A recent article by the pseudonymous columnist “Spengler” at the Asian Times has provoked a lot of discussion. Briefly, Spengler points out that Putin plans to address the catastrophic demographic decline of Russia (abortions outnumber births, younger people of reproductive age 20-30 will soon exist at half the rate of present demographics due to well, Russians not having kids years ago) by Russifying neighboring countries. Spengler is quite correct when he notes that Russia’s scarcest resource is people. He’s off base however in figuring out Putin’s strategy for Russia, and particularly the assertion that Russia and America, and the West in general, have no fundamental interests in opposition.
Vladimir Putin is a frighteningly intelligent man. While he is brutal, his brutality, which includes the assassinations of domestic critics, and those abroad (such as Alexander Litvenenko, poisoned in London by Polonium 210 tea) is made far worse by his intelligence. His assassinations are not the mere lashings out, but the Mafia-like sending of messages to all who would challenge his regime for control or even criticism. His rise in the KGB assures all that he is not stupid, since that organization did not tolerate second raters. Vladimir Putin’s strategy is straight out Dashiell Hammett’s “The Red Harvest”. In that novel, the pseudonymous “Continental Op” is sent to a Western Mining town to clean out the corrupt elements, who had been brought in to suppress strikes. Angered by an attempt on his life, he decides to set the various gangsters and crooked politicians against each other in a death struggle. This basic plot was used also in Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 film “Yojimbo”, starring Toshiro Mifune, and the Walter Hill 1996 remake “Last Man Standing” starring Bruce Willis.
A former Judoka, Putin knows, like the Continental Op, and the Mifune and Willis characters (also nameless), that he’s good, tough, and strong, but not good enough, tough enough, or strong enough to take on everyone. However, greed, fear, and betrayal can be manipulated to take advantage of the stronger and more numerous West, and China, to pick up the pieces in Central Asia and Europe.
Spengler believes that Russia has more at risk from nuclear weapons in the hands of the Mullahs and Pakistan than the West. In this he is mistaken. Putin is urging Russians to settle in villages instead of the cities of Moscow and St. Petersberg. With Russians in spread out villages, the city-killing effects of nuclear weapons is nullified. Western and Chinese and Japanese cities produce tremendous wealth. But they are very vulnerable to nuclear attack, particularly by forces that don’t have a return address. Such as Al Qaeda, or merely elements within regimes in Tehran or Islamabad. Russia’s weakness, the lack of great cities that produce tremendous amounts of wealth, like New York City, London, Shanghai, or Tokyo, is also a strength. A lack of targets for a few nuclear weapons, for one. Which can devastate the economy of the West and China, but not Russia’s economy.
This strategy is why, like “John Smith” in “Last Man Standing,” Putin has been arming the weaker rival. Russia has assisted Iran’s nuclear program, not out of spite, or pique, but because it’s in Russia’s interest for Iran to attack the United States. Russia will never be a winner in global economy defined by efficient production of quality goods and services. It certainly can be the Last Man Standing. Just like the Continental Op, or Mifune’s nameless Ronin, Putin has done his best to provoke the two sides for a fight. I would not be shocked to find that Putin’s regime has provided discreet assistance to Uighur and other Muslim terrorists within China. The shocking (for those who know China) gun and grenade battle in XianXing province two weeks ago with police and terrorists, is unlikely to have taken place without someone assisting the terrorists in weapons and training.
Putin’s goal is to be assiduously courted by all sides: the United States, China, Turkey, Iran, Al Qaeda. While playing obviously for himself. Putin, and Russia’s endgame is not peaceful. Except in the way that the dead are “peaceful.” Putin wishes for the US, Iran, and perhaps China to engage in a series of nuclear exchanges that severely weakens all parties, allowing him to swoop in and pick up the pieces. Unlike the gallant Willis and Mifune characters, however, Putin is unlikely to be sidetracked by damsels in distress. Nor is he operating out of a highly individualized code of honor and deep offense like the Continental Op. His aim is not to ride off into the Sunset, but take over.
Is this goal realistic? Yes. Putin does not believe he will destroy either China or the US. Merely weaken them, and his rivals in Central Asia, Iran and Turkey, so that Russia may seize the great prize, Central Asia’s oil and gas fields, for it’s own profit. To do this he needs more people, and broadly seeks to Russify by force neighboring countries like Ukraine and the Baltics. He also cannot permit missile defense against Iranian missiles, which is why Russia has protested US plans to put just that into Poland and the Czech Republic. Russia can easily overwhelm any such system with it’s own missiles, and Putin knows well NATO consists of ceremonial border guards, a few Special Forces from various European countries who are good but very small in number, and the United States. Outside the US and Russia, there is no real military in Europe. Great Britain, for example, has fewer ships in the Royal Navy than the Belgian Coast Guard.
Missile defense in Poland and the Czech Republic is no threat to Russia, but it is a threat to Putin’s plan to egg on Iran into attacking the US. It’s why Iran’s nuclear efforts have been protected at every turn by Russia. Yes, long term Iran and it’s nukes present a big threat to Russia, but one that Putin plans to deal with by creating a series of wars between Iran and the US. Primarily over who will control the Persian Gulf and thus the price of oil that travels through it. Which in turn determines the world price of oil being merely affordable or astronomically expensive. A boon for failed nations that have nothing but oil for sale.
What can the US do in order to forestall Putin’s “Yojimbo” strategy? Peace is not the answer. One of the reasons why both Mifune and Willis’s characters had so much success was that only one gang could rule the town they wandered into. Only one power, either Iran or the US, will rule the Persian Gulf, control it, and thus limit or not the global price of oil. It was not so much a question of starting a conflict, but rather stretching it out so that the stranger could extort the maximum amount of money from each side, while bleeding them dry, so that when the takeover came, there was no one left to oppose it. This is exactly why Putin has been helpful on many occasions with intelligence on Iran and Al Qaeda.
There is no way to “keep the peace” between the US and Iran, since Iran wants to rule the Gulf and have oil at sky-high prices, and the US wants to keep control and keep oil to manageable prices. Any attempts to bargain will be easily undercut by Putin, just as peace attempts between the Strozzi and Doyle gangs were undercut by Willis’s character, “John Smith.” Or the Continental Op, or Mifune’s Ronin Samurai, in their stories. Only one can rule. This situation is made worse by the Chinese, who absolutely must have cheap oil and can be expected to make their own bargains to get it.
Therefore, the US must, to avoid playing out these stories, take action and undercut Putin’s ability to play “John Smith.” By eliminating Iran’s ability to threaten US Naval forces in the Gulf, either directly by anti-ship missiles and patrol boats, or indirectly by deniable nuclear attacks through proxies (Hezbollah, Al Qaeda) on US cities. This would include surprise naval action along the lines of Reagan’s 1988 attack on Iranian naval forces, and an air campaign to take out Iranian infrastructure: power, roads, bridges, train tracks, etc. Without power and transport, the spread-out Iranian nuclear program will just sit, elements needed to make warheads safe, but useless since they cannot be put together, or machined any further.
This course of action is not pretty. But it’s the only way for the US to avoid playing out Putin’s script, and paying a far more serious price. Putin would gladly trade the lives of three million New Yorkers, DC residents, or Chicagoans for a chance to win it all.
In that, he’s fundamentally different than “John Smith,” the Continental Op, and Mifune’s Ronin. It’s why Putin is the villain. America needs to recognize that, and act accordingly.