One of the classic cartoons by offbeat humorist Gary Larson showed two pioneers huddled behind a covered wagon, shotguns raised, watching an Indian’s flaming arrow ignite the wagon just inches above their heads. One turns to the other in disbelief and cries, “They’re lighting their arrows on fire! Can they DO that?”
Fast forward to 2014, to a hand-wringing Obama administration and its European Union counterparts. They must be shocked — shocked! — at the thought that Putin and his insurgent proxies wouldn’t consult a United Nations arbitral tribunal before invading another country, murdering its citizens, annexing its land, and downing a civilian jetliner with nearly 300 innocent souls on board. Especially after those wonderful Winter Olympic Games.
Doesn’t he care anymore what the world thinks of him?
No. And he never did. Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin doesn’t care what we think, or how many G-8 dinner parties he’s uninvited to, or how many members of the Council on Foreign Relations unfriend him on Facebook.
He’s a freak, with the nerve to do the two things that Freakonomics authors Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt contend so few of us — least of all heads of state — are willing to do: see the world as it really is and act accordingly, instead of counting on delusions like “the audacity of hope” to make the world a better place.
Putin, of course, only cares about his world, and about making Mother Russia a better place, whatever the expense, and however long it takes. And, as Russian opinion polls increasingly show, Mother’s minions love it, and want more of it.
So, like all successful freaks, Putin will remain unflinching in his resolve and steely in his assessments. He’ll be unencumbered by the confirmation bias that comes with sentiments like compassion and moral outrage. The only exception will be when he’s feigning those sentiments to further his two ultimate ambitions: assembling a new Soviet empire and burnishing his own legacy in Russian history.
Although he shares Time magazine’s “Person of the Year” accolades with his hero, two-time winner Josef Stalin, Putin may be on an even faster track than the Man of Steel. That’s because he’s unfettered by ideology. For him, any totalitarian cocktail of communism, capitalism, and corruption will do, as long as it increases Russia’s power and global influence and, presumably, his own wealth.
As for those images of Putin in his most mystifying moments — as Napoleon on horseback, stripped to the waist, flashing his nipples to a wide-eyed world — forget them. They’re nothing more than pandering to his proletariat, the Russian equivalent of a Democratic presidential candidate’s obligatory duck hunting photo-op.
In reality, Putin is none of that. He’s an unforgiving KGB operative with liquid nitrogen running through his veins, serving Polonium-210 tea to his political enemies, and controlling state media with an iron fist.
In the process, he has completely rebuilt and refined the old Soviet propaganda machine that fed the Russian people a daily diet of lies, exaggerations, and anti-West vitriol. He even contracted Ketchum, a premier American public relations firm, to ghost write opinion pieces for him in high profile periodicals like the New York Times.
Yes, Putin’s a “bad actor” but, unlike so many other bad actors on the world stage, he’s sober and smart. He also has one freakish advantage: he uses, as Levitt and Dubner say, “the sheer power of numbers to scrub away layers of confusion.”
One of those numbers is 138,000,000,000. That’s the number of cubic meters of natural gas that the European Union depends on Russia to provide each year, more than one third of its total consumption.
The other number is 1,800. That’s how many nuclear warheads Russia has set to launch, enough to end human civilization and, in the meantime, reduce the other “great powers” to Keystone Cops running into each other, shrieking that the criminals they’re chasing aren’t playing by the rules.
“Rules in a knife fight?” As the Wild West’s outside-the-box icon, Butch Cassidy, might say, we Westerners of today can only fight our freaking enemies if we start to think like freaks ourselves.
That begins with admitting that President Obama’s “reset button” failed, and that Russian imperialism, subterfuge and duplicity will be permanent facts of life under Putin.
It continues with NATO arming any nation that Moscow threatens with enough materiel and training to repel any aggression by Russia or its surrogates.
It demands that President Obama reinstate the missile defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic that he scrapped in 2009 to curry favor with the Russians for a UN vote.
Finally, it requires that we remember the most important number of all: 52. That’s the percentage of Russian budget revenues generated each year by the exporting of GazProm’s oil and gas products.
It’s a number that can give the West a tremendous long-term hedge against Russian extortion, but only if Europe can put aside its utopian obsession with zero carbon emissions. The EU needs to escalate exploration for new oil and gas reserves, build new infrastructure that will increase their capacity to import fossil fuels, and join us in our quest for cleaner “carbon capture and storage” technology for coal.
For our part, we need to lift the decades-old U.S. ban on crude oil exports and commit to stepping up energy production beyond “independence” levels to surplus levels. This will help give our strategic allies the leverage they need to neutralize a supply threat from Russia or any OPEC nation.
Certainly, we’ll continue to argue about the validity of climate change science, the wisdom of cap and trade legislation, and the merits of specific energy projects like the Keystone Pipeline.
But at least now there’s a growing concern and consensus on one major issue. From John McCain to Dianne Feinstein, Congress is coming around to a realization that the Cold War is back on, and heating up rapidly.
It’s the one “global warming” issue we can all agree on — and, hopefully, “freak out” about — with policy decisions based on how the world really is, not how we’d like it to be.
Timothy Philen is the author of Harper&Row/Lippincott’s You CAN Run Away From It! a satirical indictment of American pop psychology. He is currently at work on a latter-day “Walden,” a collection of essays on post-modern American culture.