Donald Trump stunned the 17 branches of his own country’s intelligence community, including the CIA which is run by his appointee as is the FBI, when he declared this weekend that he did not believe their unanimous finding that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election and subverted our democracy. His Colonel Klinkesque inability to “see anything” in regards to the nefarious intent of the former ex-KGB ruler and to trust him at his word, instead of the word of thousands of employees his country’s intelligence services (who have created a report systematically outlining Russia’s cyber-attack on the election), stem to a large extent from his unwillingness to attribute any of his election success to this massive interference. It could potentially stem from the fact that he is susceptible to blackmail of the sort described in the Steele Dossier or from the complex web of his financial dealings with Russia. And he may also naively believe he can “cut a deal” with the Russian autocrat.
But Trump’s willingness to publicly refute the findings of his own country’s intelligence agencies may also stem from his complete ignorance of Putin’s record of genocide in his own country, overthrowing democracy in Russia, wiping out civilian-packed cities in Muslim lands, threatening NATO allies, killing opponents abroad, being a leader of the world’s most notorious secret police, lying to his own people to lead them to war, and fighting CIA assets in a genocidal war in Syria.
A brief foray into the history of Putin’s brazen challenges to NATO, defeat of US-backed rebels in Syria, violations of internationally recognized norms, crimes against humanity in areas ranging from the deserts of war torn Aleppo to the war-blackened villages of the tiny republic of Chechnya, and assault on democracy in our country and his own country clearly demonstrates how vast the chasm is between our two countries’ guiding principles. It also clearly demonstrates why Trump should not construct a parallel universe where Putin is somehow a friend of our country or its founding principles, which the president is sworn to defend.
While some of the vast differences between America’s founding principles and those of Putin have become obvious since Russia’s recent, unprovoked cyber-subversion of the democratic process in the November 2016 U.S. elections, much of it has been swept under the rug or just plain forgotten. A brief refresher on the true nature of Putin provides a stark lesson on just how deluded Trump is in his quixotic quest to erase the brutal past, prevent Congress from sanctioning Putin, and somehow win over a man who has been dedicated to undermining American influence for decades.
Below are eight reasons why Trump and every American should fear Russia and its autocratic leader. They are also reasons why the U.S. should continue to punish Putin through crippling and punitive sanctions of the very sort Congress recently passed (in a veto-proof bill designed to defeat the American president’s bizarre efforts to halt both Republicans and Democrats from punishing the Russians for their recent cyber assault).
1. Putin Was a Member of the Notorious KGB (Which is not the Same Thing as the CIA). While some have forgotten just what an evil the KGB secret police, or Committee for State Security, was (or have tried to relativize and claim that the CIA is and was the same thing as the KGB), the truth is that the KGB was responsible for the death and imprisonment of millions. The KGB, it should be recalled, ran the trans-Eurasian prison camp system known as the Gulag located primarily in the frozen wastes of Siberia.
Millions of Soviet citizens from targeted classes such as kulaks (wealthy peasants), practicing Christians, wealthy individuals described as “bourgeois parasites,” “subversive dissidents,” and “capitalist Jews,” were rounded up sent to the Gulag or State Prison system or executed by the KGB. In addition, members of the so called “punished nations” (i.e., members of targeted minorities such as the Chechens, Crimean Tatars, Volga Germans, Kalmyk Mongols etc.) were deported en masse on KGB cattle trains that the survivors called ‘crematoria on wheels’ to Siberia (in what is today called ethnic cleansing) where they died off in the hundreds of thousands in a hidden genocide. It takes a special person to join an organization that carried out all the above crimes, spies on its own citizens, keeps them in thrall, and is dedicated to defeating Western democracy and capitalism.
The KGB also ran the borders of the Soviet state and prevented its citizens from fleeing the U.S.S.R. Putin served in the KGB and openly mourned the 1991 collapse of what Ronald Reagan called the “Evil Empire.” Putin’s mindset and worldview are irrevocably shaped by his decades spent as a member of a vast army of police who spied on their own people, arrested them, tortured them, and killed them by the millions over the course of 70 years through forced famines, execution, ethnic cleansing, or death-by-prison-camp.
And the KGB is far from dead under Putin. Most recently, in 2004, it is widely accepted that the FSB (the new iteration of the dreaded KGB), for example, administered dioxin poison to the pro-Western, democratically elected president of the Ukraine, Victor Yushchenko, and horribly scarred his face to punish him for his outreach to America and Europe.
But Yushchenko was far luckier than Russian dissident Alexander Litvenko who was killed by a dose of radioactive polonium 210 administered by an FSB agent in London where he had found asylum. This incident caused a diplomatic spat between London and Moscow and shows that Putin has no respect for the sovereignty of key American allies like the British. Other Russian opposition leaders and dissidents have been killed by the FSB in areas ranging from Qatar to Austria as a means of silencing their voices. To compound matters, the Pentagon has recently come to the conclusion that the FSB and GRU (Russian Military Intelligence) have been shipping weapons to Taliban insurgents in northern Afghanistan at a time when Trump has doubled down on trying to suppress the Taliban insurgency.
2. Putin Rose to Power on a Lie. Under President Boris Yeltsin democracy and the free press thrived in post-Soviet Russia during the 1990s. But Yeltsin was confronted with a secessionist movement by the breakaway Chechen highlanders who had chaffed under Russian rule ever since their brutal conquest in the 1860s. The Chechens ultimately won the 1994-96 war for independence and this galled hardliners in Russia who vowed revenge.
Among them was a steely-eyed KGBnik named Vladmir Putin. An ailing president Yeltsin chose Putin to be his prime minister in the summer of 1999 after firing his two predecessors. Putin was a total unknown to the Russia public and it seemed likely at the time that he too would not last long in office.
But then came the mysterious September and October 1999 terrorist bombings in Moscow and other Russia cities, which killed approximately 300 Russians in their apartments. Before any investigation began, Prime Minister Putin reflexively blamed the Chechens. Thousands of them living beyond the borders of the breakaway republic of Chechnya in the surrounding Russian Federation were arrested in mass sweeps and raids. Putin crudely vowed to “clean out the shit house of Chechnya” and he massed troops to re-invade the Connecticut-sized republic. Overnight the unknown KGB officer rocketed to fame and became a household name in Russia as Chechenphobia was fomented by the Kremlin to rally support for Putin.
But even as Putin’s popularity ratings soared in an increasingly racist and xenophobic Russia, a strange event took place in the Russian town of Ryazan. In October 1999 an alert Russian woman called up the police to report seeing a van with mysterious people inside loading white sacks into her apartment’s basement. When the police came, they arrested several men planting bags filled with the rare explosive hexagon, the exact outdated World War II era explosive used in the apartment bombings that killed 300 Russians in Moscow, Volgodonsk, and Dagestan.
The Ryazan police chief trumpeted the arrest on television until FSB agents swooped in and freed the imprisoned terrorists. Putin then, implausibly, described the remarkable event as a “civil affairs test” designed to test the readiness of local police. The equivalent would be if FBI agents were to hijack a civilian aircraft after 911 to test the readiness of the airline industry.
While there were many skeptics of Putin’s explanations, including one intrepid Russian journalist Anne Politovskaya who exposed Russian war crimes in Chechnya and was mysteriously murdered in Moscow soon thereafter, they were silenced as war fever swept Russia. An 80,000 man Russian army then rolled into tiny Chechnya to avenge Russians who most likely killed by the FSB as part of a false flag “wag the dog,” “anti- terror” campaign designed to improve Putin’s ratings. In Russia, as in America (where President George W. Bush’s rating soared to an unprecedented 92% after 9/11) wars have a rallying effect towards leaders and Putin’s bid for the presidency was based on his masterful channeling war fever.
