Putin and the Revival of American Seriousness


As this is written, what appears to be a second invasion of Ukraine is underway, a slow-motion infiltration of Russian surrogates and, perhaps, the now-familiar Russian special operations and paratroops in unmarked uniforms. Whether they will be sufficient for the job at hand, or whether less well-trained conscripts will be committed – or whether any troops will be sent in at all – only time will tell.

It is sinking in to U.S. and European decision makers that a new strategic era has begun. The last one, in which Europe was secure and the United States assumed that Russia would be a strategic partner in most things – aside from the occasional tiff over peripheral issues like Syria – is over.  In fact, it is now evident that, in Vladimir Putin’s mind, the past several decades tell a different story, and that the West, led by the United States, had consistently overridden Russian interests and not accorded her the respect due a great power.  Putin’s speeches betray a sense of aggrieved xenophobia. George F. Kennan of “The Long Telegram” would have instantly recognized it.

We will know in a decade or two whether Putin’s worldview will survive him. “Putinism” plays heavily on a sense of Russian nationalism and grievance that may not endure. But he has ample time – and has had ample time – to put subordinates in place to perpetuate his ideological worldview. The odds are even that in ten or twenty years the West will be facing a reborn Soviet Union still as fundamentally corrupt and illegitimate as before, but without the corrupt ideology that made it so hollow to its subjects. A reborn and aggressive Russian nationalism, though, may be more potent and have more staying power.

What is to be done? The future of Ukraine, in whatever form it ultimately takes, is worth every measure short of war that NATO and a revived Western community can devise.  The opinion columns and blogosphere are full of suggestions, many of them good, and the immediate things that can be done will be done.  But what of the long term?

First, the US must readjust to a tripolar world, a bare statement with historical significance. Through cunning and determination, Putin has succeeded in making Russia more than just a regional power.  While cooperation may still take place in some areas of mutual interest, Russia has now moved aggressively, with force of arms, to once again threaten the security of Europe, and to compete with the United States for global influence. European security can no longer be taken for granted, and though there may be voices in the United States who say “not a penny more for Europe,” we need to recognize – as we have in the past – that Europe’s security is essential to our own, whatever the risk. This means, among much else, arresting the slide of American power, a U-turn that will take a decade.

Second, to stop the military decline and begin the long climb back, the United States has to get its own fiscal house in order.  Current fiscal mismanagement makes the renewal of American military power almost impossible, and in a larger sense cripples all dimensions of American global power.

We can start by ending the fiction that the budget can continue to be cut, and taxes reduced, to produce more “defense.”  Given the competing pressures in the overall U.S. budget – most of them quite legitimate – defense cannot simply take more and more of a shrinking pie. Whether it be higher taxes, or tax reform, or some combination, a serious new strategic challenge demands more than continued gridlock and mindless opposition to “big” government; put baldly, the government will have to take in more money.  This flies in the face of the “no new taxes” ideology that now grips both parties. Overcoming it is the overarching strategic challenge that Putin’s aggression raises.

Whether we can meet this challenge is anybody’s guess. As Churchill once said, Americans will always do the right thing, but only after trying everything else. Many will resist the fiscal and ideological accommodations required for a long-term response to a reawakened and hostile Russia. We may have lost our capacity for seriousness. But if Putinism survives its author, as is likely, we or our children may someday wish we had risen to the challenge.


Colonel (USA ret) Bob Killebrew writes and consults on national defense issues as a Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security.  Prior to his retirement from active duty he served for thirty years in a variety of Special Forces, infantry and staff duties.


Photo credit: Contando Estrelas