It’s been nearly two weeks since President Trump had his first official meeting with Vladimir Putin in the Finnish capital last. Yet, somehow it feels much longer, not least for the many grammar lessons and five-dimensional body language analysis we’ve been forced to endure since. Short of establishing some sort of psycho-emotional telepathy with the President, every indication suggests that any attempt to bring coherence and logic into such an omnishambles (and there truly is no other word for it), will end in resolute and undignified failure.
No matter how many sound foreign policy pronouncements came before Helsinki, and no matter how effective the clear-eyed and competent members of the President’s Cabinet have been in cleaning up their boss’s mess, the reality remains that July 16, 2018 was the definitive low-point of the administration thus far. For it was the day on which the President of the United States demonstrated, once and for all, his total inability to understand the central crisis of U.S. foreign policy today, as well as his total lack of desire to do something about that fact.
The vexing question behind all of this, namely “What was the President thinking on that Monday in Helsinki,” will probably continue to remain to remain obscure. However, the most pertinent answer to “What wasn’t the President thinking on Monday in Helsinki” is somewhat obvious. In consideration of the President’s performance at the now-infamous joint press-conference and subsequent interviews, it seems rather clear the President’s mind was not particularly attuned to history, an understanding for the complexities of geopolitics, or any appreciation for irony in those shameful moments as he stood in that city where the winds sweeps in that briny mist from the Baltic Sea. I do not believe that as the President of the United States stood in the Finnish capital as the representative of the Western World, his mind was grappling with the past endured by his hosts, and their unfortunate status as one of the earliest and often most forgotten victims of the very policies that President Trump refused to take a firm stance against when he had the opportunity.
In late 1939, Finland became the second official target of Stalinist imperialism when it was invaded by the Soviet Union in what became the Winter War. As Soviet bombs fell on Helsinki and the city became the second European capital to endure a bombing campaign that year, following the infamous Nazi firebombing of Warsaw by less than three months. Finland’s government appealed to Western European powers for support — only to receive Anglo-French foot-dragging. After several months of fiercely resisting the invasion and inflicting heavy losses on the Soviets, even as they suffered many themselves, Finland was eventually forced to succumb to the behemoth on its eastern border, surrendering more than a tenth its former territory, much of it valuable farmland or arctic territory abundant in natural resources — thus inflicting severe long-term economic damage to the country.
The tepid Western response to an unprovoked Soviet attack on a neutral country served to only embolden Joseph Stalin, already riding high in the aftermath of the Nazi-Soviet partition of Poland of September 1939. Indeed, in attacking Finland after Poland, Stalin was acting in accordance with the explicit plan drawn up within the infamous Secret Protocol in which the Nazis and Soviets agreed to cooperate in order to jointly partition, brutalize, and colonize Eastern Europe. After the Western failure to effectively aid the Finns and prevent what amounted to armed robbery on an international scale, Stalin, now secure in the knowledge that he would face no serious repercussions for his actions, moved to occupy and annex the Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) as well as a large portion of Romania — an action that contravened every basic tenet of international law, but whose illegality senior Kremlin officials deny to this day. However, none of this should come as much of a surprise. After all, one cannot particularly fault them when Vladimir Putin himself has publicly defended the Secret Protocol that enabled the occupation and annexation in the first place.
The events of 1939 and 1940 are uniquely relevant not only because the consequences of those acts of Soviet expansionism continue to haunt the world to this day, fomenting ancient grievances and driving a whole host of difficult political, economic and social problems in the affected areas (The Republic of Moldova, for instance, which consists out of Romanian territory that was annexed to the Soviet Union in 1940, is today by far the poorest country in Europe and one of the human-trafficking capitals of the world). They are also uniquely relevant because of the failure of Western policymakers to effectively learn the lessons of the 1930s and 1940s in Eastern Europe. As the title of this article explicitly alludes to, the Winter War, and the botched Western response to it, was a critical turning point in the lead-up to what most reasonable people would agree was the greatest disaster in human history and the start of a half-century of misery for hundreds of millions of innocent people. Yet, today, we find ourselves eerily close to repeating the same mistakes, even as we are armed with all the tools to prevent them. By applying these lessons to the current environment, we can glean an understanding of the United States’ appropriate course of action ought to be and why it is so vital to preserving the relative peace and security that the world has known for nearly three decades.
