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Opinion | H.D.S. Greenway

Beware of Vladimir Putin, the new czar

The Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov passed within a few miles of Dover, England, as a fleet of Russian warships sailed through the English Channel on Friday.Gareth Fuller/PA/AP

WHEN THE ATLANTIC endorsed Hillary Clinton, it was only the magazine’s third endorsement in a general election since its founding in 1857. One of the charges against Clinton’s rival, Donald Trump, was that he “expresses admiration for authoritarian rulers.” Trump’s oft-stated admiration for Russia’s Vladimir Putin became an early issue in the campaign and won’t go away.

In 1964, when the Atlantic came out it in favor of Lyndon Johnson against Barry Goldwater, one of the charges against Goldwater was that he was unreasonably and untruthfully “bracketing” The New York Times and The Washington Post with Izvestia, the official Soviet newspaper.


And back in 1860, when the magazine came out for Abraham Lincoln, the antislavery candidate, the magazine stated that while in office presidential administrations were “practically as independent of the popular will as that of Russia, yet every four years the people are called upon to pronounce upon the conduct of their affairs” via the ballot box.

It is no coincidence that all three endorsements over a period of 156 years made unfavorable references to Russia. For most of the life of this republic, Russia has been seen as exemplifying oppression and tyranny in the minds of free men. There have been occasional examples of cooperation and good will, particularly under Boris Yeltsin, Mikhail Gorbachev, and during WWII. During the Crimean War (1853-1856), America and Russian trade continued against the wishes of Britain and France. And America bought Russian America, i.e., Alaska, from Russia for a bargain price of two cents per acre.

But those brighter moments are obscured by Russia’s reputation for totalitarian oppression over the centuries. Some say that Russia never shared in the enlightenment that so shaped the West’s development. My three-times great grandfather, William Wilkins, was minister to Russia in 1835, under the reign of Czar Nicholas I, in the days when very few Russians could even identify the American flag, he reported in a letter home. Go to Wikipedia today and you will find Russia under Nicholas described as a period of “geographical expansion, repression of dissent, economic stagnation, poor administrative policies, a corrupt bureaucracy, and frequent wars.” Sound familiar?


The rise of China may be America’s most pressing foreign policy problem in the long run, but in the short run Putin’s Russia is challenging the United States at every turn. Cyberattacks grow ever bolder. NATO air and sea spaces are encroached upon. The Baltic states are being seriously threatened and could easily be overrun by Russian forces in a matter of days, perhaps under the excuse of protecting ethnic Russians. Crimea, wrested from Ukraine, will never be returned, and Russian forces are still at work trying to subvert eastern Ukraine. Then there is Russia’s role in Syria, edging ever closer to war crimes. Trump’s statements about not honoring our NATO commitments, unless the Europeans pay more, has demoralized our allies and given Putin encouragement that America can be bluffed and out-maneuvered.

Our next president will have to present Putin with a credible NATO deterrent in Eastern Europe — dangerously lacking today — while at the same time working to find areas of cooperation with Russia in the Middle East, arms control, and elsewhere wherever possible. The much-criticized diplomatic “reset with Russia” was worth a try when Dmitry Medvedev was Russia’s president, but was doomed with the return of Putin, whose rule, world views, and appeals to nationalism seem so reminiscent of Nicholas I. Managing Putin won’t be easy. We don’t want to go back to the Cold War, but we certainly do not want to stumble into a hot one.


H.D.S. Greenway is a former editorial page editor of the Globe and author of “Foreign Correspondent: A Memoir.”