Vladimir Putin is back. Freshly re-installed as Russian president, the world’s most intimidating camera hog is raising Western hackles by blowing off the latest G8 summit. He’s also fueling a new round of antagonistic U.S. press. It goes without saying that life under Putin would appall and depress the average American. But Putin’s American critics, invariably demanding a tougher Russia policy than the one president Obama has adopted, are completely missing the point.
Not only has Vladimir Putin done the world a favor. He’s demonstrated that he’s the only person alive who could do it. Instead of more gripes about how awful the Russians persist in being, or more heavy breathing over Obama’s ostensible kowtowing to the Kremlin, Americans ought to take a moment (or ten) to think about how much worse life would be for them without Putin.
Instead of a piñata for American frustrations or an example of resolve we need to make to the world, Russia is a keystone of the international order. If Russia as Putin has preserved it goes down the tubes, the problems the U.S. will be called upon to help solve — or simply cope with — will far exceed our patience and our treasury. At a time when Europe teeters on one brink and the Mideast on another, America depends more than ever on a merely functional Russia. Little could impede us more in the world than a collapsing Russia, or a Russia that has been forced to expend its precious resources actively opposing American interests to the best of its ability.
Let us count the ways. Our position in Afghanistan requires Russian cooperation. With it, we could stay for many more years or we could begin an orderly withdrawal. Without it, we would be obliged to scramble for the exits.
Russia’s control of Europe’s gas has long been a defining feature of Eurasian politics. Money is more important to Moscow than flexing its muscles over floundering Europe. But if the U.S. insists on disproportionate nuclear agreements with Russia that U.S. policymakers would apoplectically reject if the imbalance were reversed, we can expect that Russia will illustrate just how much more leverage than America over European affairs it currently enjoys.
Then there’s Israel. After years of machinations, the Russians recently returned Iran’s payment for the state-of-the-art S-300 air-defense systems, having refused to deliver the technology and breaching their end of the contract. An Iran with the S-300 is an Iran Israel simply can’t bomb. Striking Iran in the face of the S-300 is a mission the U.S. would do anything not to run. Joe Biden says we can thank Obama for that. Really, we have to thank Putin.
What else? China. As important as it might be to ensure that Japan, India, and other East Asian allies blunt Chinese dreams in the Pacific, even robust cooperation will only incentivize China to focus more energy to its north and west. Events in Chongqing, the inland city where Bo Xilai built a fiefdom of shocking independence from Beijing, suggest that China’s emphasis on the explosive growth of its coastal cities will give way to a renewed push to extend political control over its interior and push economic control deep into inner Asia. American observers frustrated with Russia’s human rights record should consider how few alternatives there are to checking that expansion of influence.
(The fallout from the Bo Xilai crisis makes for an instructive comparison. Even with a rigorous party machine with actionable ambitions way beyond simply preventing national collapse, China finds itself struggling to execute its latest internal power transfer. Imagine what afflictions await Russia if its own Bo Xilai appears. Putin is not a young man. He can and will be waited out.)
Finally, there’s Russia itself. Putin seems to understand how bad things can get for Russia. Few Americans do — and even fewer seem to grasp what will be asked of America if Russia does encounter real chaos. The disaster awaiting Europe will only magnify the economic pain that awaits Russia even under the most virtuoso leadership. But the American people cannot accept an intervention in Russia, cannot pay for someone else to do it, and will not like the vision of the world that will come into view if China becomes the only power capable of restoring order in Siberia and beyond.
Though he may have been its savior, Putin is hardly a blessing for Russia. Nevertheless, both Putin and Russia are a stark reminder of how limited our influence and our options will be in areas of the world with profound, systemic challenges. America had best spend its own limited time and energy doing what it can to forestall catastrophe in Europe and the Mideast, and acknowledge that despite everything, Vladimir Putin is making our lives easier, not harder, than the alternative.
James Poulos is a columnist at The Daily Caller, a contributor at Ricochet, and a commentator in print, online, and on television and radio. Recently he has been the host of The Bottom Line and Reform School on PJTV and a fellow of the Claremont Institute. His website is jamespoulos.com and his Twitter handle is @jamespoulos.