President Trump, as well as his allies and enablers on this issue, fall on the extreme ends of the horseshoe of the political spectrum. Consisting of far-right latter-day Know-Nothings and hard-left anti-American, washed-up Trotskyites, this coalition shares among its core values an extraordinary lack of respect for historical information, no sense of intellectual honesty, and zero comprehension of the key dynamics in contemporary geopolitics. These advocates for rapprochement with Russia schlep alongside themselves a hodgepodge of soundbites and platitudes that sound appealing at first, but in context are simply ridiculous. Stars of the show include seemingly diplomatic (and recently wildly popular) line that “both sides,” meaning the United States as well as Russia, are to blame (in varying ratios according to different spokespersons) for the breakdown in bilateral relations. Yet, they also include the more dangerous parroting of Kremlin talking points about NATO “encroachment” against Russia as well as the now-in-style assertion among far-right extremists that Russia, as a valiant white, Christian nation is a natural ally to the United States against the godless Chinese and infidel Islamists. All of them all, however, fail the most basic of sniff tests. Normalization with Russia at the present time, under its current regime, in pursuit of its current foreign policy, is a reckless, strategic non-starter that will put the United States, and the entire world, in substantially more danger.
Many words have been spilled trying to explain the ideological core and ultimate strategic aims of Vladimir Putin, and while they vary in some substantive ways, most credible analyses align on a few key points in explaining Putin as a political actor and Putinism as an ideology. The most important of these is understanding Putin as the ultimate hedgehog among hedgehogs, a man whose singularity and clarity of purpose is astonishing. Vladimir Putin is a uniquely deft practitioner of the art of politics, with an understanding of power dynamics that is second-to-none and an ability to play “the long game” to match. Putin’s ability to solidify and legitimize his authority against all circumstances to the contrary must be acknowledged as simply extraordinary — and he is prepared to pay any price in order achieve those ends. For Mr. Putin, the most effective means of doing so has proven to be a relentless campaign to rebuild the Soviet empire and reestablish Russian dominance in Eastern Europe. The achievement of these goals is Putin’s clear and only endgame, as every bit of evidence suggests.
This endgame has the dual benefit of not only legitimizing and strengthening Putin’s nearly two-decade-long stranglehold on power, but also has the benefit of being ideologically consistent. For the past 18 years, Putin’s jingoistic “successes” have provided nationalistically-inclined Russians with a few glaring bright spots of success amidst what is otherwise a legacy of failure, incompetence, graft, and social, political, and economic breakdown on a remarkable scale. After one generation (and counting) of Putinist kleptocracy, the country remains far behind the West on virtually every key metric. Corruption and weakened institutions fuel crises in vital social services while putting extraordinary pressure on the most vulnerable sectors of Russian society: children, the elderly, young women, and working-class families. From raging HIV/AIDs and Hepatitis C epidemics to a pension package that sets the male retirement age to almost five years above life expectancy in underserved provinces, the failures of the current administration is startling. Yet, they are met with only denial, distraction, and tone-deafness.
To make matters worse, despite many people’s obvious frustrations and outrage, they remain virtually unable to do anything about it because not only are they unable to trust their government, which ranks 135th out of 180 countries in the most recent Transparency International Corruption Index, as nearly every third Russian reported paying a bribe to a public official in the last year. Meanwhile, traditional institutions through which citizens of democratic countries could be expected to hold public officials accountable: the press, an independent judiciary, NGOs, and even nominally “opposition” political parties (including the country’s traditional far-right LDPR) and other pillars of civil society — have been either eviscerated or co-opted by the regime, leaving its victims with literally no place to go but abroad. This is to say nothing of the regime’s use of crude and arbitrary force to deny individual their basic human rights.
