The words George W. Bush spoke at Brdo Castle in Brdo Pri Kranju, Slovenia, in June 2001 are hard to distinguish from those of Barack Obama. Both in their content and their consequences, the devastating impact of these speeches may imperil U.S. foreign policy for ages to come.
In Slovenia, Bush referred to the Cold War as a relic of the past, and declared it was “time to move beyond suspicion and towards straight talk, beyond mutually assured destruction and towards mutually earned respect.” Infamously, he also said he had looked Russia’s new ruler Vladimir Putin in the eye, “got a sense of his soul,” and found him to be a trustworthy partner. We were told that Putin’s long history as a proud KGB spy was irrelevant — this was a new man and a new Russia.
This was just what Putin wanted to hear. Long before Bush’s first term had ended, Putin had launched a vicious crackdown on the forces of democracy in Russia. Dead were Sergei Yushenkov and Yuri Shchekochikhin, arrested were Mikhail Trepashkin and Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
Putin left office just as Obama was coming in, and Obama adopted the Bush doctrine regarding Putin’s supposed successor Dmitri Medvedev, inviting him to Washington and munching cheeseburgers with him. Obama brought in Michael McFaul from the Hoover Institution to implement a “reset” of relations with Russia, a policy which would make the Bush doctrine towards Russia look like that of Ronald Reagan by comparison.
Putin was overjoyed. The Americans had taken the bait and would drop their guard as he used Medvedev to bide his time and return to power as president for life. That now accomplished, Putin has moved on to a second phase of his crackdown.
This week, it was announced that opposition leader Alexei Navalny would go the way of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the only difference being that instead of being accused of stealing oil — as was Khodorkovsky — Navalny would be accused of stealing timber. Same result, though. Ten years or so in Siberia to cool off any thoughts of challenging Putin for power.
Back in June, security forces acting at the order of Putin carried out almost a dozen deeply disturbing raids on leaders of the Russian democracy movement and their families, seizing computers and other things they believed to be evidence of illegal activity. Navalny was included. The move smacked of the USSR, and once again — of course — the Obama administration did nothing. It is clear that the Putin regime took this silence as an invitation to proceed with arrests and prosecutions of key opposition leaders like Navalny.
The raids came in the wake of Putin’s signing a new law providing for draconian sanctions (a year’s pay or more) for opposition figures who violate Putin’s edicts about how protest can occur. They seem to signal that Putin intends to use the same tactics with the current opposition forces that he used with Khodorkovsky, the last man to directly confront Putin for power: jail in remote Siberia on trumped-up charges of embezzlement.
Only a few months ago, the MSM was breathlessly reporting on Navalny leading a “White Revolution” that would challenge Putin’s authority and drag Russia out of its retrograde neo-Soviet trajectory. This malignant propaganda went hand-in-hand with the Obama administration’s line on Russia, namely that with the right encouragement we’d see the development of a trustworthy democratic partner. The prosecution of Navalny proves how utterly irresponsible this reporting was. The only thing that has changed in Russia is that Putin has become more repressive than ever as Obama has winked and nodded.
Putin is also pushing forward with a series of additional legal reforms designed to crush the spirit of the Internet and to eliminate foreign support for the democracy movement. He’s been unafraid to use neo-Soviet show trials to drive home his point that public opposition to his rule will no longer be tolerated. The persecution of the Pussy Riot collective is the latest case in point.
The Russian attitude towards the future is so bleak that, just as in Soviet times, many Russians are now heading for the exits. As Russia begins to feel the harsh effects of this brain drain and its population dwindles, it is not hard to imagine yet another wave of reforms that will roll back freedom to leave the country, the same “solution” to failed policies that was adopted by the USSR.
America’s complicity in the neo-Sovietization of Russia will be a permanent black mark on the national honor. Just days before the charges against Navalny were announced, McFaul appeared on the Kremlin’s state-sponsored propaganda network Russia Today and strongly sided with Putin. He complimented Putin in language eerily similar to that used by Bush; he jeered at Republican efforts to propound human rights legislation challenging the Putin crackdown; and he hinted that the U.S. was sympathetic to Russia’s support for Syria.
The treachery of Obama and McFaul harkens back to Neville Chamberlain, who naively thought he could placate and defang a monstrous dictator. Obama’s “reset” policy has resulted in a devastating rollback of human rights and American values in Russia, a rollback that would not have occurred if Obama had been willing to stand up for his country’s values rather than seek short-term and illusory political gains.