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Vladimir Putin Isn’t Our Pal

Donald Trump still can’t tell the difference between an enemy and ally, and neither can his press secretary. “Getting along with Russia would be a good thing, not a bad thing,” the president said on Tuesday this week. “And just about everybody agrees to that, except very stupid people.” When NBC News reporter Peter Alexander asked White House Spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders if Russian President Vladimir Putin is a friend or foe, she said, “I think it’s something Russia will have to make that determination, to decide if they want to be a good or bad actor,” as if Putin is a babe just burst from the womb with a blank personality.

Putin has been the dictator of Russia for 18 years running. He has a longer track record in office, so to speak, than any American president in history. Even a cursory tour through his backstory shows that he’s a consistently hostile actor.

Let’s get something out of the way first, though, right at the start. In Russia’s political demonology, the United States of America is referred to as the glavny protivnik, or “main enemy.” And the nations in its so-called “near abroad”—mostly the constituent parts of the former Soviet Empire—are its near enemies. Both have been treated accordingly, with only a couple of brief pauses, for more than a century, starting before Putin was even born.

Putin continues the grand tradition, however, as should be expected for a man who came up as a foreign intelligence officer in the KGB’s Directorate S. He invaded and dismembered Georgia in 2008, a brutal crime I witnessed up close and in person as a war correspondent. He also invaded and dismembered Ukraine in 2014, an easily predictable crime that I wrote about in my book, Where the West Ends, two years before it even happened.

In 2010, his government backed an uprising in Kyrgyzstan that ousted President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, partly because Bakiyev improved his country’s relations with the United States—an unforgivable sin for an upstart satrap to even attempt. Three years later, the new Russian-backed Kyrgyz parliament ordered the United States to permanently close the Manas military base used in the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan.  

In all three cases, Putin’s government hyped nonexistent threats against ethnic Russians and other minorities as its pretext for invasion and intervention. At the same time, Moscow has been laying the predicate for similar pretexts in Eastern Europe, particularly in the Baltic region where large numbers of ethnic Russians make up a minority of the population.

“Millions of people went to bed in one country and awoke in different ones,” Putin said in a speech in 2014, “overnight becoming ethnic minorities in former Union republics, while the Russian nation became one of the biggest, if not the biggest, ethnic group in the world to be divided by borders.”

In his terrific book, The End of Europe, James Kirchick points out the obvious implications. “If the ‘Russian nation,’ a unitary entity, had been wrongly ‘divided by borders,’ then presumably it is the Russian government’s duty to reassemble it.” Putin’s message is sinking in, too. Last year, 61 percent of Russians agreed that “there are parts of neighboring countries that really belong to us.” Just 22 percent said so in 1991 when those territories broke free.

Russia is only slightly more capable of invading North America and Western Europe than North Korea is, so Putin is doing what North Korea does—intimidating us with nuclear weapons. Kim Jong-Un tests ballistic missiles in the Pacific and threatens to strike Guam while Putin announces a new nuclear missile, dubbed the Satan 2 that’s capable of destroying an area the size of Texas, with an animation that shows missiles heading toward Florida.

For years now, the Kremlin has mucked around in Western democracies not only with with Internet troll factories but also using identity theft, social media manipulation, truly fake news, and all the rest of it to stoke political extremism on the both the populist left and the populist right, hoping to see the West descend into a state of political chaos and semi-anarchy sufficient that liberal democracy no longer inspires its domestic political enemies.

Putin is also one of the world greatest hit men, assassinating journalists, rivals and former spies all over the world. Just a few weeks ago he even used chemical weapons in one of those hits in the United Kingdom.

It ought to go without saying that this is emphatically not how friendly countries behave. Friendly countries smile and cooperate like Canada, Japan, the United Kingdom and Chile. Russia’s behavior is closer to that of Iran and North Korea, though unlike the smaller rogue states, Russia has the power to lay waste to even the far corners of the earth.

And yet. And yet. Donald Trump believes that all this is irrelevant. He doesn’t think it’s Vladimir Putin’s fault that the United States and Russia have dismal relations. No. He’s not just an America Firster. He’s a Blame America Firster. The sorry state of affairs between Moscow and Washington is all the fault of George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

“Bush tried to get along, but didn’t have the ‘smarts,’” the president tweeted a couple of weeks ago.  “Obama and Clinton tried, but didn’t have the energy or chemistry (remember RESET).”

Look. We could have a terrific relationship with Russia, and we could have it in five minutes. All we have to do is give Vladimir Putin everything he demands. Snap to attention and submit to vassalage like Belarus and Uzbekistan.

Getting along with Russia isn't a policy. It's an aspiration, a hope. A coherent policy starts with punishing Putin’s criminal behavior by excluding him and his claque of mini-me oligarchs from the international club unless and until they behaved like civilized people, after which a good relationship would develop as a matter of course.

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