3. Putin Solidified His Power via a Genocidal War. From October 1999 to January 2000 Putin then indiscriminately unleashed the vast firepower of the transcontinental Russian Federation on the breakaway statelet of Chechnya. Ballistic SCUD missiles rained down on busy markets on the Chechen capital of Grozny slaughtering civilians, strategic bombers flattened neighborhoods with incendiary bombs in the deadliest air attacks since the allied destruction of Dresden in 1945, and mountain hamlets were set afire with napalm and fuel air explosives that turned oxygen to fire.
As the world looked on in horror, Putin fulfilled his promise to clean out the “shit house” of Chechnya. He declared anyone living in the capital of Chechnya, Grozny, to be a “terrorist.” In what was to be the heaviest aerial bombardment of a city since WWII, Grozny, the largest city on the north Caucasus flank, was tactically obliterated in what the Russians gleefully described as “rubbleization.” At the time you could actually see Grozny and towns to the south of it burning from the satellite images on Google Earth. As tens of thousands of Chechens were slaughtered to avenge the 300 Russians killed in the mysterious bombings that no Chechens were ever convicted for, hundreds of thousands of this targeted race fled for their lives.
As the terrified Chechens did so, Russian aircraft bombed the refugees’ columns and ground troops arrested tens of thousands of Chechen men who were labeled in blanket terms as “terrorists.” Any Chechen fighter was also labeled a “terrorist” and many who were captured were tortured to death or summarily executed.
Thousands of the Chechen civilian men swept up by the Russians were never seen again, except in the rare cases where mass graves containing their bodies were unearthed by foreign journalists. (Russian journalists were by now too afraid to report on such war crimes.) In many cases the bodies, often wrapped in barbed wire, could not be identified because their faces and hands had been cut off.
Tens of thousands who did not disappear languished in infamous prison camps like Chernokozovo. There, prisoners were systematically tortured in conditions that were far worse than in the notorious Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, only there were no arrests in this case.
The man who came to personify the senseless brutality of the Russian campaign was one Colonel Budyanov. Budyanov was a tank commander who decided to celebrate Putin’s election by breaking into a Chechen house, kidnapping the family’s daughter Elza, raping her and brutally sodomizing her with various tools, driving around with her naked on his tank as she was bleeding from internal damage, and then shooting her in the head and throwing her lifeless body in a ditch. When a subordinate reported the crime, he was also thrown in a ditch and tortured. Ultimately Budyanov did go on trial due to the fact that Western journalists reported on the case (Russian women threw flowers on this Russian army “hero” at his trials), but he was not convicted after he explained to the judge that the Chechen girl he raped and tortured was a “sniper” and that he was suffering from PTSD at the time of the rape/murder.
When the genocidal war that saw many such cases of torture and extrajudicial execution was over, as much as one fifth of Chechnya’s population of 1 million was dead and Grozny was totally obliterated. But Putin had sealed his reputation as a hardliner who could protect Mother Russia from its enemies, real or imagined. As Yeltsin retired due to poor health, Putin won the subsequent presidential election and the unknown KGBnik was now master of the largest nation on earth.
4. Before Attacking our Democracy, Putin Systematically Dismantled the Free Press and Subverted Democracy in Russia. Upon coming to power in 1999/2000, Putin inherited a country that was experiencing its most liberal period in history. The free press thrived and investigative journalists were not afraid to tackle issues such as corruption in the government and there was open democracy. Putin, the former member of a state police force dedicated to suppressing dissent and defeating Western democracy, saw this as a threat to his power and quickly moved to quash it.
Early on, Putin began to move against investigative journalists who criticized him for his war crimes in Chechnya or his illegal business deals that soon made him one of the wealthiest men in the world.
At the time, several Russian journalists were executed in broad daylight for their investigative reports. Others who dared to expose Putin’s war crimes or tackle the issue of his increasing authoritarianism and corruption were arrested. Newspapers and television stations that were critical of Putin were systematically shut down.