It is this brutal reality of a domestic washout that Putin requires a smokescreen of foreign policy “success” to mask. Every vulgar display of chauvinistic aggression on the world stage serves to cement his power by triggering a nationwide “rally around the flag” effect that runs on an endless feedback loop. For a country that is still deeply traumatized by its defeat in the Cold War, these displays of dominance are a welcome throwback to the bygone era when Soviet citizens felt as if they could hold their heads up high, secure in the knowledge that their hardscrabble empire was able to hold its own against the almighty West. It is this which presented Putin with his most symbolic and most important victory in the summit which otherwise, admittedly, lacked serious public policy pronouncements — the image of an American president appearing off-balance, if not outright submissive, in his presence. And among Russians who hold these beliefs, there is no aspect of Soviet dominance that was as thrilling to have, and as horrible to lose, as the true crown jewel of the empire: the lands of Eastern Europe, stretched from the southern shores of the Baltic down to the Black Sea and the Adriatic — and these very people are ready to wager almost anything for the chance to get them back.
Every single intervention by the Russian government into the foreign policy crises of other parts of the globe, whether they be in Venezuela, North Korea, Iran, Yemen, or most seriously, Syria, are simply inexpensive means of realizing the ultimate ends: fomenting or worsening the geopolitical dilemmas of the West, and especially the United States, in the hopes of forcing us to commit limited time and resource to clean up the mess that the Russians have a penchant for very quickly and cheaply spin wildly out of control. And why are they doing this? Because over the long term, Putin and his allies hope to frustrate and bleed the West dry by over-expanding our resources until we (literally) pack up our interest in Eastern Europe, and leave the countries and peoples of this region to his machinations. It is at this moment that we must ask ourselves why Putin and his allies are so committed to regaining strategic dominance over a collection of countries that are small, sparsely populated, and not an obviously valuable addition to the than the enormous, resource-abundant Russian landmass. Answering these questions, somewhat unsurprisingly, requires a brief dive into the SparkNotes version of the last few centuries of European history.
From the emergence of Russia as a modern empire under Peter the Great in the late 17th century, the country’s elites, and by the 20th century, almost all their citizens, were essentially seen as a great European power, capable of competing against the Western European global powerhouses of Britain, France and Germany (and eventually, the United States as well) and winning. For Russian eyes, from the pre-Imperial days of Peter, have looked upon Western Europe with a longing for acknowledgement, only to be shunned away with suspicion. The result is a toxic sentiment: half-paranoia and half-inferiority complex, among Russia’s historically conscious, nationalistic intelligentsia, to which Putin, a self-styled “amateur historian” belongs. In the Russian elites’ worldview, the West is unable to accept Russia as a power, ignores the country’s military sacrifices and scientific and cultural contributions. From a strategic perspective, this position also assumes that Europe seeks to dominate Russia either externally or internally. To this end, Russian leaders’ historical response to these pressures has been to take on an offensive posture and assert their country’s power by aiming to dominate the land between the Russian, Orthodox, Slavic heartland and the great powers of Europe.
The Soviet Union embraced this doctrine with particular zeal, and through a mixture of annexations and the establishment of puppet governments under Soviet military occupation managed to extend its power into the very heartland of Central Europe. This state of affairs was miserable for all involved, except, naturally, for the top echelons of the Communist Party. Soviet leadership did not consult their newly captured, war-traumatized populaces during peace negotiations following the war. These conquered peoples, exchanging Nazi for Soviet overlordship, continued to lived under a new regime uninterested in human or sovereign rights. Those who resisted, perhaps most memorably in the Prague Spring of 1968 — were put down with brute force. Meanwhile, Germans, Frenchmen and others lived in fear of the USSR’s bright and shiny atomic weapons, glaring down at them from military bases uncomfortably close to the western European borders — to say nothing of hardened veterans and endless tank divisions deployed face-to-face against U.S. and NATO garrisons.
Thus, when the Soviet Union finally collapsed, it was abundantly clear to all involved that the world could never allow a return to the previous circumstances. For the liberated states of Eastern Europe, this meant a rebirth of democracy and self-determination first promised to them by the Western Powers after World War I. The people of the former- Soviet bloc overwhelmingly aligned with the West, hoping to achieve a better life for themselves and their children under the banner of liberal democracy. It was the realization of this loss, which Vladimir Putin closely perceived as a KGB officer stationed in East Germany in 1989, that also spelled the end of Russia’s ability to exercise its control over Eastern Europe, the end of a Soviet “empire”. The resulting injury to the Russian collective ego has fueled the conflict with the West ever since.
