That kind of brinkmanship led to then Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev’s eventual ouster and also the eventual elevation of Leonid Brezhnev to the leadership of the nation. Brezhnev tempered the USSR’s meddling foreign policies and pursued a policy of detente and nuclear non-proliferation with the U.S.
When that still didn’t bring the Soviets economic stability, an older guard Communist Party power structure yielded to the younger Mikhail Gorbachev. He became the most serious partner for a more stable peace in Soviet history. That eventually led to the happy end of the Cold War.
But democracy in post-Soviet Russia hasn’t taken hold. President Putin is a de facto dictator without the burdens of having to cater to the true needs of a body politic. He also doesn’t need to bow to a business or corporate structure as he basically owns a controlling interest in every Russian industry and may be the truly richest man in the world.
And so the mischief continues. Don’t be fooled by our domestic partisan back-and-forth about whether Trump was colluding with Russia in the election. Putin’s ultimate goal was provoking instability and deeper divisions in the U.S. to weaken us, and it worked.
Just as troubling is Russia’s renewed meddling in Syria, its dealings with Iran, and aiding North Korea. This is pre-Cuban Missile Crisis level activity in its scope and danger. And without a Communist Party ideology to fuel it anymore, it all seems to be driven by Putin alone.
With that in mind, all of Washington from the Trump administration to the Democratic Party congressional leadership must face a few facts.
First, President Trump and Secretary of State Tillerson must divorce themselves from the delusion that relations with Russia can be handled like a business deal. Tillerson may have years of experience working with Russian oil ministers and other representatives of the Putin regime, but the bigger picture of Russia’s role in the world is a different animal.
And while President Trump has years of experience hammering out deals with tough real estate interests, that’s still child’s play compared to a huge nation with a massive military and nuclear arsenal.
Tillerson and President Trump are probably right that the new sanctions won’t help the chances for a working business relationship between the U.S. and Russia. But business arrangements are hardly the real path to progress in this case. That would be true even if Russia were a truly democratic country run by a traditional politically-motivated government.
Second, the Democrats and the rest of the diplomatic types in Washington must recognize that they can’t deal with Russia with conventional diplomacy. Putin is no Gorbachev, he’s no Brezhnev and he may not even be as reasonable as a pre-Cuban Missile crisis Khrushchev.
Nothing exemplified the State Department’s delusion about what kind of nation it was dealing with than then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s infamous hitting of the “reset button” during a 2009 meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. A country set on destabilizing region after region, stoking wars, and aiding the worst kinds of dictators isn’t looking for a reset. It’s looking to clean us out at the negotiating table and everywhere else.
So what can the U.S. and the rest of the Western powers do? Reverting to a Reagan-era policy of using our still superior military and economic power and providing significant aid to the countries Russia threatens is a good start.
That approach was seen as radical compared to the Nixonian approach that some experts thought would continue to work. The Trump administration’s decision to offer Ukraine antitank missiles and other weapons this week was a good step in that Reagan-like direction. Continuing to ramp up U.S. oil production and exports to undermine Russia’s only economic lifeline would be another.
And the public needs to be sold on the dangers Russia holds for the U.S. in a way President Reagan did in the 1980s for these policies to truly succeed.
Right now, there doesn’t seem to be anyone in Washington who has the stomach for executing these policies and the eloquence to justify them. But as more people realize what a danger Putin is, the better the chances a real leader will emerge in the face of this Russian menace, whether through a change of messaging from Trump, new leadership in Congress or even in next election for president.
Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.
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