The Two-Bit Dictators
“Two-bit.” From Merriam-Webster: “cheap or trivial of its kind; petty, small-time.”
That definition could very well fit Vladimir Putin. The Russian dictator is, like all of his 21st century counterparts, an off-brand authoritarian - a knockoff forever living in the shadow of his totalitarian spiritual predecessors. The age of the great dictators - in Germany, Russia, Japan, and Italy - is long over. So, too, have the legions of Soviet Communism passed from the living unto the grave. Lord Byron might have been speaking of such despots when he wrote these lines:
For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast,
And breathed in the face of the foe as he passed;
And the eyes of the sleepers waxed deadly and chill,
And their hearts but once heaved, and for ever grew still!
My purpose is not to belittle Vladimir Putin, but to remind us to maintain perspective. It is America’s curse to respond to the rise of great foes first with self-delusion, and then with perpetual fear that they will return from the grave to threaten our country. So it was with Adolf Hitler’s Germany, held as heroic at best, a distant threat at worst; and so it was with the Soviet Union, once naively called the home of a peaceful, burgeoning egalitarianism. Decades later, however, the Left still calls opponents Nazis, and the Right warns about the return of a communist empire. Lessons learned late aren’t forgotten, it seems.
Vladimir Putin poses a threat to the West and must be met by serious diplomats and hardened generals. But he poses a greater threat through miscalculation than masterstroke - and fearmongering only intensifies that chance.
On September 12, Russia and Belarus launched their regular Zapad (“West”) wargames, holding joint drills with as many as 100,000 combined troops. The drills, which are held every four years, are close enough to Western European soil to put NATO on edge, and rightfully so. Fears that Russia will use the training as an opportunity to secretly deposit troops and heavy equipment to invade the Baltic states are hardly unfounded; the country did the same thing in Georgia in 2008, and Ukraine in 2014.
Care must be taken, however, not to overemphasize Russia’s strength. Putin is wily, no doubt, but he is not a strategic genius. Neither is he Joseph Stalin, commanding the forces of a continent-spanning empire. The numbers speak for themselves. The Russian navy amounts to 172 vessels, including one carrier; the Soviet fleet in 1990 totalled 657 vessels, including seven carriers. The Russian army may be more technologically advanced than it was 26 years ago, but it still relies on draft-dodging conscripts using 1970s-era equipment. Their shortcomings were highlighted in a U.S. Army War College report on Russia’s combat performance in the 2008 Georgian conflict: “Russia’s military is in need of significant reforms.”
It’s important to keep Putin’s weak hand in mind when the mainstream media blows it out of perspective. Yes, it is best to be prudent; but fears should be grounded in reason. Treating him as a powerful genius runs the risk of encouraging miscalculation on his part. The twentieth century’s world wars were both started over thoughtless mistakes by brazen men who didn’t believe the Allied states would go to war over distant, irrelevant countries. They were wrong, and disastrously so.
It is highly unlikely Putin is planning a coup de grâce-style attack on NATO, considering he hasn’t the forces to withstand the protracted, high-intensity war that would generate with the United States. Neither is he prepared for such a war. Russian troops are caught up in Syria and Ukraine, engaged in active combat (whether Russia admits it or not, in Ukraine’s case). U.S. forces in Germany, Iraq, Afghanistan, and scattered Middle Eastern bases ring his southern and western flanks. Were the U.S. and its allies to invade Russia, Putin’s forces in Syria would be effectively cut off, while he would be forced to withdraw or acknowledge his units in Ukraine.
Americans should always take the threats of their enemies seriously. But sometimes the despots we think are the harbingers of war turn out to be just two-bit dictators.