Whatever is being said about our erratic president here at home, he seems to have made a great fan out of his Russian counterpart: "I have no disappointment at all," Vladimir Putin said when asked about President Trump. "Moreover, on a personal level he made a very good impression on me." Much as a previous American president, Barack Obama, did on everyone else when he sought to talk race relations over a beer or two with the fellas. Now there was a man one could do business with!
President Trump seems to have had a similar effect on the former KGB operative who has become president of Russia, having clambered to the top of the ladder rung by bloody rung. Making dinner conversation with the leaders of a score of summiteers in Germany last July, Vlad the formerly Dread said he told Mrs. Trump and the wife of the Italian premier of the moment "about Siberia and Kamchatka, about fishing ... about bears on Kamchatka and tigers in the Far East."
Though he did admit to making "some exaggerations. When you talk about fishing, you can't help exaggerating." As any experienced fisherman well knows. Asked by an interviewer with a sense of mischief if he was trying to recruit the women for the KGB, former Comrade and now President Putin responded: "No, I stopped dealing with that a long time ago." Though he added with a grin, "But I liked doing that, it was my job for many years."
Tsar Putin's unhappiness was not with President Trump, it seems, but with the whole American system of divided powers. Speaking like a true totalitarian, he complained that "it's quite difficult to interact with such a system, because it's unpredictable." And what's more, it was intended to be so by this country's founders. While the Russian system concentrates powers, ours deliberately divides it so that no one man, party, state, region or faction can acquire the sort of dictatorial powers that Putin now exercises. Yes, he can be toppled by a coup, but not legitimately. While our system is supposed to guarantee a change of government or the chance of such a change at least once every four years.
"We are a great power," President-in-apparent-perpetuity Putin needlessly pointed out, adding that "no one likes competition." Clearly he doesn't, as his own campaign to eliminate the opposition in his country's show presidential election so clearly demonstrates. Yet he accused this country of "rudely and blatantly" double-crossing the Russians by sponsoring a "coup" in Ukraine. Whereupon, in his view, Russia only acted "quickly and so resolutely, not to say daringly," when it added Ukraine's Crimean peninsula to its ever growing empire.
Perhaps the most historically resonant part of Tsar Vladimir's remarks was his confident prediction that Russia "will win in the long run." Shades of Nikita Khrushchev's cocky warning back in the pre-Putin age that "We will bury you." Just who buried whom would no longer seem to be beyond reasonable doubt when it came to that great game of nations, which in the long view turned out not to be an ideological contest at all. But just one more chapter in an international rivalry between powers great and small that no one ever seems to tire of.
"Those who serve us with poison," he declared, "will eventually swallow it and poison themselves." Which was a particularly untimely turn of phrase, for it brought to mind the case of a former Russian spy who, along with his daughter, was left in critical condition after coming into contact with a mysterious poison widely supposed to have been of Russian manufacture. As usual in these cases, the Kremlin is playing innocent, denying any connection to one more attempted assassination on its part.
In this dangerous game of threat and counter-threat, Tsar Vladimir displayed an arsenal of new Russian nukes, while at the same time voicing the pious wish that he would never have to use any of them. "The decision to use nuclear weapons," he said, "can only be made if our early warning system not only detects a missile launch but clearly forecasts its flight path and the time when warheads reach the Russian territory. If someone makes a decision to destroy Russia, then we have a legitimate right to respond."
There. Feel better? No one who has followed the history of fail-safe systems East or West that failed can take much comfort in such assurances, which do not so much assure as disturb.
Tsar Vladimir revealingly adds that any use of nuclear weapons "will mean a global catastrophe for mankind, for the entire world. But as a citizen of Russia and the head of Russian state I would ask: What is such a world for, if there were no Russia?" Let's never find out. It would be as sad a world without the United States of America.
Let's hope for the best, but hope is no substitute for a strategy. And the only strategy on offer by the Russians at the moment would seem MAD, as in Mutually Assured Destruction. Thanks but no thanks, Gospodin Putin. Peace, there's nothing like it, and no glossy simulacra of it should be deemed acceptable.