A KGB agent back in the bad old days of the Soviet Union and the Cold War, Russian President Vladimir Putin increasingly shows himself to be a clever sociopath.
He continues to present the West with bad situations and then undoes a little of his damage or backs off for a while, appearing to be not such a bad guy after all.
In Syria, Mr. Putin has been the leading supporter of incumbent tyrant Bashar Assad, whom most Western countries still would like to see deposed. Yet, when the issue of chemical weapons use by Assad on his own people came to the fore, Putin presented himself as a broker to get Syria to give up these weapons. This made Putin look good -- but Assad is still in power.
When a pro-Western government came to power amid much turmoil in Ukraine, Putin revealed his true colors, massing troops at the border and then annexing Crimea. Before the dust settled there, Putin started infiltrating Eastern Ukraine with Russian soldiers and insurgents.
This led earlier this month to Russian-supported insurgents shooting down a Malaysia Airlines 777 passenger jet over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people aboard. Not surprisingly, given the very strong evidence of Russian and rebel culpability, independent investigators have not been able to get near the crash site, which is still under rebel control. Evidence has apparently been tampered with and not all passenger remains and effects have been responsibly accounted for.
Evidence strongly suggests that Russia is firing artillery across its border in support of the rebels and may be massing troops for an all-out invasion.
If this were not enough, the U.S. has concluded that Russia has been breaking a landmark 1987 arms control treaty between the countries by testing cruise missiles with a prohibited range falling between 300 and 3,400 miles. Cruise missiles with such a range obviously could be used to strike Russia’s neighbors.
What to do? The U.S. and Europe agreed Monday to sharply ratchet up the level of sanctions against Putin. The U.S. has been leading the way in trying to economically squeeze Russia and Europe has lagged behind, largely because its national economies are much more dependent than the U.S. upon Russia and its energy supplies.
With these new economic and trade sanctions, including a halt to future arms sales from countries like France, European countries are stepping up and taking actions that may well cause pain to them as well as Russia.
The question is whether much tougher sanctions will deter Putin. Experts quoted in the media do not seem optimistic. For one thing, as the authoritarian he is, Putin controls the great majority of media outlets in Russia. So he is popular among a public fed lies about U.S, and Ukrainian insults and aggression.
Time magazine puts it this way in its current issue -- declaring "Cold War II" above a photo of Mr. Putin on its cover -- "So Putin presses ahead. His increasingly overt goal is to splinter Europe, rip up the NATO umbrella and restore Russian influence around the world."
The article does not ask the question, but we will: Where will Putin stop? Does he want to restore the old Soviet sphere of influence in Europe from 1945 to 1991? This would mean direct domination and complete control not only of Ukraine but the Baltic states of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia. It would mean the domination of Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and more.
Restoring such a lineup may seem a long shot now, but if Putin takes over all of Ukraine, he will be right on the doorstep of Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Belarus, a former Soviet republic.
Exhausted from more than 12 years of war, one completely unnecessary and one that went on years longer than it should have, the U.S. public understandably has no appetite for a long, twilight struggle with Russia such as it had with Soviet and Chinese communism for decades after World War II.
Add into the mix that the Middle East seems to be on the verge of real and unprecedented chaos in several areas -- Syria, Iraq, Gaza -- and we would almost seem to be powerless to stop Putin’s aggression.
But neither the U.S. nor Europe can afford to let Russia dominate Europe. We cannot let Putin succeed in his attempts to drive a wedge between us and our European allies. He cannot be allowed to undermine NATO. Russia’s treaty violations and weapons development need to be recognized as the acts of bad faith and rearmament that they are. The U.S. and Europe need to remain united.
In addition, despite all the difficulties that have been imposed, responsible nations should take every effort to gather proof of Russian and rebel responsibility for the murder of the passengers of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17. An international war crimes trial for this and for two unprovoked invasions may be in order.
Just as climate change, in the words of Al Gore, is an "inconvenient truth," so is the threat posed by Mr. Putin and his project of Russian expansionism another "inconvenient truth." He will not go away if we ignore him, and he will see attempts to appease him as signs of weakness and lunge toward what he wants anyway. The sooner we recognize this the better.
~ Mark E. Rondeau