(photo credit: Reuters)
At a time when US President Barack Obama has instigated a strategic review of US military spending that could result in massive budget cuts, his counterpart in Russia has taken a decidedly different approach.
This week, Vladimir Putin announced he intends to spend more than $700 billion on upgrading and modernizing the Russian military over the next ten years. The “Christmas list” of projects is fairly comprehensive, including new nuclear missiles as well as more submarines and warships, more tanks and aircraft.
Putin, currently Prime Minister, is facing a presidential election on March 4th, which would mark his return to the Kremlin for a third term after being prevented from running for re-election due to constitutional term limits.
Clearly, Putin believes that there is a limit to what diplomatic endeavors and economic engagement can accomplish!
His proposal to strengthen the Russian military complex will attract many patriotic voters in next month’s election, although current polls have him already set for victory with well above the 50% threshold required.
Concerns over potential holes in Russia’s defenses feed on longstanding fears in the country. Memories still linger of the ease in which Nazi forces were able to take Russian forces by surprise and bring the country to its knees.
Notably, Putin has not felt the need to distance himself from the legacy of Soviet military achievements during the conflict that the Russian’s refer to as the “Great Patriotic War.” In addition to ensuring that celebrations of VE-Day are staged with sufficient pomp and sense of grandeur, Putin has made sure that wartime veterans have received a significant bump in their pension benefits.
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Putin knows the benefit of when to side with history, and when to distance himself.
He has taken significant steps away from the current ruling party, known as United Russia, and has preferred to launch a brand new group, the Patriot Front, as the best means to effect his re-election. Should Putin regain the presidency, he could be at the helm of Russia for another 12 years.
But despite the significant popular support for Putin that regularly makes itself seen, there remain highly vocal opponents to his re-election.
Anti-Putin demonstrations are believed to be the largest public protests against the government since the fall of communism two decades ago. One recent protests in Moscow even featured drivers sporting white ribbons and balloons on the vehicles, to voice their displeasure with Putin’s seemingly unimpeded progress towards regaining the presidency.
Allegations over vote-rigging in the recent parliamentary elections for the Duma, which were won by the discredited United Russia party, have fueled public discontent. The Russian political process leaves a lot to be desired in terms of effective opposition parties and the types of checks and balances typically found in Western democracies.
Some argue that the seeds of a “Moscow Spring” have been sown and that eventually these protests will have the same effect of the 2011 protests across the Middle East and North Africa.
No less a historical figure than Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, has gone on record to predict the Putin will be ultimately lose his grip on power if he does not make room in Russian political system for greater democratic participation. Gorbachev went so far as to make an unfavorable comparison to the last days of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who, it has been argued, stayed in power too long and ultimately was ultimately shown the door.
Clearly someone has been watching Meryl Streep’s attention-grabbing performance of Lady Thatcher in the film, The Iron Lady!
Importantly, though, Gorbachev does not enjoy locally in his homeland anything like the adoration that he receives abroad. The rise of anti-Putin protests may burnish Gorbachev’s historical legacy somewhat. However, for many he is still the doomed figure who allowed the Soviet Union’s place in the world to be lost, with little benefit for such sacrifice coming to former Soviet citizens.
The “new Russia” under Putin’s direct and indirect guidance has not been reluctant to use tough diplomacy on Syria and Iran to support its long-term aims. The Obama Administration, by comparison, has been significantly less successful at pursuing its diplomatic goals at multilateral forums. Instead, with regards to foreign affairs, the White House has been surprisingly more comfortable with unilateral exertions of force, either in the guise of assassinations or CIA-coordinated drone attacks, than perhaps many of Obama’s core supporters were fully prepared for when they voted for change in 2008.
Regardless, Putin has demonstrated a willingness to draw a clear line around the interests of his country, together with a willingness to fund his military in a manner and to an extent that supports his foreign policy agenda.
With significant increases in military spending and military assertiveness also witnessed in Beijing, the Obama Administration has a responsibility to Americans to clearly delineate its vision of the path towards international security in the 21st century, as well as how it intends to pay for the military and diplomatic initiatives necessary to secure that vision.
Otherwise, Washington will be left reacting to agendas and priorities set by other countries in pursuit of their national interests, instead of pursuing and obtaining American’s own interests in this quickly shifting international landscape.The writer is a commentator who divides his time between the United Kingdom and Southern California. He has appeared on CNN, CNBC, BBC and Sky News, and has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Financial Times and The Economist.
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