The famous movie “Dr. Strangelove,” set in the bad old days of nuclear tension, is decades old. But one telling scene sticks in the memory: While the globe is in danger of being blown to bits, the Russian spy on the scene is busily snapping espionage pix with his teeny-tiny camera, a comic measure of Russian anxieties then and now.
Is Donald Trump aware of this cinematic joke or its significance for him, given his chummy relationship with Vladimir Putin? Probably not. Never in the turbulent history of U.S.-Russian relations has a more naive U.S. president had the responsibility of dealing with Russian mischief. His secretary of state is a Texas oil man. His security adviser, General McMaster, wrote a noted book about the Vietnam War but is no George F. Kennan, nor even a Kissinger or Brzezinski. Kennan, whose name should be remembered with lasting thanks, was the eminent scholar-diplomat whose grasp of Russian history and temperament led to the “containment” doctrine that won the Cold War. He has no peer or parallel in the Trump entourage – not even close.
Can Putin believe his luck? He directed his digital espionage crew to meddle in the U.S. election against Hillary Clinton and woke up Nov. 9 to find that the amnesiac U.S. electorate had presented him with a guileless and egotistical president who wants to “get along better.” It is an American superstition, which Trump shares in a virulent form, that bad geopolitical relationships are the result of bad attitudes or of failure by others to grasp the purity and benevolence of our intentions.
Moreover, the Clinton administration increased U.S. vulnerabilities by extending NATO’s “shield” far into territories of historic Russian interest. Putin has responded with armed bullying in Georgia, in the Crimea and eastern Ukraine. But that could change. Why throw military weight around when you can gull a president with sweet talk and lies?
Those inclined to study relevant history might begin with the foreword to James Donovan’s “Bridge of Spies” (basis of an excellent recent movie), an account of the Abel spy case. It is anchored, as was the case, in the post-World War II climate in which the U.S. realized that the Soviet Union was practicing espionage on an epic scale, to steal atomic secrets and much else: “Recruiting idealistic and sympathetic Americans ... working on the Manhattan [atomic bomb] Project was like picking ripe fruit for Russian intelligence officers working under diplomatic cover ... .”
Do those words remind us of Don Trump Jr.’s sitdown with Russians eager to cultivate a cozy relationship with the credulous son of the credulous GOP presidential candidate? Or of other contacts, including the multiplying disclosures of encounters by Trump cabinet officers and family members?
The consensus among “media” chatterboxes is that the Trump-Russian connection will be dealt with by the special counsel Robert Mueller – if he isn’t fired. This is a persistent delusion among those who haven’t noticed the actual history of “special prosecutors,” which usually turn out to be expensive diversions. Kenneth Starr’s prurient $60 million probe of Bill Clinton’s sexcapades was typical. Special counsels deal with legal issues. The Russian problem isn’t legalistic; it involves a complex geopolitical rivalry whose features are historical and ideological.
The Trump crowd needs a vastly enhanced sophistication in Russian habits and history. Vladimir Putin, who is basically a thug, enjoys popular approval because he is viewed as a “strong” leader in the tradition of Josef Stalin, a paranoid tyrant and mass murderer.
This dangerous nostalgia is rampant. According to a poll by a Russian survey outfit suspected by experts of vulnerability to official manipulation, “62 percent of Russians” favor statues all over memorializing “the successes of Joseph Stalin,” but “65 percent of them are opposed to any monuments that recall his crimes.”
Following Stalin’s death in 1953, Nikita Khrushchev, who knew Stalin and his cruelties well, delivered a sensational speech to a Communist Party congress that exposed Stalin’s crimes and initiated Russia’s slow emancipation from his legacy. It was built upon by Mikhail Gorbachev, who opened windows to fresh air but is regarded by many Russians now as a blunderer who “lost” the Cold War to Ronald Reagan.
And now we have Vladimir Putin. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose!
Contributing columnist Edwin M. Yoder Jr. of Chapel Hill is a former editor and columnist in Washington.