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Strobe Talbott, who served in the Clinton administration, and now head of the Brookings Institution, penned a long piece for Politico on the rise of Putin. We might ask; if William Safire, in January 2000 could see so clearly what Putin would be like, how come all the bien pensants in DC couldn’t figure it out? What was the president thinking with the Russian reset? And what was SecState Clinton thinking?
In late January 2000, William Safire wrote a column in the New York Times under the headline “Putinism Looms.” Vladimir Putin had been acting president of the Russian Federation for only a month but Safire had already seen that the new Kremlin leader was bent on developing a “cult of personality,” “suppressing the truth” and “the resurgence of Russian power.” For the remaining nine years of his life, Safire often returned to the subject. He expanded the definition of Putinism as its namesake muzzled dissent, cracked down on the media, exiled or imprisoned those who opposed him, courted China as a counterweight to the United States, and did everything he could to lock the countries of “the near abroad” — fellow former Soviet republics – into a Russian sphere of influence.
Ukraine — the cradle of Russian civilization as well as its breadbasket, and a major manufacturing center of the old USSR – has always been the principal object of Russian neuralgia about Western encroachment into the post-Soviet space. Russians often say that they feel the loss of Ukraine as though it were the pain an amputee feels in a phantom limb. Yet it still came as a shock when Putin — outraged by pro-European protesters’ overthrow of a corrupt and repressive pro-Moscow regime in Kyiv — annexed Crimea and fomented a secessionist rebellion in the eastern and southern parts of Ukraine.
Putin’s aggression only makes sense against the backdrop of what has been the defining theme of his presidency: turning back the clock. …
… While Putin has earned the ism that Safire attached to his name more than 14 years ago, the phenomenon he personifies — its content, motivation and rationale, as well as the constituencies behind it — predates the appearance of Putin himself on the scene. A number of students of recent Russian history — including some, like myself, who have dealt with Putin — can, in retrospect, trace the roots of his policies today back more than a quarter century to the battle between Soviet reformers and their reactionary and revanchist foes. …
… it’s worth remembering that the trust between Gorbachev and Reagan survived the Strategic Defense Initiative. Gorbachev and Bush 41 weathered the strains of the first Gulf war, and the Bill-Boris bond held through the first round of NATO enlargement and the Kosovo air war.
Then, as now, the state-to-state relationship was highly personalized, in large measure because of a deep-seated characteristic of Russian political culture. No matter who’s in the Kremlin — whether czar, general secretary, or president — he wields immense personal power, not just bureaucratic power, over what Richard Pipes called a patrimonial state. Though Putin became famous for saying he intended to restore “the vertical of power,” when he first came to office, in fact, there has always been a vertical of power in Russia. Whoever is at the top is hard to stop, and hard to remove.
Which is why Putin himself, and not just Putinism, matters. The succession of Kremlin leaders over the last quarter century leading to Putin is an extraordinary story itself, packed with melodrama, irony, suspense, farce, and plot twists — and, of course, tragedy, all worthy of a Mussorgsky opera.
Act I opens in March 1985, when the Politburo convened to choose a successor to the short-timer Konstantin Chernenko. If any of the candidates other than Gorbachev had gotten the job, we might well today, 29 years later, still have a Soviet Union, a Warsaw Pact, and a Cold War. Once Gorbachev was in the Kremlin, he had the power to begin forcing change. He elevated Yeltsin to help him do so, then cast Yeltsin into the political wilderness.
Act II: Yeltsin fights back and replaces Gorbachev, yet adheres to the key features of Gorbachev’s reforms. Yeltsin, too, has the trump card of inhabiting the Kremlin. Despite his late-blooming democratic instincts, he was also partial to the verb tsarstvovat’ — “to rule as czar,” which he used as he asserted his power, particularly against the opposition.
But then the opera turns tragic. This democratizing czar plucks a junior operative out of obscurity and anoints him as his heir. Yeltsin does so for an irresponsible, ignoble reason: to protect his family’s physical and financial security.
In Act III, Putin is as good as his word on that personal commitment. But, in just about every other respect, he shreds his mentor’s political legacy. Putin becomes, himself, the anti-Yeltsin and, by extension, the anti-Gorbachev as well, thereby earning the support of those diehards of old regime who had tried, unsuccessfully, to thwart the reforms of the late ’80s and ’90s.
The specter of Putinism that Safire saw looming over Russia almost 15 years ago has now settled in to that point that there is talk of “the Putin era,” a phrase suggesting that it will be with us and our progeny for a long time. There are two reasons to question that prediction.
One is what’s new about Putinism. In place of the internationalist Soviet ideology of Marxism-Leninism, Putin has asserted the ultra-nationalist proposition that Russian statehood should be based on ethnicity. Putin has used it in Ukraine to expand Russian territory. But his brand of ethnic geopolitics, redolent of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, is a double-edged sword: It could shrink Russian territory, since vast parts of that country are populated by non-Russian ethnic groups who are unlikely to welcome or, over the long run, tolerate a Russian chauvinist in the Kremlin who wears a crucifix when he bares his chest. Putin, in other words, may inadvertently be hastening the day when the Caucasus and Central Asia will be vulnerable to jihadists who are already planning to establish a caliphate in part of what is now the Russian Federation.
