JHI on the Issues 2016: Putin: A Man to Admire?

Candidate Statement: During last night’s vice presidential debate, Governor Mike Pence called Russian President Vladimir Putin a “small and bullying leader.”  He said, “And the small and bullying leader of Russia is now dictating terms to the United States to the point where all the United States of America—the greatest nation on Earth—just withdraws from talks about a cease-fire while Vladimir Putin puts a missile defense system in Syria...”

Donald Trump has appraised Putin differently. In a session with NBC’s Matt Lauer September 8, 2016, Donald Trump said of Putin, “Well, he does have an 82 percent approval rating, according to the different pollsters…If he says great things about me, I’m going to say great things about him. I’ve already said, he is really very much of a leader. I mean, you can say, oh, isn’t that a terrible thing—the man has very strong control over a country.”

Summary: We share Governor Pence’s view of President Putin.  Putin’s brutal and authoritarian rule, his invasion of neighboring states, his support for the murderous Assad regime, and his virulent anti-American propaganda make him unworthy of any respect, praise, or admiration from an American presidential candidate.  As for Putin’s approval rating, he controls the media, especially television, he snuffs out any perceived threats, and has created a climate of fear that deters Russians from answering pollsters’ questions candidly.  Small wonder that Putin has impressive poll numbers. Moreover, Putin described Trump by saying he was “bright” or “colorful,” not “brilliant,” as Trump has claimed. Putin even clarified this in an interview with Fareed Zakaria in June when he said, “I said in passing that Trump is a vivid personality. Is he not?  He is. I did not ascribe any other characteristics to him.”  For a comprehensive assessment of U.S.-Russia relations, see the Russia chapter in JHI’s book, Choosing to Lead.

Talking Points:

  • Putin has developed a thoroughly corrupt, kleptocratic regime.
  • Opposition figures, critics, journalists, and activists are harassed, imprisoned, forced into exile, and even killed—see the murder of Boris Nemtsov in February 2015.
  • Putin shows no respect for neighboring states’ sovereignty and territorial integrity, nor for their right to integrate more closely with Euro-Atlantic institutions.
  • He launched a cyber-attack against Estonia in 2007, invaded Georgia in 2008, invaded Ukraine and illegally annexed Crimea in 2014, and threatens other countries in Europe.
  • He supports the murderous Assad regime in Syria and has intervened militarily to prop up the Syrian dictator.
  • He exports corruption and hacks into organizations’ emails to affect elections and more broadly undermine Western systems.
  • He demonizes the West and the United States in particular.
  • Putin took over nationwide TV stations early in his presidency, enabling him to control and dominate the messaging that Russians receive every day. 
  • The human rights situation today under Putin is exponentially worse than it was when he first came to power 16 years ago.  Freedom House rates Russia in its “Not Free” category.

Questions the Press should be Asking:

  • Given all this, what exactly is it that you admire about Mr. Putin?
  • Will you maintain sanctions against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine?
  • Will you recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea? Was Putin correct to justify his annexation in the name of protecting the Russian-speaking people of Crimea?
  • Will you continue sanctioning Russian officials involved in gross human rights abuses as required under the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law and Accountability Act?
  • Do you think corruption is a problem in Russia?
  • Do you really think he is a better leader than President Obama?