During one of my visits to Moscow during that period, I remember spending an afternoon on a boat ride on the Volga River, much of time listening to Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), who was calmly and knowledgeably talking to a group of Americans and Russians, tracking events marking the end of the Soviet Union.
On another occasion around that time I went to Kharkiv under USIA auspices to make some suggestions for economic conversion to a group of the city's planners. Kharkiv then ranked second only to St. Petersburg in the former Soviet Union as a center for military training. I said that the city's three airports and its tank factory would make it a good location for distributing high-value goods, as in Memphis, Tenn., and they needed to bring in a developer. The city fathers asked me: "Chto eto, devyeloper?" ("What's a developer?") The city has since become a major regional book distribution center for Bertelsmann, a huge German publisher, with the capacity to ship 20 million books per year.
Fast-forward to 2014. Although his signals change from day to day, Vladimir V. Putin has clearly been engaging in risky behavior by massing troops on Ukraine's border and engaging in language provoking the West. His underlying motivation seems to be to restore some of what was lost in the breakup of the Soviet Union. This improved his popularity in 2008 when he invaded Georgia and it seems to be working again:
- His ratings are rising fast as Russians who have been polled seem to be buying the propaganda that Russian nationals need protection from Ukrainian protesters he labels "fascist".
- Putin's peak popularity in 2008, when he invaded Georgia, was achieved without much resistance from Europe or even the United States under President George W. Bush.
With an eye to these polls, Putin is enjoying a challenge to the temporary regime in Kiev. One pretext is that the change in Ukraine's government was not based on elections. The other is that the new government in Kiev threatens Russian minorities in Crimea (and - who knows? - elsewhere in Ukraine). But:
- The temporary regime in Kiev, a Ukrainian living in the United States recently assured me, is less corrupt than the one that was forced out.
- The more important difference is that it is friendlier to Europe, and the European Union would surely clamp down on corruption once an Association Agreement was signed.
- Most important, elections will be held in May. Democratic elections will determine a permanent government.
The more worrisome parallel is Europe in 1939. The United States and its European Allies looked weak to Hitler and some in the United States blame Britain's Prime Minister Chamber for attempting to appease Hitler. A thoughtful article in this week's New Yorker on Hollywood's involvement in U.S. propaganda in World War II describes Frank Capra's horror at the appeal of Leni Riefenstahl's propaganda movie for the Nazi party. His first reaction was: "We can't win this war."
But public opinion turned and the Allies produced the leadership, technology and materiel they needed.
- Britain replaced Chamberlain with Churchill and again, as in the First World War, young men fought heroically.
- When Hitler invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, no one on the west believed his claim that Poland provoked the invasion. He had been massing the Wehrmacht on the Polish border and looked for a pretext to invade.
- A photo of a Polish "urchin" playing amidst bombed-out rubble was motivation enough for a soldier.
- The United States produced its own leader in FDR, and within a year of D-Day, Hitler was dead and the war in Europe was won.
- Capra's years-later answer to his own fears about his country's survival was "It's a Wonderful Life", showing the strength of small-town America.
- The CNN/ORC International Poll released today shows Putin's unfavorability rating in the United States jumped to 68 percent, from 54 percent just before the Sochi Winter Olympics opened last month.
- It shows 69 percent of Americans surveyed thinking Russia is a serious threat to the United States, an increase of 25 percentage points since 2012 - the highest number since the Soviet Union broke up.
- More than 70 percent of U.S. respondents see no justification for Russia's actions in Ukraine.
- Nearly half believe a new Cold War is likely in the next few years.
In this environment, Senator McCain's opportunistic call for Obama to raise the threats against Putin is worrisomely political. He calls for NATO expansion and restoration of missiles in Eastern Europe. He refers to cuts in the defense budget as an Obama initiative instead of what it was, a Congressional bi-partisan agreement to reduce the deficit. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who served both Bush and Obama, is bravely taking the right path by calling for a de-escalation of military tension.
In the middle of a major international crisis, ... domestic criticism of the president ought to be toned down, while he's trying to handle this crisis.German Chancellor Angela Merkel's stern warnings to Putin speak of severe economic and political sanctions, but not military ones. Her defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen, said on Monday:
Sanctions hurt both sides, that’s quite clear. But if you look at the numbers, Russia has 15 percent of its GDP depending on trade with Europe, Europe only 1 percent [dependent on Russia]. That means that the reliance on a functioning business relationship with Europe is much, much bigger in Russia.Putin's popularity sank quickly after his invasion of Georgia was followed by economic difficulties in Russia. It could happen again. The world has changed since 1939 and U.S.-European combined action could cause unacceptable disruptions in Russia without firing a shot. Meanwhile, Europe has taken the brunt of two world wars and is not about to rush into another one. Neither should Russia, which lost more lives than any other country. Neither should we respond with escalated military threats in the face of Putin's saber-rattling. As Gandhi said, "An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind."