What Trump Should Tell Putin

President Trump will not have much time for his meeting with Vladimir Putin «on the margins» of the G20 summit in Hamburg this week. But he can say what he needs to in under five minutes:

Millions of Russians have fallen into poverty in the last few years. Pensions, which are already among the lowest in Europe, don’t keep up with inflation. Healthcare funding has been systematically cut to save money for the $700-billion «defense modernization program» you inaugurated in 2008. The Russian economy is hampered by a toxic domestic investment climate with outsized state ownership, bureaucratic shakedowns of businesses, and racketeering by the authorities at every level. Tens of thousands of Russians in over one hundred cities and towns have come out on the streets this year to protest corruption.

You have been repeatedly warned by top economists inside and outside the government, including Alexei Kudrin (your friend and former mentor, ex-Minister of Finance and ex-First Deputy Prime Minister) that the national economy will at best hobble along even if oil prices rebound unless you undertake systemic institutional reforms to improve the investment climate: a real war on corruption, rolling back state ownership and control of the economy, reducing Russia’s reliance on hydrocarbons – and yes, a measure of political competition and the restoration of the media’s watchdog role, now almost completely undermined by censorship and self-censorship. We need a «different economic model,» Kudrin has said again and again – and he added that «friendly relations» with the outside world are essential to reviving the Russian economy.

You have ignored his advice.

The results have been predictable. We have seen the polls. People detest the government. From mayors to the Prime Minister’s office, they see the state as callous, incompetent, and rapacious. The government’s approval rating is among the lowest it has been in your 17 years in power.

Except for your personal rating. And we both know the reasons for this huge disjoint: instead of undertaking a thorough cleanup of your government and implementing institutional reforms, you have shifted the foundation of your regime’s legitimacy away from income growth and toward patriotic mobilization.

And so the national television, which is under your total control and where over 90 percent of Russians get their political news, hourly spews the propaganda narrative: «the Motherland is in danger. NATO is about to attack. But, thank God President Putin is in charge: he will not only protect the Motherland from US-led aggression and subversion but also restore it to the glory of the Soviet Union, so unjustly lost. We are again feared – and thus respected!» To further this narrative, you’ve quietly revived the cult of Stalin (in your interview with Oliver Stone you protested against Stalin’s «demonization,» which you decried as yet another Western attack on Russia). As a result, history’s greatest murderer, along with Mao and Hitler, is now rated by Russians as the first among the world’s «most outstanding figures.»

Anti-Americanism has been a central trope of this narrative. And you, Mr. President, personally sponsor and spearhead it. After one of Russia’s most popular television hosts, Dmitry Kiselev, declared on air that Russia was capable of «reducing America to a heap of radioactive ash,» you promoted him to Director General of the state-owned media propaganda conglomerate. And you have voiced the canard of ISIS’s having been created by the United States – a lie that by now is an article of faith among Russians.

You have sustained this narrative by intervening aggressively in, or if need be manufacturing, crises in Ukraine, Syria, and the US elections. Like the proverbial man on a bicycle, or more appropriate in your case, a tiger, you have to travel farther and farther to maintain your popularity.

So what’s next? Shooting down a US plane over Syria? Crushing a «color revolution» in Belarus? Sending «little green men» into Estonia?

You can base your regime’s legitimacy as narrowly as you please. That is your internal affair. But not at the expense of US national interests and security, those of our friends and allies, or international norms of civilized behavior. Please know that the free, or almost free, lunch is over. If you show no signs of moderation, we will hit you where it really hurts: by increasing the domestic political costs of your foreign policy. And, believe me, there is no shortage of options.

For starters, once it reaches my desk, I will sign the sanctions legislation passed by the US Senate to squeeze the two key sources of your country’s income: oil and arms exports. I will send defensive weapons to Ukraine. And I will dramatically increase US presence on NATO’s eastern flank. Please also know that any further cyber-attacks on American democratic institutions, government, or key financial entities will be met with swift and devastating retaliation.

I know that no matter what you have told Western leaders or the UN General Assembly, you have promised your domestic audience – which is the only one you ultimately care about – that the real reason for your intervention in Syria was «restoring the legitimate government of Syria»: Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime. So please know that if, or rather when, Assad uses chemical weapons again, we will hit him very hard. Believe me, I don’t want to start a US-Russian fight in the Syrian sky, but please also know that attempting to protect your client in Damascus will not end well for your credibility at home.

But if you heed Alexei Kudrin’s advice and begin to look inward, instead of outside, for your regime’s legitimacy and popularity, my European colleagues and I will be quick to respond positively. Start the withdrawal of your troops and proxies from Ukraine; stop protecting Assad; stop harassing NATO planes and ships; significantly decrease the troop levels in your Western district; and abandon your campaign to besmirch and corrode Western democratic institutions by the hackers in your employ – I will be the first to initiate the relaxation of the sanctions and encourage US investment in your country.

And now, if you excuse me, Mr. President, I am going to meet with our NATO allies to discuss how best to confront and contain the Russia you have forged.

Πηγή: American Enterprise Institute

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