Vladimir Putin does not want to be America’s friend. He could never be.
As a former officer in the KGB, he was dedicated to our destruction. For the first 39 years of his life he lived in the Soviet Union and spent his days serving his mission to protect the communist state and subvert the Western alliance, with America being the main enemy.
Even after he reinvented himself in the Yeltsin years as a simple bureaucrat working for the mayor of Leningrad (and then St. Petersburg) and going on to become a national political figure, he made his feelings about the Cold War very clear. For the ex-KGB heavy, the fall of the Soviet Union, which had enslaved and murdered millions, was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” This is who Donald Trump is dealing with today in Helsinki.
So why bother at all? For a very good reason.
Putin is a deeply unsavory figure, a man who is not only implicated in the murder of Russians on Russian soil (especially journalists who uncover his evil acts) but also in the gruesome assassination of those who have tried to escape his regime and fled Russia. At the same time, his country is much, much weaker than the Soviet Union was. Not only did the break up of the USSR mean the loss of much of the territory and population of the former slave-state, its economy remains a kleptocracy based almost exclusively on undiversified exploitation of energy and raw materials, and the demographics of the remaining Russian population being barely better than the catastrophic figures of the Soviet era.
Nevertheless, there are two simple reasons why Helsinki had to happen and should have happened.
First, whatever its current weaknesses, the Russian Federation remains a geopolitical entity which spans 11 times zones, is the second largest nuclear power in the world after America, and still maintains a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council along with the veto power it had as the USSR. No statesmen, not the prime minster of Luxembourg nor the president of the United States, can ignore these facts.
More importantly, Russia, just like the Soviet Union, remains a bad actor, an anti-status quo player whose goal is to undermine any nation that is not its vassal and generally sow instability around the world, whether it be in Eastern Europe, the Middle East or Asia. That is why today’s meeting was so very important.
Given Putin’s Cold War career and his behavior in office, what should we realistically expect from today’s summit? At the very least, President TrumpDonald TrumpJudge rules Alaska governor unlawfully fired lawyer who criticized Trump Giuliani led fake electors plot: CNN Giuliani associate sentenced to a year in prison in campaign finance case MORE will make it clear that his White House is not the Obama White House and that Russia’s destabilizing actions will not be met with indecision or acquiescence.
Already, that message has been sent indirectly. Think of the stark comparison of how the last administration reacted to Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea and how President Trump has handled the Ukraine crisis.
Obama was caught completely off-guard by the aggression and, when he eventually did something, it was laughable; the best he could muster was shipping the beleaguered Kiev government blankets and night-vision googles. Contrast that to the increasingly burdensome sanctions the current president has initiated, the expulsion of Russian “diplomats,” and his decision to ship Javelin antitank missiles — not blankets — to Ukraine.
And when it comes to Russia’s meddling in the Middle East and its military support for the murderous regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, the contrast is even greater.
For all his bravado and talk of “red lines,” former President Obama did nothing in effect to stop Putin and his client Assad from killing thousands and thousands of innocent women and children. President Trump not only launched a massive cruise-missile strike on the regime for its use of chemical weapons but, more recently, U.S. forces actually killed more than 200 Russian “mercenaries” who were working to keep Assad in power. There is most definitely a new sheriff in the White House.
Unlike his predecessor, President Trump is a pragmatist who sees the world as it is. His is not hobbled by a default setting that sees America as the cause of the world’s ills. At the same time, he understands how the clear expression of power and success shapes relationships and can influence the behavior of bad actors. That is why he is the right man to meet with and rein in the former KGB colonel.
Sebastian Gorka (@SebGorka), Ph.D., was the Partnership for Peace Fellow at the NATO Defense College in Rome. He is national security strategist with Fox News and former deputy assistant and strategist to President Donald Trump. He is the author of the new book, “Why We Fight: Recovering America’s Will to Win.”