Donald Trump has gotten a lot of well-justified criticism for his paeans to Vladimir Putin, Russia’s anti-American dictator. Just last week Trump said that Putin has “very strong control over a country.… Certainly in that system he’s been a leader, far more than our president has been a leader.”
Imagine a Republican in the 1930s saying, “Hitler has been far more of a leader than Franklin Roosevelt.” That is, in fact, the kind of thing that the original America Firsters, led by Charles Lindbergh, did say, which is why it is so appalling that Trump has borrowed their slogan for his campaign.
But Trump isn’t backing down from these offensive claims, and neither are his supporters. In a Twitter exchange with me, for example, the radio talk-show host Hugh Hewitt wrote: “Putin’s an evil man. POTUS a good but incompetent man. Putin has served his country’s national interest better.”
I commend Hewitt for admitting that Putin is evil — something that Trump has never done. Trump, in fact, has never uttered one word of criticism of the Russian strongman. But what of Hewitt’s larger claim — that Putin has done a better job of serving Russian interests than Obama has done of serving American interests?
I am no defender of President Obama. I was a foreign policy advisor to John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012, and I have been very critical of Obama’s weak foreign policy. I think the Iran nuclear deal, the withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 and the hands-off policy toward Syria, in particular, have been catastrophic mistakes. I am no fan, either, of Obama’s tax-and-spend policies culminating in the passage of a costly healthcare mandate. But on both foreign and domestic policy there is simply no comparison between the democratically elected president of America and the thug who has seized control of Russia.
Let's start with the domestic side. Granted, the U.S. recovery from the Great Recession of 2008-2009 has been anemic under Obama — the growth rate of 2.1% is below the postwar average of 2.9% — but GDP still has grown in 25 of the last 27 quarters and the unemployment rate has fallen to 4.9%.
And how has Putin done by comparison? According to the World Bank, Russia’s GDP fell 40% between 2013 and 2015 — from $2.23 trillion to $1.33 trillion. “To put that in perspective,” notes CNBC, “U.S. GDP shrank at the onset of the Great Recession from $14.719 trillion in 2008 to $14.419 trillion in 2009 — a decline of 2%.”
Moreover, Lauren Goodrich of the Stratfor geopolitical consultancy points out, “Over the past year, the average Russian’s monthly wage fell 9.5%, slipping below $450 — less than in China, Serbia and Romania. According to state statistics, 50% of that income goes toward food, a figure on par with many African countries.”
In other words, the Putin presidency has been an economic disaster for the Russian people. To the extent that Russia has prospered at all since the dawn of the Putin era in 1999, it’s due entirely to its oil wealth. Putin has done nothing to develop a viable economy. Russia (population 146 million, according to Wikipedia) has a smaller GDP than South Korea (population 50 million).
Putin defenders will reply that it’s not all his fault — that Russia’s economy has been badly hurt by sanctions imposed by the West. But why did the U.S. and Europe impose sanctions on Russia? Here's where foreign policy comes in: Because Putin brazenly violated international law by invading Ukraine and annexing Crimea. His proxies even shot down a Malaysian jetliner, killing all 293 people on board, using a Russian-supplied anti-aircraft missile. These are war crimes that cannot in good conscience be compared with anything that Obama has done.
Putin’s actions, and in particular the annexation of Crimea, have been widely applauded by Russians who have been given a one-sided view of the world by his propaganda apparatus. The Kremlin’s media lackeys claim that the Russia intervention in Ukraine was a response to the rise of fascists and neo-Nazis, rather than to the rise of a democratically elected, pro-Western government.
This is what makes Trump’s claim that Putin has an 82% approval rating — and therefore he must be a good leader —so ridiculous. Sure, he’s popular, but no alternative is allowed. As Human Rights Watch notes, “The Kremlin’s crackdown on civil society, media and the Internet took a more sinister turn in 2015 as the government further intensified harassment and persecution of independent critics. For the fourth year in a row, parliament adopted laws and authorities engaged in repressive practices that increasingly isolated the country.” Anyone who dares to openly criticize Putin risks going in to jail, exile or an early grave.
Putin is pursuing the classic despot’s strategy: He is invading neighbors and beating the drums of war in order to distract his own people from his ruinous and tyrannical rule. He is not serving Russia’s interests, only his own and those of his crooked cronies. It is terrifying that Trump sees Putin as an admirable leader, and shameful that his supporters have fallen in line to defend his indefensible views.
Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a contributing editor to Opinion.