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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Grandmaster Putin

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Ilya Nyzhnyk, a 10-year-old Ukrainian chess prodigy who holds a teddy bear when he plays, crushed opponents during the recent Moscow Open with his unpredictable moves. President Vladimir Putin, minus the teddy bear, is doing something of the same. He made a series of three interconnected moves that were dramatic, sudden, but not entirely unpredictable. These were his speech in Munich denouncing U.S. aggression, his abrupt promotion of Sergei Ivanov from defense minister to first deputy prime minister, and the threat, voiced by the head of the General Staff, General Yury Baluyevsky, to withdraw unilaterally from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty negotiated by U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987. This threat was made as a direct response to the U.S. plan to deploy missiles in Poland to counter a possible attack by Iran.

Putin's harsh Munich rhetoric seems to have caught the West by surprise. It should have seen it coming. The speech only made more public and explicit the same sentiments he expressed at the new military intelligence headquarters in November. Polls had already shown a sharp decline in Russian popular goodwill toward the United States and strong opposition to U.S. President George W. Bush's "foreign policy, aspiration for global domination and interference in other countries' affairs."

Putin's attack was thus bound to play well domestically and prepared the way for the promotion of the hawkish Ivanov. In several respects Ivanov is the right replacement for Putin during a transition period in which continuity will be paramount. A Leningrader with a KGB background like Putin, Ivanov can, however, appear pedantic, more a gray eminence than a leader.

As soon as Ivanov was promoted, the speculation machine shifted into high gear. In granting him the same title as the other obvious heir apparent, Dmitry Medvedev, Putin was reminding everyone that he was still the man in charge and would battle any efforts to turn him into a lame duck (an expression that has now found its way into the Russian lexicon.) Another line of reasoning had it that Putin was actually making these moves to mask his real choice of successor, whom he will bring in later and blindside everyone.

But we should be looking at policy, not personalities. In moving strongly against the United States and the West, Putin has taken a new tack, signaling that the stabilization period is over and Russia is now entering an assertive phase. Putin inherited a country in disgrace and disorder and will pass on a resurgent and respected Russia on to his successor.

The first serious move by the newly assertive Russia is against the foolish and provocative U.S. policy laid down by President Bill Clinton and extended by Bush, one of the rare instances of continuity between their administrations. It is perfectly understandable why countries like Poland and the Baltic states, with their bitter experience of invasion and domination by Moscow, would want to cement themselves as firmly as possible in the Western camp. A resurgent Russia only rouses old suspicions.

But Russian suspicions have been roused as well, and they matter more. If Ukraine joins NATO, Russia will be ringed from the Baltic to the Black Sea by a foreign military alliance in two of whose countries, Poland and the Czech Republic, new missile and radar installations will be deployed. Technical assurances from the Bush administration that the missiles would be incapable of intercepting Russian ICBMs ring false. The Russians are adept at interpreting gestures of pressure and intimidation. This is political science, not rocket science.

Talk of a renewed Cold War is nonsense. Russia is simply pursuing its interests. As the French (who also give the United States headaches) like to say -- the beast is very nasty, if you attack it, it defends itself.

Richard Lourie is the author of "The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin" and "Sakharov: A Biography."