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Gingrich: Remember, Vladimir Putin is not an American

By Newt Gingrich
September 16, 2013 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Newt Gingrich: U.S. politicians reacted with surprise to the views of Vladimir Putin
  • He says Putin is understandable as a former KGB agent and Russian nationalist
  • Politicians in both parties have mistakenly seen Putin as someone whom they can trust, he says
  • Gingrich: Putin is a strong authoritarian leader, maybe the strongest Russian boss since Stalin

Editor's note: Newt Gingrich is a co-cost of CNN's new "Crossfire," which airs at 6:30 pm ET weekdays. A former speaker of the House, he was a candidate in the 2012 Republican presidential primaries.

(CNN) -- American politicians have a deep need to interpret foreign leaders and foreign cultures and governments as though they were American.

Thursday night on "Crossfire", I described the Russian president as a KGB official of enormous toughness. In fact, we showed Vladimir Putin in his KGB colonel's uniform to drive home the reality of who he is.

Putin is a great Russian nationalist who is coldly and methodically maneuvering to maximize Russia's prestige and influence.

And why shouldn't he? It is his country. It has a longer history than we do. He served in the most intensely pro-Soviet institution in the old empire.

Newt Gingrich
Newt Gingrich

Yet, American politicians keep rejecting the realities of Putin's life, statements and actions.

Putin jabs U.S.

This is a bipartisan self-deception.

In June 2001, then President George W. Bush met him for the first time and concluded:

"I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy and we had a very good dialogue.

Putin looks to score a diplomatic legacy

"I was able to get a sense of his soul.

"He's a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country and I appreciate very much the frank dialogue and that's the beginning of a very constructive relationship."

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This was said two years after Putin launched the second Chechnya war in which an estimated 300,000 Chechens would be ruthlessly killed. It also assumed a former KGB agent has a soul that is viewable.

The less positive view came in August 2013 when President Obama compared his Russian counterpart to a tiresome schoolboy.

"He's got that kind of slouch, looking like the bored kid in the back of the classroom," Obama said of Putin.

But Putin isn't a bored kid. Putin is one of the most effective and successful leaders in the world. He took over a chaotic decaying Russia in the 1990s and methodically rebuilt the authoritarian state centered system he had learned from the KGB.

He may today be the strongest, most stable Russian leader since Stalin. He has achieved it with steady methodical application of power to isolate, imprison and, occasionally, kill those who oppose him.

Putin's recent op-ed in the New York Times was another calculated step. Putin despises Obama and resents his attitude and his tone. This was a chance to return the attitude.

(Obama acknowledged the difference in an ABC interview: "I don't think that Mr. Putin has the same values that we do.")

American politicians as usual tried to force Putin into an American frame of reference. The overall tone of Putin's latest broadside was too much for Sen. Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who said he read the article at dinner on Wednesday.

Opinion: American 'exceptionalism' -- who are they kidding?

"I almost wanted to vomit," he said. "I worry when someone who came up through the KGB tells us what is in our national interests and what is not."

House Speaker John Boehner said he was "insulted."

On a bipartisan basis, American politicians seemed surprised.

If American leaders would spend a little time studying Russian history they would understand Vladimir Putin.

He is a Russian nationalist and seen in that tradition is very understandable and even predictable.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Newt Gingrich.

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