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Creative Destruction

Putin is not crazy... but he is plotting our next major crisis

Edmond Pope

(3/2015) Strange news emanating from Russia is nothing new, but events in the past few weeks might suggest Vladimir Putin has gone stark raving mad. Among other seemingly unrelated and unusual actions, he has cut the retail price of vodka, threatened WWIII, increased military spending while seeing his national budget severely cut due to the global energy price collapse, has engaged in a series of provocative threats and acts in the Baltic region, is making a mockery of any semblance of peace in Ukraine, and has committed numerous other actions that would have Western nations question his mental state. That would be a grave mistake.

From the outside, the Russian economy would appear to be in shambles. Approximately half of their federal budget comes from the energy sector, which has been severely battered over the past six months. In January of this year, it was reported that the Russian economy experienced 15% inflation, which would equate to a 180% annual rate and the worst since their 1998 financial crisis. Putin has responded by ramping up military activities, assuming personal control of the military, enhancing his sabre rattling and further energizing his internal propaganda mechanisms to blame the West, and US in particular, for all their problems. Indeed, the Western economic sanctions leveraged against Moscow to counter its actions against Ukraine have had an impact but nowhere near that intended or possible.

One must understand the Russian culture and history to recognize the weak relative impact these sanctions will impart. The long history of subjugation of the citizens of Russia by brutal authoritarian leaders has resulted in routine and well-recognized survival techniques that accept fraud, theft, cheating and other criminal behavior as acceptable, and this certainly includes the rich and powerful oligarchs behind Putin. All of the kingís men, both government and private, have many routes available to them to circumvent these economic sanctions.

In todayís Russia, Putinís vastly reinvigorated state security services (KGB/FSB), you have few choices: do what you are told, flee and hide, or disappear into the gulag prison system. No longer are we witnessing the defiant open protests of only a few years ago. In almost every sphere, the Russian secret police (FSB Ė former KGB) work hand-in-hand with the Russian equivalent of the mafia. During my imprisonment 14 years ago, former Congressman John Peterson was approached in his office at least twice by agents of this FSB-mafia linkage and solicited for large sums of money to affect my release. Fortunately for me, John had been warned and deflected these approaches. Things in Russia today have only grown more complicit.

Russia and Putin have two priority objectives in the current conflict in Ukraine: a distraction and a land grab. The distraction is primarily intended for internal purposes, together with plentiful vodka, while the territorial ambitions are part of Putinís vision of a reinvigorated Russian Empire. Russia has a cultural legacy of paranoia based on conflicts from their past to include the Mongols, Swedes, Turks, Germans, Napoleon and others. Russian dictators have never failed to remind their citizens of the ever-present "external" threat and the US and NATO remain the number one targets for this.

What is not gaining much attention yet are the growing signs of Russian interference in the Baltic region, Moldavia and other areas of Eastern Europe. Putin is particularly angered by the three former states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia as well as his perceived "isolation" of the Russian Territory of Kaliningrad. Since early last fall, Russia has significantly stepped up its military activities in and around the Baltic Sea and even bullied Finland and Sweden into curtailing their routine training activities during a window in March and April of this year in which a traditional NATO exercise is conducted. Putinís early threats portend a possible active response in the coming weeks that could lead to serious conflict.

Putin has obtained near-total dictatorial powers over the past 15 years but has also garnered a personal wealth that has recently been reported as perhaps the largest on the planet with some estimates in excess of $200 billion. Almost all of his wealth, no matter the number, has been obtained by what would be considered illicit if not outright criminal activities; but he is the ultimate power in Russia so donít hold your breath waiting for an indictment and trial. He makes the rules to suit his goals.

Putin has another strong card to play that he has previously demonstrated no hesitation to use: energy supplies. Presently, Russia is by far the largest supplier of energy to the European Union and he will use it if it fits his needs. At the present time he is attempting to both gain a stronger hold and divide the US and NATO/EU any way he can.

Other moves that have been favored by Tsars, Communist Party authorities and other dictators in Russiaís past include stringent restrictions on human rights and open attacks against foreign press operating in Russia. Moscow has already made a move to shut one major newspaper and was likely behind the recent hacking and failure of that organizationís web site.

Little doubt that Putin will leave history books speaking of his tenure as "president for life", however long that may be. He now feels the strength to actively work on his legacy. Vladimir Putin has now had 15 years to tighten his grip and pursue his goal, which I believe to be nothing less than the restoration of a Russian dominated empire. I fear that there is a storm brewing over the horizon and could soon blow much more fiercely from the steppes of Putinís Russia.

Read other articles by Edmond Pope