Tuesday, June 28, 2022
June 28, 2022

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Leubsdorf: Aiming to reverse history

Putin obsessed with rewriting history in attempt on Ukraine

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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, unsuccessful move toward democracy at home and on its borders.

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

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

That’s the history Putin wants to reverse with his brutal, unprovoked attempt to subjugate Ukraine — one of the onetime Soviet republics that joined Eastern European nations in declaring independence.

The outcome remains in doubt, but the war has clearly not gone as Putin expected. Putin’s invasion raises the question of whether, in the 21st century, the power of the sword can prove mightier than the power of ideas, whether it is ultimately sustainable for an autocrat wielding military force to quash the natural yearning by peoples seeking freedom to live their lives and choose their leaders.

Russia and the West are not only engaged in a military and geopolitical battle, but one between the autocratic heritage of one and the democratic traditions of the other. Ukraine has made clear which side it prefers.

The brief Gorbachev era — and the presidency of his successor Boris Yeltsin — serve as a reminder that Russia did not have to wind up this way. But decades of political and economic corruption, and its lack of a democratic tradition, helped Putin undercut the era that Gorbachev defined by the words “perestroika” (restructuring) and “glasnost” (openness).

That internal conflict was captured recently by CNN correspondent Nic Robertson. “The world was changing, the Cold War thawing, new horizons beckoning, and a generation of Russians was about to taste the freedoms they craved,” he wrote. But as the 21st century loomed, Yeltsin, alcoholic and unreliable, “plucked Putin from among the money-corrupted milieu in the Kremlin to replace him as Russian president — and, in return, Yeltsin, who had battled corruption allegations, got immunity from prosecution,” Robertson said.

The true Putin

Initially, “there was a glimmer of the modernizer about Russia’s new leader, but that reputation didn’t last long,” he said. In time, the true Putin emerged, the onetime secret police operative who was more the heir of Ivan the Terrible and Joseph Stalin than of Gorbachev and Yeltsin.

But President George W. Bush, naively positive, said he looked in Putin’s eye and “found him very straightforward and trustworthy.” Similarly hopeful, President Barack Obama mocked Republican rival Mitt Romney’s description of Russia as our “No. 1 geopolitical foe,” saying “The Cold War’s been over for 20 years.”

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

Some Trump allies argue the former president’s bluster and calculated uncertainty forestalled 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 he thought Putin saw “the president’s hostility of NATO” and felt a reelected Trump would leave the Western treaty, and “just ease Putin’s path that much more.”

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

Whatever ultimately happens, the outcome will be disastrous for Ukraine. Even if it survives, it will emerge as a battered, brutalized country, though one which President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s heroic leadership has enabled to hold its national head high.

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

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