Before the Cold War concluded, the late Dr. Robert Krieble and I traveled the length and breadth of what was then the Soviet Union. Dr. Krieble taught how to start a business with very little or no capital. I taught how to win elections. Each of us was accompanied by two or three colleagues.
One thing was clear: The Russian people were well educated. If an old U.S. NEWS AND WORLD REPORT or TIME MAGAZINE were left behind they devoured it for months. The content was debated extensively. The people were far more dedicated than we expected. Boris Yeltsen and his associates initially gave the okay for attendance at our seminars.
Once the Cold War ended there was chaos. The word went out that these crazy Americans were coming and anyone who wished to attend could do so. In Siberia, by the way, participants were extremely well informed. They had literally built crystal radio sets to access Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe.
At any rate, when Dr. Krieble and I compared notes after our seminars had concluded, the one issue which came up time and again was shouldn't Russia carry a big stick to make itself relevant at home and abroad. Indeed, that is exactly what is happening now. Yeltsen could barely top 25% at his best when he was in office. Putin manages 70% by being tough at home.
The oil revenues which Putin has accumulated have enabled him to carry the big stick abroad. After the end of the Cold War Yeltsen all but disarmed Russia, maintaining only sufficient armed forces to defend the country. Now flush with oil revenues, Putin is carrying the big stick abroad as well. The Russian public felt that Yeltsin had humiliated the country. Again and again we were asked if President Augusto Pinochet of Chile might be a good role model for Russia.
Now Putin is both re-arming Russia and allying with his Communist allies, gaining domestic applause in the process. He repeatedly has claimed that he would not seek to have the Constitution amended so he could run for a third term. Many Russian observers don't believe that, with 70% popularity and a sound economy, Putin could do anything else. After all, he is still a young man; why else would he picture himself bare-chested, while fishing, in Siberia? It surely looks political.
In the late 1940s and 1950s, there was the issue of who lost China. Different State Department figures pointed the finger at each other, as did Members of Congress of both parties If the charge were to be made again, "Who lost Russia?" it would not be President George W. Bush, although if he had avoided such nonsense as he looked into Putin's eyes and saw his soul and dealt with this Russian leader for the tough head of state that he is we all would have been better off.
Putin is a no-nonsense operator. He always has a strategy aimed at boosting his point of view. While probably not a Communist, he certainly is a throwback to the style of Soviet leadership to which we had become accustomed from Stalin onward. He no longer can hope to keep his country ignorant. Putin will operate wholly in his interest and that of his allies. We can expect little else from him.
He is doing his very best to re-create the Soviet state internally and to practice Soviet-style international politics elsewhere. Any other interpretation of events would be a misunderstanding. There was a time when the United States could have fostered a different outcome. But a total misunderstanding as to how to handle things led to the present position. What a tragedy for us, the Russian people and the rest of the world as well.