Don’t Underestimate Putin’s Threat – by Deborah Levine

Originally published in The Chattanooga Times Free Press

Ukrainian-born Comedian Yakov Smirnoff jokingly said Russia’s secret police, the KGB, stood for Kiss Goodbye Your Butt. That was decades before another comedian, Volodymyr Zelensky, became Ukraine’s president. But Zelensky knows there’s nothing funny about Russia’s annexation of the eastern part of his country. Fortunately, we have helped guard against further Russian encroachment. So what was Trump thinking in using our aid as a pawn in this political chess game?

The Russians have never been muted in their aggressive global reach. From Vietnam to Cuba, the United States and the former Soviet Union wrestled in a Cold War. As the Soviet Union, Russian invasions included Poland, Ukraine, Latvia and what became the communist republic of Eastern Germany. A relentless dictatorship from czarist times to the present, the number of people who tried to escape Russian rule are legendary.

The movie Fiddler on the Roof is great entertainment, but don’t be fooled. Czarist Russia had the world’s largest population of Jews, but they were restricted to ghetto-like areas. When waves of massacres called pogroms emerged, more than two million people, including my great grandparents, fled. The on-and-off again waves under later communist rule remained terrifying. When I visited Uzbekistan Jews two decades ago, they’d relocated there for safety and “to get as far away from Moscow as we could.”

It wasn’t only Jews who suffered under Russian rule. A guest speaker whose Christian family experienced and escaped the Russian takeover of Eastern Germany recently spoke at Chattanooga’s Self-improvement Mastermind meet-up. Her terrifying stories of torture, rape and starvation illustrated why German refugees ran for their lives. This wasn’t the first time I’d heard such stories, but given what’s happening in Syria, I paid extra attention.

Trump’s dismissal of the Kurds’s fate in Syria is unacceptable, as is letting Russia dictate terms in the Middle East. It’s also unacceptable that Trump mimics Turkey’s Erdogan by telling reporters that Syrian Kurds “deliberately” allowed ISIS prisoners to escape and that the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a separatist group of Kurds in Turkey, is a larger terrorist threat than ISIS. But Trump echoing the former KGB officer Putin isn’t just unacceptable. It makes me want to yell, “run for the hills!”

Unfortunately, any hill high enough to escape Russia is being leveled by this administration. When Trump equates Russia and the United States as countries that have focused on battling ISIS, he legitimizes Russian aggression. In reality, Russia has inhibited Isis removal by being focused on eliminating the enemies of the Assad’s Syrian government. Their airstrikes hit rebel Syrians, with only about 10% targeting Isis.

Nancy Pelosi was not having a melt down when she told Trump that “all roads with you lead to Putin”.  Pay close attention, not to the back-and-forth between Trump and Pelosi over who’s losing their mind, but to our new world. Russia is now the major broker in the Middle East and we have been relegated to the outskirts, at best. Putin will not be shy about pressing his advantage. Be afraid now that Putin has revoked a Geneva Convention protocol protecting victims of international armed conflicts. Be very afraid.

During the Cold War, I learned to speak Russian in case of takeovers. Over the years, the tensions diminished so maybe I was being paranoid. But I wasn’t imagining things, just my timing was off. From Ukraine to Syria to interference in our elections, today’s risks are monumental and growing. Watch the news and when you see Putin sporting a big grin, you’d be wise to cover your butt. And that’s no joke.


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