Nearly 60 years ago, with the Soviet Union emerging as America’s new post-World War II adversary, a nervous Washington sought the insights of a Soviet expert serving as the second-ranking U.S. official in Moscow.
It was February of 1946, and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin had just delivered a blistering speech at the Bolshoi Theater, suggesting that war between the United States and Soviet Union was inevitable and leaving more than a few top U.S. officials panicked.
Days later, in response, George Kennan sent his “Long Telegram” of more than 5,000 words from Moscow to Washington, attributing the Kremlin’s “neurotic view of world affairs” to a “traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity.” He predicted that to expand their global footprint, the Soviets would work through Communist parties, labor unions, youth leagues, media organs, other governments and governing groups, and that they would remove governments that stood in their way.
If, at that point, President Truman and his top foreign policy team needed clarity about Soviet motives, President Obama and his team now seem to need a thorough tutorial about Soviet rule and one of its most important disciples – a former top KGB official by the name of Vladimir Putin.
At home and abroad, Putin is applying the lessons he learned during the Soviet years to rule with an iron fist, expand Russia’s influence in its region and beyond and paint the United States as its main adversary – while Obama and his team continue to treat him as the post-Cold War partner of their hopes.
Most prominently of late, Obama has sought to convince Putin to align Moscow’s objectives in Syria with those of Washington. But while Obama wants Syrian strongman Bashir Assad to step down as part of a political transition to end the civil war there, Putin continues to support Moscow’s long-time client in Damascus and, in fact, is bombing the U.S.-backed rebels who seek his ouster.
Because Russia is also battling the Islamic State group, which took down one of its airliners with a bomb a few weeks ago, Obama told reporters last week that he sees “a potential convergence of interests between the various parties,” adding, “It requires us working with them to make the kind of strategic shift that’s necessary and that, frankly, I’ve talked to Putin about for five years now.”
But while Obama seeks a democratic Syria, Putin seeks to protect Assad, no matter how many Syrians he’s slaughtered, and to expand Russia’s regional footprint; Putin’s ambassador to Lebanon recently called Russia’s presence in the Mediterranean Sea “necessary,” “only natural” and “a return to the days of the USSR, or even before that.” While Obama wants Putin’s global cooperation, Putin wants more global power at America’s expense.
The problem, as journalist Anne Applebaum and Russian activist Garry Kasparov have written recently, is that neither Obama nor other Western leaders remember the gruesome reality of Soviet rule – so they don’t recognize that Putin is applying Soviet tactics to expand the influence of what’s now Russia.
Coming after his successful Crimea annexation and Eastern Ukraine adventure, Putin’s thrust into Syria has left Washington and the West “flummoxed,” Applebaum writes in the current Commentary. “In the quarter-century since the fall of Communism,” she explains, “we’ve forgotten what a cynical, unprincipled, authoritarian Russian regime looks like, especially one with an audacious global strategy and no qualms whatsoever about sacrificing human life … Almost all of the men who currently rule Russia (and they are all men) were taught and trained by the KGB. Their teaching and training shows. Why would it not?”
Moreover, Kasparov writes in his new book Winter is Coming, “Putin, like other modern autocrats, had, and still has, an advantage the Soviet leadership could never have dreamed of: deep economic and political engagement with the free world.” And while the United States and Europe have slapped sanctions on Russian interests over Crimea and Ukraine, “they still refuse to admit the need for condemning and isolating Russia like the dangerous rogue state Putin has turned it into.”
Obama has mocked warnings about Russia’s resurgence, telling GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney in late 2012, “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.”
If Obama’s right about the Cold War, he’s woefully wrong about Putin. Moscow’s strongman doesn’t share our values or our approach to the world – and no amount of discussion will convince him otherwise.
Lawrence J. Haas, senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, is author of the forthcoming book Harry and Arthur: Truman, Vandenberg, and the Partnership That Created the Free World.