President Obama and a 3 AM Phone Call about Russia

President Obama, it's three a.m., but there's a telephone in the White House and it's ringing. There is a crisis overseas. And it involves Russia...

All right, so I'm jumping the gun a bit by awarding the presidency to Barack Obama three months before Election Day. But unlike most members of the chattering classes and punditocracy, who are wary of making predictions, having been burned too many times during the tumultuous 2008 primary season, I am more than willing to stick out my neck and predict that a first-term senator from Illinois is going to be the next leader of the free world. His presumptive rival, John McCain, is a profoundly unlucky man. Denied his party's nomination eight years ago, he has managed to capture it at a moment in history when it is not worth much. Nearly all the key indicators--the generic ballot, the right-track-versus-wrong-track polling data, and party identification--point to a Democratic victory in the autumn. Unless the McCain campaign can produce a coherent response to Obama's clarion call for change, that victory could turn into an electoral map-altering landslide.

And now the part about that phone that always seems to be ringing in the White House. If recent history is any guide, the phone will indeed actually ring. Perhaps not early in the morning, as it did in the ads of Obama's vanquished rival, Hillary Clinton, but, quite possibly, early in an Obama presidency. And since I have made one prediction, I will make another: President Obama, at some point early in his administration, will be tested by Vladimir Putin and the newly resurgent Russia.

I traveled to Russia last summer to research my forthcoming novel, Moscow Rules, and to see for myself the country that Putin and his Kremlin cronies have created. Putin, of course, is a former KGB officer and served briefly as the head of the KGB's domestic successor, the FSB. What is less known in the West is the extent to which former officers of the KGB and FSB--known collectively in Russian as the siloviki--have infiltrated the top ranks of Russia's government. By some estimates, seventy-five percent of senior posts are held by siloviki. It is not inaccurate or unfair to say that the KGB, the organization that oversaw the Great Terror, administered the Gulag Archipelago, and locked dissidents away in psychiatric hospitals, is now running Russia.

Russian television is now owned by the state or by individuals loyal to it, and the nightly news is filled with official drivel worthy of Tass and Izvestia of Soviet times. While my family and I were staying in Moscow, CNN was coincidentally running a series of special reports on the resurgence of Russia. Each evening, in a scene reminiscent of Soviet citizens huddled around their radios listening to the BBC, ordinary Russians crowded into the bar of our hotel to view the latest installment. The print media, lively during the Yeltsin years, has also been brought to heel. While there is little overt censorship, every Russian reporter and editor knows there is a line that cannot be crossed. Those who dare to directly criticize the regime, or to investigate the blatant corruption and misdeeds of its senior officials, run the risk of coming into the contact with the organs of state power. A Russian journalist told me about the regime's favorite tactics of intimidation. It could be something like a traffic stop that leads to the discovery of other "problems." Or a trumped-up narcotics charge. Or an accusation of tax fraud. Or worse. How much worse? Forty-seven journalists have been killed in Russia since 1992, fourteen during Tsar Vladimir's reign. Most were contract-style killings, few of which have been prosecuted or properly solved.

As for Russia's citizenry, they are, paradoxically, freer than they have ever been. But they, too, know about that line that cannot be crossed. Any Russian brave enough, or foolish enough, to confront the regime runs the risk of being arrested, beaten, or even killed. And Russia has shamelessly revived the use of psychiatric hospitals as a means of dealing with dissidents. No outlet exists for true political dissent. The "opposition," such as it is, is a handful of Kremlin-sanctioned parties that have no say in the affairs of government. They are, in the words of Lenin, "useful idiots."

There is a lawlessness about Russia that is deeply troubling. Julia Latynina, a Russian journalist, novelist, and radio host, wrote powerfully of the corruption of the Russian authorities last month in the Washington Post. Russia's courts, police, and special forces, she lamented, are "a cancer" that is "devouring the state." While in Russia, I discovered that most ordinary citizens simply avoid the authorities because they know that an encounter with them can only come to no good. Society's most powerful members, however, can expect a different sort of treatment. They are, quite literally, getting away with murder.

