September 12, 2007

A Russian man stripped down to the waist last month for the cameras, and his muscled torso made headlines around the world.  Mind you, it was the president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, but few could have predicted the explosion of gossip and speculation that followed the publication of the pictures, taken while Vlad holidayed with Prince Albert of Monaco in the Siberian mountains.

Geopolitical speculation aside—did it mean Russia is ready to strip herself of her nukes?  Duh, no—Russian gay chatrooms and blogs claimed he was pleading for more tolerance for homosexuality in Russia.  (Not quite). Putin is a black belt in judo and a good skier, hence the macho torso, but as far as anything else is concerned, all the strip tease signified was that the president was hot and had taken off his shirt.

Political commentators don’t know what to make of Vladimir. He has been using “pipeline diplomacy” to force neighbors such as Belarus and Ukraine to toe the Russian line. He has also intimidated Estonia and Latvia, not to mention Western Europe—as easy to spook as a Kuwaiti sheik without Uncle Sam in his corner. Needless to say, the ones screaming the loudest are Western oil companies. These poor dears, basket cases such as BP and Exxon, are now literally being put over the barrel, a position in which these bullies have been holding John Q. Public for a very long time. Like all bullies, they are not best pleased when the positions are reversed.

Personally, I’m delighted. The late, great President Nixon once told me that the West was acting unfairly towards the Russian Bear. Instead of helping a prostrate Russia, we cheered while the Russkies suffered defeat and humiliation. Now the chickens have come home to roost, and Russia is bent upon the recovery of her assets, her authority and her capacity to intimidate. Instead of whining, Uncle Sam should put himself in Putin’s place. Most of the Russian people love what he’s doing. His is the kind of government they understand. “Top – down” policies from the Kremlin have been around for a thousand years. They strike a chord with every taxi driver who still keeps a miniature of Joseph Stalin beside his windscreen.

The indisputable fact is that Russians feel provoked by American plans to deploy part of its new anti-missile system in Eastern Europe. They rejoice at Washington’s disaster in Iraq. Putin, they believe,  has the Russians walking tall again.

Let’s take it from the top. When communism collapsed, a few smart crooks—now they go by the name oligarchs—grabbed most of the state assets and moved their ill gotten gains to Britain and Israel, where they laundered their billions by buying football teams, palaces, yachts, planes and what have you. (Ninety percent of the oligarchs are Jewish). They charge that Putin has appealed to voters through tacit anti-Semitism.  This is a blatantly false accusation, but it plays well among the neocon crowd. It is true, however,  that the richest man in Russia, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a Jew, was summarily imprisoned two years ago on political grounds.

But this had nothing to do with anti-Semitism. It had to do with Putin wanting to tighten his grip on energy sources. Khodorkovsky had bought fields in Siberia at bargain prices and controlled Russia’s oil exports. After putting him in the pokey, Putin then forced companies like Royal Dutch Shell to sell control of projects to Gazprom. In 1990, the oligarchs controlled Russia’s raw materials. No longer, and as I said before, I’m delighted. Russian raw materials belong to Russia, not to foreign multinationals.

There is no ideological difference between Russia and the West. But the West needs to heed Russia’s concerns about strategic balance in the region. The multinationals have lobbies in Washington which are crying foul and using rhetoric that went out with the cold war. A major crook like Boris Berezovsky, exiled in London and a person the Brits have refused to extradite to Moscow where he’s wanted on fraud charges, was recently given a platform in the Sunday Times of London to attack Putin. Berezovsky demanded “an audit of Russian elite’s bank accounts,” which is a bit like Al Capone demanding a tax audit on Eliot Ness.

Russia has never been understood by the West. And vice versa. Modern Western thought was seen as breeding a cold, materialistic indifference to suffering. Descartes presented a cold, heartless logic, as opposed to the Russian love of mysticism and nature. If Putin could get around the constitution and run again he would win big time, just as Bin Laden would wipe the floor with those camel drivers posing as princes in Saudi Arabia. I’m betting that Putin won’t even try, but will remain a power behind the scenes. Good for you, Vlad, keep making the oil companies nervous. They sure deserve it.


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