Intermittent fixtures of this blog have been posts titled, “Putin Patrol.” But today’s “Putin Patrol” piece is unlike every other “Putin Patrol” piece. Up to now they have all reeked of fear and loathing. Today’s is a departure – it amounts to an inordinately reluctant tip of the hat.
I, like most Americans even dimly aware of his record, have nothing but contempt for the man of whom John McCain memorably said, “I looked into Putin’s eyes and saw three things – a K a G and a B.” However, as an inveterate student of leadership, I cannot help but acknowledge Vladimir Putin’s exceptional leadership skills.
Unlike Donald Trump, who admires Putin for being strong at home, I do not. What’s most impressive about him is his exceptional capacity as a strategic player abroad, on the global chessboard. Wherever he has detected weakness, in the US, in Europe, in Asia, he has exploited it, with few exceptions to his considerable political benefit.
It’s hard to recall where Putin was just five years ago. On the global stage – nearly nowhere. Russia had been weakened and Putin was a bit player, puny in comparison with his most obvious counterpart, President Barack Obama. Since then though it is Russia’s influence that has greatly grown, while America’s has badly shrunk.
How did this come to pass? It began when Obama pulled back from his own “red line,” in Syria. When after a year of threatening “enormous consequences” if Syria used chemical weapons, Obama blinked, he backtracked, he backpedaled. Instead of risking unilateral action against the Assad regime, Obama, operating from a position of weakness, in consequence of his failure to make good on his threat, brought Putin into the diplomatic process. To broker a deal that would get Assad to destroy his chemical weapons, Obama desperately needed Putin’s cooperation. Which explains why the former opened the Pandora’s Box that let the latter get out.
Since then Putin’s power in foreign affairs has expanded exponentially. Wherever he saw that a door might be ajar, he pushed it open, usually (though not always) to his considerable personal and political benefit. In Crimea. In the Middle East. Most recently, ironically, in the United States, where Russian hacking has already intruded on the presidential campaign – and could become downright insidious.
To those (like me) who see leadership as being value free – inherently neither good or bad – Putin could be described as being in an important way a “good” leader. He is not ethical. But as a global player he sure as hell has been effective.