Saturday, August 07, 2010

Scorching Putin

New York Post
August 7, 2010

Red-headed spy Anna Chapman is no longer the hottest thing in Russia. Now it's the 500 out-of-control wildfires devouring thousands of square miles of the countryside.

This conflagration makes California's annual blazes look like Boy Scout campfires. The fires have consumed entire villages and ravaged the critical wheat harvest; now they threaten a key nuclear-weapons-research facility. A huge naval logistics base burned -- along with 200 helicopters and planes.

But the reputation of Russia's new czar, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, may have been scorched worst of all.

Fighting fire with . . . shovels: Outside a Russian village this week.(Getty Images)

Disasters reveal hidden government weaknesses. Hurricane Katrina highlighted the Bush administration's lack of domestic preparedness five years after 9/11, while the Gulf oil spill shone a spotlight on the Obama White House's indifference to working-class Americans. Pakistan's massive floods have paralyzed its corruption-ravaged government.

Now the disastrous forest and peat-bog infernos encircling Moscow have exposed the Potemkin-village nature of Putin's vaunted efficiency. All the czar's men can't even put out a brush fire.

So the conflagrations have been spreading for weeks as an unprecedented heat wave punishes the country. Russia's forest service had been virtually disbanded to plug budget gaps elsewhere, leaving rural areas unmanaged. And, as the news mag Der Spiegel points out, the "new" Russia, in all its old vastness, has fewer professional firefighters than Germany -- and no trained volunteers. Firefighting vehicles are Soviet-era relics.

In the best Russian tradition, the government and its media lackeys played down the extent of the damage until their con wouldn't stick any longer. Now Putin (forget President Dmitry Medvedev) has had to swallow his prickly pride to accept help from "lesser" states, such as Belarus, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and distant Italy. And Russia will need much more.

Ukraine has special reason to worry, since the fires are marching through southwest Russia's Bryansk region toward the dead zone around Chernobyl. Scientists fear that radioactive dust could rise from burned-over soil and be whisked across borders by the wind.

Meanwhile, the plague has reached into the palace. With its gleaming city center, Moscow had become the new Versailles, where a pampered ruling class cavorted while the serfs continued to grub through the muck.

Now Moscow (and dozens of other cities) has been poisoned by smog so dense that Red Square looks like the can't-see-your-own-hand London of old Sherlock Holmes movies. Flights have been grounded and citizens warned to remain indoors. June's White Nights gave way to charcoal-gray days in July.

For all Putin's pretense of ruling a still-great power (a ploy for which President Obama fell in his great START-treaty giveaway), what serious military has generals and admirals so dull-witted and alcohol-sodden that they allow 200 military aircraft to burn up on the ground? Gone in one day, that's half the aerial-force losses the Soviets took in 10 years in Afghanistan.

Of course, senior officers have already been given the sack, and more will go. But the rot goes higher, to the level at which Italian suits replace ill-fitting uniforms.

Russia's lack of civil-defense preparedness speaks to the Putin regime's priorities, which always have been recentralizing control of the "commanding heights of the economy," re-establishing Russian domination of the former empire of the czars -- and, above all, remaining in charge.

Only the export of oil, gas and minerals has given Russia an appearance of solvency as its industry rotted away and production collapsed. But government inefficiencies are such that more and more money has had to be siphoned from basic government programs to prop up Russia's image to the world. Only corruption has thrived. (You can take the KGB vet out of the Soviet Union, but you can't take the Soviet Union out of the KGB vet . . .)

As you read this, Russian peasants -- that's exactly what they remain -- are struggling to save their villages with shovels, hoes and bare hands. Many will never see the least help from their government. It's as if Californians were expected to fight wildfires on their own (at least the folks on the Left Coast have working garden hoses).

Putin will remain in charge, of course. He has a death grip on the levers of power. But his popularity with embittered Russians anxious to give the West the middle finger may suffer -- since they found their new czar's favorite digit thrust at them.

Ralph Peters' latest book is "Endless War."

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