Who or What Comes After Putin?

Will the world be safer if these men lose power?

W.J. Astore

The U.S. and NATO have apparently decided that the world is better (for them) if Russia is weak and chaotic instead of being comparatively strong and orderly.

Something tells me a strong and orderly Russia might be better. A weak and chaotic Russia, with nuclear weapons, is likely to be far less predictable. For example, who or what comes after Vladimir Putin if he’s overthrown? Is the West sure that a divided or disorganized Russia is a “better” one?

As Margaret Thatcher said of Mikhail Gorbachev, we can do business with him. Putin is a rational actor. Who or what follows him in Russia may be much more vengeful than rational — and vengeance and nukes are a potent, perhaps genocidal, mix.

Recently, I was thinking about the difference between the end stages of the Cold War, when I entered the Air Force in the 1980s, and the current crisis with Russia. To me, one big thing stands out. In the 1980s, the U.S. was willing to negotiate on equal terms with the USSR. Reagan and Gorbachev, despite their differences, talked to each other with respect. Today, Joe Biden refers to Putin and the Russians with disdain. Biden seems to see Putin as little more than a thug, someone not worth talking to. As Biden himself said, “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.”

The U.S. has been a dominant superpower for so long that its leaders simply take it for granted and have little (if any) empathy for others. Weakening Russia is not a sign of American cleverness or strength but rather of shortsightedness.

In the 1980s, Reagan and Gorbachev talked sincerely of nuclear arms reductions, even of their eventual elimination. Nothing like this exists today. Indeed, the U.S. now speaks of “investing” in a new generation of nuclear weapons at a cost of a trillion dollars (or more). Basically, the U.S. is in a nuclear arms race with itself, even as Russia and China are trotted out as the looming nuclear threats.

In demonizing Putin and Russia, the U.S. is closing doors to negotiation and potentially opening missile silo doors to obliteration. By not bargaining at all, Biden and company are not being resolute, they’re being pigheaded.

As Winston Churchill famously said, “Meeting jaw to jaw is better than war.” Politics and war are not and should not be antithetical to each other. A negotiated settlement is better than more dead Ukrainians, more dead Russians, more blasted terrain, and even higher risks of nuclear escalation.

Haven’t we heard enough already about nuclear red lines and dirty bombs? Stability is what’s needed today based on some measure of respect, however grudgingly given. If avowed Cold War warriors like Reagan and Thatcher in the 1980s could do business with Gorbachev and the Soviet Union, America’s leaders today, from a much stronger position, should be able and willing to do business with Putin.

This is not about appeasing or rewarding Putin for his invasion. It’s about stopping a war before it potentially grows wider — and far more deadly.

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Let Reagan Be Reagan

W.J. Astore

The first presidential election in which I voted was 1984 and Ronald Reagan got my nod. Back then, I was a Cold War officer-to-be and I wasn’t convinced that Walter Mondale and the Democrats had a handle on anything. Today, I’d be more likely to vote for Mondale, I think, but I still have some affection for Reagan, who dreamed big.

Reagan’s biggest dream was eliminating nuclear weapons, which he came close to doing with Mikhail Gorbachev. Apparently, the sticking point was Reagan’s enthusiasm for the Strategic Defense Initiative, or “Star Wars,” his misbegotten scheme to defend America against nuclear attack. It’s truly a shame that these two leaders didn’t fulfill a shared dream of making the world safer through nuclear disarmament.

Still, Reagan and Gorbachev did eliminate an entire class of nuclear weapons via the intermediate range nuclear forces (INF) treaty, as represented by the American Pershing II and Soviet SS-20 missiles as well as ground-launched nuclear cruise missiles. Sadly, I recall talking to a senior colleague in the early 1990s who relayed an anecdote that he (or someone he knew, I can’t quite recall) had talked to Reagan and praised the ex-president for that achievement, only to be met with a vague look because Reagan apparently couldn’t remember by that point. It appears Reagan did start to suffer from memory loss in his second term in office, and by the early 1990s it wouldn’t surprise me if he couldn’t recall details of nuclear treaties.

Reagan and Gorbachev sign the INF Treaty, which eliminated an entire class of nuclear weapons

Even so, Reagan, despite all his flaws, had a bold vision motivated by human decency. He was something more than a bumbler, and indeed his energy and eloquence were leagues ahead of what Joe Biden exhibits today.

Which put me to mind of this classic “Saturday Night Live” of Reagan in action. Of course, it’s a spoof, but it’s well done and funny while capturing something of Reagan’s own sense of humor:

Please, dear readers, don’t tell me all the crimes of Reagan in the comments section. Nor do I want anyone to whitewash the man. Today, I just wanted to capture Reagan’s abhorrence of nuclear war, which got him to dream of SDI (“Star Wars”) and which almost produced a major breakthrough in total nuclear disarmament.

How shameful is it that Reagan could dream big with Gorbachev but that Biden can’t speak at all to Vladimir Putin?