Alexei Bayer: Containing Putin

(COMBO) This combination of file pictures created on March 17, 2021 shows US President Joe Biden (L) speaking at White House in Washington, DC on March 15, 2021, and Russian President Vladimir Putin speakins at a press conference in Moscow on March 5, 2020. – The US announced economic sanctions against Russia on April 15, 2021, and the expulsion of 10 diplomats in retaliation for what Washington says is the Kremlin’s US election interference, a massive cyber attack and other hostile activity. President Biden’s executive order “sends a signal that the United States will impose costs in a strategic and economically impactful manner on Russia if it continues or escalates its destabilizing international action,” the White House said. (Photos by Eric BARADAT and Pavel Golovkin / various sources / AFP)Photo by AFP

After publicly calling Vladimir Putin a killer, President Joe Biden phoned him and offered to meet with him, and then imposed tough sanctions on Russia for hacking into US government agencies. As usual, opinion on Biden’s actions was divided along ideological lines. Trumpists and other right-wingers, having spent four years ignoring Trump’s fawning on the Russian strongman, now saw Biden’s phone call as a humiliating retreat and pooh-poohed the effectiveness of announced sanctions. But even to many of Biden’s supporters and well-wishers that phone call looked a lot like bowing to pressure after Putin had massed his troops on Ukraine’s borders and threatened escalation.

Is Putin once again being appeased?

Putin is easier to read than Soviet-era Russian leaders. He often appears on television to communicate with his subjects, and even though questions and topics are always vetted, the man shines through in all his glory. You don’t have to be a psychiatrist to take his measure.

He remains, as many people have pointed out, a minor street thug from a lumpenized Leningrad neighborhood, exactly where he grew up in the late Soviet period. In the 1960s and 1970s such loosely organized street gangs existed in every courtyard in Soviet cities. They were known by the collective name of shpana, while their individual members were disdainfully referred to as gopniks.

Those underage hooligans looked up to adults who had done real jail time, but only a few of them grew up to become career criminals. Putin chose a career in an organization of professional, officially sanctioned thugs, the KGB.

Even though criminals are often romantically portrayed in books and movies as “serious” people, in reality, criminal societies represent a never-ending childhood for their members. In Russia in particular they are shaped by prison, where inmates, like kids in daycare, lead highly regimented, closely supervised lives. Members of criminal organizations rise through the ranks as they mature and prove their mettle, but they don’t actually grow up. The KGB was no exception. What Putin was doing in Dresden — recruiting prostitutes and pimps to spy on West German visitors — was certainly not a serious job for a grown man.

Despite growing bald and, under the layers of Botox, wrinkled, Putin, at nearly 70 years of age, remains the same gopnik he was in the 1960s’ Leningrad. He tries to maintain a youthful appearance and plays real men’s sport of ice hockey, cheering every time world-class players let him score. In public, he often uses the criminalized street slang of his youth and has the same kind of sense of humor — cynical, condescending, and built on humiliating the weak.

That last point is crucial for the shpana modus operandi. Assembling into gangs gave them a sense of power and strength in numbers. They would catch kids walking alone or on a date with a girl and rob and beat them — not so much for material gain as for the pleasure of humiliating them. To humiliate another human being — especially those who are stronger or smarter or from an intelligentsia family — was worth the risk of getting into trouble if the person they attacked went to the cops.

This is exactly what Putin is doing on an international stage. As a juvenile he had his gang, some of whom were wrestlers. As a KGB officer he had the mighty secret police behind him. Now as president of a nuclear superpower he knows that no one will tangle with him. This gives him a sense of impunity. So he is out to humiliate those who are stronger or smarter or more decent than him — and at this point it is pretty much everyone in Europe and North America. It is also the driving force of Russian diplomacy and it explains the juvenile shpana language Putin’s diplomats, from Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova to foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, employ in their official statements and communications.

Russia’s successful intervention in the 2016 US presidential election must have been highly satisfying to Putin. He humiliated Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton who had treated him in a high-handed manner, like a juvenile delinquent he is. He humiliated Americans by helping them elect a buffoon as the president who for as yet unknown reason kept singing praises to Putin — and that stain will endure for a long time to come.

Yet, none of that had any actual strategic implications. Even Trump couldn’t recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea or alter the reality of American support for Ukraine.

At the same time, there is nothing any US leader can do to fundamentally alter Russia’s behavior. The example of Ronald Reagan, who is credited with defeating the Soviet Union in the Cold War and who is often cited as an example of how to talk tough with Russia, is flawed. US support for the Afghan resistance did raise the price of Soviet aggression but the Soviet Union wasn’t defeated by the Afghans — or by anything else Reagan did. Its collapse happened at home, for entirely domestic reasons.

Putin’s massing of his troops against Ukraine was mostly a bluff. An all-out invasion would have been far too risky — above all because it probably wouldn’t have been successful. Russia’s conventional forces are not especially well equipped, trained or led, and certainly not very motivated. Starting a real war would have invited an unknown response from the West and if the war went poorly for Russia Putin would have faced the necessity of escalating. All of that would have had unpredictable consequences which could have spelled the end of his regime — and life.

Biden surely understands all this. However he has no desire to run the risk of an international crisis so early in his presidency—a crisis moreover that could get out of control. He is a president of a bitterly divided country with a barely functioning Congress. The US is facing a still-unfolding COVID-19 pandemic and has an economy that needs not only to recover but to be seriously restructured. In the international arena, he is repairing the damage done to America’s global standing and previously solid alliances.

But Biden can afford to wait. Putin can gloat over the humiliation he has inflicted on Biden but it is neither here nor there. Sanctions at this point won’t shut down the Russian economy but will keep pushing Russia to the fringes and eventually out of the international economic system, into isolation and further stagnation. Other, tougher sanctions are being held in reserve and if Putin oversteps the line in any meaningful way they could be adopted to strangle his economy.

Other than that, Biden can return to deal with Putin at a later date without fear that Russia will grow either stronger or richer in the meantime.



  • onlyfactsplease

    “Is Putin once again being appeased?”
    Examining the evil-doings-to-countermeasure-rate, yes, the skunk is still being appeased.

    Liked by 3 people

  • The living wage in Russia for the working-age population at the end of 2020 was 12,273 rubles per month. In real money that’s 161 dollars.

    In poor Ukraine with not many oil and gas fields, compared to Russia zero, its 200 dollars.

    Liked by 3 people

  • Летающий Киви

    “He remains, as many people have pointed out, a minor street thug from a lumpenized Leningrad neighborhood,” They way to deal with such thugs is to eliminate them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Unfortunately there are people even worse than that savage little rodent who are waiting in the wings. It is the whole fascist-imperialist monolith that has to come down. A feat that can only be achieved by Russians themselves, who so far show little desire to do it.

      Liked by 2 people

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