I started blogging four years ago. Since then I have written regularly about Vladimir Putin.
Why? Three reasons. First, my master’s degree is in Russian and East European Studies, and old habits die hard. Second, for years I thought that Mitt Romney had a point when he declared Russia our “#1 geopolitical foe.” (Though North Korea presents a much greater military threat.) Third, Putin is the exception that proves the rule: he is a strong leader, a change agent at home and especially abroad, during a time when having a strong impact is rare.
What Putin has accomplished in the last four years is breathtaking! He remains in complete control of Russia, having in one or another way destroyed or muted his political opposition. He has changed the map of Europe by seizing Crimea and declaring it a fait accompli. He has intervened in Ukraine, precluding most Ukrainians from doing what they wanted to do, move closer to the West. He has thumbed his nose at Europe, watching with unmitigated pleasure as the European Union, the greatest diplomatic achievement of the last 70 years, has started to unravel – and watching with unmitigated pleasure as the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (NATO) comes under threat. He has inserted and asserted Russia’s military presence in the Middle East, in strong support of his client, Syria’s ruthless, murderous president, Bashar al-Assad. And he has hinted at further military adventure in, say, Estonia, Latvia, or Lithuania. He has, in sum, been devilishly effective in transforming his nationalist, revisionist, revanchist, and militarist fantasies into realities.
Oh…one more thing. There is growing evidence that Putin had a hand in the election of Donald J. Trump as president of the United States. Trump his unwavering admirer. Trump his presumed pal. Trump, whose ideologies, policies, and proclivities more closely mirror Putin’s than any presidential candidate in American history.
In recent days The Washington Post chronicled “the successful effort by a hostile foreign power to manipulate public opinion before the vote.”* Scary stuff. During the campaign questions were raised about why Trump regularly praised President Putin, while refusing ever to censor him. Seems Trump knew what he was doing – in exchange Putin helped Trump win the White House. U.S. intelligence agencies have confirmed that Russia did hack private e mail accounts, did forge a useful relationship with Wikileaks, did release fake news stories, did put its foot on the Democratic National Committee, and did echo and amplify right-wing web sites that portrayed Hillary Clinton as a “criminal hiding potentially fatal health problems and preparing to hand control of the nation to shadowy global financiers.” **
As a student of bad leadership I long ago learned carefully to clarify what I mean when I say that a leader is bad. The distinction is between being ethical and being effective. Which is precisely why in some ways Putin is a bad leader. And in other ways Putin is a good leader.