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Posted at 3:36 p.m. on Aug. 20, 2014
As international menaces go, the Islamic State group has stolen headlines from Russia, but that doesn’t mean Vladimir Putin has gone away as a threat. But how much of a threat is he, and why?
“It should be the determined goal of the United States government and other like-minded governments around the world that victory for Vladimir Putin in Ukraine is just not an option. Borders should not be violated or changed by force,” said former Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, now president of the Brookings Institution, a think tank. “If he were to get away with that it would establish a precedent that would wreak havoc around the world.”
But Clifford Gaddy, a senior fellow at Brookings, said that while it might appear that overthrowing the current world order to re-establish the old superpower Soviet Union is Putin’s aim, it’s probably not about that.
“I don’t think that’s his goal,” said Gaddy, speaking at the same Brookings event as Talbott on Wednesday. “One thing he doesn’t want and hasn’t shown an inclination to have is global leadership.”
Gaddy said Putin is and always has been a “Russia first-er,” and everything he has done as leader of his country has been about that. That’s why he has pushed back against enlarging NATO near its border, and why he has reacted negatively to the notion of U.S. intervention in places where Russia has interests, like Syria. And that Russia-first stance it’s why he’s comfortable allowing the United States to play international policeman, Gaddy said, just so long as Russia can still do what it wants and its interests aren’t affected.
Talbott said it’s too bad Russia has gone this direction not just because of the bad international precedent it sets, but because the nation could be a helpful player on the world stage.
“We in the international community really need Russia as the largest territorial state, with its extraordinarily talented and productive population, that was on its way to being a part of the solution to the world’s problems, to again be a part of the solution,” he said.
“The immediate issue is, is he going to accept defeat,” Talbott said, “or declare victory and go home?” Putin can back down or double down, Talbott said: “He doesn’t strike me as someone who backs down.”