History teaches us, better than modern politics, what Vladimir Putin’s election victory, by a reported 76.1 percent, means for Russia — and the world. The portent is not promising. It is downright foreboding, and calls for redoubled vigilance.
Just over 80 years ago, Joseph Stalin held an election, the year 1937. Russia was depressed under the yoke of Soviet Communism. A nominal constitution existed, but it was meaningless, guaranteeing much, delivering nothing.
Coincidentally, Stalin won that election by exactly 76.1 points. The world knew the victory was just political theater, intimidation, corruption and fanned returns, but few in the West realized how ominous the next few years would be.
Effectively unchecked, having arrested or assassinated his leading opponents, Stalin accelerated “the Great Purge,” also called “the Great Terror,” from 1937 through 1938. An estimated 700,000 people vanished, all his opponents. Stalin’s total death toll is in the tens of millions.
In Stalin’s time, fear replaced hope, stability was paramount, and except for a few brave dissidents, everyday Russians just hunkered down, tried to ignore politics, and awaited the long haul.
Until Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev condemned Stalin’s dictatorship as the “cult of personality” it was, Stalin reigned supreme and unchallenged. He twisted everything from the Yalta and Tehran Agreements to Western public opinion. His critics were sidelined, silenced or bamboozled.
Stalin coordinated closely with Chinese Communist dictator Mao Zedong, whose “Great Leap Forward” killed tens of millions, although Mao never liked Stalin. Historians view Mao as less cruel than Stalin, who took pride in personally killing some opponents.
Mr. Putin may now have his historic analogue in Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who just declared himself eligible to be paramount and indefinite leader, with removal this month of all term limits on his presidency. Mr. Xi, too, has cultivated a “cult of personality.”
During Stalin’s tenure, he ignored international law, annexing after World War II Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, parts of Germany, Poland, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Romania and Bulgaria, as well as Manchuria and Korea. He was belligerent, brazen and indifferent to moral or human rights, as well as untruthful and aggressive.
With no domestic check on post-war Stalin, a divided and weary Western Europe could do little. The United States, preoccupied by rebuilding both devastated allies and enemies, reacted to Stalin with the strategy of containment, the only viable approach at the time.
But Stalin pushed, since he could — and the world almost went to war again. The Dardanelles crisis, or Turkish straits crisis, was an attempt by Stalin to annex further territory, bluntly claiming that a part of Turkey close to the Black Sea was actually stolen from Georgia, which was then Soviet.
President Truman, who had also authorized the only use of an atomic weapon in war with Japan, said “enough.” He sent the USS Battleship Missouri to the straits, and made clear there would be no annexation.
The Soviets built up a fast military response, but when the U.S. and Britain then added a naval taskforce, Stalin backed down. He just tried, as dictators will, to get whatever he could. And finally had to be stopped. That was not the end, but that was the beginning of the end.
Fast forward to Mr. Putin, 2018, and his recent overwhelming margin of victory. Look more closely, and President Trump and our European allies would be foolhardy to think Mr. Putin will not, like Stalin, overreach in whatever ways he is given license to pursue.
Put aside that Mr. Putin, since 2000, has invaded Georgia and Ukraine, threatened other East European states, run mock attacks along their borders, subverted Western elections — deliberately sowing chaos, his chief goal — among political contests in the United States, Germany, France and elsewhere, and most recently was linked to attempted assassinations with chemical weapons in Britain.
Put aside Mr. Putin’s equivocation in recent years about Stalin’s status, at times saying he was unfairly disparaged, applauding his tactics, and defended him in public. The Los Angeles Times noted that Stalin “has lately been applauded by Putin and his supporters as the foundation on which the great Soviet superpower was built.”
The real issue is this: Will Mr. Putin’s inflated election returns, even if distorted, irregular and low, and respect for Stalin, cause Mr. Putin now to believe he can press his luck against the West? Will he more aggressively intrude on future American and European elections?
Will he become not just bellicose, but belligerent militarily, as Stalin did, and as Mr. Putin has been in the past, when the United States was perceived as weak or uncommitted?
Will he take advantage of a divided Europe and underfunded NATO to test and foul international security arrangements, plan future invasions, accelerate assassinations, push or stir instability in Syria, team more closely with Iran, sell ICBM rocket engines to China and North Korea?
In a world built on stable expectations, Russia is now a wild card. Russia’s membership in the U.N. Security Council, and fidelity to international institutions, suggest Mr. Putin will not play that card, but who knows? His noisy, sharp-elbowed style may yet test Mr. Trump, triggering a return to the resolve shown by Harry Truman during the Turkish Straits crisis. But if he does test us, the Trump administration, including Defense, Commerce, State and Justice, as well as European and Asian allies, the United Nations and America’s private sector, should be ready.
The margin of error, as history teaches when an aggressive dictator thinks he has new room to run, gets thin. Mr. Putin’s will be thinner than most, because he is already beyond Western tolerances. This election margin means, get ready and redouble vigilance.
• Robert Charles is a former assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement in the George W. Bush administration.