- - Wednesday, January 11, 2017


Political transition in the old Soviet Union was ugly. Vladimir Lenin’s death was assisted by doctors controlled by Josef Stalin who could hardly wait for his turn at the helm, Stalin’s death was reportedly the result of secret police chief Laventy Beria’s poisoning of him or withholding medical care, and Beria himself was, in turn, executed at Nikita Khrushchev’s insistence. Khrushchev spent seven years under virtual house arrest after being toppled by Leonid Brezhnev, KGB head Yuri Andropov’s and his successor’s reigns lasted little over a year each. Finally, Mikhail Gorbachev tried to put an end to the 74-year criminal conspiracy that was the USSR.

But Russia without the Communists of old remains Russia. The better news is, of course, that today’s Russia does not appear to pose the immediate threat to global peace and freedom that the Soviet Union represented, but it is still Russia. The Russians after 1991 abandoned Marxism as the failed socialist experiment it was, but many pine for the days when Moscow was expanding and feared by all and sundry. The military officers who served the Soviet leadership did not wake up in 1991 convinced they no longer had to fear the United States, and the new Russian leadership realized that at the very least the United States was a convenient enemy on which many of their own failures might be blamed.

In 1968 as executive director of the conservative Young Americans for Freedom, I helped lead street protests against IBM’s intended sale of then-sophisticated computer hardware to the Soviet Union, and in 1977 I took my first of many trips to the Soviet Union through the American Council of Young Political Leaders to meet and engage rising young Soviet leaders. We saw this latter “engagement” as a way of lessening tensions between two superpowers, while the Soviets saw it as good training for the USSR’s Committee of Youth Organizations from which its Communist Party leaders often emerged, now long since gone.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, knowledge gleaned from this engagement helped me attract clients: U.S. manufacturing companies, agricultural enterprises, engineering firms, cultural and other nonprofit organizations, and even a major Christian denomination seeking help as each explored new opportunities for business and engagement with a hoped-for new Russia. The collapse of the Soviet Union accelerated those searches, though those seeking opportunities in the new Russia soon began to realize that the concealed graft of old had been succeeded by open and acknowledged theft of factories and their products, office and residential buildings, farms and their commodities by Russian opportunists and outright thieves sanctioned by the new regime.

Twenty-five-plus years later, Vladimir Putin and his friends have perfected personal financial gain from public service to an art form. leading to nearly incalculable personal wealth. Bloomberg News reports Mr. Putin may be the world’s richest man at $200 billion. In his top-down political structure, that corruption is not likely to change in the near-term, but President-Elect Donald Trump, Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson and National Security Adviser Gen. Michael Flynn may be playing a longer game. Unlike those who managed President Obama’s failed “reset,” these are men who know, have dealt with and may have a better understanding of the opportunities and pitfalls of dealing with Russia that those who have come before.

Some believe Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stood in the way of Mr. Obama’s intended reset for reasons known only to her, which may explain why Mr. Putin sought to get even with a Democrat, though that party’s leaders have been historically more accommodating to Soviet and Russian interests than Republicans. As Americans were looking for a new path as post-Cold War hopes were dying, it is at least possible that the Russians, too, were looking in 2016 for a new path away from a new Cold War.

Changes in the Kremlin will, as always, come slowly, but President-elect Trump’s team also knows that avoiding a new Cold War would be a boon to the global economy. The question then becomes not whether, but how to engage, Mr. Putin, a Russian leader who Russian chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov has said in private may be a better chess player than he.

Randal Teague is a retired Washington international trade, finance and development attorney. He has worked in Russian affairs for nearly 40 years.

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