Skip to main content

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."

Gingrich: Syria a distraction from real U.S. challenges

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.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1925 GMT (0325 HKT)
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1244 GMT (2044 HKT)
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2329 GMT (0729 HKT)
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0134 GMT (0934 HKT)
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0313 GMT (1113 HKT)
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2256 GMT (0656 HKT)
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 2011 GMT (0411 HKT)
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1519 GMT (2319 HKT)
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1759 GMT (0159 HKT)
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0258 GMT (1058 HKT)
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 2141 GMT (0541 HKT)
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT