President Donald Trump’s hollow, self-serving assertion that Russia did not meddle in the U.S. elections in 2016 is clearly false. We could just call it fake news from the liar-in-chief were it not for the fact that what we are talking about is an act of cyber war aimed at the heart of America’s constitutional democracy. This truth begs the question: Why would the President of the United States first deny it ever happened and then cozy up to the leader of the country that did it? And an even larger question: Can Russia and America ever peacefully coexist?
Russia isn’t the problem, Putin is
The notion that Russia is our natural enemy is a myth rooted in the mindset and opposing ideologies that framed the Cold War. A cursory glance at the map of the world is enough to see that history and geopolitics have not condemned Russia and the United States to the kind of Great Power enmities and rivalries (between Germany and France in Europe or China and Japan in Asia) that reshaped world history in the last century.
I have been watching Russia for more than a half century, since earning a doctorate in international studies and specializing in Russian and East European politics. My mentors included Herbert S. Dinerstein (War and the Soviet Union; The Making of a Missile Crisis: October 1962) and Helmut Sonnenfeldt (“Kissinger’s Kissinger”). Over the years, I gained a good deal of firsthand experience, visiting and spending extended periods in Russia (formerly the USSR) many times in various roles over some four decades during and after the Cold War.
Russia’s nervous neighbors
I lived in the Czech Republic during much of the decade after the collapse of Communism. The memory of Soviet rule was still fresh but the euphoria of the Velvet Revolution was soon dampened by the Velvet Divorce between Czechs and Slovaks. In Prague, I quickly discovered that although far more Czechs spoke some Russian than any English, it was best not to speak Russian. I was not surprised: I had encountered the same anti-Russian sentiments in Warsaw a decade earlier when Poland was still a Soviet “satellite state”.
Czechs distaste for all things Russian is understandable for reasons related to history, geography, and politics. The Stalinist show trials in the early 50s and Moscow’s armed intervention against the popular uprising known as the Prague Spring in 1968 are but two reasons, among many, for bad blood between Czechs and Russians.
Americans do not have the same kind of searing memories involving all things Russian that Russia’s neighbors in Eastern and Central Europe do. Which brings us full circle: Why can’t we be friends with Russia?
No ordinary tyrant
Putin is no ordinary tyrant. He puts me in mind of Russia’s most ruthless rulers. Russia, of course, has a history of rule by monstrous autocrats of whom Ivan the Terrible is only the most infamous. For his part, Stalin may or may not have been nuts, but he was a certifiably paranoid mass murderer.
As a remorseless wielder of absolute power, Putin stands in stark contrast to Ivan the Terrible who was putatively insane and who bludgeoned his son to death in a fit of rage, and Stalin who was indiscriminate in his blood purges.
Putin is cold and calculating, the opposite of irrational or deranged. His adeptness in developing and deploying far more sophisticated methods of repression, disinformation, and subversion than his predecessors possessed means that he can control Russia without the mass killings and pogroms of the past.
Make no mistake: Putin abhors constitutional norms, the rule of law, and everything the Western World associates with the word “democracy”. Far from allowing the free speech or independent news media guaranteed in Russia’s post-Communist constitution, Putin enforces a strict code of silence relative to any forms of criticism or dissent that might prove efficacious. Any such opposition invites state-sanctioned violence on an escalating scale—harassment, savage beatings, imprisonment, and, if and when all else fails, death by mafia-style assassination.
Putin’s hit list
Take the case of Anna Politkovskaya, the journalist and human-rights activist who was murdered in a gangland-style attack in the lobby of her apartment building in 2006. And who can forget the photo of Alexander Litvinenko (R.I.P) lying on his death bed in a London hospital in November 2006. The cause of death was acute radiation syndrome (ARS) resulting from a lethal polonium-210 poison attack. It’s a horrible way to die. Slow, painful, agonizing.
Litvinenko was a former officer of the FSB and KGB who dared to place himself in opposition to Vladimir Putin. Following a lengthy investigation, Scotland Yard concluded “in one way or another the Russian state is involved in Litvinenko’s murder”.
In early 2015, Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime and Russia’s most high-profile and popular Putin critic, was shot four times in the back as he walked across a bridge in the heart of Moscow not 100 yards from the Kremlin walls. Denis Voronenkov was assassinated on a street in Kiev in March 2017. The murder victim was a former Russian Communist Party member who, having dared to oppose Putin, fled Russia in 2016.
In March of this year, Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, were poisoned in the UK with a made-in-Russia nerve agent called Novichok, reputed to be the deadliest ever made. He is a former Russian military intelligence (GRU) officer who became a double agent for the UK’s MI6. He was arrested in December 2004 on charges of high treason and sentenced to 13 years in prison. Released in 2010 as part of a spy swap, Skripal settled in the UK.
Who would (or could) contrive to murder Sergei Skripal in this gruesome manner and what would be the motive?
After settling in England…Skripal did not remain idle. He traveled widely, offering briefings on Russian spycraft to foreign intelligence agencies in the Czech Republic, Estonia and possibly others. In one meeting with Czech officials in 2012, he explained to his former foes the intricacies of G.R.U. operations…several Russian diplomats were kicked out of the Czech Republic…. (Michael Schwirtz and Eric Schmitt, Novichok Was in a Perfume Bottle, Victim Says,” The New York Times, July 25, 2018)
There are numerous other cases of Putin critics who died sudden, violent, and suspicious deaths. All these victims have one thing in common—they have all crossed swords with Vladimir Putin and paid the supreme price.
Putin’s other hit list: The West
Putin is a tyrant with a sadistic streak. He has repeatedly demonstrated that he will do whatever it takes to prevail over his adversaries at home and abroad. It is clear that the world order the United States created after WWII has moved to the top of his geostrategic hit list. Open societies that hold periodic free elections are vulnerable to the kind of “active measures” and cyber subversion we are seeing. The EU and NATO represent two major obstacles to Putin’s designs for a new world order with Moscow replacing Washington at its center.
Donald Trump either has no clue who or what he is dealing with or he is blindly self-deluded. Meanwhile, the Kremlin ruler he cozies up to, and a man who has made a mockery of Russia’s elections, is using his KGB-honed tradecraft to undermine and discredit democratic elections everywhere, but, above all, its birthplace: the West.