Russian President Vladimir Putin today held his question-and-answer session with the Russian public, an annual tradition known as “The Direct Line.”
Callers from all over the Motherland asked their president questions via a video link, televised live for four solid hours. Although there were a few chances for Mr. Putin to troll the Americans over L’Affaire Comey and the anti-Russian hype consuming Washington, the majority of the citizens’ questions focused Thursday on jobs, social services and economic opportunity.
Mr. Putin seemed surprised by some of the questions. When one caller complained about his low salary of 10,000 rubles a month — approximately $175, the president seemed shocked and told the caller his employer had to pay him minimum wage, which is twice that much. (Here we insert mental image of said employer immediately giving the person a raise!)
You might think this domestic discourse has little to do with geopolitics and Russian-American relations, but that would be wrong. The Russian economy is barely growing. Sanctions and the low crude oil prices are biting, hard. Military spending and foreign adventures are eating up a large part of the federal budget, even prompting a small reduction in spending on weapons in the coming year. Russia had to basically “repo” out a chunk of its oil-producing crown jewel, Rosneft, to a Middle Eastern power to fill a large hole in the budget this year, selling off the asset with only vague rumors of an option to buy it back in the future.
Anti-corruption protests are growing. The Kremlin was once again surprised this week by tens of thousands of young people coming out to support Putin opponent Alexei Navalny’s call for protest. These Russian millennials don’t listen to the state-run media and are frustratingly hard for the Kremlin bosses to control. Mr. Navalny has announced his determination to run for president against Mr. Putin in 2018.
In short, pressure is building at home for Mr. Putin.
Mr. Putin played a bad hand well with the weak, incompetent Obama administration, watching as American power atrophied around the world and President Obama coddled her enemies. Donald Trump is something completely different altogether. He is standing up for America’s interests, whether it be lobbing cruise missiles at Syrian air bases, sending carrier groups off North Korea’s shores, or confronting our freeloading allies in NATO. Mr. Putin’s days of mopping the floor with the American president are gone and he knows it.
Thus we have rising Russian domestic weakness combined with a desperate need to remove sanctions on Moscow. Mr. Putin is a master at manipulating the escalation/de-escalation dynamic. I think he is ready for the latter.
People will scream, especially on the Left: What about Russia’s hacking and attempts to interfere in our election? My answer would be, Are you saying the United States cannot defend ourselves in cyberspace? If that is true, then we have much bigger problems than one hacked election. Mr. Obama opened the door to the henhouse for the wolves on purpose, and China, Russia, Iran and North Korea took full advantage. We need to close those doors — and fast. The Left also conveniently disregards our own record of interference in Russian and Israeli elections.
So Secretary of State Tillerson is right — don’t tie the administration’s hands on Russia. It is obvious that the Trump administration is very good at diplomacy. They have already changed the dynamic on the Korean peninsula, NATO allies are starting to fork over more money for their own security, and U.S. prisoners are starting to come home from overseas jails.
I think a grand bargain with the Kremlin can be struck, one which would reduce the risk of war in Europe, help us with North Korea, and bolster the fight against the Islamic State.
The Obama “deep state” sympathizers would appear to know this as well. That is why they are fighting tooth and nail to keep the focus on Russia and bring down our duly elected president.
Perhaps they realize that if Mr. Trump can continue to keep America first and make America great again, the focus will shift to the real crimes, those committed by the Obama administration against our national security.
• L. Todd Wood is a former special operations helicopter pilot and Wall Street debt trader, and has contributed to Fox Business, The Moscow Times, National Review, the New York Post and many other publications. He can be reached through his website, LToddWood.com.
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