Video: Putin: Friend or foe

By Military analyst
updated 10/29/2007 4:19:25 PM ET 2007-10-29T20:19:25

When the Soviet Union dissolved, naïve observers assumed that repressive Soviet communism would be replaced by a benign democracy. There would be a free exchange of ideas, enlightened public discourse and a regular change in leadership. People who had those notions just didn’t understand Russia.

No matter what the political system, Russians have always been led by despots. From time to time, they have been somewhat less repressive, but Russia’s rulers have occasionally been paranoid and sometimes certifiably mad, and they have always been paternalistic and unbendingly autocratic. With a very low threshold of pain for dissent, the natural reaction by Russian leadership is to kill it off.

Vladimir Putin does not seem to be very much different from the autocrats and oligarchs who preceded him. The occasional deaths of investigative journalists and political opponents attest to politics as usual in the new Russia, and there have been a few hapless characters on extended vacations in Siberia who can testify to the perils of falling out of Putin’s favor.

That’s why the latest vows of friendship between George Bush and Vladimir Putin are so lacking in credibility, especially in the context of the dispute that engendered them: the argument over proposed American deployment of an anti-missile system in Europe.

Provocatively, Putin likened the U.S. proposal to the Cuban missile crisis. In 1962, Soviet missile technology was vastly inferior to ours, and, with missiles unable to strike the United States, the Russians emplaced shorter-range weapons in Cuba. President Kennedy publicly announced that, unless the missiles were removed immediately, the U.S. would destroy them.

At the time I was in college, and I remember the entire population of my dorm crowding around the single television set in the building to listen to Kennedy’s speech. We were all convinced we were going to war the very next day.

But the Soviets removed the weapons. It may just be in Putin's nature to use the crisis of 1962 as a metaphor for today’s dispute, but it also bares a longstanding paranoia that is very Russian. It is also characteristic of a leader who is intrinsically just a KGB agent, and anybody who knows anything about the man should expect this kind of behavior all the time.

Furthermore, recent developments have certainly contributed to Russia’s view that things are out of its control. For example, NATO has expanded dramatically to include almost all of the countries previously in the Soviet sphere. And the United States has projected its power into areas on Russia’s doorstep, including making long-term base arrangements with countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union itself.

So, it’s not surprising that Putin is unhappy with an American anti-missile system on his western flank. And in a breathtaking demonstration that we don’t understand Russia, White House Press Secretary Dana Peraino responded to Putin’s remark about the Cuban missile crisis by explaining that our system would protect Russia, too. Madam, you don’t get it. Putin doesn’t want us to protect Russia.

In addition to this dispute, there are other examples that the relationship between the U.S. and Russia is in a continuous state of dynamic tension, and one of the best examples is the issue of Iran. Russia is a frustrating obstruction to our efforts to halt Iran’s nuclear program, and one of the reasons is that Russia has an economic interest in the Iranian program. It will be difficult, if not impossible, to use any leverage on Iran as long as Putin won’t help us solve this critical security problem.

These and other difficulties make the Bush-Putin vows of personal friendship sound hollow and even laughably ludicrous. But however unlikely, if they really are personally close, one has to question Bush’s choice of friends.

Jack Jacobs is an MSNBC military analyst. He is a retired U.S. Army colonel. He earned the Medal of Honor for exceptional heroism on the battlefields of Vietnam and also has three Bronze Stars and two Silver Stars.

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