Vladimir Putin is currently cashing in on an ill-advised promise made when two presidents thought no one was listening. You may recall President Obama’s whispered assurance, back in March of 2012, to then Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev: “This is my last election. After my election, I have more flexibility.”
We are now witnessing that promised flexibility. America’s foreign policy is becoming a caricature—international affairs according to Gumby.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is a mix of Joseph Stalin and Lavrenty Beria—an experienced strongman and savvy intelligence officer. He is hardly someone to be impressed by “flexibility.” Vladimir is all about power and the expansion of Russian influence on the world. He also enjoys it when America looks bad. It makes him smile—sort of.
A while back, I read Michael Dobbs’ account of what happened when the “Big Three”—Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin—met at Yalta to carve up what was left of Europe. The book is called, Six Months in 1945: From World War to Cold War. I heartily recommend it to anyone wondering if history repeats itself, or at least rhymes.
Dobbs gives a wonderfully detailed account of a weak president being bested by a determined Soviet dictator. FDR gave territory and history away to a ruthless tyrant. A war that started, in part, with a Soviet invasion of Poland, ended with Soviet dominance of Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe.
Now with Vladimir Putin inserting himself in a grand way into the current Syria crisis, not to mention joining the editorial staff of the New York Times, the voice of Yogi Berra can be heard crying in the wilderness: “It’s déją vu all over again.”
We must learn from history’s clock. It was dangerous and wrong to trust the Russians back then, and it is dangerous and wrong to trust them now.
In May of 1945, George Kennan was an American diplomat living and working in Moscow. Most Cold War buffs know very well of Kennan’s memo writing skills. His February 1946 “long telegram” is considered to be one of the seminal documents of the Cold War. In it, he described the Soviet Union’s “neurotic view of world affairs” and the “instinctive Russian sense of insecurity,” not to mention their, “secretiveness and conspiracy.”
But ten months earlier, Kennan wrote a memo that was largely overlooked at the time due to his relatively insignificant role as “nothing more than a highly competent clerk.” It is, in fact, that memo Mr. Obama and team should revisit right now. In language similar to what he would use in 1946, he bluntly acknowledged that Joseph Stalin knew just what buttons to push to get the United States to do his bidding. The Russians were already manipulating reality and events and had been all along. Kennan wrote: “They observe with gratification that in this way a great people can be led, like an ever-hopeful suitor, to perform one act of ingratiation after the other without ever reaching the goal which would satisfy its ardor and allay its generosity.”
Franklin Roosevelt gave the store away to Mr. Stalin and company at Yalta. His inexperienced successor, Mr. Truman, didn’t do much better at Potsdam. But of course, they were dealing with a Soviet dictator and we are dealing with Vladimir Putin. Putin is nothing like Stalin, right?
Actually, Mr. Putin has more in common with the pock-faced “man of steel”—referred to at times by Roosevelt and later Truman as “Uncle Joe”—than most people care to notice. He is driven by power and is one dangerous dude. The decision to portray him in sinister terms in my novel, Camelot’s Cousin, was not just a fictional tool, but rooted in scary reality. There are good guys and bad guys in the world. And then there are dumb guys who can’t tell the difference. They may be the most dangerous of all.
As President Obama looks for solutions in Syria and the Middle East by dancing with Vladimir Putin, he is looking for love in all the wrong places.
Sixty-eight years ago, it took a glorified clerk and a recently-booted-out-of-office politician to remind the world that Russia could not be trusted. Kennan wrote his telegrams. And Winston Churchill gave a speech about “the sinews of peace” and that ominous “Iron Curtain.”
In many ways, the key to the present crisis and future success is a good long look at the past.