Within a few years the former KGB operative from St. Petersburg had reinstituted Soviet-style censorship and muzzled the press. The media in Russia today is essentially nothing more than a neutered Kremlin mouthpiece and RT (Russia Today) is as propaganda-driven as Tass or Pravda were in the Soviet period.
If this were not enough, Putin had political dissidents arrested, opposition parties shut down, and those politicians who resisted him executed by his proxies. Among them was the brave opposition politician named Boris Nemtsov, who was interviewed by CNN’s Anthony Bordain. Nemtsov was killed in the shadow of the Kremlin in the middle of Moscow’s busiest bridge.
To compound matters, Putin stripped away the rights of the provinces to elect their own governors and instead began directly appointing them himself. Putin is at heart an anti-democrat autocrat and has overseen the dismantling of the free press and democracy in his country and death or arrest of his opponents. This puts him squarely in opposition to the core values and beliefs of the world’s greatest democracy, which is dedicated to defending democracy worldwide.
Another Russian who represents the lawlessness and brazen corruption of Putin’s Kremlin was Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer working for an American firm in Moscow that was the largest foreign investor in the country. When he uncovered cases of mass corruptionhe was arrested by the authorities, tortured, and despite American requests for his release, beaten to death in prison. An outraged Congress passed the bi-Partisan Magnitsky Bill which barred any official involved in his death from entering America, thus infuriating Putin.
5. Putin Invaded Ukraine and Illegally Annexed Crimea. In March 2014 Putin ordered the invasion of the Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine and the invasion, conquest, and annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. The insertion of Russian troops posing as pro-Russian rebels in the Russian-dominated Donetsk region of the Ukraine was done, in part, to punish Ukrainians for turning their back on Russia and overthrowing the country’s pro-Russian leader during the winter 2004-5 Orange Revolution. Putin was furious when Ukrainian protestors overthrew the country’s pro-Russian leader in a popular revolution against his effort to keep Ukraine in Moscow’s orbit.
Putin made sure Ukraine paid a heavy price for turning to the West instead of Moscow. Thousands of Ukrainians have been killed in the warfare that ensued and members of the small indigenous Crimean Tatar community that have protested against the illegal annexation of their homeland have been arrested and never seen again.
If this were not bad enough, in the summer of 2014 Russian-backed rebels fighting in Donetsk fired a Russian-supplied Buk missile at a Malaysian Airlines jet passing overhead and, in one horrible instant, killed 285 innocent people from various nations around the world who were onboard. While Putin denied that Russian troops were involved in this shoot down of the civilian airliner, there is irrefutable proof that Russian soldiers transported the advanced weapons system to the Ukraine to assist lightly armed pro-Russian rebels.
The war and misery in eastern Ukraine continues to this day despite the fact that America and the European Union instituted sanctions against Russia to punish it for its illegal actions. As of August 2017 Russia has closed the straits of Kerch to Ukrainian ships, further crippling Ukraine’s economy to punish it for turning to Europe instead of Russia.
6. Putin’s Brinkmanship with NATO Risks War. But Putin’s disrespect for international norms was not limited to his own country or the former Soviet states that he seeks to dominate. For years Putin has been ordering Russian aircraft to violate NATO air space and engage in provocative acts, including several near misses between Russian and NATO aircraft. Russian aircraft have also engaged in simulated bombing attacks in areas ranging from the North Sea to the Baltics to Arctic and along the US coastline.
Russian submarines have carried out intrusions into NATO territory, including one submarine that was hunted in the Swedish harbor of Stockholm. In 2016 Lithuania, a member of NATO, recorded a stunning 160 intercepts of Russian aircraft violating its air space. In 2016 NATO member Turkey shot down a Russian aircraft violating its air space.
