What Is It About Vladimir Putin?
Views of Russia's strongman have divided both Right and Left.
All Americans, it would seem, can agree that Russian President Vladimir Putin is an autocratic ruler who despises democratic values. He has, after all, engaged in reprehensible behaviors, such as jailing or allegedly killing opposition journalists and politicians. He’s a former KGB agent who longs for the glory and power of the old Soviet Union. And he is untrustworthy and unpredictable.
Except that all Americans don’t agree on this, as we’ll see in a minute.
First, let’s stipulate that Putin doesn’t desire war with the United States, for he benefits more by remaining in power and developing a working relationship with the U.S. than in restoring Soviet-era geographical boundaries. He has a nuclear arsenal, but little else: Resources are limited, the population is dying, the economy is in tatters, and radical Islamic terrorism threatens to do in Moscow what it’s done in Paris. Essentially, Putin is dangerous and should be taken seriously, but Russia is in a weakened state economically, politically and militarily. This requires a balanced approach.
On one hand, establishment Republicans and now, for political reasons, Democrats are exaggerating the threat that Putin poses to the U.S. and even to Europe. After all, Putin isn’t threatening to annihilate American cities. Now would be the time for Russia to make some moves, but there’s been little aggression from Putin in either words or actions since Donald Trump’s inauguration.
On the other hand, President Trump and conservatives who support him need to avoid characterizing Putin as a benevolent leader of a democratic government. Doing so only gives him more credibility and legitimacy, and it’s not in the interests of the United States or other Western nations to do so. Putin needs friends in the West, but we should be careful in extending that friendship. The problem is that Democrats and some conservatives don’t want Trump making any steps at all toward restoring relations with Russia.
Outside observers may think the Russia issue cleanly divides Democrats and Republicans, but Trump’s treatment of Putin has split the conservative movement as well. One side thinks Trump has been too kind, effectively dismissing the authoritarian’s abhorrent actions against his own people and neighboring countries. The other side thinks that finding common ground with Putin is necessary in a world fraught with challenges from terrorism to globalism. The split between the two factions is made apparent by Christopher Caldwell, senior editor at The Weekly Standard, and John Daniel Davidson, senior correspondent at The Federalist.
Caldwell acknowledges that Putin is guilty of acting in opposition to our democratic values and standards, but asserts, “[O]ut of a crumbling empire, he rescued a nation-state, and gave it coherence and purpose. He disciplined his country’s plutocrats. He restored its military strength. And he refused, with ever blunter rhetoric, to accept for Russia a subservient role in an American-run world system drawn up by foreign politicians and business leaders. His voters credit him with having saved his country.”
Meanwhile, Davidson writes that the recent police crackdowns on popular protests are “a reminder of what the Putin regime really is, and why it’s dangerous for conservatives to delude themselves into thinking Putin is anything more than a drearily familiar twentieth-century-style autocrat and gangster.” Caldwell’s embellishment of Putin’s record is as misleading as Davidson’s seeming characterization of Putin as the next Joseph Stalin.
For all the virulent criticism of Trump’s relationship with Putin, the president hasn’t lifted the sanctions imposed on Russia by Barack Obama. More important, Trump’s actions in the first two months of his administration should please war hawks and nation-builders such as senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham.
At the same time, Trump continues to underestimate the power of a president’s language. He should be commended for his willingness to build a new relationship with an adversary. As we learned from Ronald Reagan, “peace through strength” is really a much better approach than strength alone. President Trump’s language should be measured, though — at least until the whole Trump-Putin collusion story fizzles out.
The idea that autonomous nations must embrace our American values is somewhat naïve. After all, Trump isn’t trying to normalize relations with North Korea or Iran. Trump’s statements about Putin were not intended to proclaim Russia as our moral equivalent, but the president needs to be clearer about this distinction.
Nonetheless, many Democrats and their media brethren are still in shock over the events of November 8. Thus, their allegations of collusion between Trump and Putin are unlikely to abate in the days and weeks ahead.