For the United States and our Cold War allies, the Western reincarnation of these countries was a triumph. NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe allowed the alliance to advance its borders towards a strategically advantageous position, containing any potential anti-European military aggression from the east, the south, or the sea, even as economic and social aid flooded both the Soviet bloc countries — and the former Soviet Union itself.
NATO’s expansion also presented one of the 20th century’s greatest moral victories, ending a millennia-long cycle of war and internally repressive regimes in favor of democracy, civil rights and a shared sense of destiny in Europe. For Eastern Europeans, meanwhile, accession to NATO and the EU was a necessity to formalize their hard-won sovereignty. For them, joining the Western security architecture provided a guarantee for them to exist as independent states, able to choose their own course without the threat of foreign tanks in their streets in response to aspirations for democracy.
Indeed, the 20th century’s most vivid foreign policy lesson may be that American disengagement from the European problems can leads to disaster. True, lasting, and meaningful peace is only possible when stability encompasses even the most turbulent regions of the world. And stability is possible only when the principles of freedom, law, and respect for human dignity reign supreme — a state which is impossible when dictators are allowed to hold others at gunpoint, brandishing threats of violence, coercion, and persecution in order to get their way.
The expansion of NATO and the EU, has brought an unprecedented level of stability, innovation, and human development to the newly-free Eastern Europe. The difference it has made is truly astonishing. To compare Lithuania to Belarus, just one border away, on key metrics like GDP per capita or the Human Development Index is to compare night and day. The key determining factor that granted one country runaway success, and left the other politically and economically backward, has been their choice between the Western project and Russian client-state status.
The successes of the newly liberated states in implementing critical democratic and free-market norms over the past three decades presents a viable alternative for those living in countries that have not joined their ranks. As those left behind gaze at their neighbors just beyond a demarcated line — neighbors who were once their partners in misery are now almost unrecognizable in their outwards displays of substantially greater wealth, privileges to partake in meaningful elections, and ability to rely on institutions of civil society in a way that is unheard of on the underdeveloped side of the divide. Doubtlessly, the aspirations of millions of young Ukrainians to have similar opportunities to live, work, and participate politically as their Polish, Slovak, Hungarian, and Romanian neighbors has been the justification behind the 2014 “Revolution of Dignity” which toppled their country’s pro-Russian President. But nobody understood these young Ukrainians’ motives as well as Mr. Putin. Within days of their triumph, Russian forces moved into Ukrainian territory to destabilize the country, and sent a clear message to any young wannabe martyrs-for-liberalism in Russia: “don’t even think about it.”
Thus, in the context of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, further Western success would present Putin with an unavoidable, almost existential crisis of self-preservation. His acting out against the West is perfectly logical and in his view necessary. Yet, we cannot lose sight of the fact that this crisis is entirely of his own making, and failing to actively thwart him at every chance presents the United States, and Western civilization itself, with our own existential crisis. If Vladimir Putin is allowed to succeed in his quest to roll back the borders of NATO and deprive millions of Russia’s neighbors of their hard-won sovereign rights, then the Western security architecture will be essentially dead. The principles of foreign policy are built on the assumption of trust between nations. If that trust is obliterated, as it surely would be in the aftermath of Russian-designed destruction of NATO, then every single one of America’s allies from Bangkok to Buenos Aires will lose their ability to rely upon Washington to stand by them when they need to, and they will no longer have any interest in standing by us when we need their support on issues of global security, environmental cooperation, or trade. And the net result of that is an emboldening of our enemies and the establishment of a world which is less prosperous, less free, and less secure.
This latter vision of the world is the one that Vladimir Putin and his cronies crave, as it has provided cover for them to enrich themselves at the expense of the Russian people. It is a gangster-style, smash-and-grab technique for foreign policy that is not above using some of the most vulnerable people in the world as bargaining chips: holding Syrian or Ukrainian refugees ransom, hoping to extract concession points from the West in exchange for a greater goal. The latest acts of political warfare, including manipulation and hacking of U.S. and European electoral processes, are merely the latest manifestation of this view: give us back our colonies, or face the consequences.