But Putin’s brinkmanship was not limited to America’s allies. In February 2017, the Russian spy ship the Viktor Leonov appeared just 17 miles off the coast of Virginia in a bold provocation and statement to the newly elected American president. This challenge was to a president who had naively proclaimed he would reboot relations with Russia during the election. Putin’s dangerous provocations are reminiscent of the Cold War, violate international law, and risk war with America and NATO. Never more so than in the recent massive war exercise Russia carried out in Belarus with numbers that exceeded treaty limits with NATO in order to train for a war with NATO.
7. Putin Committed Extensive War Crimes in Syria. In the fall of 2015 the unpredictable Russian leader surprised the world by inserting Russian troops into Syria to back up the beleaguered Assad regime. The Iranian and Hezbollah-backed Assad regime, it should be recalled, had been widely condemned by the international community for dropping deadly sarin nerve gas bombs directly on civilian-packed cities as well as massive barrel bombs. The indiscriminate nature of the attacks horrified the West. Assad flouted the Geneva conventions and Obama’s threats to attack Assad if he “crossed a red line” and used deadly weapons of mass destruction on his own people again.
President Assad’s forces, including the dreaded shabiha death squads, were responsible for killing far more people than ISIS and had been universally condemned by the UN for war crimes. But by 2015, the “Butcher of Aleppo,” as Assad was known, was in retreat. American-backed rebels known as the Free Syrian Army were liberating Sunni lands in the west from Assad’s Shiite-Alawite forces.
But all hopes for a negotiated end to civil war that has cost 400,000 people their lives ended when Putin inserted 5,000 Russian troops into western Syria to bolster the faltering Assad regime. Peace talks were now off the table. With Russian Mig, and even massive Tupolev long-range strategic bombers flying from southern Russia backing their movements, the Assad regime forces went on the offensive.
The CIA-backed Free Syrian Army Sunni rebels begged America for anti-aircraft missiles as their positions were pounded by Russian cruise missiles and bombs. But no heat-seeking missiles were given for fear of antagonizing Russia. The CIA-trained Free Syrian Army rebels were initially successful in destroying Russian-made Syrian tanks using wire-guided TOW missiles given to them by the CIA, but Russian Hind attack helicopters were used instead as “air artillery” and the American-backed rebels were defeated in Idlib Province and driven into Aleppo.
By 2016 the Iranians and Russian-backed government troops had defeated American-backed rebels in the proxy war in western Syria. The rebels then retreated to Aleppo, the largest city in Syria and its economic hub. But if they thought they were safe in this enormous city they were mistaken, for the Russian air force had already perfected methods for wiping out cities where rebels were based.
It should be recalled that the Russian air force had turned Grozny, once the most beautiful city in the northern Caucasus, into “the Caucasian Hiroshima.” With zero effort to avoid civilian casualties the Russians similarly obliterated Aleppo, house by house and block by block, using weapons banned by the Geneva Conventions in civilian populated areas. Massive Tupolev bombers carpet-bombed entire neighborhoods and cruise missiles fired from the Caspian Sea rained down on targets that were inevitably described as “terrorists,” no matter where they landed.
Tragically, over and over again hospitals filled with war-wounded patients were targeted by the Russian air force as the US government, the United Nations, and human rights groups loudly condemned the air-born slaughter of civilians. This mass killing by bomber epitomized the sort of war on civilians that inspired Picasso to paint arguably his most powerful work “Guernica,” a protest against the bombing of civilian-packed cities. But Putin was deaf to the universal condemnation and in the end Aleppo, like Grozny before it, was “rubbleized” and thousands of bodies lay dead in the rubble of a once beautiful city. It was this attack that outraged the world that earned Putin the grim moniker “Destroyer of Cities.”
8. Putin Attacked US Democratic Elections. Having brutally undermined democracy in his own country, Putin then launched an unprovoked attack on America’s cherished democracy. The US intelligence community, which consists of 17 separate services, including the FBI, CIA, NSA, and Directorate of National Intelligence, unanimously determined that the Russian government interfered in the fall 2016 presidential elections in America.
