FORT WAYNE – In the late ’60s and early ‘70s, I was a counter-culture college student, battling the leftist lemmings who condemned America and trashed our flag. The Evil Empires were Red China and Bolshevik Russia.
 
In 1970 the movie “Patton” was released, one of my favorite movies. My Young Americans for Freedom friends and I would stand up and cheer to the irritation of everyone else present when Gen. Patton delivered these memorable lines, “Well, the war shouldn’t be over. We should stop pussyfooting about the goddamn Russians! We’re gonna have to fight them sooner or later anyway. Why not do it now, when we got the army here to do it with?  Instead of disarming these German troops, we oughta get them to help us fight the damn Bolsheviks!” His military and political superiors were even less supportive than the irritated movie theater crowds were when we stood up and cheered.
 
So, when I walked around Red Square in 1998, it was with severely mixed feelings. As a kid I had watched on our family’s black and white TV set as Soviet military forces paraded down Red Square, aware that in our basement we had an area with a survival kit to hopefully survive a nuclear hit from the Evil Empire. By the 1990s, major changes had begun occurring in Russia. After communism collapsed, and some coups and counter-coups, the Supreme Soviet had been dissolved and a parliament called the State Dumas elected in December 1993. I was elected to Congress the following November.
 
In 1996-1997 I twice heard Dr. Alexander Zaichenko speak to the Fort Wayne Area Christian Businessmen’s group. Dr. Zaichenko was a learned and prominent Russian economist.  In 1979, in spite of all his learning, he had begun to ask “what is life really about?”  He obtained a Bible through the black market. The Gospel of Matthew, as well as his surreptitiously reading the stories of persecuted Christians to learn more about their faith, resulted in him secretly committing his life to Christ while still serving as a top economist in Gorbachev’s government.
 
After Dr. Zaichenko told his amazing personal story, he plugged the Russian-American Christian University of which he was the Russian coordinator. His pitch that won me as an ally in his work (we still contribute monthly) was that as Russia transitioned to capitalism, there was no similar moral foundation undergirding it as we had in America.  The church, other than a few elderly Orthodox practitioners, did not functionally exist.  His point, and my belief, was that capitalism without morality just turns into corruption and greed.  It is not just capitalism that made our economy grow, it was capitalism grounded in at least the remnants of Judeo-Christian moral belief.  Thus we needed an educational institution that taught capitalist economics but the undergirding moral assumptions that accompany it.
 
Simply put, Russia in my mind went from an evil empire to one about which I was skeptical, but at least it seemed to offer a window of opportunity for planting seeds for real reform. President Ronald Reagan’s strong foreign policy and investments in military buildup had forced the collapse of communism after years of hearing that communist control was inevitable and permanent. Russia was a large, powerful and interesting country.  If we could encourage any fundamental change, or at least plant some seeds, it was worth some risk. Isolation doesn’t really work either.
 
In 1998 I was invited to participate in the first U.S. Congress-Russian Dumas exchange. The delegation of around a dozen congressmen was sent to Russia, equally divided among Republicans and Democrats. Republican Curt Weldon and Democrat Steny Hoyer led the delegation. One of my major goals during the Moscow portion was to meet with Dr. Zaichenko.
 
As I waited for him in our members’ “control room” at the National Hotel, there was a heavyset, stereotypical Russian man sitting on the sofa.  It was intriguing to me who he was, in part because it is hard to get into a control room, so I went over to talk with him while I waited.  He taught me some valuable lessons not available in the books or briefing materials I had read.
 
I asked who he was and he said: “I’m just a cement maker.”  When Dr. Zaichenko came in, as soon as we left the room, he said, “What was so and so (I don’t remember his name) doing there?”  I said I didn’t know, but asked how he knew him because he’s just a cement maker.  Dr. Zaichenko replied something like this: “Just a cement maker?  Have you looked around Moscow?  Everything is cement.  He is the financial power behind Mayor Luzhkov.  He owns the major television and radio stations, and much of the city.”  My response was something like, “Oh.”
 
