“Vladimir Putin is an evil man” was the late Sen. John McCain’s conclusion in his memoir written just before his death in 2018.
McCain wrote: “I’ve gotten plenty of things wrong in a long political career. Putin isn’t one of them.”
McCain was a skeptic of four administrations’ policies toward Russia. Events have proven him right with every recent U.S. president misjudging Putin.
After returning from a trip to Russia in 1996, McCain warned of “Russians’ nostalgia for empire.” He urged an early and rapid expansion of NATO to include the Baltic republics and Warsaw-bloc countries, who feared Russian imperial restoration.
He noted resentment and insecurity had been powerful drivers of Russian history for centuries, not limited to Russia’s 73 years of Communist Party rule.
In 2000, Putin was the newly installed Russian prime minister. The Republican presidential frontrunner, Texas Gov. George W. Bush noted, “the verdict on Mr. Putin is out… we don’t know enough about him.”
Bush’s main challenger, McCain, disagreed. “We know he was a member of the KGB. We know he came to power because of the military brutality… in Chechnya in 1999. I’m very concerned about Putin.”
Soon Putin seized control of the media, silenced political opponents, and turned the parliament (Duma) into his rubber stamp.
After first meeting Putin in 2001, Bush lauded the Russian leader. “After looking him in the eye,” Bush said, “I was able to get a sense of Putin’s soul.”
In 2008, Russia invaded neighboring Georgia and many acknowledged McCain as prescient.
In a five-day conflict, the Russian army routed the Georgians with Bush ruling out military options. Weak sanctions were imposed with little effect.
At his presidential debate with then-Sen. Barack Obama in October 2008, McCain again sounded a warning about Putin on his aggressive designs abroad.
“I looked in his eyes and saw three letters, a K, a G and a B. I said before, watch Ukraine. Ukraine right now, is in the sights of Vladimir Putin,” McCain asserted.
With the inauguration of President Obama in 2009 came his vaunted “reset” of relations with Russia. The sanctions imposed by the Bush administration the year before were lifted.
Two missile defense sites under construction in Poland and the Czech Republic were canceled to placate Putin and NATO enlargement was largely shelved. Still, Putin walked away from the Nunn-Lugar arms-control process.
After Mitt Romney labeled Russia America’s “No.1 geopolitical foe” during a 2012 presidential debate, he was mocked by Obama.
“The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back, because the Cold War’s been over for 20 years,” Obama smugly retorted. Subsequent events proved Romney right.
Putin invaded Ukraine in 2014 and annexed Crimea with his proxies grabbing eastern Ukraine. The Obama administration’s response was to deny Ukraine’s request for lethal assistance to defend its own territory and it remained opposed until the last day in office.
In 2015, Putin intervened in Syria to rescue dictator Bashar Assad. Russians bombed hospitals and chemical weapons were used on civilians. Obama failed to enforce his own “red line” on chemical weapons use.
McCain wrote: “to Putin weakness is provocative and vacillation invites aggression.”
Putin’s leading Russian opposition leader (Boris Nemtsov) was gunned down near the Kremlin in 2015. Other regime opponents were poisoned.
To his credit, President Trump overturned the Obama policy and supplied lethal assistance to Ukraine.
However, Trump consistently praised Putin during his term of office. “I’ve always felt fine about Putin. He’s a strong leader,” Trump said in 2015. Their “bromance” continued throughout Trump’s presidency.
In a particularly outrageous statement, Trump praised Putin’s “genius” in his unprovoked full-scale invasion of Ukraine. McCain more accurately identified Putin as a “tyrant and thug.”
Americans — and the inspiring, freedom-loving Ukrainians — miss McCain now more than ever.
E-mail Jim Hartman at firstname.lastname@example.org.