As the world we knew continues to change, and now with an upcoming summit between the American and Russian presidents, BoomerCafé co-founder and executive editor Greg Dobbs writes this Boomer Opinion piece about his own experience watching Putin impose his personality on politics.
Donald Trump trumpeted again in a tweet late last month what he has positively professed ever since his presidential victory and seems naïvely to accept even on the eve of his summit with President Putin: “Russia continues to say they had nothing to do with Meddling in our Election!”
As if that puts the issue to rest. As if that’s the end of the story. As if the contrary claims by our own intelligence agencies are foolish. As if most Americans have any reason to believe President Putin’s promises.
And, as if our president’s trust in Putin’s assurances justifies their impending bromantic hand-holder in Helsinki.
It doesn’t. If recent history of Trump’s faith in other iron-fisted leaders is any guide (see “North Korea”), they can make meaningless promises he’ll believe and we can lose more than we win.
Not that Trump was wrong when he also tweeted, “Getting along with Russia and with China and with everybody is a very good thing. It’s good for the world. It’s good for us. It’s good for everybody.”
It would be, Mr. President, if Russia were trying to get along with us. But it’s not. What we’re dealing with today is an aggressive Russia. An authoritarian Russia. An expansive Russia. It is not a Russia looking to do some good for the world. This is a Russia salivating to steer more of the world. Georgia. Crimea. Ukraine. Syria. And from its meddling in European elections — much more overtly than it meddled here — several sovereign nations just across the Atlantic.
A few years ago I did an hour-long television documentary in Russia. It was about Putin, and politics, because having covered the draconian days of the Soviet Union itself, his ever-stronger stranglehold on his citizens is a mystery to me. Slowly but surely he has withdrawn many of the freedoms they had long yearned for but only briefly enjoyed after the Soviet Union disappeared. Free elections, freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, mostly gone. Dissidents and journalists have been jailed, beaten, poisoned, and shot under his rule. He even evidently rigged the Sochi Olympics.
This is not a man you would necessarily expect his constituents to love. But apparently most do. In fact the one reliable polling agency in Russia, called Levada, asked people just a few years ago about their perceptions of Joseph Stalin, under whose reign of terror some 20 million Soviet citizens died. The outcome of the poll? 40-percent of Russians thought the Stalin era had brought “more good than bad.”
That has become the tacit rationale for Putin’s own grip on power.
He waves the flag of nationalism. His message, which I witnessed paraded on placards and screamed in speeches, is this: There was a time when we spoke and the world trembled. We were a great power once, we will be a great power again. And we will do whatever it takes to get there.
Citing Russia’s foreign adventures, conservative foreign affairs consultant Molly McKew put it well in politico.com: “It’s hard to understand Ukraine and Syria as two fronts in the same conflict when we never evaluate them together with Moscow in the center of the map, as Russia does.” That key phrase, “Moscow in the center of the map,” says it all.
And the fruits of democracy, which once had been an ambitious aim in Russia? Here’s what a dissident Russian politician told me in his office in the Kremlin (before his own political party was disqualified from elections): “What did we get when the Soviet Union fell apart? Crime. Corruption. Inflation. Unemployment (none of which was ever acknowledged back in the Soviet days). And the name for that was ‘democracy’.”
What President Trump has shown no sense of understanding is that Russia isn’t looking to get along. The only government ministry into which money has poured over the past half-decade or so is defense. New equipment, new bases. Not to mention an immense investment in cyberwarfare. Otherwise, the nation’s economy is about the size of Italy’s (which gave rise when I was there to a joke: “What did the Russian people use to heat their homes before fireplaces? Electricity”). But, the Russian people are self-reliant; throughout their history, they’ve had to be. So, unlike us whose lives are pretty soft, if stagnation is the price they must pay to be a superpower once again, they can take it. And will.
If Russia’s assertive ambitions were the only obstacle to overcome, they could be conquered. But there’s a second problem when it comes to Russia, and that is America. Today’s America. An America that embraces adversaries like Russia while bad-mouthing allies like Canada (as columnist Tom Friedman asked in bewilderment, “What country wouldn’t want Canada as its neighbor?”).
President Trump has worked harder to tear apart our alliances than to reinforce them (see “Germany” and now, as of this week, see “Britain”), which is something else he shows no sense of understanding. Reportedly during last month’s G7 summit, despite more recent efforts to reassure, he told our strongest allies, “NATO is as bad as NAFTA.” It’s so short-sighted. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was right when she said in a recent NPR interview, “The United States is stronger when we have friends and allies to deal with the various issues.” Which means, you weaken our allies, you weaken us.
Which brings us back to President Putin. He has done his own work of course to undermine American allies, but he has a partner in President Trump.
Now, by putting Putin’s immoral machinations and his undemocratic principles on a par with ours, we’ll reward him for it. But at no small cost. To quote Molly McKew again, “When we stop fighting for our ideals abroad, we stop fighting for them at home.”
We do want to get along with Russia. But only if there’s something in it for us. Just taking Putin’s word as gospel and his actions as acceptable, there’s not.
Greg’s book about the wacky ways of a foreign correspondent, Life in the Wrong Lane, is available from Amazon.