By Joel Brinkley
11:17 AM EDT, May 21, 2012
Now that Vladimir Putin is Russia's president once again, the result of still another fraudulent election, we should expect ever more hostile relations with Moscow.
Mr. Putin, a vain and vulgar man, was born and bred to despise the United States. And in recent times, Washington has given him little reason to change his mind.
The latest example: President Obama waited several days before calling Mr. Putin to congratulate him on his election victory this month — though Mr. Obama did manage to call Francois Hollande just a few hours after he won the French presidential elections.
And if you want to see what Mr. Putin has in store for the United States, there's no better example than his government's treatment of Michael McFaul, the new ambassador from Washington. Ever since Mr. McFaul arrived in January, the government along with state-owned news media have treated him like a hated pariah — heckling and harassing him, bugging his phones and reading his emails while accusing him of plotting with opposition figures to overthrow the government.
"Aren't you ashamed of doing this?" Mr. McFaul asked a TV crew that ambushed him. "This is against the Geneva convention." Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, reacting to Mr. McFaul's complaints, sniffed and called him "arrogant."
What makes this seem so odd, at least on the surface, is that Mr. McFaul had come directly from the National Security Council, where he'd been charged with directing the so-called "reset" policy, President Obama's effort to improve relations with Moscow. Mr. McFaul, on leave from Stanford University, has spent most of his life studying and writing about Russia.
That's where Mr. Putin comes in. Of course, he was virtually born and raised in the KGB, whose primary raison d'etre was to spy on the enemy, the United States.
He won his first presidential election in 2000, and in the following years his greatest point of conflict with the U.S. was Washington's plan to build an anti-missile defense system in Europe. In 2007, after Mr. Putin had delivered an anti-America screed during a speech in Germany, Defense Secretary Robert Gates made an extraordinary offer. He told Mr. Putin that Russia could actually station staff at those missile-defense facilities, to be sure the missiles were not aimed at Russia. But before Mr. Putin, astonished, could catch his breath, the White House rejected Mr. Gates' proposal. Mr. Gates, it seems, had spoken out of turn. Mr. Putin was furious with Washington once again.
After serving two terms as president, under Russian law he was barred from seeking a third. So served as prime minister, and then ran for president again this year.
Mr. Putin is a clever man. Sure, during his latest campaign the streets of Moscow were alive with major demonstrations denouncing him. But Mr. Putin knew that most people outside the city still disliked America as much as he does. So he ran a vicious anti-America campaign, blaming Washington for the anti-Putin riots he could see out his office window.
Into this melee stepped Mr. McFaul. Just before he left, he remarked: "This is going to be fun." But before he had even unpacked his bags, state television attacked him for meeting with dissidents.
"He's not a Russia specialist," the TV station charged. "He's a democracy specialist" trying to stir revolution. The American embassy, it asserted, was actually paying the protesters.
Almost everywhere Mr. McFaul went, a state television crew was waiting to hassle him, causing him to ask: "Wonder who gives them my calendar? I respect the press right to go anywhere and ask any question. But do they have the right to read my mail and listen to my phone?"
Since Mr. Putin took office May 7, the "hyperbolic and inaccurate" attacks "have receded," Mr. McFaul said a few days ago. Mr. Putin has other things on his mind. On inauguration day, anti-Putin protesters were pouring into the streets once again, and police arrested anyone who even looked like he might start demonstrating. So, as Mr. Putin attended his Kremlinswearing-in ceremony, walking down red carpets through gold-crusted doors, out in the street police were hauling away hundreds of people, whacking some of them with rifle butts.
There's little doubt who had ordered the crackdown. After all, back in January, Mr. Putin already called the street demonstrators "monkeys" paid by Washington. The white ribbons they wore, he cracked, "look like condoms."
Right after he was sworn in, the new president let Washington know there was a change at the top. He told Mr. Obama he would not be coming to last weekend's G8 summit at Camp David, planned in large part so Messrs. Obama and Putin could meet.
Sorry, he told Mr. Obama, I'm just too busy.
Joel Brinkley, a professor of journalism at Stanford University, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning former foreign correspondent for the New York Times.
Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun