Michael McFaul is director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and a Hoover fellow at Stanford University, and a contributing columnist to The Post. He was previously special assistant to President Barack Obama at the National Security Council from 2009 to 2012 and U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014.
For reasons still mysterious to me, U.S. President Donald Trump continues to praise and defend Russian President Vladimir Putin. Just yesterday, in an interview with Bill O’Reilly on Fox, President Trump affirmed his respect for Putin. When O’Reilly challenged Trump by calling the Russian president a “killer,” Trump defended Putin, whom he has never met, by criticizing the United States: “We’ve got a lot of killers. What do you think? Our country’s so innocent?”
A generous interpretation of this odd, unprecedented defense of Putin is that Trump is praising the Kremlin leader in order to cultivate better relations with Moscow. That is a naive, but tolerable, foreign policy. (U.S. foreign policymakers should pursue concrete national and economic interests, not “better relations,” but that discussion is for another day.) A more worrisome interpretation, however, is that Trump admires Putin’s policies and ideas, and may even seek to emulate his method of rule. That is unacceptable. Understanding Putin’s methods for consolidating autocracy in Russia might help us stop autocratic tendencies in the Trump era now, before it’s too late.
Like Trump, Putin had never run for elected office until he won Russia’s presidential election in March 2000. Few at the time in Russia or the world fully understood Putin’s political agenda. Given his political inexperience, weak support among elites and tenuous electoral mandate, most observers assumed initially that he could not change the basic nature of Russia’s political system, considered by most analysts at the time, including me, as a weak but functioning democracy. That early assessment proved incorrect.
(Cont) WASHINGTON POST