‘Putin the terrible’ rattles Western powers

Cult of the strongman: Thin skin, monumental power and an open loathing for critics. © PA

While the USA is distracted, Vladimir Putin is developing new weapons and manoeuvring his missiles. Some fear Donald Trump will make things worse — so should the West stand up to Russia?

It can travel 1,500 miles in a day. It uses the same rails as a passenger or freight train. At first glance, it appears innocuous.

But Vladimir Putin’s latest gadget carries lethal cargo: nuclear missiles, which can travel 6,800 miles and be fired at a moment’s notice. This week it emerged that Putin’s Russia had successfully tested a ‘nuke train’. Within two years, the system is due to become operational.

Russian defence expert Victor Murakhovsky says the trains will be a ‘sheer nightmare’ for foreign spies. It is chilling news for Westerners: if a war breaks out, Putin could be emboldened to fire his missiles.

Russia is manoeuvring elsewhere too. This week it has deployed missiles to the Kuril islands, angering Japan; placed nuclear-capable missiles in Kaliningrad, heightening alarm in the Baltic states; and entered a war of words with the US government over Syria.

All this suggests Putin is exploiting a political vacuum in the USA to consolidate his power. And attention is turning to what will come next year, when Donald Trump becomes president.

Before the election, Trump repeatedly said the USA should ‘get along with Russia’. But some fear his isolationist instincts. Hillary Clinton called him ‘Putin’s puppet’. The CIA has even accused the Russian government of using hacking to help him. Igor Sutyagin, an expert on Russia, says his election brings “a dangerous moment”.

Putin has been in power since 2000. Western governments initially saw him as a welcome change from cold war-era Soviet leaders. But relations soon soured as he ruthlessly suppressed opposition at home and adopted hostile policies in countries such as Ukraine and Syria.

For his part, Putin says he fears the expansion of the NATO military alliance. And many support him at home. Putin fits within a Russian tradition of strong leaders: the country was ruled by highly authoritarian tsars until 1917 and Soviet dictators until 1991.

So how should the West handle him?

Vlad the invader?

Confront him, say some. He will exploit Western uncertainty, intimidate Russia’s neighbours and expand his influence in the Middle East. He will support autocrats and illiberal causes around the world — like Trump — as a cynical ploy to bolster his own appeal at home. And if Putin fits the Soviet tradition, the Western response must be similar to that of the cold war.

Compromise, say others. Russia is not the Soviet Union: it does not pose an ideological or military threat to the rest of the world or wish to subjugate eastern Europe, as it did then. Putin has the support of many millions of people. Western leaders need to accept that Russia cares about its neighbours’ affairs — just like any other country.

You Decide

  1. Is confrontation ever a better solution than compromise?
  2. Should the West be willing to “get along with Russia”?

Activities

  1. In pairs, list five questions you would like to ask Vladimir Putin, and five questions you would like to ask an ordinary Russian citizen. Discuss which of your questions would be most interesting.
  2. Write a two-minute speech, to give to your country’s parliament, on how to deal with Russia. Conduct some research to gain relevant facts and ideas.

Some People Say...

“Compromise just means betraying your values.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Putin won’t affect my life, will he?
The lack of trust between Russia and the West could be very dangerous for the world. If Putin invaded a NATO member, the other members of the alliance, which includes Britain, would be obliged to regard it as an attack on themselves. That could lead to a very dangerous escalation.
Does Putin really care about the West?
This is a source of some contention. Some believe his only interest is in Russia’s “sphere of influence”, which historically includes eastern Europe and part of the Middle East. But he was very interested in the US presidential election and welcomed Donald Trump’s victory. He has also been highly critical of the EU’s policy of ever-closer integration, particularly as the EU launched sanctions against Russia during the Ukraine crisis.

Word Watch

Kuril
Islands between Japan and Russia, some are disputed.
Kaliningrad
A Russian territory between Poland and Lithuania, not connected to the rest of Russia.
Baltic states
Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — former Soviet republics, now members of the EU and NATO.
Syria
Putin’s forces have supported the Assad government, in particular by bombing opposition. Yesterday Russia attacked the USA for calling on other nations to deny access to port for tankers heading for Syria.
CIA
The Central Intelligence Agency.
Hacking
For example, they said Russia influenced a release of information from the Democratic Party damaging to Hillary Clinton. Some saw a shady nexus between Putin, Trump and the hacking organisation WikiLeaks during the election.
Ukraine
In 2014 a revolution overthrew Ukraine’s pro-Russian government. Russia accused the West of being behind what it calls a coup. It then invaded and annexed Crimea — a majority Russian peninsula, before funding a guerrilla war in the east of Ukraine.
NATO
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization — a military alliance of the USA, Canada and 26 European countries.

Subjects

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