands, hundreds of thousands of people have been killed, and millions displaced, precipitating a humanitarian crisis that now threatens to engulf Europe.

Not only did we in the free world fail to do anything meaningful, we had no idea what outcome we even wanted. We just wanted the bad guys to go away and stop fighting.

So whatever Putin does, can he really do a worse job than we did?

20 responses to “Vladimir Putin: friend or foe?

  1. I tended toward your view of Ukraine until my friend from eastern Ukraine (whose native tongue is Russian) convinced me that Russia was really in the wrong there. In Syria – maybe because I’m American – I don’t see it quite like we’re doing nothing. It’s more like we’ve been bombing ISIS targets for some time, now Putin wants to bomb ISIS and other rebel factions, so who are we to say that we get to pick which rebel groups to bomb and which to protect and that Russia must stay out of it? And the sad truth is that Putin is probably right – in Syria as in Saddam’s Iraq, you can’t have your cake and eat it too – either you have dictator (bad) and order (good) or you have no dictator (good) and bloody chaos (bad). Indeed, this was the very view that drove American policy in the Middle East until the debacle in Iraq and then the Arab Spring.

    • The Middle East always seems to be in a mess, so why not let someone else have a go for a change, since the West has been unable to do anything constructive. There’s never going to be a good outcome, but perhaps Putin can deal with Islamic State.

      • Probably true that Putin could act more decisively without political opponents at home trying to take out his kneecaps every time he moves right or left. That would at least make him more efficient, although what ends that efficiency would ultimately serve may need further thought. Short-term it’s easy to see how Putin’s interest overlaps with the West (contain or destroy ISIS) but also differs (per Assad and “moderate” rebels); long-term, hard to see if the shared or differing interests prevail (per Saudi/Iran balance of power, Hezbollah, etc.). Unlike some Americans, I don’t think a stronger hand for Russia is automatically bad for “us,” just because they’re Russia, or just because our ego requires that we be the “leader.” If they want to lead the way and wipe out ISIS, I’m all for it. On the other hand, Putin’s motives and goals always require careful scrutiny.

        • Mostly this article is just my reaction to the wave of criticism directed at Putin coming from US and UK politicians. Like I said, Putin’s the bad guy. Trouble is, often I think that we are too.

  2. Elton will put him straight.

    • I enjoy your sentiments, Hariod.

      • Let’s face it Steve, the situation is so complex that one must surely doubt whether Western and Russian Intelligence can comprehend the full long-term impacts of their current actions – and that would true to form of course, particularly as regards Western interventions in The Middle East over the past century or so. Both are cosying up to Iran, in part by using Iraq and Syria as leverage, forming areas of military occupation there in time, to the point where those territories become former or all-but-ghost nations. The narrative we hear in the mainstream media is that it’s all about ISIS, yet I doubt it currently is; they can be dealt with at any time, and as they possess no air power, are largely containable as they are. ISIS dissolving the boundaries between Syria and Iraq may even be playing into the long-term objectives of The West – all the more reason for Putin to try and destroy them now, along with any opposition to Assad.

        • I don’t pretend to understand the geo-politics of the Middle East. I’m really just asking whether Putin’s actions can be worse that the West’s inactions. At least he’s clear about what he wants. We don’t even know that.

  3. The situation in the region is enormously complicated. Inaction may be emotionally frustrating, but sometimes it’s the least evil option. That said, we haven’t been completely inactive. We’ve been sending aid to the less radical rebels and bombing ISIS.

    Not enough? The alternative was to help Assad, a monster in his own right. Or go in and fight everyone, which would be expensive, bloody, and probably unsupportable for war weary democratic societies.

    Putin’s options were to stay out of it, or help an old ally. For someone aspiring to recapture old glories, and who has critics jailed so he isn’t too concerned about push back from his people, the second option must have been particularly appealing.

    All of which is to say, the options of western leaders weren’t the same as Putin’s. I’m actually kind of glad my leaders don’t have his options.

    • You make some interesting points and I have been thinking carefully about what you said. I agree that Putin’s objectives are not the same as the West’s. I actually think that Obama has no clearly-defined objective, and that is why he has no options, other than to complain about Putin.

