Our President, Joe Biden, is meeting with Vladimir Putin, who is either the Prime Minister or the President of the Russian Federation, depending on which year it is. Our history with Russia is fraught with fear, threats, intimidation, competition, cooperation (rare, but it does happen). As I write, Putin’s press conference is on my TV. Putin tells us that his people and our people will be dealing with the items that Biden is concerned about. What this means is that most of America’s concerns that involve Russia will be delegated to other lesser government entities.
Crimea was discussed, as was control over nuclear proliferation. The Start Treaty is being considered for a five years extension. Putin denies that Russia is mainly responsible for cyberattacks and computer hacks. Hacking has been investigated by outside groups, he says, and the US and Canada are far higher on the list of active computer attackers than Russia is. He says that, in fact, cyberattacks on Russian health care that occur in some areas of Russia are originating in the US.
When asked about Navalny Putin laughed and said he didn’t hear that question and that it was the journalist’s second question and he only was allowed one. He explained that Ukraine is operating outside of the Minsk agreements and it is obvious he does not plan to stop his activities in Ukraine. Then he did talk about Navalny just to say that Navalny broke Russian law. He says that the US is supporting policies that are against Russian laws and government organizations and that they are doing this because Russia is the declared enemy of America. It is not up to the US to decide how the law operates in Russia.
Recently I have been trying to learn more about Putin’s history. We already know that he was in the KGB for 17 years; that he was born in St. Petersburg, also known for a time as Leningrad; that he has changed the Russian constitution several times to allow term limits to be bypassed or changed; and that he now can legally lead Russia until 2032. What several sources mentioned was something I knew but had never put into words. Russia has no history of democracy. The Russian people have never lived in a democracy. Russia was a monarchy and then a communist state and after the heady days of victory in WW II Russia turned inward, locked its doors and came under the iron fist of Stalin with his bloody reign of terror.
Russia and America were allies in WW II which makes our current stance as mortal enemies, sadder and more foreboding. We are enemies almost in the comic book sense of the superheroes and the villains they contend with. In fact, comic books originated as a way to have a symbolic fight against communism and authoritarianism. However, it turns out that Russia sees itself as the superhero and the US as the villain; levying sanctions, meddling in Russia’s economy. We, on the other hand, wonder how we can trust a nation that poisons dissenters, fixes elections, gives power and wealth to friends of Putin, and has to keep its borders tightly closed so that citizens will not leave. When we used to shelter under our desks in grade school in the 50’s, it was not domestic shooters we were threatened by, it was Russia. We were raised to see Russia as our adversary and I still, with fuller knowledge of our own nation’s failings, see Russia as an intimidating nation that would destroy our democracy in a heartbeat if they could do so without destroying the planet in the bargain.
It seemed as if Trump was popular with Russia and other authoritarian states because it was clear to these leaders that he had/has his own authoritarian tendencies. With President Biden we are back in our hostile corners with some incentives to try to negotiate solutions in some modern problem areas, as long as we don’t argue about what Russia can and cannot do on the world stage. Having shown the world our own civil rights transgressions, Putin feels that he is in a strong position to match evil for evil with no winner in sight. US purity is undeniably a meme of the past and we deal with the world without the hubris of our glory days. This makes us more authentic, and that authenticity is what makes us stronger than the mask of perfection that the world could see past ever made us. Both countries flaws are visible for all to see, which makes our struggles honest, at least.
The world will need Russia to fight climate change. Melting permafrost in Siberia is releasing carbon dioxide but it is also changing the climate equation in the Russia Federation. The Russia economy, almost completely dependent these days on gas and oil will need to diversify. Putin can be as proud and as rigid as he likes but at some point a lack of flexibility will come back to haunt Russia and the Russian people. The world will need Russia as a counterpoint to the rising power of China. Two authoritarian leaders with the pride and power of Putin and Xi cannot collude. Who would be the prime mover? So Russia will eventually have to team up with its old WW II allies once again to face down China’s power grabs. Let’s hope this can occur without war.
Russia and America already cooperate in space and that relationship may also help us remain allies. If all nations could ally to save the planet and if there was a new imperialism, a kinder imperialism, in the search for resources and new land in space it would be astonishing what could be accomplished. America will hopefully continue to fight against and reject totalitarianism at home, but we may have to accept it abroad and try to make deals about the existential things, the things that could kill all life on earth. What would it take for such an alliance to coalesce and function. I would like to live long enough to see that. Meanwhile (with apologies to Steven Colbert) baby steps will have to do, any small give and take to avoid animosity so deep and rageful that it will drive us all to kingdom-come with nuclear war.