The Russian police show little interest in enforcing the law because they are far too busy with more lucrative pursuits. Russians cannot drive their fancy new foreign cars without being shaken down by white-gloved traffic police. And in St. Petersburg, I watched police turn a blind eye while professional pickpockets worked the pavements of the Nevsky Prospekt on an otherwise fine June afternoon. The authorities not only tolerate but encourage thuggish behavior by members of Nashi, the government-funded youth movement. In summer, they attend lakeside indoctrination camps where they are taught true Russian values and to despise the West. I don't know about you, but I get nervous when young minds are conditioned to hate. The term "brownshirt" springs to mind. Indeed, some Russians refer to Nashi as Putinjugend: Putin Youth. These government-funded hooligans are but one more piece of evidence to suggest that Russia has lurched from the ideology of Lenin to the ideology of Mussolini in the span of a decade and a half. In my opinion, the case is closed. Russia is now a fascist country.

This would not be a problem were Russia content to wallow in its own filth. But that has never been the case and never will be. Russia has seen the unipolar world and does not like it. Russia wants to be a player again. And Russia would like its empire back. Putin made that abundantly clear in 2005, when, in his state of the nation speech, he referred to the collapse of the Soviet Union as "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century." Russia is once more attempting to project power. It is using its newfound energy muscle to bully and blackmail its weaker neighbors. It has resumed the Cold War tactic of placing its nuclear bombers on twenty-four-hour airborne alert and has announced its intention to once again target European cities with its nuclear missiles. Seeking to exploit the unpopularity of America in the Muslim world, it has feted the likes of Hamas and is selling sophisticated weaponry to Syria and Iran. Should the United States or Israel ever feel obliged to strike at Iran's nuclear facilities, the mullahs will defend them with Russian weaponry. Thank you, Comrade Putin.

So, in the words of Lenin, what is to be done? Democrats are fond of "speaking truth to power." It is my hope that President Obama uses his first meeting with Russia's leader--whether it be Putin or the diminutive Dmitry Medvedev--to deliver a clear and sobering message. Russia can no longer have it both ways. If Russia wants to be a member of the club--that is to say, the civilized world--then it must act like a member of the club. Can someone please explain to me why, when Russian missiles are targeting Paris and Russian bombers are buzzing Britain, Russia is still a member of the Group of Eight? The G8 should once more become the G7, until Russia cleans up its act at home and changes its behavior abroad. And though it would be alarmist for President Obama to start talking about a new Cold War, Edward Lucas, a reporter for the Economist, argues in a persuasive and passionate new book--titled, interestingly enough, The New Cold War--that Russia is already waging it. Lucas warns that the United States and Europe must set aside their differences over Iraq and resuscitate the old Atlantic alliance in order to confront the new threat rising in the East. The Kremlin will attempt to divide any such coalition with its oil and its money, Lucas predicts, but Western European countries must steadfastly resist the temptation to betray the alliance for thirty pieces of Russian silver. Good luck trying to sell that strategy to Russia's special friends in Germany and Italy.

If the West finally awakens from its slumber and takes concerted action, expect the Russian bear to howl with indignation. But, as Lucas accurately points out, Russia needs access to Western technology and markets just as much as the West needs access to Russian oil and gas. Russia's superficial wealth conceals a carbon-heavy economy that is fundamentally weak and hobbled by corruption. And Russia is so militarily feeble that an uprising in tiny Chechnya proved too much for the once-vaunted Red Army. Russia will not stay militarily weak forever, though. Better to challenge the bear now, while it is still a paper one. It might keep that White House telephone from ringing at three o'clock in the morning. And President Obama might be able to get some much-needed sleep.

Daniel Silva is the author of eleven bestselling novels, including The Confessor, A Death in Vienna, The Messenger, and The Secret Servant. His newest novel, Moscow Rules, will be published July 22. To read more about Daniel and his books, visit