Recent U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael A. McFaul had an important article in Monday's New York Times. It is important, if nothing else, for its more clear eyed awareness of the Russian challenge than the Times' editorial stance so far.
For example, he states ominously, "The shrill anti-Americanism uttered by Russian leaders and echoed on state-controlled television has reached a fanatical pitch with Mr. Putin's annexation of Crimea. He has made clear that he embraces confrontation with the West, no longer feels constrained by international laws and norms, and is unafraid to wield Russian power to revise the international order." Times readers need to hear this kind of wake-up call.
However, Ambassador McFaul makes a strange, but understandably common mistake. He writes, "Mr. Putin's Russia has no real allies. We must keep it that way. Nurturing Chinese distance from a revisionist Russia is especially important, as is fostering the independence of states in Central Asia and the Caucasus."
The observation is true up to a point about China and Central Asia. However, it is a vast oversight to suggest that because Russia does not have allies in a formal manner--secured by treaties--it lacks allies in the real world.
Russia under Putin is friends with autocrats around the globe who have in common traits we have seen before in history, as well as a common antipathy of the democratic West, and especially the United States. Iran's mullahs, Assad in Syria, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba, Iran's mullahs and Syria's Assad all get along fine with Mr. Putin. Also, before he was overthrown by a popular uprising, Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine was fast becoming an autocrat, as well as a friend of Putin. What may have annoyed Mr. Putin as much as anything about Yanukovych's downfall was the video of the secret palace the Ukrainian chief had built himself at the people's expense. Mr. Putin is said to have such a palace--maybe several. He can't like the comparisons.
In any case, note that all these countries I have mentioned, like Putin's Russia, suppress dissent by closing critical newspapers and television stations, arresting (if not killing) protestors and often jailing political rivals on specious grounds, such as tax evasion. They purport to help the poor while they enrich themselves and other officials in the government (and often their relatives), along with compliant cronies outside government who live on official favors.
The autocrats tend to aid one another in various ways, to vote together at the United Nations and to oppose the United States at every turn.
Yes, these autocracies are at different stages. For example, Assad can hardly be compared to Putin, since he's in the midst of a civil war. He simply kills his opponents, who, after all, are in open rebellion.
Yet, these countries can fairly be called allies of Vladimir Putin. If not, there sure has been a strange amount of fraternal official visiting going on among them. And then there is the matter of military overtures to Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua. If a country where one puts in bases is not an ally, what is it?
Nonetheless, Amb. McFaul has done a service by explaining the way that Russian democracy and modernization has gone off the tracks, especially in the past few years. It is all the more impressive coming from someone sent to Moscow by President Obama. Americans who want our country to "lead from behind"--and that would include the New York Times, as well as Mr. Obama--need to get the true scoop.