Preston Clive
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Putin, the Ukraine & NATO: A Frank Assessment

Friendly handshakes prior to the Russo-Ukrainian ceasefire agreement (Image c MAD MAGAZINE)

There are some who would unhesitatingly make the association of the current Russian leader with the other two famous Russian Communist "In's," that is Lenin and Stalin. 


The amount of power concentrated in the Russian leader's hands is extraordinary by modern measure--but only by today's standard (when measured against the bar of history and specifically against his predecessors in Moscow mentioned above during the years of the USSR, he of course comes up short). The changing political landscape since the fall of Communism has seen changes in complexion in Russian national leadership running through the days of Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin; it is pretty much a given that no leader in the post Soviet era has wielded more power, nor come to personify the Russian state as profoundly as Vladimir Putin.

There are some who would make the point--understandably, to a degree--that Russia has embarked on a slow, sliding tip, point by point, to the destiny of Fascism under Putin. Whether or not this is actually so is a matter of political science theory; it may be argued that regardless what you call the actions and the results of those actions of governance, it is the actions and results themselves which must be responded to.  

Of course labeling "Mother Russia" as a fascistic state will undoubtedly pierce the hearts of many of the most patriotic Russians with intolerable irony, particularly those who lived through WWII--called The Great Patriotic War by Russians--which was a national paroxysm of agony to the upteenth degree, which squeezed the nation white through rivers of blood paid to the mantle of victory .  .  . all in an effort to defeat the classic incarnation of fascism: Hitler's German invaders.

Is Russia at present technically a fascist state? Certainly not. This is not to say that the nation doesn't flirt dangerously with many of the classic bullet points of fascism: admiration and total support of the supreme leader, idealization of the nation state to a mystical, supreme ideal, almost total disintegration of free and democratic processes, and more. 

In certain aspects, against the backdrop of the "technical" (quotation marks used advisedly owing to the continued hostility around the rail hub of Debaltseve at present) ceasefire between Ukraine/pro-West forces and the Separatist/pro-Russian forces in the East of Ukraine, this analysis of the Russian state seems as relevant as ever: mired in massive economic and currency deterioration, headed for recession, with a staggered national export (oil) floundering as a pillar of income, mired in sanctions, enmeshed in a military conflict with the largest adversaries in the world .  .  . and yet the person of Vladimir Putin enjoys unflagging support. ("No Putin, no Russia," said a Deputy Chief of Staff recently)  

This bulletproof nature/cult of personality surrounding Putin is nothing new; it is the result of years of careful, tactical consolidation of power, often by brute force, other times by subtle cultivation. Back in 2010, a Columbia University edition of the Harriman Review said of Putin's Russia:

All the post-Communist states of the former Soviet empire have experienced significant change in the last twenty years, but Russia’s systemic transformations since Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika may be most dramatic. Most of the East Central European satellite states and the Baltic republics moved from some from of decayed totalitarianism through generally brief interludes of authoritarianism to democracy—and have stayed there. [...]

In contrast to the above, Russia passed from totalitarianism to several years of both authoritarianism and democracy—only to abandon democracy completely and embark on a transition to what is arguably fascism. In using this term, I am suggesting both the magnitude of Russia’s change in recent years and the direction in which it has changed. No less important, I am also suggesting that the terms scholars have developed for Russia—such as patrimonial or tsarist—are inadequate, primarily because they fail to place Russia on a spectrum of comparative political-system types.

A final point about political sensibilities needs making. Fascism is often used as an epithet, especially by the left, but it actually is, or at least can be, a perfectly respectable social-science term that refers to a particular type of political system. [...] there is no reason that such a reversal of roles should not be possible. Democracies (such as Weimar Germany) can become dictatorships, and dictatorships (such as Franco Spain) can become democracies.

If there is anything that the Russian state doesn't take kindly to historically, it is the encroachment into its immediate sphere of geography and influence by another country reaching in from another part of the world. Russia likes friendly and malleable neighbors--like any other sane nation, it wants safe borders where it does the influencing, not vice versa. It does not want the intelligence services of other nations to have easy access to its borders; it wants its intelligence services to have easy access to other, nearby nations. All of this is statecraft 101. 

What Putin particularly abhors is the prospect of NATO bleeding right up against Russia's borders via the vehicle of the Ukraine. Once Ukraine joins NATO, things will grow extremely hairy indeed for the machinations of Mr. Putin in the region. With NATO at his front porch, intelligence operations, disruptive economic power plays--all orchestrated by the USA and Western Europe nations-- will go on apace right under the nose of Putin, and there will be little he could do about it. The only perceived option to preserve his regional hegemony was the taking of East Ukraine--prophylaxis versus the prodding of the west.

I'm afraid to say that Putin is doomed to lose this particular OK Corral. He can hang in there as long as he likes--but the Pandoras Box is already open in the Ukraine, and there's pretty much nothing he can do. The USA and the West is preferring the opposite of public posturing; quiet paramilitary maneuvers, economic engineering (see: oil prices), heavy sanctions, and now the threat of war. It is literally Putin against the world (with perhaps a few impotent allies... Syria, Iran, whatever). He alone can't outlast Western Europe and the USA. 

It's a dangerous game indeed--less because of the physical stakes.  .  .  the Ukraine itself, the old Breadbasket of the World, is no major glittering prize in the overall scheme of things. Putin's ego, and image, before his people, is quite another. And that is not something he will succumb easily (or at all) if history is any judge. This could go on for a very long time--and it could get mighty ugly, and dangerous, indeed.

Preston Clive