- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 17, 2007

Russian President Vladimir Putin made an outrageous charge at the Munich security forum, claiming the “almost uncontained use of [U.S.] military force” is causing other nations to seek out nuclear weapons to defend themselves. Both the statement and the speaker lack credibility.

This observation comes to us from a man who, in 2005, suggested the Soviet Union’s fall was the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” Undoubtedly, millions of East Europeans strongly disagree. They still struggle to throw off the last vestiges of Soviet bonds imposed upon them decades earlier.

Just recently, in Estonia and Poland, the natives have proven restless in their desire to remove statues the Soviets erected to commemorate their having driven the Nazis out during World War II. In Warsaw, the Polish government wants to go further, erecting a statue of Ronald Reagan and naming the surrounding square for him as the man most symbolic of liberty.

The Poles too will not forget the 1940 execution of 16,000 Polish army officers on the orders of Josef Stalin, a leader — whose centennial birthday Mr. Putin recently celebrated — of a system Mr. Putin praises but which Soviet archives researcher Jonathan Brent describes as a “banality of evil.”

Turning to the substance of Mr. Putin’s charge, it is clear he is uninhibited by facts. His suggestion that nuclear weapon-seeking countries like Iran have felt intimidated by U.S. use of force ignores an issue of timing. Iran’s quest for this capability was ongoing for 18 years before we knew about it — when there was no basis for such intimidation. Despite Islamic extremists having taken U.S. diplomats hostage in Tehran, America’s sword of retribution was never unsheathed. Similarly, there was an absence of intimidation when North Korea mounted its latest nuclear push years earlier as the United States failed to even bare its teeth.

Criticizing as he does, Mr. Putin follows a common historical pattern of strongmen seeking to take the focus off their own misdeeds by creating the perception of an external threat. While slowly stripping his people of individual rights, he tries to sound the alarm of U.S. aggression and encroachment into Russia’s sphere of influence — most recently by Washington’s initiative to build part of its missile defense system in Eastern Europe. One would expect the Russian people, having tasted democracy, to be in an uproar over Mr. Putin’s actions in limiting their liberties; but he remains extremely popular. The reason is clear: Russia’s oil-driven economy has indeed improved life for its people, who find themselves now with money to spend. But, while they count their new-found wealth, Mr. Putin picks their pockets of human rights. (The 2006 Index of Economic Freedom changed Russia’s status from “partly free” to “not free” — a stunning reversal for a G-8 member.)

Only when, in the near future, Russia’s oil revenue significantly decreases, will the people realize the same fate has befallen their personal liberties. Then too the perception of an external threat will become critical to Mr. Putin, or his proxy, to retain tight control.

Drunk from the elixir of power and a fascination for a return to the days of Soviet empire, Mr. Putin is blind to the dangerous waters ahead for his ship of state. His anti-U.S. charge and actions suggest he fails to see the last, best chance he has to help save Russia is in working with, not against, America.

A critical juncture is fast approaching for Russia. The ethnic Russian population is decreasing annually by 700,000-800,000 citizens as birthrates fall way below replacement levels. Meanwhile, Muslims, with vastly higher birthrates, are the fastest-growing minority in Russia. As ethnic Russians shrink proportionally, Russian Muslims will become a majority within the next four decades.

Ethnic Russians, incapable of dealing with Chechnyan Islamists today, will be further hindered when Muslims no longer pose the problem for them — but they, as a minority, pose the problem for a Muslim majority.

A wise Mr. Putin would realize, if truly concerned about Russia’s future, he should work closely now with coalition nations fighting the Islamist beast — for that coalition may not exist when Russia finally faces the threat of being consumed by it. And Moscow, which has used its U.N. Security Council membership to benefit Tehran’s continued development of its nuclear technology, can count on no assistance from its strange Iranian bedfellow in ultimately dealing with this problem.

Mr. Putin’s obsession with power and inability to focus on Russia’s future security needs is not dissimilar to Stalin’s obsession decades earlier at another critical juncture in history. In the 1930s, Stalin feared his military high command was plotting against him. Knowing the possibility of war with Germany loomed high — making imperative the need for experienced military leadership — Stalin, nonetheless, eliminated them. Thus, when war with Germany erupted, the lack of such military leadership initially took a high toll. However, it was a sacrifice Stalin was willing for his people to make on his behalf so he could retain power.

Russia survived Stalin’s shortsightedness and Nazi aggression only because it had allies in the fight. If Mr. Putin continues to dismiss the Islamist threat looming ahead, failing to embrace his allies now, it will be a lonely fight Russia eventually takes on — and Russia’s survival will be doubtful this time around.

James G. Zumwalt, a Marine veteran of the Persian Gulf and Vietnam wars, is a contributor to The Washington Times.

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