Commentary: Putin’s war is all about maintaining power

By John Bradford

Mr. Hank Davis of Brooklin presented an interesting commentary in the March 17 EA titled “The U.S. never pursued diplomacy.” The essence of his thesis is that because the United States ignored Russia’s opposition to NATO expansion to Russia’s western borders following the collapse of the Soviet empire beginning in 1991, Putin has cause for invading the Ukraine.

Mr. Davis concedes Putin is a “war criminal,” but he indicts the Biden administration for having been “criminally negligent” in its refusal to discuss with Russia its NATO concerns. A colorful accusation but flawed: this war cannot be explained solely on the basis of the NATO question — or U.S. “hubris.” If he had considered the enormous power a people’s political and cultural history has in influencing their responses to current issues and crises, the onus of blame would have to be different.

The terrible societal effects of slavery did not abruptly end at Appomattox Court House in Virginia on April 9, 1865. They are still negatively reverberating in American culture and politics today.

In the United Kingdom, memories of the 400 years of the defunct British Empire is now considered to have influenced in varying degrees both the “pro-European Union” and the “leave Europe” voters in deciding the Brexit referendum of 2016.

The defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 became part of the French cultural/political psyche and one of the many factors that sparked WWI, which led us into WWII, which led to the Cold War and Russian dominance and oppression in Eastern Europe, which in turn is influencing Western democracies’ responses to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Autocratic rule in Russia was firmly established in the reign of Ivan IV — “The Terrible” — beginning in 1547. It has remained that way ever since, no matter the leader’s title — czar, general secretary of the Communist Party (under Soviet rule) — or Putin’s presidency. Any dissension was and still is marked by brutal suppression.

Every modern nation’s mode of thought and action is heavily influenced by both their domestic and foreign relations history — including Russia’s.

The greatest threat to Putin is the alignment of democratic European states on Russia’s border all acting within the defensive perimeter of NATO. They know the meaning of Russian oppression. It had been part of their life, their culture for 45 years — hundreds for some of them. They rapidly established their independence as the empire began to collapse in the late 1980s. It is not a coincidence that these former Warsaw Pact satellites of Russia are now members of NATO.

This is where the power of past history, in the form of imprinted political and cultural attitudes, is a largely unnoticed but extremely energizing force in these democracies’ support of Ukraine. Ukrainians want control of their own destiny as a democratic, independent state. Perhaps this factor had not been given as much consideration by the Cold War warriors cited by Mr. Davis like George Kennan, Henry Kissinger, et al, fresh off the Cold War battlefields. Like most of us who lived through that tension-riven era, they dreaded anything that might trigger another confrontation. And certainly Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, presiding over the freshly collapsed Soviet empire, were deeply concerned over the domestic hardliner threat within their ranks if NATO expanded to their border. Their warnings were for naught because Russia’s deep political/cultural affinity for autocratic leadership reasserted itself under Putin despite NATO.

How nice it would be if the fledgling democracy that emerged under Boris Yeltsin had been given a chance to grow into a Western European-type democracy and made a NATO unnecessary — but it didn’t. Putin has choked it to death. NATO is his convenient straw man for convincing Russians it is a threat to their beloved Russia.

Kreminology expert Lilan Shevtsova, of the Carnegie Moscow Institute, noted in The Journal of Power Institutions in Post Soviet Societies, the primary domestic objective of the Russian system is preserve the monopoly of power held by the ruling elite. Putin also wants Russia to be seen as a responsible member on the international stage — while he seeks to destroy democracy.

Paul Stronski, Senior Fellow of the Carnegie Russia and Eurasia Institute, reflects Shevtsova’s observation from another perspective; Russia is actively trying to undermine the Balkans’ integration into Euro-Atlantic institutions.

Democracy is Putin’s real concern, not NATO, per se.

Mr. Davis’s thesis would be valid if we dismissed the premier role that historical cultural influences have had on modern society’s decision making. But it is a reality we can ignore at our peril. Putin is an autocrat who can only be trusted to do one thing — undermine democracy. If he doesn’t, it will destroy him!


John Bradford is a carpenter and former politician. He served in the Massachusetts House of Representatives from 1985-1993. He lives in Orland.

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