- - Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Marcus Wolf, the East German intelligence operative who managed to put a Soviet spy in West German Chancellor Willy Brandt’s bed, isn’t much impressed by Vladimir Putin. Mr. Wolf scoffed at Mr. Putin’s claim that he lived in Dresden for 15 years as the liaison between the Soviet KGB and Communist East Germany’s spies. Mr. Putin couldn’t have been that important, he said, if he had not known him.

But he concedes that a good spy makes those around him think he’s a mediocrity. It was largely that assumption that led Boris Yeltsin to choose Mr. Putin to be his successor. It’s just observations like these that make it difficult for American leaders to deal with Vladimir Putin now. Donald Trump must keep this in mind when he meets the Russian leader this week at the economic summit in Germany.

For his part, Mr. Putin has made his ambitions clear. He wants to restore Moscow to its Soviet glory. He says he regards the collapse of the Soviet Union as the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century. Whatever the odds, Mr. Putin dreams of making Russia once more an equal competitor of the United States. That means incorporating eastern and Central Europe, even if it risks retribution from the West.

Mr. Putin’s war on Islamic extremists, meanwhile, is compromised by Russia’s collapsing birthrate and its consequent dependence on military recruits from its Muslim republics in Central Asia. Mr. Putin survives bankruptcy with oil and gas exports, but the exorbitant price of oil is a fading memory, thanks to unanticipated American discovery of enormous oil shale deposits. When Saudi Arabia tried to undercut the price of American oil, U.S. oil men raised their production output, doing what Saudi Arabia did in the old days. The United States is likely to resume its pre-World War II role as an energy exporter, sooner rather than later.

The Putin pretensions to superpower status, however, do have a sound basis. Russia’s conventional military was badly eroded when the Communist regime imploded, but it still has an arsenal of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. The Russian leader rattles these from time to time, reminding the Americans that he can still pose a menace, especially to an American president eager “to lead from behind.”

Vladimir Putin’s Russia is not the old Communist satrapy, but a nation ambitious in the exploitation of capitalism. The dollars that roll in for energy, too vast to be absorbed by Russia’s primitive investment structure, quickly roll out. Western deals with corrupt Russian financial institutions and emigre oligarchs are often closely associated with Mr. Putin himself. His personal wealth is said to rival that of Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos.

Russian attempts to hack American elections are part of this international chase for profits from its energy exports, but the American electoral system, which many Americans don’t fully understand, is a puzzle to the Russians, too. It’s an explanation, at least in part, of the contradictory reporting of the contacts between the Russians and the Americans. It’s an old source of puzzlement. “I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia,” Winston Churchill remarked in a radio broadcast during World War II. “It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. But perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.”

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