Do Not Underestimate Putin’​s Thirst For Power

Putin, Erdogan and other leaders last year in Istanbul.
Merkel and Putin in Berlin last October
Richard Herzinger


BERLIN — The expansion of Vladimir Putin's authority is directly connected to his ability to exploit the weaknesses of Western democracies. But people continue to play down the danger that Putin poses. Could this prove to be a fatal error for our system of liberal democracy?

"If you can't beat them, join them," or so an old proverb tells us. But the new version of this old proverb among Western observers trying to figure out how to deal with Russia's renewed ambitions is: "if you can't beat them, then talk down the threat they pose." And be clear, these are observers who could never be accused of being sympathetic towards the Kremlin.

But it is in this vein that the Bulgarian political expert Ivan Krastev recently published an article in The New York Times about "the return of the Cold War narrative," warning not to over-hype Russia's influence over Western political developments. Russia experts have expressed similar views in several popular German newspapers.

According to these articles, the general "overreaction" to Putin's aggressive policies only enhances Putin's status, and that the Russian president is not as powerful as he likes to portray himself. It would, therefore, be much smarter to ignore his threatening political and military gestures up to a certain point, and thus undermining his ambitions.

None of the arguments mentioned above are novel revelations. We have heard them repeatedly since Putin declared the West to be the enemy and broken decades of peace on the European continent by annexing Crimea and invading Eastern Ukraine.

Subverstion tactics

But what is astounding is the fact that they are being repeated so vehemently at precisely this moment, after Putin has just had Aleppo reduced to rubble and downgraded the West to mere extras in the Syrian war theater. Now he is preparing to establish a new order in Syria, according to his wishes, with the support of both Iran and Turkey.

And on top of that, the Kremlin's disinformation and cyberwarfare specialists have proven that they are able to manipulate the presidential election of the most powerful nation on Earth, with new Putin-friendly leaders eyeing victory in the Netherlands, France and Italy.

So, even if the recommendation to be more relaxed about the threat that Putin poses seems a tall order, the many crises looming in the West can hardly all be blamed on the Kremlin's subversion tactics.

Alice Boota rightly notes in her article in Die Zeit that Putin "is not the cause for the crisis that liberal democracy faces. He is simply the beneficiary."

Still, we should remember that authoritarian and totalitarian leaders and movements were never the cause for the crises of the democracies they destroyed. Instead, these leaders and movements were simply adept at how best to exploit such crises, while well-meaning democrats inevitably underestimated the danger before them.

His authoritarian societal model has a stronger gravitational pull in the West than the Soviet regime ever did.

Thus Putin's authoritarianism and his apologists inside the West are a true peril in the face of a growing weakness of liberal democracy. Meanwhile, there is no lack of theories carted out to play down the threat. Former Kremlin advisor Gleb Pavlovski, for example, rehashes the age-old statement that, unlike the Soviet Union, Putin's Russia does not have an attractive ideology to offer to its supporters around the globe.

Although it is true that Putin does not have a monolithic ideology to offer comparable to Marxism-Leninism, his authoritarian societal model has, in a way, a stronger ideological and practical gravitational pull in the West than the Soviet regime ever did. This is because it is attractive to the classes who have means and who, under communism, would have been dispossessed.

Putin's system, with its symbiosis of state, intelligence services and organized crime, offers them unrestrained reapings, while being free from the chains of law and order, democratic institutions or a free press. Another classic argument utilized to calm the unease Putin spreads is the noted weakness of the Russian economy. Though this may indeed one day be the factor that leads to the downfall of the regime, until that day the worsening of the Russian economy will only drive Putin to be even more aggressive in his foreign policy because confrontation helps legitimize his claim to power.

Putin's continuous demonstration of his willingness to apply force intimidates, blackmails and divides the West, which currently shies away from any kind of military engagement.

Any supposed "overreaction" to this threat is nowhere to be seen. Russia need not fear any sanctions for its war crimes and violations of international law committed in Syria. As an example, Western governments as well as the UN have chosen to call the expulsion of Eastern Aleppo's population, which constitutes a crime against humanity, an "evacuation" and celebrate its execution as a heroic act of humanitarianism.

It stands to fear, that the U.S., under the leadership of its new president, will legitimize Moscow's violation of international law as well as its demands for a "zone of influence" within Eastern Europe. But no one should be fooled into believing that Putin's ambitions stop there. Ultimately, he envisions forcing his will onto all of Europe.

