The B-58 Hustler, once a staple at Grissom AFB, Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev at the United Nations, President Putin meeting Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who documented 60 million Russians citizens murdered by the Soviet regime, and Howey on Red Square, and in an in-flight briefing with Sen. Richard Lugar over Siberia in 2007.
The B-58 Hustler, once a staple at Grissom AFB, Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev at the United Nations, President Putin meeting Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who documented 60 million Russians citizens murdered by the Soviet regime, and Howey on Red Square, and in an in-flight briefing with Sen. Richard Lugar over Siberia in 2007.
INDIANAPOLIS – I was a child of the Cold War.
If there was a bogeyman that fueled nightmares, it was Soviet dictator Nikita Khruschev, who proclaimed, “We will bury you!” and hammered the United Nations podium with his shoe. When I was in the second grade at Edgewood Elementary School in Michigan City, we could sense our teachers and parents acting strangely. The teacher finally told us President Kennedy was going to make an important speech on an October night.
This was the Cuban Missile Crisis and my father would later tell me he feared nuclear annihilation. They actually thought the world as we knew it would be blasted away.
The home where I grew up in later years in Peru was about five miles from the Grissom Air Force Base runway. Grissom was home to nukes. B-58 Hustlers and KC-135 Stratotankers were a constant sight in our subdivision, our big water tower a landmark for the pilots and navigators. Some of them lived in our neighborhood. I attended school with dozens of Air Force brats who had moved in from Germany, Japan or the Philippines.
The year I was born, Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest to crush a revolution for freedom. On a night in August 1968 when the Beatles released “Hey Jude,” the Soviet tanks were cleaving the Prague spring.
At Indiana University, I studied in the Russian/East European Institute and read extensively of life and atrocity inside the Soviet Union and behind the Iron Curtain. As a journalist in Elkhart, I reported on a growing Russian dissident community that had immigrated there. Georgi Vins gave me a Holy Bible made of waterproof material, designed to be shoved into snow drifts if KGB agents approached. It is still a precious possession.
In the later stages of my career, I reported extensively on Sen. Richard Lugar’s efforts to control the nuclear, biological and chemical flotsam after the Soviet Union collapsed. I read about a sinister regime that churned out metric ton after metric ton of sarin and VX gas, anthrax and other weapons that could have exterminated life as we knew it on the planet. They kept making the stuff and kept little inventory. Lugar would tour old Soviet missile silos, finding photos tacked to the walls of American cities they might one day destroy.
Lugar and Sam Nunn, who originated the Nunn/Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, told stories of sarin gas in 80mm shells, stored in eroding chicken coops behind chainlink fencing and padlocks.
When we visited the Mayak Fissile Material Storage facility near Yekaterinburg in 2007, I watched Washington Post foreign editor David Hoffman grill two FSB agents on the fact that 97% of the world’s polonium supply was here. And a little bit of it ended up in London, where it was used in 2006 to murder Aleksandr Litvinenko, a former FSB agent and opponent of Russian President Vladimir Putin. In preparing for the Nunn/Lugar trip to Russia, I extensively read accounts of the Putin regime by investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, murdered in 2006 on Putin’s birthday. She is one of more than 200 journalists slain during the Putin era. My own stay at the Moscow Grand Marriott was interrupted when FSB agents ransacked my room while I attended a Carnegie Institute event.
So it is with epic incredulity that I’ve watched this past year as President Donald Trump, and now Vice President Mike Pence, embrace President Putin. They lend him coveted “respect” and are ready to wheel and deal. In the lead-up to the Super Bowl last Sunday, Bill O’Reilly of Fox News questioned Trump on Putin. “I do respect him. Well, I respect a lot of people, but that doesn’t mean I’ll get along with them,” Trump replied. O’Reilly pressed on, declaring to the president that “Putin is a killer.” Unfazed, Trump didn’t back away, but compared Putin’s reputation for extrajudicial killings with the United States’. “There are a lot of killers. We have a lot of killers,” Trump said. “Well, you think our country is so innocent?”
Earlier Sunday, I watched Pence have another Stephanopolous/RFRA moment, when John Dickerson pressed him on Face the Nation. “Do you agree?” Dickerson asked of respect for Putin and moral parallels. Politico reported: “And Pence had to draw a long, pronounced breath.” Then, asked four times whether the United States is “morally superior” to Russia, Pence avoided and danced around the question before relenting (kind of).
DICKERSON: Do you think America is morally superior to Russia?
PENCE: What – what you have in this new president is someone who is willing to, and is, in fact, engaging the world, including Russia, and saying, where can we find common interests that will advance the security of the American people, the peace and prosperity of the world? And he is determined to come at that in a new and renewed way.
DICKERSON: But America morally superior to Russia – yes or no?