The other reason to doubt the staying power of Putinism is what’s old about it. Putinism as a system of governance replicates, in its essence, the regime that failed to modernize the Soviet economy, failed to normalize Soviet society and ultimately failed to rescue the Soviet state from extinction. Besides, Putin’s concept of Russian security, like that of every Soviet leader from Stalin to Chernenko, has a perverse and potentially self-defeating feature: Russia won’t feel absolutely secure unless all its neighbors feel absolutely insecure. As a result, in the putative Putin era, Russia, once again, is a paranoid state that makes its own enemies. That same zero-sum strategy kept the USSR from being accepted by the international community as a trustworthy and constructive major power.
Speculation about the longevity of the system Putin has put in place should take account of the fate of the one he has, in fundamental ways, brought back to life: the Soviet system, and with it the Soviet state, lasted only seven decades — three score and 10 years, the biblical lifespan of a single mortal. Moreover, that system and state were not destroyed by foreign enemies like those Lt. Col. Putin hunted down in Dresden 30 years ago and those he still obsesses about from the Kremlin. Rather, it expired because of its own pathologies. It was unfit for survival in the modern world.
Safire made that connection in his January 2000 column. “The irony is that a ‘Putin era’ would mean an uncompetitive, economically weakened Russia,” he wrote. Rather than fearing a “resurgence of Russian power,” Safire predicted that the result would be “the surly stagnation of what would come to be called Putinism.” In other words, precisely because Putinism is a conscious attempt to bring back a proven failure from the past as model for the future, it’s doomed.
Still, that’s no excuse for complacency on the part of the West. Under its current leadership, Russia is an immediate threat to its neighbors, a disruptive and divisive force in the evolution of Europe, and a potential threat to world peace. It’s also an impediment to the ability of the international community to manage other perils, including the existential ones of climate change and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
But in designing new strategies for dealing with the Kremlin in the months and years ahead, we should remember, too, that Russia today is not the Soviet Union. It’s not stuck in the mid-20th century, to say nothing of the 19th. It’s nowhere near as monolithic and isolated as it was in the bad old days. Its people have had more than a taste of what it’s like to live in a normal, modern country. Russia is bigger and more resilient than Putinism; it will outlive the Putinist system just as it survived the one he is trying to resurrect.
And yet another example of how the government always screws up, the NY Times reports on the Workforce Investment Act and the chaos it has left behind for the people who were foolish enough to believe in promises from the state. However, the Times article portrays for-profit schools as the villain of the piece.
When the financial crisis crippled the construction industry seven years ago, Joe DeGrella’s contracting company failed, leaving him looking for what he hoped would be the last job he would ever need.
He took each step in line with the advice of the federal government: He met with an unemployment counselor who provided him with a list of job titles the Labor Department determined to be in high demand, he picked from among colleges that offered government-certified job-training courses, and he received a federal retraining grant.
In 2009, Mr. DeGrella, began a course at Daymar College — a for-profit vocational institute in Louisville — to become a cardiology technician. Daymar officials told him he would have a well-paying job within weeks of graduation.
But after about two years of studying cardiovascular physiology and the mechanics of electrocardiograms, Mr. DeGrella, now 57, found himself jobless and $20,000 in debt. He moved into his sister’s basement and now works at an AutoZone.
Millions of unemployed Americans like Mr. DeGrella have trained for new careers as part of the Workforce Investment Act, a $3.1 billion federal program that, in an unusual act of bipartisanship, was reauthorized by Congress last month with little public discussion about its effectiveness. Like Mr. DeGrella, many have not found the promised new career.
Instead, an extensive analysis of the program by The New York Times shows, many graduates wind up significantly worse off than when they started — mired in unemployment and debt from training for positions that do not exist, and they end up working elsewhere for minimum wage. …
… The Times examination, based on state and federal documents, school and court records, and interviews, shows that some of the retraining institutions advertise graduation and job-placement rates that often do not hold up to scrutiny.
The idea of dividing responsibility between federal and state officials was to give local and state authorities more power in helping the unemployed in their areas. But the unemployed who sign up for training are often left to navigate a bureaucratic maze with almost no guidance. To avoid any appearance of favoritism, federal job counselors are not allowed to recommend schools to job seekers, leaving many of the unemployed to unwittingly select institutions that are expensive, have a history of legal trouble or are academically substandard.
There is, for example, no mechanism for students to check in with counselors to gauge their progress or determine whether the training program is a good match. States say they investigate complaints and audit programs with poor outcomes, but students say they tend not to register formal complaints about a program’s quality. …
… In some states, data and academic studies have suggested that a vast majority of the unemployed may have found work without the help of the Workforce Investment Act.
In South Carolina, for example, 75 percent of dislocated workers found jobs without training, compared with 77 percent who found jobs after entering the program, according to state figures.
A group of for-profit schools frequently at odds with regulators over the quality of their training and their costs charge some of the highest tuitions but place relatively few students in jobs. …