All around me, from pundits to presidents, I hear fear of, and loathing for, Vladimir Putin. I do not believe that that's the proper attitude, and I base my opinion on what I've learned from three men, Pat Buchanan, Igor Makunin and Dmitry Medvedev.
Two Sundays ago, on The McLaughlin Report, Buchanan reminded me that the West stood aside and allowed Yugoslavia to fall apart. In 1991, when first Slovenia and then Croatia broke away from Yugoslavia, no one in the United States or the NATO countries suggested that Yugoslavia and its boundaries must be maintained because Yugoslavia was a sovereign nation and a member of the UN and the European Union. When I hired Buchanan for the original Crossfire, I knew I would not agree with most of his opinions, but I learned very quickly that he got his facts right. The United States ignored the break up of Yugoslavia, but we are publicly and loudly lamenting the breakup of the Ukraine.
During the Gorbachev era, Igor Makunin served as the New York bureau chief for TASS, the Soviet news agency. We were friends. In the late '80s, we worked together to try to transform TASS. It had been a spewer of propaganda, and we tried to bring it closer to the standards of Western news agencies. (We knew it would be impossible to change TASS reporting in the short-term, instead we were working with TASS photos in an attempt to make sure the captions spoke the truth.) When Gorbachev was ousted any hope of success ended, Makunin left the agency and joined the business world. He also married Nikita Khrushchev's great-granddaughter, Xenia. A couple of years ago, when I congratulated Igor on his marriage and suggested that Khrushchev's heritage should make Igor a much respected man, he told me that I'd gotten it all wrong -- that Khrushchev was now remembered only as the man who had given Crimea to the Ukraine and that Russians would never forgive him for it. For most Russians, Khrushchev was a villain, not a hero.
As for Medvedev, as I wrote here about four years ago, I, along with two dozen or so other members of the Culture Change Institute, had tea with him at the Russian White House. He was a little late, but he explained that he'd had to spend time on the phone with Iran's former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Medvedev has informed Ahmadinejad that Russia was joining with the U.S. and supporting sanctions on Iran in an attempt to restrict Iran's nuclear weapons aspirations. Medvedev was risking Russia's relationship with Iran and supporting President Obama at a time when a Russian veto in the UN would have ended any hopes of sanctions. I do not believe that President Medvedev would have made that decision without Putin's support.
Based on the above, I believe that Putin is behaving exactly as any other president of any other country -- he is looking our for the best interests of the nation he leads. To go back to Buchanan: What the Slovenians did when they broke away from Yugoslavia, the Russians have done in the Crimea when they broke away from the Ukraine. Khrushchev has never been forgiven for ceding the Crimea to the Ukraine 60 years ago. Putin did what any politician would do, the ousting of Ukrainian President Yanulovych presented Putin with an opportunity and he seized it. Finally in Medvedev's case, the President of Russia (with, I believe, the consent of Vladimir Putin) stood by a President of the United States and helped win a delay in the completion of Iran's nuclear program.
It's about time we curtailed our fear of everything Russian and accepted the fact that they're entitled to make their own decisions in their own best interests. Is it possible for America to exist without creating a "straw man" on which we may heap all our international anxieties and hostilities. After listening to the pundits and politicians for the past few weeks, I'm not sure.