Daily Dispatches
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at a rally in support of Crimea joining Russia.
Associated Press/Photo by Alexei Nikolsky/RIA-Novosti, Presidential Press Service
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at a rally in support of Crimea joining Russia.

Defense expert: Putin’s just getting started

Q&A

The G-8-minus-one meets in The Hague this week to come up with ways to punish the “minus one”—Russia—for its aggression toward Ukraine.

K.T. McFarland, who served at the Pentagon during President Ronald Reagan’s administration, talked with Jim Henry of The World and Everything in It about the challenges facing the West as it works to contain Russia.

While most of the West focused last week on what President Barack Obama was saying, you were listening carefully to what Russian President Vladimir Putin was saying in his own country. Absolutely. He gave just an extraordinary address to hundreds of the leading senior leaders of Russia. He spoke at the Grand Kremlin Palace in a long and emotional speech where the audience was crying and cheering and full of emotion. And what Putin talked about was that Russia had been robbed, that they’d been lied to, they’d been cheated, they’d been stolen from, that at the end of the Cold War, America subjected them to humiliation after humiliation, that America cut up the Soviet Union. … Putin said, “One night we all went to bed as Russians and the next morning we woke up as not even in our own countries.” So for Putin, I realized all of a sudden, this is really personal. This is not just Putin deciding where he’s going to take an advantage, and maybe he’ll go into Crimea and maybe he’ll do this, maybe he’ll do that. I think Putin has a much bigger plan, and that is ultimately to challenge NATO, to show NATO that it may not be what NATO of old was, that if Putin decides to move and take more and more territories here and there and elsewhere, that if he gets to the point where it’s a NATO country that he’s challenging, the United States and other European NATO countries will not come to the aid of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, any other countries in the former Soviet Union area.

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Well, that certainly helps us get inside Putin’s head. He does seem very decisive. He knows what he wants and he’s obviously not afraid to go after it. And of course, President Obama has been accused of being anything but that. Is that what’s led us to this point? I think it’s several things. First of all, this predates Obama. Vladimir Putin, if you think about who he is, when he was a young man, a young KGB officer, Russia was a superpower. The Soviet Union, they controlled a large part of the globe, they were winning the arms race, they were really on top of the world and then overnight it all changed. It came crashing down, and that’s what this speech that Putin gave typifies that he really feels this personally. So I think if you look at the doctoral dissertation he wrote in the middle 1990s, he laid out the plan. He said, this is how Russia is going to reclaim our greatness. We’re going to use our oil, we’re going to use our natural gas, we’re going to become great again, and he has followed that plan for 15 years. He’s now got to the point where the final piece in the plan is to reclaim territory and that’s what he’s doing. … I don’t think in his fondest dreams he thought America would give him as weak an opponent as President Obama.

One of the first foreign policy/defense decisions the president made after coming into office in 2009 was to cancel the missile defense shields that President George W. Bush had promised Poland and the Czech Republic. What impact has that had? I think that was the first indication that Putin had that he was dealing with a guy he could outsmart, out-maneuver. The missile defense shield was something that just drove the Russians … nuts—to think that they would look over their borders and see guys in American military uniforms. But Obama gave it up, just said, well, we’ve decided not to build those two missile shields in Poland and the Czech Republic, and we’re going to do it as a goodwill gesture and hope that Russia responds. Well, Russia didn’t respond at all.

So you don’t think Putin is finished gobbling up little pieces of the former Soviet Union? No way. … Look at Moldova, another country that nobody knows where it is. … It has a large ethnic Russian population. I would look at east Ukraine; it’s north of Crimea—again a large ethnic Russian population—and then Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania. Those are the Baltic States, and they also have large ethnic Russian populations. Putin … makes an announcement that all Russian, ethnic Russians—if you speak Russian [and] you belong to the Russian Orthodox Church—even though they don’t live in Russia, you’re Russian citizens. And then demonstrations in that area get out of hand … and then Putin rushes in, either with military or paramilitary forces, to say, we’re coming in to protect ethnic Russians, Russian citizens. We’re not invading, we’re just protecting our own. And he uses that as the excuse then to intimidate and to take territory. Guess who else did this, by the way? Hitler.

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