PENCE: I believe that the ideals that America has stood for throughout our history represent the highest ideals of humankind.
Of all the events and quotes that have taken place over this past year, the Trump/Pence willingness to embrace and “respect” a murderous thug dictator is, perhaps, the most shocking. American presidents for the past 75 years have dealt with men of such ilk. We even allied with Marshal Josef Stalin, a man more murderous than Adolf Hitler, to win World War II. But Presidents Roosevelt and Truman never said they “respected” him and drew moral parallels. Or when pressed, drew a corresponding comparison to American leaders who don’t murder political opponents and support genocide.
And since Sunday, the crimes of the Putin regime persist. On Monday, Amnesty International reported that a Putin ally and client, the Syrian Bashar al-Assad regime, had executed 13,000 political prisoners at Saydnaya prison north of Damascus. Putin backed this war criminal, who terrorized his population with chemical weapons and barrel bombs. The Trump/Pence response is to seek to ban refugees of this mayhem from entering the United States or resettling in Indiana.
On Monday, the wife of Kremlin critic Vladimir Kara-Murza, Jr., reported that doctors have diagnosed him with “acute poisoning by an undetermined substance,” according to Radio Free Europe. It fits neatly into a pattern where political opponents and critics are murdered, poisoned and imprisoned. The lucky ones escape in exile.
On Tuesday, a regional Russian court declared opposition leader Alexey Navalny guilty in a retrial of a 2013 embezzlement case, a felony conviction that may prevent the whistleblower from participating in Russia’s 2018 presidential elections, the Washington Post reported. Navalny announced last December he would challenge Putin in 2018.
Trump and Pence use such “respectful” rhetoric under the guise that they see an “ally” in Putin in a war with ISIS. They neglect to point out that Putin and Assad seek to annihilate other allies aligned against both the Syrian criminal regime and ISIS.
Throw in the Putin regime’s chilling interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and the potential bombshells that Congress may unearth in the coming months and this is a dangerous, dangerous game for the administration.
Trump and Pence don’t seem to understand that their weird embrace undermines their own credibility. Trump doesn’t read history, so much of the Soviet and Putin atrocities and criminality might surprise him. Pence’s grasp on history may be compromised by his epic ambition and willingness to go along with anything Trump might say or do.
If there is moral outrage, it is coming from unnerved congressional Republicans who do know the difference. “I don’t think there’s any equivalency between the way that the Russians conduct themselves and the way the United States does,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said, adding, “I’m not going to critique the president’s every utterance, but I do think America is exceptional. America is different. We don’t operate in any way the Russians do. I think there’s a clear distinction here that all Americans understand, and no, I would not have characterized it that way.”
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio weighed in on Twitter: “When has a Democratic political activist been poisoned by the GOP, or vice versa? We are not the same as #Putin.” U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse said, “There is no moral equivalency between the United States of America, the greatest freedom living nation in the history of the world, and the murderous thugs that are in Putin’s defense of his cronyism.”
“Vladimir knew there was no moral equivalence between the United States and Putin’s Russia,” observed U.S. Sen. John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, referenced the poisoning of Kara-Murza. “There is no moral equivalence between that butcher and thug and KGB colonel and the United States of America.”
Pence could and should have spoken with that type of clarity on Sunday. As for Trump, his motives are clandestine.
MSNBC “Morning Joe” host Joe Scarborough wrote a searing “snap out of it” Washington Post column Wednesday, saying, “President Trump’s claim that America is morally on par with Russia’s corrupt dystopian regime was so historically ignorant that even timid Republicans felt compelled to speak out this week. Perhaps that is because remaining silent in the face of such a morally disorienting claim would make them look like fools. Vladimir Putin is, after all, the same ruthless autocrat who kills journalists and political rivals who cross his path. He is also the same man who called the Soviet Union’s collapse “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”
He notes that Putin’s dream of resurrecting of the Soviet Union by one invasion or annexation after another means reviving a regime that, according to Russian novelist and historian Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, murdered 60 million of its own citizens. It is why citizens of the three Baltic nations are spending a weekend a month practicing for a coming guerilla war after the Russian tanks roll once more.
“If Trump would like a tightly controlled experiment to compare the moral might of America and Russia, Afghanistan is a useful case study,” Scarborough wrote. Following the 1979 Soviet invasion, 1 million people were killed, some with bombs and land mines planted around villages and farm fields. Following the 2001 U.S. entry, the country has experienced “the greatest degree of freedom” in modern times. “There is no moral equivalence between the United States and Russia,” Scarborough said. “That much is clear. What is not is why Trump would so gleefully continue to spread this dangerous lie.”
With the Trump/Pence regime already off to a staggering start, their rhetoric toward Putin becomes, as Winston Churchill once observed, our own 21st Century “riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”