Putin's Russia And Obama's America

The more Vladimir Putin's policies come a cropper in Russia, the harder he cracks down on opposition political forces.  It's not surprising given that Putin is a proud KGB spy; he's just doing what he learned to do in Soviet times. What's surprising is that the President of the United States is helping him get away with it, and even worse is the failure of the Republicans to call him on it.  With the coming confirmation hearings for a new ambassador to Russia, the GOP has its last best chance for action.

On Sunday, June 26, 2011, RIA Novosti, the Russian Kremlin's state-owned answer to Reuters, reported that a gas tank for an apartment building in Vladikavkaz had exploded, right in the midst of a wedding ceremony.  Fifty-five people were injured.  But that wasn't the worst part of the tragedy.  Two other items in the story told the real tale of life in Vladimir Putin's Russia, where fires and explosions are commonplace (Russia's rate of death by fire is ten times that of the United States).

First, a dozen of the victims (nearly a quarter of all those injured) had to be air-lifted to Moscow, two thousand kilometers away, because that was the nearest location with medical facilities that could address the victims' injuries.  Lack of adequate medical facilities is one reason, of course, that Russia's fire fatality rate is so high.

And then came RIA's advice for persons faced with similar situations in the future (remember, this is the voice of the Russian government talking): Step 1, put out the fire yourself; Step 2, call a private fire emergency crew on retainer of your landlord or employer; Step 3, call the city fire department.  If you think I'm kidding, read it for yourself.

Imagine living in a country where the first question you have to ask your potential landlord or boss is: Do you have your own fire department?

This report (and RIA always seeks to minimize the extent of the horror it reports when it would make the Russian government look bad) speaks volumes about the state of Russia under Putin, a state of absolute failure ever nearer to collapse.

Investors know it.  Last year, Russia experienced nearly $40 billion in capital flight.  Money flowed out of Putin's Russia at a stunning rate of $3.2 billion per month.  Russians voted with their wallets, and they voted that Putin could not be trusted and that a future ruled by him was bleak indeed.  So far this year, despite a crude oil price above $100/barrel (and a stock market up one-fifth compared to last year), money is leaving Russia at a rate more than double that of last year.  Already, in just the first four months of this year, Russia has hemorrhaged a stunning $26.3 billion --- more than half the total it lost in all of 2010.  

The landslide financial vote against Putin in 2010 has turned into an absolute rout in 2011.  In just the past eight months, Russia has seen a genuinely appalling $55.6 billion in capital flight -- showing unquestionably that Russia's financial problems, already at horrific levels, are getting even worse as the price of oil rises.  Investors are simply not fooled by the Kremlin's propaganda, and in fact they clearly understand that a rising price of oil only encourages the Kremlin not to reform, meaning that the Russian economy is getting more and more dangerous by the hour.

Another profound example of Putin's failure came in the skies above Russia.  First, a TU-134 airliner crashed while attempting to land near Petrozavodsk, killing all of its nearly four dozen passengers.  Russia has one of the worst air safety records in the world, with an incident rate that is a shocking thirteen times higher than the world average -- even worse than the fire risk.  This model drops out of the sky with metronomic regularity, and Russia was soon ordering it out of service.  

But it could only leave all intelligent people wondering: Why did Russia wait so long?

Next, a MiG-29 fighter jet went down in Astrakhan, and the Kremlin was forced to ground the entire fleet of fighters as well.  Two entire lines of Russian airplane taken out of service in the same week as unflyable!  Worse still, the jet had been bound for India, which had just spent billions buying numerous copies of the fighter for its carrier force, and now has to worry about grounding its own fleet.  Who in their right mind would now do business with Russian aircraft manufacturers?

None of it is surprising to those of us who know Russia.  We know that instead of focusing on life-threatening social ills Putin has spent the last decade frittering away Russian resources on Cold-War confrontation and outright imperialist aggression (remember the Georgia invasion of 2008).

Putin's response to these types of debacles has been just as predictable: Instead of seeking reform, he is cracking down on opposition.  Just days ago, he refused to allow a new political party headed by former prime minster (Mikhail Kasyanov) and a former first deputy prime minister (Boris Nemtsov) and a former senior parliamentarian (Vladimir Ryzhkov) to register to compete in upcoming legislative and presidential elections.

And all the while, U.S. President Barack Obama says and does nothing.  His choice of Michael McFaul as the new U.S. Ambassador to Russia sends a clear message to Putin that the US will not stand up for American values in Russia, that Putin has a free hand to blight the landscape with misguided social policies and draconian repression.

Commentators are already wondering if the disastrous presidency of Jimmy Carter is a best-case scenario for the Obama regime.  Where Russia is concerned, it's likely not.  That's because we know from history that after Carter came Ronald Reagan, who brilliantly righted American policy and led us to victory in the Cold War.  But who on the Republican horizon might achieve a similar result?  If there is nobody, then a Carteresque defeat by Obama could turn into the worst American foreign policy defeat in our history.

How the Senate responds to McFaul's nomination will tell us a lot about what we can hope for from the Republicans.  If they make a fight of it, then maybe we have a small chance that genuine leaders will step forward to stand up for our values and protect our national security.  If they roll over for Obama on this one, we may be consigned to decades more trouble and another collapse behind the Iron Curtain.

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