      I’m not a “jump in, shoot those guns!” kind of guy, and yet, as we looked on, hundreds of thousands of innocent people lost their lives and millions more lost their homes. I can’t convince myself that was the best possible outcome.

      If Putin can eliminate the extremists and restore order to Syria, then I find that I am in favour of that, even if Assad stays in power. In any case, in every plausible scenario, Assad stays. At least with some stability, there is the possibility for a transition to a peaceful government. At present that is impossible.

      • I think Obama has done as much as he can without risking US soldiers being caught in a quagmire. Before it was known that a faction of the rebels were ISIS, lots of people were upset with him for not indiscriminately helping all the rebels. Now people are upset because he’s not helping Assad.

        Personally, I’m still not sure he did the best thing getting the US involved in this at all. I know Europeans are upset right now because they’re being swamped with refugees. Maybe they should consider putting their own soldiers in jeopardy.

        Putin seems interested in attacking anyone opposed to Assad, not just the extremists. I’m sure it will be quite peaceful once all of Assad’s enemies are dead, but it will be the peace of a graveyard.

        • My criticism is not specifically of Obama, although it is the US administration that is doing most of the moaning about Putin. Obama’s primary duty is to protect US citizens, and if he does not want to risk US troops that is perfectly understandable.

          As you say, Europe has done even less to solve the Syrian crisis. Europe rarely, if ever, gets its act together, as it is a group of countries with divergent views and interests.

          My annoyance is with the West telling Putin he is doing everything wrong, when we abandoned the Syrian people to their fate. Given our own muddled and ineffective response, I don’t think we have the right to tell him that.

          I am also very concerned that NATO seems to want to provoke Russia into starting some kind of new cold war. Apparently we are sending troops into Poland and the Baltic States right now. I even heard Obama refer to a proxy war between NATO and Russia. Why would he say such a thing?

        • Steve said: “I even heard Obama refer to a proxy war between NATO and Russia. Why would he say such a thing?”

          My understanding is that The West is attempting to destabilise Putin’s regime by exerting pressure on the cronies who help keep him in power and extend his wealth. The last thing they want is to have their freedoms curtailed to do business and hold assets in The West – i.e. sanctions imposed due to a proxy war in The Middle East.

        • I personally think the West is playing with fire. We are taking actions that seem calculated to provoke Russia into some kind of direct confrontation, or a new cold war. If that happens, it will be our fault IMO.

        • Yes Steve, although I think the new Cold War has already begun.

        • I think you are right. I’m really angry about this, actually. The end of the Cold War was a once in a lifetime opportunity. I can’t believe that we wasted it.

        • We pushed to expand NATO (into Ukraine) against our assurances to Moscow not do so, and blew it in the process.

        • Yes, I think we did. It’s hardly surprising Russia reacted the way it did.

  4. One thing about progressives, the desire to be moral or nice or fair often makes it very hard to choose a course of action. People like Putin (or Trump, for that matter), as you say, get results by not wringing their hands so much as “nice” people often do.

    One of my all-time favorite quotes (one I had hanging over my desk for years) is due to Thomas Watson, Jr., former CEO of IBM (and the man who coined the “THINK!” signs): “The worst possible thing…was to lie dead in the water with any problem. Solve it, solve it quickly… If you solved it wrong, it would come back and slap you in the face, and then you could solve it right.”

    But then I’ve always been the sort who thinks, “I wonder what happens when I press this button…”

    • From Wikipedia: “The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias wherein relatively unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability to be much higher than is accurate.”

      As Mike says, the Syrian problem is incredibly complex and difficult to solve. And as both you, Wyrd, and Mike point out, intelligent analysis reveals this to be fraught with danger, whether we choose action or inaction.

      However, facing difficult problems is exactly why we have leaders. If Presidents and Prime Ministers only had to solve easy problems with obvious outcomes, we would hardly need them.

      As you point out, Wyrd, often the the worst thing you can do when confronted by a difficult problem is to duck it. Experts must analyze and advise – leaders must act. If they choose not to, they should take responsibility.

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