John Colson: Thoughts on our Russia-related conundrum

John Colson
Hit & Run
John Colson

It strikes me that here in Aspen, counterintuitive as it may be, we have a bit of a conundrum to deal with.

The nature of this particular puzzle is figuring out how we feel about the ongoing war between Russia, which is afflicted with an inferiority complex as well as a bully’s demeanor, and its much smaller, less militarized neighbor, Ukraine.

Keep in mind that we here in Aspen, to one degree or another, have welcomed our share of uber-rich Russian billionaires into our community. These guys are widely and generally known as oligarchs, whether or not they meet the definition of being actually embedded in the inner circle of Russia’s thuggish, demonstrably insane and incalculably bitter dictator, Vladimir Putin.

These billionaires are, of course, in that class of Russians who, by hook or crook, became fabulously wealthy in the wake of the collapse of the old Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or USSR. These developments were permitted by Putin after he rose to the presidency of Russia, as long as the billionaires remained loyal to or, at the very least, not an obstacle for Putin’s hegemonic and imperial ambitions.

Put simply, Putin is desperate to re-establish the USSR, in whatever form he can manage and with himself as its supreme leader.

As the world watches and helps where it can, Putin continues to rain down death and destruction on his Ukrainian neighbor-state for no other reason than a warped, fantastical belief that Ukrainian Pres. Volodymyr Zelensky is a threat to Russian security.

Putin knows, of course, that his reasons for attacking Ukraine are so far off base that they are better understood as a hallucination, a way for Putin to maintain his ongoing fictive identity as a peacemaker rather than a war monger.

I’ve been reading a lot about the principals involved — Putin and Zelensky, I mean — and noted with amusement a spate of stories about how, when Putin first took power in 2000, he went to great lengths to charm Western leaders by posing as a kind of prince of peace and democracy, rather than the secretive, deeply violent and divisive autocrat that is his true inner child.

Putin’s fictional self did not last long, however, as his own deep dysfunction along with world events conspired to isolate both him and his country.

Oh, he still managed to maintain relations with some nations, notably China and Israel, which together have been identified as central figures in the world’s effort to get Putin to stand down and stop the killing of innocents in his drive for global relevance.

But throughout most of the world (including the U.S., at least until our erstwhile president, Donald J. Trump, did his damndest to help Putin remake his image in a better light) Putin and Russia are both regarded with suspicion, at the least, and outright fear and loathing in most quarters.

The March 27 New York Times published (among other coverage of the ongoing Ukrainian calamity) a remarkable profile of Putin, beginning with a 2001 speech to the German Parliament, in which he pledged in soft, conciliatory tones how his nation would pursue “democratic rights and freedoms” for its citizenry.

Flash forward to today, according to the Times’ quote of one German who watched that speech, “that purring voice … has morphed into the angry rant of a hunched man dismissing as ‘scum and traitors’ any Russian who resists the violence of his tightening dictatorship.”

The article poses the question: Did U.S. leaders and others get it wrong, misread Putin’s deepest and truest designs, or was he genuinely transformed by perceived insults, anti-Russian attitudes and acts, a transformation cemented in place by “the giddying intoxication of prolonged and — since COVID-19 — increasingly isolated rule?”

The article arrives at no definitive conclusion, but I can give you my own view, which is that Putin was an autocrat in the making during his years in the KGB and afterward. Regardless of how convincingly he acted the part of a humble, peace-seeking man 20-some years ago, he always harbored the kind of virulent, anti-democratic, anti-freedom impulses we see on full display in Ukraine today.

And it should be no surprise to anyone that his circle of oligarchs, who have undoubtedly played a role in making Putin wealthy and keeping him that way, are as complicit as he is in whatever outcome emerges from his ongoing and illegal war against Ukraine.

As noted before in this space, I have no idea of the exact roles of this crew of oligarchs — as well as our own little crop of Russian billionaires — in putting Putin’s evil plans into action.

But what I do know is that, unless they can show us in clearly identifiable ways that they are against this madman, then we can do little else than presume that they support him.

So how should we Aspenites react to all of this? Some already have, engaging in or offering support for acts of vandalism against certain wealthy Aspenites for selling land to a Russian billionaire at a staggering profit.

Is that the end of it, or was it just a beginning?

I guess only time will tell.