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A Dove From Hiroshima: Is Fumio Kishida Tough Enough To Lead Japan?

Japan's new prime minister is facing the twin challenges of COVID-19 and regional tensions, and some wonder whether he can even last as long as his predecessor, who was forced out after barely one year.

Japan's new PM Fumio Kishida in Tokyo on Sept. 29

Daisuke Kondo


TOKYO — When Fumio Kishida, Japan's new prime minister. introduced himself earlier this month, he announced that the three major projects of his premiership will be the control of the ongoing pandemic; a new type of capitalism; and national security.

Kishida also pledged to deal with China "as its neighbor, biggest trade partner and an important nation which Japan should continue to dialogue with."

Nothing too surprising. Still, it was a rapid turn of events that brought him to the top job, taking over for highly unpopular predecessor, Yoshihide Suga, who had suddenly announced his resignation from office.

After a fierce race, Kishida defeated Taro Kono to become the president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), and pave the way for the prime minister's job.

Born into politics

A key reason for Kishida's victory is the improving health situation, following Japan's fifth wave of the COVID pandemic that coincided with this summer's Olympic Games in Tokyo.

The best way to describe Kishida is to compare him to a sponge: not the most interesting item in a kitchen, yet it can absorb problems and clean up muck. His slogan ("Leaders exist to make other people shine") reflects well his political philosophy.

He is an excellent actor.

Kishida was born into a political family: His grandfather and father were both parliament members. Between the ages of six to nine, he studied in New York because of his father's work at the time. He attended the most prestigious private secondary school — the Kaisei Academy, of which about half of its graduates go to the University of Tokyo.

However, after failing three times the entrance exam to , Kishida finally settled for Waseda University. Coming from a family where virtually all the men went to UTokyo, this was Kishida's first great failure in life.

An invitation for Obama

After he graduated from college, Kishida worked for five years in a bank before serving as secretary for his father, Fumitake Kishida. In 1992, his father suddenly died at the age of 65. The following year, Kishida inherited his father's legacy to be elected as a member of the House of Representatives for the Hiroshima constituency. Since then, he has been elected successfully nine straight times, and served as Shinzo Abe's foreign minister for four years, beginning in December 2012. A former subordinate of his from that time commented on Kishida:

"If we are to sum him up in one sentence, he is an excellent actor. Whenever he was meeting his peers from other countries, we would remind him what should be emphasized, or when a firm, unyielding 'No' was necessary, and so on ... At the meetings, he would then put on his best show, just like an actor."

According to some insiders, during this period as foreign minister, his toughest stance was on nuclear weapons. This is due to the fact that his family hails from Hiroshima.

In 2016, following his suggestion, the G7 Ise-Shima Summit was held in Hiroshima, which meant that President Barack Obama visited the city — the first visit by a U.S. president to Hiroshima, where 118,661 lives were annihilated by the U.S. atomic bomb.

Photo of Shinzo Abe, Barack Obama and Fumio Kishida with their backs to the camera, in Hiroshima in 2016

Shinzo Abe, Barack Obama and Fumio Kishida in Hiroshima in 2016

Japanese cynics

In September, 2020 when Shinzo Abe stepped down as prime minister, Kishida put out his candidacy for the first time for LDP's presidency. He didn't even get close. This was his second great failure.

But reading his biography, Kishida Vision, I must say that besides the two aforementioned hiccups, Kishida's life has been smooth sailing over the past 64 years

When one has had a happy and easy life, one tends to think that human nature is fundamentally good. Yet, the world doesn't work like that. And Japanese tend to believe that "human nature is vice," and have always felt a bit uneasy with the dovish Kishida diplomacy when he was foreign minister.

Leftist traditions from Hiroshima

Hiroshima has always been a city with a leftist political tradition. Kishida's character, coupled with the fact that he belongs to the moderate Kochikai faction within the LDP, inevitably means that he won't be a right-wing prime minister.

How long will a Fumio Kishida government last?

Kishida would never have the courage to be engaged in any military action alongside Japan's ally, the United States, nor will he set off to rewrite the country's constitution.

So after barely a year of Yoshihide Suga in office, how long will a Fumio Kishida government last? If Japan can maintain its relatively stable health situation for some time, it could be a while. But if COVID comes roaring back, and the winter brings a sixth wave of the pandemic as virtually all Japanese experts in infectious diseases have predicted, then Kishida may just end up like Suga. No sponge can clean up that mess.

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