As shocking as anything that Donald Trump said in Helsinki last week was Vladimir Putin’s emphatic claim that “the Russian state has never interfered, and is not going to interfere, into internal American affairs, including election processes.”
Just as there are two NATOs, there are two Vladimir Putins. When U.S. policy didn’t change during his first eight years in office, Putin changed his own. Gradually he became an antagonist – and a demonstrable liar.
Much of what I know about the Russian president I owe to Steven Lee Myer’s biography, The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin (Knopf, 2015), which, despite its tendentious title, is a first-rate book. During seven years in Moscow for The New York Times, Myers lost all sympathy with his subject, and, by the end of the book, regards him as a little more than a megalomaniac, returning to the presidency in 2012 “with no clear purpose other than the exercise of power for its own sake.” That much, I think, is pretty clearly mistaken. But the bulk of Myers’s sensitive and extensive reporting permits the reader to reach a conclusion independent of the author.
As an officer in the KGB in the 1980s, watching the Soviet Union begin to fall apart, Putin learned much about the virtues of credibility. He was, for instance, unusually candid in the campaign manifesto, “Russia at the Turn of the Millennium,” that he published on the eve of replacing Boris Yeltsin, at the end of 1999. Russia’s economy had shrunk by half in the 1990s, he wrote; it was a tenth the size of the United States, then a fifth the size of China. Fifteen years of robust growth would be required just to reach the level of Spain or Portugal.
"For the first time in the past two hundred [or] three hundred years, [Russia] is facing the real threat of slipping down into the second, and possibly even third rank of world states. We are running out of time to avoid this.''
Putin took office as a conciliator, eager for economic integration with the West. He was the first to offer assistance to the Bush administration after 9/11. He did not object to a US base in the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan to support the invasion of Afghanistan. He journeyed to Texas to visit George W. Bush at his Crawford ranch.
A series of disappointments followed. NATO continued a second round of expansion, admitting seven nations, including Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, former republics of the Soviet Union. Putin flew to Germany and France to join them in their opposition to the invasion of Iraq, without success. The U.S. quietly supported the Orange and Rose Revolutions – westernizing movements in Ukraine and Georgia, and bruited those nations eventual entry into NATO.
Perhaps the most decisive development came when Chechen hostage-taking left 400 dead in the north Caucasus city of Beslan in September 2004. Afterwards, Putin blamed the U.S. for failing to work closely with Russia in cracking down on Chechen rebels. All were terrorists in Moscow’s eyes; in Washington’s opinion, some were moderates with legitimate aspirations to independence.
Putin spoke out strongly in February 2007 in a speech to a security conference audience that included several American grandees. The New World Order with “one master, one sovereign,” was increasing tensions, not diminishing them. “Unilateral and frequently illegitimate actions” were causing more deaths than the bi-polar world that had existed before 1989, he said.
The next developments are familiar. A short war with Georgia in 2008 designed to emphasize its Finlandization in Moscow’s eyes. President Obama’s appointment of Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. The Arab Spring and NATO’s intervention to remove the Qaddafi regime in Libya. The beginnings of civil war in Syria. Putin’s decision to replace Dimitri Medvedev as president after the latter served a single term. Clinton’s support of election protests, and, above all, the events in Ukraine in 2014 that led to Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula.
Even then, Putin relied on the reputation he had built for candor, starting with “Russia at the Turn of the Millennium.” The emotionally charged speech to both houses of the Russian parliament announcing the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula was analyzed and annotated by the BBC. It stands up well as an act of persuasion to those who grant Moscow’s right to a Monroe Doctrine of its own. Even the pretense of the “little green men” who stage-managed the referendum by which Russia obtained the consent of the locals seems to fall within the penumbra of truth-telling. Nations aren’t expected to disclose orders of battle when going to war.
It was the downing of a Malaysian airliner by missile in eastern Ukraine that marked Putin’s departure from Western standards of credibility. The Russian government denied any role in the in incident, in which 298 persons perished, but investigators concluded that only a senior Russian military commander could have ordered the sophisticated anti-aircraft system deployed to Ukraine.
It was the same thing again last week, when Putin denied that the Kremlin had sponsored a massive campaign of digital theft and political tinkering with U.S. social media in 2016. The Washington Post reported July 21 that Clemson University researchers had discovered that Russian operatives had spun out 18,000 tweets, at the rate of a dozen a minute, on the eve of Wikileaks’ first disclosures of emails stolen from Clinton’s campaign manager.
It’s not that Russian interference changed the election. If any last-minute gambit was decisive, it was the incipient mutiny in the FBI’s New York office, for which former U.S. attorney and New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani served as the mouthpiece. It’s that the Russian invasion of digital discourse was a flagrant violation of previous norms. Presumably it arose from exasperation; undoubtedly it made matters worse. But there is no reason to think that it changed the result of the election. The fact remains that Trump won, 304 to 227 votes in the Electoral College. There will be another presidential election in little more than two years.
Apparently Trump hoped to return home from Helsinki with a written Russian promise that the government wouldn’t encourage or even allow such trespassing again, starting with the mid-term elections. “There was the idea that if Trump brought home such a guarantee, he would be seen as having scored a victory,” an unnamed Russian lawmaker told Demetri Sevastopulo and Kathrin Hille of the Financial Times. “But the proposed text amounted to an admission of guilt.”
Twenty-seven years after the end of the Soviet Union, Russia and the United States are once again foes. This time the valences are reversed. The U.S. is the expansionist power. It is Russia promulgating a doctrine of containment. Both nations are led by men who cannot be taken at their word. U.S. overreaching is not likely to continue indefinitely, any more than did Soviet behavior the last time around. But this much is already clear. Putin is a major figure in the history of his country. Trump is slowly being disowned by his.
David Warsh, a longtime columnist and an economic historian, is proprietor of economic principals.com. He's based in Somerville, Mass.