I also remember asking the cement maker, who was fluent in English and bluntly insightful, why if Russia wanted to be our friend, they continued to sell weapons to our enemies like Iran and Iraq.  He replied with roughly these words, sporting somewhere between a twinkle and a sarcastic, jowly scowl: “You know your weapons. You know our weapons. Who would buy our stuff except the people you won’t sell?  It’s just business.”
 
While I had many other insightful discussions, one of the most fascinating was at lunch with the then-head of the relatively new Russian stock exchange. He was part of the newly ascendant group of leaders trained at U.S. universities who were trying to establish capitalism. I remember him explaining that really what he did all day was basic economics, as in: “Why aren’t people buying my stock?” “Well, for starters, you took out 90% of its value and moved it to a Swiss bank account.  In a free market, people aren’t going to buy it if it has no real value.”
 
In addition to serving as an honorary board member of the Russian-American University, along with my classmate and good friend Sam Brownback, I did my part to try to capitalize on this window of openness in Russia. I met with some exchange groups in Washington. I sponsored two tours of Russian leaders in my congressional district, where Dumas members, city government leaders from cities including Moscow and St. Petersburg, many health professionals and educators came into Fort Wayne and other counties in our area.
 
I remember, for example, one health executive telling me that the amazing thing about American health care wasn’t that New York City or Chicago had top equipment not dissimilar to that in the best hospitals in Moscow, but so did Fort Wayne and even cities we visited like Columbia City. Our economic system spread the inventions and innovations to the masses.
 
By the time I returned to Moscow in 2004, to get clearance and a means to visit Beslan, where over 300 children were massacred (the school was still smoldering when we arrived), the window was rapidly closely. The Russian-American Christian University was being squeezed out, forcing the program to radically adapt. Many, if not all, of the officials we had met in 1998 were at best exiled, if not jailed or killed. Vladimir Putin had eliminated all rivals and ruled with an iron hand.
 
Russia and Red China are the greatest national threats to the existence of the United States. Obviously Islamic terrorism is our greatest immediate threat, which, somewhat ironically, also constitutes a threat to governments in both Russia and China. They implement sophisticated and long-term plans, not random acts of terror.
 
With their current governments, Russia and China are not our friends. They lie and cheat with the desire to wreck our leadership of the world. Communist China is out to dominate us economically. They aren’t interested in free trade; they want dominance.  They want military superiority, not parity. Russia is out to wreck our democratic system, and very nearly did.
 
The sycophantic defenders of President Trump and his hate-blinded critics dominate national news coverage and most private conversations. This makes it even harder to be clear about whether President Trump understands the difference between leadership periods of limited opportunity for real reform or thugs running a country. When you have opportunity, you try to grasp it. When the window closes, you don’t give up but you recognize that you are now dealing with a thug.
 
President Trump does understand the importance of a strong military. He has chosen a strong national security team. However, he does not seem to understand that our continued international wrestling with Russia isn’t just about glitter and gold, but a conflict of irreconcilable cultural values. To repeat that Putin “sincerely believes” he didn’t meddle in our elections or defend his “strong leadership” is mind-numbingly stupid. Does he not understand that Russia has dramatically changed for the worse.

The president’s failure to disclose his business dealings, his intermixing of them while seeking to run the American government, his repeated smearing of past national security officials, and his continued downplaying of Russian election intentions makes one wonder if he understands that dealing with Russia as president is not the same as negotiating the price of a hotel.
 
On the other hand, it was President Obama who sold uranium to Russia, and was perceived as weak which invited Russian aggression. They clearly didn’t understand that Russia loves it when we stress talk and trade, as opposed to understanding essential concept of military strength first. At least Obama had a consistent, if wrong, world view. I worry that our current president’s world view is so tainted by his personal insecurities, ego and business interests that it obscures what I believe is his genuine commitment to a strengthened America that leads the world. We are one year into the Trump era and still his world view is at best confusing and inconsistent.  
 
A president who believes that our former intelligence leaders are liars and not credible, but who seems to put more trust in Putin, our enemy, is just unacceptable. The president’s constant references to “his” intelligence chiefs and “his” generals as honest, as opposed to honoring all American intelligence heads and generals, is like the NFL players who only honor their version of America.  But there is a big difference:  Donald Trump is president of the United States and the NFL players are just a bunch of hired athletes playing a game. 

Souder is a former Republican congressman from Indiana.