Vladimir Putin May Be Tough, But He's Also Destroying Russia

| Mon Feb. 24, 2014 3:28 PM EST

Steve Benen catches Bill Kristol saying this about Ukraine:

So, look; it's nice for President Obama to say it's not "a Cold War chessboard." I don't know why he says that with some disdain. That was not an ignoble thing for us to play on that chessboard for 45 years. We ended up winning that Cold War.

And I do think Putin thinks he's playing chess. He thinks he's playing even a rougher game than chess and we have to be able to match it.

I don't know squat about Ukraine, and I don't really know much about Russia either. So take what I'm about to say with a big grain of salt.

That said, here it is: do guys like Kristol ever learn? Yes, Putin is playing a rough game. But why does Kristol seem to think that's something we ought to emulate? Does he not realize that Putin is basically destroying Russia?

During the Cold War, hawks like Kristol routinely warned that the Soviet Union was overtaking us. And they honestly seemed to believe it. But why? Did they really think that the Soviet Union's command economy was producing faster growth and better weapons systems than ours? They seemed to, even while extolling the virtues of liberal democracy and free market capitalism. But in the end, it turned out that liberal democracy and free market capitalism really were better. The Soviet Union was collapsing before our eyes and we were barely even noticing it.

The same thing is happening now. Has Putin temporarily shored up Russia's standing in the world? Maybe. But if he has, he's done it at the expense of Russia's long-term health. This is, after all, a country with serious problems: terrible demographics, a rusty and aging industrial sector, and endemic corruption. Putin has done nothing to address any of this. Instead, he's papered it over by building an economy based on oligarchy, mineral wealth, and relentless bullying of both neighbors and citizens.

Will that work for a while? Sure. Russia has a helluva lot of mineral wealth. But it won't last forever, and in the background Russia is getting frailer and frailer. This is the result of Putin ignoring real problems and instead spending his time projecting toughness on the world stage.

That's what Kristol apparently thinks we should do. But he's wrong. Putin acts the way he does because he's ruling from a position of weakness and has no real solutions to Russia's long-term decline. In the end, the oil and gas will run out; Russia's neighbors will revolt the same way Ukraine is revolting; the oligarchs will cling on for dear life; and Russia's place in the world will continue to deteriorate. Anyone who thinks we should adopt even the tiniest piece of Putin's approach is just being willfully crazy.

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