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Putin and Stalin: Mirror Reflections

Welcome back to the World Policy “Best of” blog series. Today we venture where few Russian reporters can—into anti-Putin territory.  Putin's hostile actions in Crimea are reminiscent of another leader of the not-so-distant past. Konrad Putzier reveals the comparisons between Putin’s foreign policy and those of Stalin to show how Russia's aggressor may and must be stopped.

By Konrad Putzier 

Angela Merkel is right: Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is living in another world. But what world exactly is this? As the Crimean crisis drags on, it is becoming clear that Putin’s thinking is somehow stuck in 1930s Europe. Replace Putin with Stalin and you get a good sense of what Russia’s leader is doing and, more importantly, how he can be stopped.

Much has been written about how the Soviet Union shaped Putin’s thinking. To him, Russia’s immediate past is not just a tool to foster patriotism. It is a model he is hoping to emulate.

Putin has long tried to recreate Soviet greatness by invading neighbors (think Georgia 2008) and building a Eurasian economic union. Along the way, he has also adopted a way of thinking that is strikingly similar to his Soviet predecessors.

In fact, he invaded Crimea for much the same reasons that Stalin invaded eastern Poland in 1939. Comparing the two invasions not only helps us make sense of a complicated situation, but it also offers clues on how Putin’s expansionism can eventually be defeated

After storming the winter palace in 1917, the Bolshevik leaders set out to export communism across the globe. They founded the latest Communist International and supported socialist movements in a number of foreign countries.

But the world revolution never happened. Instead, fascist takeovers in Italy (Mussolini), Germany (Hitler) and Spain (Franco) left the Soviet Union increasingly isolated. This presented its leaders with a monumental conundrum: how could a system whose success seemed to depend on world revolution survive alone amid a hostile world? Stalin, who assumed power in the late 1920s, found an answer. He called it “socialism in one country” – a maxim first put forth in 1924 and then gradually adapted.

Instead of trying in vain to subvert other countries, Stalin argued, the Soviet Union should focus on securing its borders and becoming autarkic. Its best shot at growing more powerful was rapid industrialization at home and gradual growth by annexing territories at its borders.

This philosophy culminated in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939, in which the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany shocked the world by pledging mutual non-aggression. A secret clause divided Poland up between the two states.

Contemporaries saw the pact and eventual Soviet invasion of Eastern Poland, the Baltic States, and Moldova as a sign of Soviet strength. They were wrong. By agreeing to the pact the pact, Stalin gained some territory east of the so-called Molotov-Ribbentrop line, but he also gave up all hope of turning Poland or Germany communist – a hope that had all but faded anyway. The treaty was an acknowledgement of his failure to export the Bolshevik revolution.

Eventually, this failure doomed the Soviet project. Stalin’s autarkic model worked more or less for a few decades, and he won over a number of satellites in Eastern Europe. But the world’s largest economies remained capitalist, and the Soviet Union became more or less isolated from a growing world market. This isolation bred stagnation, decline, and then collapse.

With the benefit of hindsight, we know that Stalin’s autarkic vision was doomed to failure. We can apply this lesson to Putin’s invasion of Crimea.

Putin is no communist, and never wanted to export a revolution. But much like Stalin, his system depends on gaining allies abroad. While Stalin wanted to turn Western European states communist – and then into Soviet satellites – Putin has been working hard at winning over post-Soviet countries.

Surrounded by what he perceives to be a hostile West, Putin’s vision of a powerful Russia centers on the Eurasian Union. So far the economic union set to launch in 2015 only includes Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. Drawing Ukraine into the club was meant to be Putin’s ultimate triumph. After Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych ditched the EU and signed an economic-cooperation agreement with Moscow last fall, it seemed like he had succeeded.

Then protesters chased Yanukovych out of the country, and Putin saw his ideal of Eurasian greatness fall to pieces. Much like Stalin in the 1930s had to accept that Germany wouldn’t become a communist satellite, Putin today understands that Ukraine has fallen out of his orbit for the foreseeable future. He can still exert economic pressure, but a new pro-European government in Kiev will never join his Eurasian Union.

It appears Putin drew the same conclusion Stalin had drawn 80 years earlier: if he couldn’t have it all, he should at least take what he could get. So he invaded Crimea.

Most Western observers have interpreted the invasion as a sign of Putin’s strength. It is in fact a sign of his weakness. By invading Crimea, he may have won some territory, but he also acknowledged that his Ukrainian policy has failed. There is virtually no chance following the invasion that Ukraine will seek closer ties to Moscow anytime soon. Instead, the country is likely to turn west–as it already has.

Like Stalin in the 1930s, Putin has given up an increasingly elusive hope for allies abroad in exchange for modest territorial gains. By doing so, he chose isolation: call it “Putinism in one country.” Even if Russia avoids sanctions, it is now far less likely to attract much-needed foreign investment and has scared off its neighbors, including Ukraine.

Understanding this weakness should guide any Western response to the Crimean crisis. We know from Soviet history that choosing isolation is unlikely to succeed, no matter how many tanks or how much natural gas you have.

Instead of rushing to punish Russia, the West should just let Putinism defeat itself. Investors fleeing Russia in the wake of the invasion have already cost the country dearly.

The U.S. and EU should support Ukraine and other post-Soviet states fed up with Putin, drawing them closer to the West. An already weakened Putin will be left with nothing but a peninsula and the isolation he chose. It will breed stagnation, decline, and eventual collapse.

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Konrad Putzier is a New York-based journalist. He blogs at thelongerview.org.

[Photo courtesy of Andrey Korchagin]

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