Last Saturday, as the Biden administration prepared to slap sanctions on Russia over the poisoning of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, my phone rang.
It was a voice from the KGB.
“Why did Navalny return to Russia when he was facing jail?” the former agent asked, responding to my email. “Martyrdom? Idiocy? And why is Biden only mulling sanctions now? This is further indication that he went into the summit unprepared.”
The call came while I was sitting at McSorley’s Old Ale House, New York City’s oldest bar and the kind of place where you feel transported into the past — in this case, the height of the Cold War. The man was Jack Barsky, airing frustration with President Biden’s repeated misreading of Vladimir Putin.
The late Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, once said, “I looked in Mr. Putin’s eyes and I saw three letters: K-G-B.” When I interviewed Mr. Barsky his book, “Deep Undercover: My Secret Life and Tangled Allegiances as a KGB Spy in America,” he offered similar insights that Mr. Biden would do well to heed.
The KGB planted Mr. Barsky, born East Germany’s Albrecht Dittrich, as an agent in 1978. He made his way to NYC and, thanks to gems like McSorley’s, it made an American out of him. He eventually resigned from the spy agency with a clever ploy and cooperated with the FBI, becoming a U.S. citizen, a Christian, a patriot — Yakov Smirnoff with fewer jokes.
Mr. Barsky warns that the U.S. and Russia have completely different worldviews. For example, America designed the Space Shuttle for peaceful exploration; the always paranoid Soviets were convinced it’d drop out of orbit like the Battlestar Galactica and nuke Moscow.
It was easy to laugh at such fantasies as my ale got warm, dismissing President Putin something out of “The Americans” (where Mr. Barsky had a cameo) or a low-rent Bond villain mincing shirtless atop a horse. But the former agent had a more sober perspective: Mr. Biden mocks this cagey new czar at our peril.
“If Putin hates anything, it’s attacks on his persona. His vengeful disposition has induced many a powerful opponent to flee in fear for their lives,” which is exactly what appears to be the case with Mr. Navalny, who claims Mr. Putin built a castle with “taxpayer money.”
It’s an absurd charge, since Mr. Putin is among the world’s richest and already lives in a castle: The Kremlin. To avoid fingerprints, he’d have an oligarch foot the bill, as with the Internet Research Agency hackers responsible for most election meddling. Yet Mr. Putin is enraged.
The situation, Mr. Barsky says, is much more nuanced than Washington realizes. That a source from the KGB’s successor, Russia’s Federal Security Service, claims Mr. Navalny was once a “useful idiot” for Mr. Putin would only make the attempt to kill him more sinister if true.
Of Mr. Biden calling Putin a “killer,” Mr. Barsky pointed out that FDR never insulted even the blood-soaked Stalin in such terms. Mr. Putin never forgets an insult and still commands half the planet’s nuclear arsenal. If the American president hoped to demonstrate toughness, he should’ve followed up with concrete actions.
“Biden did issue some sanctions in April,” Mr. Barsky said, but a month later, he did an about-face, lifting them on Mr. Putin’s coveted Nord Stream pipeline. Even if the remarks were for domestic consumption, Mr. Barsky judged the unforced error just as great: Playing politics with foreign policy.
“Biden’s disparaging comments about Putin inject an unnecessary element of danger, escalating tensions. He’s playing with the world’s future — and with all due respect, Mr. President, you weren’t elected to do that.”
In his press conference after the summit, Mr. Biden repeatedly hinted that if Russia misbehaves, its reputation in the world will go to pot. Mr. Barsky laughed. “Putin does not give a rat’s behind whether the world considers him ‘a good man’ or not! He wants to be seen as the toughest of them all.”
I muttered a quote by Roman poet Lucius Accius: “Let them hate, so long as they fear.”
An optimist, Mr. Barsky sees Americans across our many divides as sharing a desire to ensure security for our children. So what if we destabilize Mr. Putin, and the madman who replaces him is a nuclear-armed suicide bomber?
Mr. Barsky urges our president to reassess, ditch insults for diplomacy, and develop a Biden Doctrine that is “firm, reasonable, civil, and consistent.” He hopes the White House gives this advice the weight it deserves — coming, as it does, from Russia with love.
Because the next time Mr, Biden looks into Mr. Putin’s baby blues, the whole world will be watching, with a lot more at stake than a mug of ale.
• Dean Karayanis is content producer for “The Clay Travis & Buck Sexton Show,” former Rush Limbaugh staffer, and host of “History Author Show” on iHeartRadio.