In a multi-pronged cyber-attack, Russian hackers operating with the intent to “undermine public faith in the US democratic process,” leaked information from the Democratic National Committee with the aim of undermining the Clinton campaign. The Russian hackers also meddled in the election by disseminating false news about Hillary Clinton and stirring up racial tension on Facebook posts that reached millions. On October 31, 2016, President Obama told Putin to stop interfering in our election or he would face “serious consequences.” Once again Putin appeared to be deaf and the campaign continued.
The unprecedented assault was aimed to bolster Trump’s success in the election and put him in the White House instead of Clinton (who had led the world in denouncing Putin for the brutal crack down on massive protests against his rule from 2011-13). The cyber attacks infuriated both houses of the Republican-controlled Congress, which united to condemn the first foreign attack on a presidential election.
A bipartisan call for an investigation was issued with both Republican and Democratic support. On December 29, 2016, Obama expelled 35 Russian diplomats and essentially confiscated two Russian compounds as an act of retaliation. Putin responded to Obama’s retaliatory move and Congress’s approval of sanctions in August of 2017 by expelling over 700 US diplomats in a move Putin called “bighting.” Thus Putin has one upped the US in his war he began.
As has can be seen, Putin is neither a friend of America nor of democracy, a cause the US is dedicated to upholding and protecting at home and abroad. Despite Trump’s naive efforts to reach out to the man who earned the epitaph “Destroyer of Cities” after leveling two cities, Grozny and Aleppo, he is far more of a threat than the North Korean leader Kim Jung Un, who Trump calls “Rocket Man.” Whether it be his blatant violations of NATO airspace or his repeated violations of internationally recognized human rights norms through bombings of civilian targets or extra-judicial executions of his own citizens of Chechen, Crimean Tatar or Russian origin, Putin stands for everything a moral American leader is opposed to.
The wily Russian autocrat is a clear and present danger to America and our interests abroad. Putin, the former member of the infamous KGB secret police, has the blood of hundreds and thousands of Chechen, Ukrainian, Syrian, Crimean Tatars, and Malaysian civilians on his hands. He has subverted democracy not only in his own country, but in our country.
In the authors’ opinion Trump’s most presidential act since assuming office was his bold decision to end the “bromance” with Putin by launching a bold cruise missile salvo into a Syrian and Russian airbase at Shayrat in western Syria in April 2017 to punish the Assad regime for bombing civilians with sarin gas. This was an appropriate response to Russian-Syrian WMD war crimes and far from the sort of appeasement that Trump has otherwise displayed towards Putin. This act demonstrated rare resolve to confront the reality that Putin is not our friend; on the contrary, he is one of our greatest, if not chief enemies.
From the Baltics, to the Caucasus, to Aleppo, to the coast off of Virginia, to the houses of the millions of Americans who rely on the Internet, Putin’s aggression knows no bounds. It high time for Trump to follow Congress’s bold decision to stand up to Putin’s aggression and play the role of defiant Winston Churchill in the face of continued aggression instead of an appeasing Neville Chamberlain. And the first step in becoming a Churchill lies in not believing bald-face lies from autocrats of the sort another dictator named Hitler told Chamberlain before launching his invasions of Europe.
Brian Glyn Williams is author of Inferno in Chechnya. The Russian-Chechen Wars, the al Qaeda Myth, and the Boston Marathon Bombing (2015) and The Crimean Tatars. From Soviet Genocide to Putin’s Conquest (2016) and is Professor of Islamic History at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, worked for the CIA and US Army in Afghanistan, and has lived and carried out research in the USSR, Russian Federation and Post-Soviet Central Asia/Caucasus. Steve Matteo is English Teacher at Cambridge Rindge Latin School in Cambridge MA and has taught English at Harvard University. The authors would like to dedicate this article to Orion Matteo.