By Barbara Harwood
The man has no class. He wants to be Catherine the Great, but he’s Vladimir the Imposter, a power-grabbing, former KGB thug coveting respectability. His awkward attempts to emulate the greatest Empress in Russian history, specifically her conquest of the lands on Russia’s western boundary, reveal Russian President Vladimir Putin’s long-simmering ambition to become the most powerful leader in the world. He wants to propel Russia into a position of world dominance it has never had.
Yet he lacks any sign of Catherine’s graciousness, her respect for diplomatic processes between governments* and, most of all, her respect for her constituents. From the time the Empress annexed large parts of Poland and defeated Turkey to claim several of its Balkan possessions in 1771, they were part of Russia. Ukraine’s declaration of independence 200 years later was the first, and largest – both in size and insult – of the Russian territories to severe relations with the Fatherland. Now Putin has sidled into the Ukraine under cover of denial to take it back. Somehow, he has misread the time clock. The 18th century is radically different from the 21st. He could take a few lessons from Catherine’s charming personality, her canny political sense, and her financial savvy instead of crashing in like a jack-booted gangster. But even then, the odds are of a political leader summarily appropriating another European country in 2015 without enormous flak from the western economic community are punishingly small.
Catherine’s first act as Empress was to send couriers riding to all European capitals reassuring their leaders of her desire for peace. Russia was financially exhausted by the Seven Years War. When she came to office, the price of grain was sky-high; corruption and extortion were rampant, and the Russian treasury was drained. Empress Elizabeth, Peter the Great’s daughter who had reigned before her, had tried unsuccessfully to get loans from European banks. So it was a practical decision to sue for peace in every quarter and make friends with countries whose aid she needed. It was also deep in her psyche as a student of Voltaire and the Enlightenment. “Russia is a European State,” she said in her memoirs. She recognized that Russia could be a part of the European alliance and culture. It didn’t have to set itself apart and be threatened. Refresher course needed, Mr. Putin.
Further, Catherine cleverly aligned with Joseph II of Austria, a powerful partner in her dismemberment and partition of the Ottoman Empire. Catherine’s treaty with Austria protected them both from the Turks. She also, thus, prevented an Austrian/Franco treaty which might have later threatened Russia, and acquired greater power in her negotiations with a weakened Prussia.
Putin isn’t that smooth or smart. He has managed to alienate every potential political ally. The world is smaller, more economically interdependent, and communication is instant, not requiring weeks of travel on horseback. The news of Catherine’s victory over the Turks in the Crimea took weeks to get to Western Europe. Tweets announced the invasion of Putin’s troops into Ukraine the night it happened.
Economic sanctions have hurt Russia’s ability to borrow from European banks. The value of a ruble is at its lowest in years. Oil prices have dropped, reducing the government’s income by half. Yet, instead of pulling back troops, he’s fomenting a war in Ukraine and has convinced Russian citizens, even some living in Ajijic, that the U.S. somehow caused it. Instead of reaching out to European nations to end sanctions and to help refinance Russian banks, he brazenly invades a country that is seeking to make its currency the Euro. Instead of sending his best and brightest intellectuals to other countries as diplomats, he kills them in midnight Al Capone-style assassinations. Now, he is clamping down ever tighter on the press and free speech. He wants to turn back the clock but he hasn’t looked further back than his KGB years. If he would just look over his shoulder, he could see a modern model of what he wants to become: Angela Merkel. She has a picture of Catherine the Great hanging in her office.
What Putin has is Dictator Disease. He’s stuck in the 20th century of Joseph Stalin, Malenkov and Brezhnev, unable to see that backing off the precipice, renouncing the violence of war, and opening his hand in friendship to the rest of the world would create the only viable future for Russia and would, in the end, give him the kind of glory, praise and power he seeks
Dictator Disease has ruined Zimbabwe and North Korea, seriously damaged Cuba, Syria, Sudan, South Sudan, the Congo, Myanmar (Burma) and destroyed Libya and Iraq. Russia may be larger and have more resources, but like tall, heavily loaded trucks on the highway, its very size may presage a larger fall when it hits the inevitable economic curve thrown by the drop in oil prices.
Narcissistic egocentrism is frustrating to deal with in anyone. In a world leader, it becomes dangerous.
*Not true in the case of Poland, but that’s a long story replete with her lover, Turkish threats, and a waning Prussia.