Dancing with Putin


There is a wild Russian folkdance, like so many Russian cultural artifacts linked to the Tartar Occupation, called the kasatka [ka-zatch-ka]. In one of its many forms, it tests the dancer’s calisthenics by having him crouch but fling out each leg and foot alternately, testing his balance and the nerves of those aroumd him.

Vladimir Putin, old secret service operator that he is with some inherited talents of the Soviet regime but steeped in Russian folkways, has been dancing a katsatka around Pres. Barack Obama. And the effect is as usual unnerving to the encircled and annihilates whatever more formal and customary dance routine the imprisoned spectator might have pursued.

When Obama first suggested an aggressive American role in Syria, but then quickly reneged, Putin saw his chance. After his aggression in George, Crimea and Ukraine, and continuing threats elsewhere, he had unnerved the European Union and the U.S. It was to the point that they, however reluctantly, threatened formal resistance. And they did go as far as sanctions against the Russian leading lights around Putin.

But Putin has enough sense of history to know that bluff can often be successful, especially if like lies – as Hitler’s propagandist Josef Goebbels said – they are ambitious enough. So Putin plunged into Syria, set up the beginning of bases on the coast, and backed his would-be host, the collapsing regime of Basher Al Assad. The effort had great psychological and propaganda value, for Syria had once been the Soviet Union’s Mediterranean anchor, and a return there hinted at a return of Moscow to world leadership.

So the kasatka began. Putin’s oncoming disaster at home with the West’s sanctions and the collapsing oil price for Russia’s only export certainly left Putin in a precarious crouching position. But he flung his military, however much its technological stars and nuclear armory, still the decrepit carcass of the once grand Soviet war machine, far overcommitted into the Syrian row. His aircraft indiscriminately committing atrocities against a highly vulnerable civilian population, and his highly trained special forces encadred al Assad’s old professional French-styled Syrian army, were able to turn the tide against the multi-head opposition. That was especially true since neither Washington nor its allies could pull together demoralized Syrian democrats, and all were trying to keep their distance from al Assad’s main jidhadist opposition.

But then with a new kasatka thrust, Putin grabbed Obama’s gallivanting Secretary of State’s effort to set up an armistice and peace conference. The armistice gave Putin some respite from his overtaxed kasatka thrusts. His dance had so wearied Kerry & Co. that the conferees agreed to gather in Vienna, even though they clearly had totally opposite positions: Washington was demanding that al Assad go, the Kremlin had staked its successful dance on his remaining in office. With the long and ugly history of such conferences throughout the post-World War II history, between the West and the Communists, it was clear Putin’s kasatka meant he would whittle down the American/EU position. With successful negotiations always Washington’s primary target, negotiating with an opponent who does not give ground, ultimately always means the U.S. makes the concessions.

So Putin’s kasatka continues. The latest fling of the limbs is to “order” the Russian military out of Syria. Crouched as he is, he dearly needs to end his commitment before it collapses. But his kasatka presents this as great concession of a noble and enlightened opponent, and, of course, he has made no firm commitment on date nor which and what he will withdraw. In fact, as so often happened with Soviet promises of cooperation, the withdrawal might not take place at all, were he not in an overextended position that he needs to withdraw.

The kasatka never quite ends with any final tour de force. Usually the dancer is so exhausted he just leaves off. That may well be the case with Putin’s dance around the bemused Obama, trying desperately to make something of historical moment of the few months of his last tenure in the presidency. After all, the kasatka has achieved its purpose – it’s rescued Putin from economic collapse, at least for the moment, and has bolstered his flagging domestic support by a feint at the old Soviet international glory.

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