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Trudy Rubin: Putin plays long game

  • Philadelphia Inquirer
  • Published Sunday, April 20, 2014, at 12 a.m.

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Despite Russia’s Crimean landgrab and its massing of troops on the Ukrainian border, Western leaders still refuse to recognize the mind-set of Vladimir Putin.

U.S. officials still hope he will negotiate a “compromise” with the Kiev government rather than engineer the dismemberment of Ukraine.

Anyone who still believes this pap should be sentenced to a week of watching the gross anti-Western propaganda on Russian state TV (nearly all national media are now state-controlled), which distorts the facts on Ukraine while whipping up nationalist fervor. This kind of agitprop, which hasn’t been seen since the worst days of Joseph Stalin, proves that dealing with Putin requires a tougher approach.

Under President Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s, Russian media were privatized and were pretty freewheeling. Putin took back control of national television networks – still the most important news vehicle for the Russian heartland – along with nearly all of the independent newspapers.

On a visit to Moscow in 2012 in the run-up to the last Russian elections, I was astonished at the level of anti-Western vitriol on TV political talk shows: The most astonishing tales of Western conspiracies to wreck Russia were discussed as if they were fact. But that was nothing compared with what is going on now.

The Kremlin shut off or took control of most of the few remaining independent media voices, including the last independent TV channel, Dozhd, and online sites. The state-owned but respected RIA Novosti news agency was suddenly shut and reinvented as Russia Today, under the direction of the notorious Dmitry Kiselyov. He made headlines recently by suggesting that Russia could turn the United States into “radioactive ash.”

With near-total media control, the Kremlin set about selling its narrative of Ukraine to its own people and the world.

Russian news outlets relentlessly painted the demonstrations and government turnover in Kiev as a “coup” engineered by the West with the aid of anti-Semitic “Nazis” and “fascists.” In reality, while right-wing groups did demonstrate, they were only a small part of the protests, which were ignited by the pro-Russian government’s corruption and decision, under Kremlin pressure, to turn away from Europe. The government fell not because of a plot, but because special Ukrainian forces, with advisers from Moscow, killed dozens of demonstrators.

Putin brazenly denies he sent troops to Crimea and has 40,000 troops ready to invade on Ukraine’s border (they are fully on display in satellite photos). But President Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and company don’t seem to grasp the importance of Putin’s big lies.

The Russian leader couldn’t care less about world opinion. His Ukrainian adventure has sent his popularity soaring at home and sends a clear message to Kiev: Either you come back under Russia’s wing, or I will ruin you – whether by destabilizing the country or by invasion.

“Putin is not interested in compromise,” said the Brookings Institution’s Fiona Hill, co-author of “Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin.” “He’s playing the long game. He’s willing to push things to the end.”

This is not World War III. Putin can’t afford to attack NATO countries. He is leading Russia toward bankruptcy, and his power will wane when Russia’s gas income drops as more U.S. gas comes on line. But Western leaders should not underestimate his intent to re-exert control over Ukraine; he won’t think twice unless they give Ukraine more aid and take a much tougher stance on sanctions.

Watch a little Russian TV and that becomes very clear.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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