Column | Putin obsessed with reversing history | Opinion

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Earlier this month, Mikhail Gorbachev celebrated his 91st birthday in obscurity at his home near Moscow, the forgotten leader of Russia’s brief and unsuccessful transition to democracy at home and on its borders.

It has been more than three decades since Gorbachev presided over the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the liberation of its satellite nations. One of the greatest modern triumphs of democracy, Vladimir Putin called it “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the (20th) century”.

Recognizing his economic weaknesses, Gorbachev acquiesced in the peaceful breakup of the Soviet empire. He refused to intervene as the nations on his western and southern flanks returned to democracy and renounced their Cold War-era ties.

This is history Putin wants to reverse with his brutal, unprovoked attempt to subjugate Ukraine – one of the former Soviet republics that joined the nations of Eastern Europe in declaring independence.

The outcome remains uncertain, but the war clearly did not go as Putin had planned. Russia’s vaunted military has met with fierce resistance from a people fighting for their homeland the way Russians themselves resisted the Nazi Wehrmacht in World War II, a story Putin has known well since his parents lived through the 28-month siege of Leningrad.

Putin’s invasion raises the question of whether, in the 21st century, the power of the sword can prove more powerful than the power of ideas, whether it is ultimately sustainable for an autocrat wielding military force to stifle the natural desire of peoples who seek the freedom to live their lives and choose their leaders.

Russia and the West are not just engaged in a military and geopolitical battle, but a battle between the autocratic heritage of one and the democratic traditions of the other. Ukraine has clearly indicated its preferred side.

Gorbachev’s brief era – and the presidency of his successor Boris Yeltsin – serve as a reminder that Russia did not have to end up this way. But decades of political and economic corruption, and his lack of a democratic tradition, helped Putin undermine the era that Gorbachev defined with the words “perestroika” (restructuring) and “glasnost” (opening).

This internal conflict was captured recently by veteran CNN correspondent Nic Robertson. “The world was changing, the cold war was thawing, new horizons were opening up and a generation of Russians was about to taste the freedoms they longed for,” he wrote, recalling the heyday of Gorbachev in 1990 in Moscow.

Even after Yeltsin, impatient with the pace of reform, ousted Gorbachev from power less than two years later, life in the Russian capital continued to do so, Robertson said. “Moscow nights were crazy with revelers dancing in – and often on – the bars.”

I visited Russia twice in those years, once as a journalist, once as a tourist, and the bustling centers of St. Petersburg and Moscow had come to look more like the cities of Europe Western than to the gray, humorless society I first encountered in 1959.

But as the 21st century approached, the alcoholic and unreliable Yeltsin “picked Putin from corrupt circles with Kremlin money to replace him as the Russian president – and, in return, Yeltsin, who had struggled against the corruption allegations, was granted immunity from prosecution,” Robertson said.

Initially, “there was a shimmer of a modernizer in Russia’s new leader, but that reputation didn’t last long,” he said. Despite the growing acceptance of Russia by the West, Putin remained obsessed with Russia’s diminished global role.

In time, the real Putin emerged, the former secret police agent who was more the heir to Ivan the Terrible and Joseph Stalin than to Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin. (Eastern Europe fared better. Most nations became Western allies as members of NATO, maintaining varying degrees of democracy.)

But the West has apparently taken two decades to realize that Putin is nothing like the leader of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, hailed in 1984 as the one “we can do business with” and with whom President Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush negotiated deep reductions in nuclear weapons.

Naively positive President George W. Bush said he looked Putin in the eye and “found him very direct and trustworthy.” Equally hopeful, President Barack Obama mocked his Republican rival Mitt Romney’s description of Russia as our “No.” 1 geopolitical enemy”, accusing him of having revived the foreign policy of the 1980s and adding: “The cold war has been over for 20 years”.

President Donald Trump has claimed Putin’s friendship but embarrassed the United States at its Helsinki summit by publicly accepting the Russian leader’s disavowal of his interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Some Trump allies say the former president’s bluster and calculated uncertainty kept Russia from attacking Ukraine. John Bolton, the veteran GOP hardliner who was Trump’s national security adviser, disputes that.

He told SiriusXM’s Julie Mason that he thought Putin had seen “the president’s hostility to NATO” and that a re-elected Trump would leave the Western treaty and “make Putin’s path even easier.” “.

Biden, more lucid about Putin, initially seemed to think negotiation was possible. But when US intelligence concluded the Russian president was planning war, Biden not only responded forcefully but forged a degree of Western unity that previously seemed impossible.

Whatever happens, the result will be disastrous for Ukraine. Even if it survives, it will emerge as a battered and brutalized country, although the heroic leadership of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has kept its head held high.

But it will also be disastrous for Russia and what might have been, if Vladimir Putin – like Donald Trump – had not been obsessed with reversing history instead of advancing it.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers can email him at [email protected]

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