How should one react when a foreign leader openly issues threats of a military nature to your country and its allies, directs interference with the workings of your democracy and silently stands behind assassinations of his own countrymen who oppose or betray him, regardless of the country where they reside. The answer is obvious: you respond in a clear and direct way that such actions will not be tolerated and take appropriate counter measures to demonstrate the seriousness with which you view them.
And if you are the President and have pledged to defend the Constitution of the United States with its call to “provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity,” you have an obligation to do so. Yet this President is missing in action when it comes to executing his responsibility. Why he refuses to act is only conjecture, and shortly we will consider some possibilities. But first, let’s look at the man who created this situation: the Russian President, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.
Putin’s Rise to the Presidency
By his own account, even before he finished high school, Vladimir Putin wanted to work in intelligence, an objective he realized with the KGB until he retired in 1991 during the dissolution of the Soviet Union. After then working in St. Petersburg City Government, he moved to Moscow in 1996 where he began work for the new Russian Federation. He subsequently held positions of ever increasing responsibility and was appointed Prime Minister in 1999. He became Acting President December 31, 1999 upon the resignation of Boris Yeltsin and went on to become President in elections of March 2000 and 2004.
Unable to run for reelection in 2008 because of constitutionally mandated term limits, Putin endorsed Dmitry Medvedev, his then First Deputy Prime Minister, for President. Medvedev then returned the favor upon becoming President by appointing Putin his Prime Minister. In 2012 Putin was once again elected President, this time for a six-year term.
Years of Humiliation and Resentment
That Putin should be aggressive towards the United States and Western democracies should be of no surprise. He has long considered the dissolution of the Soviet Union a catastrophe, which he acknowledged in his 2005 State of the Union address, stating, “Above all, we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century . . .” And who was responsible for that? Ultimately, it was the country’s unsustainable economic and political system, but the United States helped facilitate its fall. In the 1980’s President Ronald Reagan massively increased military spending, forcing the Soviet Union to do likewise, and his economic policies helped drive the price of oil—the Soviet’s major revenue source—to a level insufficient to keep its economy solvent. But that was just the beginning. President Bill Clinton followed that up with expansion of NATO into East European countries that had once been part of the Soviet Union.
Both events—the breakup of the Soviet Union followed by NATO’s expansion into its own backyard—made it clear that Russia was no longer a global peer of the United States. For a proud patriot such as Vladimir Putin, could there be any crueler humiliation? Though too weak to confront that situation then, it was a wound he would never forget. “Restoring Russia’s honor and dignity” was a mission he presented to Russian troops when they met soon after he became acting President in 2000.
And those feelings of humiliation were fueled in later years when the George W. Bush administration supported a challenge to the Russian backed victor in the Ukraine’s 2004 presidential election that resulted in a second runoff election in which the pro-western candidate was declared the winner. Finally, in the period preceding the 2012 Russian Presidential election, Hillary Clinton publicly supported protests in Moscow, which Putin viewed as directed at him.
So, is there any doubt that this Soviet patriot has long harbored negative views of the Western democracies, the United States and Hillary Clinton, in particular? And short of military conquest, what better way than to use the foundations of democracy itself—free speech and honest elections—to secure revenge. And who better than Vladimir Putin, the former longtime agent of the KGB, well trained in all its dirty secrets and methods, to direct that attack in cyberspace using the virtually free of restraint social media. Whether or not he influenced the elections to the point of assisting Trump’s victory is a matter of speculation. What is indisputable, though, is that the Russian efforts certainly contributed to feeding the growing partisan divide that plagues the U.S. and other Western countries.
But his KGB training had even darker methods to deal with those considered traitors or betrayers of trust, namely assassinations. And it mattered not where those individuals resided. In 2017 the Washington Post published a list of ten critics of Vladimir Putin who died violently or in suspicious circumstances. The list goes back to 2003 and includes both men and women: journalists, human rights lawyers, business people, former intelligence officers and political rivals. Some were killed in Russia, others in the Ukraine and the United Kingdom. Perhaps his worst outrage was the nerve gas attack against a former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the U.K. earlier this month, likely sending a clear message that there was no end date for such betrayal, which would always be dangerous to one’s health.
The President’s Response
Up until last week there was absolutely no response to the Russian cyber attacks on the United States. In fact, the President refused to accept the findings of all U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia had intervened in the 2016 elections, and ultimately, made only a limp response when the need to respond was unavoidable. However, last week the Treasury initiated sanctions against several Russian organizations and individuals implicated in the cyber attacks, though most would be hard-pressed to call them even a slap on the wrist. While Trump did not speak out about them, he did join with Great Britain, Germany and France in condemning the nerve gas attack in the U.K., but said nothing about a response. And that is the fundamental problem.
The West’s failure to respond in a meaningful way to cyber attacks, extraterritorial assassinations, seizure of land and threats against former Soviet Republics has clearly emboldened Putin, who has acquired virtual dictatorial powers—a Czar not a president. It is obvious Trump admires him, as he does other leaders who act in an authoritarian manner. But Trump never criticizes Putin personally and one must ask why. Is there some reason he fears to do so?
Putin’s Leverage Over Trump
Perhaps Putin has some knowledge that Trump does not wish to be made public. Could it be dirty Russian money used to finance his business when no U.S. bank would lend him any, or money laundering in the sale of his apartment properties to Russian Oligarchs? Could it be related to a sex scandal that provided proof of his involvement? I would not have considered this something that would bother Trump, but after learning of his payment to a porn star to keep her from revealing their affair, and watching the lengths to which he has gone and is going to keep her from speaking out, I put that in the category of possible Putin leverage.
In any event, I believe the facts will one day be revealed. But until then, it is the time for the U.S. Congress to begin putting pressure on the President to move forcefully to protect the country from future cyber attacks and to develop a program to punish Russia in a meaningful way. It is not hyperbole to state, our democracy is at stake.