This week, as I was watching the endlessly repeating twenty-four hour news cycle, I saw one of those title graphics that stations create when they cover a significant event. A war (Kuwaiting for Sadam '90), a manhunt ending (Osama Bin Gotten '11), or a widespread computer glitch (Why 2K? '99); it doesn't matter, they always come up with clever and eye-catching marquees to display every time there's an update. I'm used to it by now, but the one I saw last week trumped them all. I read, "Cold War II," and as it shocked me out of my tagline complacency I immediately thought of a Hollywood movie trailer in that movie guy voice.
"Thirty years ago, the forces of good defeated a great evil. Or so we thought. Cold War II: Only Fools Russian."
Now, that's sound like something I'd definitely go and see. Of course, it would need a captivating bad guy, but that won't be a problem because even the writers in Hollywood couldn't have come up with an antagonist as dangerous and charismatic as Vladimir Putin. He's a James Bond villain with a flair for the dramatic and a devil-may-care attitude, and he doesn't really care if you like him or not. Oh, and, he absolutely loves to post selfies.
Before we get into the juggernaut that is Vladimir Putin, I think a bit of history is in order. For those younger readers among you who were too young to see Cold War I in the theaters, let me recap. After World War II, Russia was upset at losing almost 12 million troops, which was ten times as much as any other country except Germany, but, well, Germany did start it. In addition, Stalin wasn't happy with the outcome of the Yalta conference, and he wanted to have a buffer between his country and the rest of Europe. Poland was used twice to invade the Soviet Union, and Stalin wanted to use the countries in Eastern Europe to prevent it from ever happening again. Since the Soviet troops were already occupying Eastern Europe, Churchill agreed to let Stalin have a "sphere of influence" there, and maintain a presence in countries the Soviet army had "liberated." Obviously, Stalin wasn't satisfied with simply "influencing" the governments of Eastern Europe, so he made moves. Fast Forward through four years of election fixing, arrests, murders, and outright government takeovers, and by 1949 the "Iron Curtain" had officially fallen over Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria. This was the beginning of Cold War I, and it lasted forty years until about 1990, when the Berlin Wall fell. By that time, because of its failure to modernize, the Soviet Government couldn't sustain itself financially or otherwise, and were unable to control their member states. So, one by one, the countries of the Iron Curtain sent the communists packing and bought Levi's jeans and Marlboro Cigarettes in numbers previously only seen at Grease conventions.
Here in America, the fall of the Iron Curtain and the defeat of Communism is considered a great victory. Unfortunately, many Russians consider the end of the USSR a humiliating defeat for the motherland, and their hate is mainly focused on one person - Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev became the titular head of the communist party in 1985, and in his six-year term, he enacted programs like perestroika and glasnost. They sound complicated, but they're just fancy names for policies that Gorbachev put in place to open the Soviet states to western influences. Ultimately, these policies were directly responsible for ending the Cold War and sweeping the communists out of office in Europe. Watching the entire time was Vladimir Putin, who joined the KGB in 1975, and observed from the front row as the country he loved fell.
Putin's job during his early years at the KGB was to find Soviet journalists, scientists, and others who had a valid reason to go abroad, and "convince" them to spy for the motherland. Eventually, Putin realized that the Soviet economy was in trouble, and that without modernization, it would fail. So, he positioned himself to be in the right place at the right time, and in 1991, just after the fall, Putin quit the KGB and became an aide to the first post-communist elected mayor of St. Petersburg, formerly Leningrad. During those first days of democracy, food and other resources were scarce, and Putin was the man in charge of obtaining humanitarian aid. Unfortunately, the food and materials he supposedly procured never seemed to arrive, and when questioned, Putin only said "everything is correct." Everything was correct, of course, but only to Putin and his fake companies and their bank accounts, or at least that's the supposition.
When the mayor he worked for was eventually defeated in 1996, Putin suddenly moved to Moscow and inexplicably began shooting up the government hierarchy, and fast. Under Yeltsin, Putin became director of the FSB, the successor to the KGB, in 1998, and was then selected as head of the Kremlin Security Council. Yeltsin finally appointed him Prime Minister in August of 1999, and since then Putin has been alternating between presidency and premiership. No matter what position he holds, though, Putin is the public face and private head of Russia.
As you can see, Putin has been quietly watching and influencing Soviet politics and governance for years now, and only took office when he was fully ready. He's frighteningly intelligent and he has the patience to wait for the right time to act, but that's not the worst part about Cold War II. What makes him so dangerous is that he is a virtual rock star to the Russian people, and they love to ogle Putin's lavish lifestyle and his entourage of beautiful people. He uses his panache and charm to get what he wants, and if that doesn't work, there's always the people who disappear during the night. Putin is like John F. Kennedy, Bono, and Lex Luthor all wrapped up into one manly package, and he isn't afraid to show off. In fact, he recently did just that, while riding on horseback, in the wilderness, shirtless, his "guns" in full view.
In the recent past, Putin has raced a Formula-1 car, tracked a tiger, competed in a karate tournament, scuba dived and "found" ancient Greek pottery, sailed his yacht on a Russian lake, arm-wrestled at a summer-camp, bent a frying pan with his bare hands, driven a snowmobile and flew a plane, headed up a motorcycle gang ride, hunted a bear, played concert piano for thousands of fans, driven a T-90 tank, forged hot metal, played on a national hockey team, joined a deep-sea-diving expedition, and still had time to cuddle with a Bulgarian Shepard puppy for the cameras. Oh, and, when he can, he signs autographs of his headshot for adoring fans, all while running the country with an iron fist.
All of Putin's photo ops and publicity stunts are entertaining and often ridiculous, but they are also a fantastic a cunning distraction that serves to blind us all as he quietly consolidates power within a group of his ex-KGB buddies. It's a brilliant plan, frankly, and his ace in the hole is that Putin makes it very difficult not to like him. I mean, who in their right mind wouldn't want to hang out with a scuba diving, hockey-playing, bear-hunting, billionaire who sweats liquid awesome and has a bevy of beautiful Russian woman following him at all times? Sorry, folks, but sign me up for that meet and greet, because I'd be happy to hand over a piece of my freedom for a few minutes basking in his reflected light of pure testosterone. Putin is fearless, and sometimes I wish America showed just a bit of his determination. If we had a charismatic character to jet-set around the world and make other countries want to be our friend, we'd be in much better shape. Obama tries, but as this recent tweet proves, Putin has no problem baiting the leader of the free world. Obama has a dog? Well, Putin has a leopard. Man! A leopard! Who gets a pet leopard? Only awesome dudes, who always pick up the bar tab, and definitely know hot chicks, that's who. Pfft. I'm so getting a pet leopard.
So, as you can see, we have one of the greatest bad guys ever conceived to play the enemy in Cold War II, and, frankly, we are going to have to dig deep to take home the trophy this time. The current situation in the Ukraine is a test, and the U.S.A. isn't a guaranteed winner any more. We better get on the ball if we want truth, justice, and the American way to prevail. Once we do, though, we can get on with Cold War III: The United States of Awesome.
Follow Daniel P. Malito on Twitter: www.twitter.com/danielpmalito