It is only against this terrifying backdrop that one can appreciate and understand the recklessness at the heart of those who yearn for reconciliation with the Kremlin. Like many others, I found myself deeply disturbed by the now-infamous interview between President Trump and Tucker Carlson, filmed last week at Helsinki, in which the President offered support to Carlson’s skepticism over whether the United States had any business fighting for Montenegro — or more broadly, working to further expand NATO or do other things that aren’t to Vladimir Putin’s liking. When Mr. Carlson and President Trump lay out their arguments as plainly as they did last week, they are choosing not to articulate a reasoned argument for non-interventionism based on smart foreign policy and patriotism. Instead, they are offering the American people, and the world itself, a repulsive stew comprised of asinine nativism, flavored by a Chamberlain-esque spinelessness, and topped off with a helping of crude xenophobia.
When the President tacitly agrees with Carlson and other voices quick to blame the United States for causing Russian aggression, he lends legitimacy to an absurd argument. When the Kremlin and its apologists in the West seek to justify Putinist expansionism, they happily offer evidence of American interventionism in other countries, arguing that Russia is perfectly justified in its interventionism, as “everybody else does it.” This performance usually involves trotting out the Monroe Doctrine (issued in 1823), various U.S. interventions in Latin America throughout the Cold War, and more contemporary ones in the Middle East. And yet, all of these comparisons are completely and totally incomparable to Russia’s incursions into, occupations, and annexations of parts of three other nation-states over the last two decades. As concerns U.S. policy in Latin America, it is no doubt an unpleasant aspect of our nation’s history, but took place in a completely different geopolitical context. During the Cold War, the USSR was just as active in proxy wars and interventions throughout Latin America and the entire world, most disastrously in Afghanistan, the consequences of which are still unfolding. In the Middle East, The West intervened on legitimate national security grounds (Afghanistan, Iraq) or for widely-accepted humanitarian reasons (Libya). While execution left much to be desired, in every case the West toppled war-criminals, spent enormous sums attempting to stabilize the country and build up civil society, and sought to leave after accomplishing the aforementioned objectives. This is not even remotely equivalent to recent Russian actions in Georgia and Ukraine, where legitimate national security grounds where nowhere to be found, international support or humanitarian objectives were non-existent, and the program went along the lines of pillage, annex, and shoot down passenger airliners — not build, vote, and leave.
If this narrative is allowed to take hold and the West loses its nerve at this most important junction, we face a terrible crisis. And it is especially outrageous if it should come to pass under the supervision of a man who regularly invokes the legacy of Ronald Reagan and claims to be the leader of American conservatism. For eight years, conservative Republicans repeatedly sounded the alarm as Barack Obama continually insulted, neglected, and failed to live up to our obligations to our allies. We condemned the former President as he insulted key partners in Poland and the Czech Republic while scraping the planned missile defense shield in 2009 in pursuit of a failed “reset” with Russia, and when he showed disrespect towards our allies in Great Britain, Israel and Saudi Arabia on a multitude of occasions. And yet, President Trump’s actions risk making Obama’s failures look like the mistakes of a JV team; throwing sweets at European leaders and instigating trade wars only emboldening our greatest long-term threat, which looks on from Beijing, salivating at the thought of a Chinese century.
So where does all this lead us? Back to Helsinki, and the crisis at the heart of U.S. foreign policy today. Back to a place that is excruciatingly complex, full of incomplete information, but more than anything, lacking in time. Lacking in time to stop the bleeding at the core of the key structures that have defined the world as we know it, and avoiding the first global war since 1945.For Putin must be stopped before he emboldened even further to directly a NATO state, presenting a nightmare scenario for the world and benefits nobody except for the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party. We must return to the wisdom of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Pope John Paul II, Vaclav Havel, Lech Walesa, and other heroes of the Cold War era who knew that cultivators of chaos and other men of evil could not be negotiated with — they had to be confronted in direct and uncompromising terms. Concessions in the name of normalization and “dialogue” with Putinist thuggery will get us nowhere, it will merely give more time and opportunity for the Kremlin to maintain pressure on Western interests around the globe. We must be able to withstand his tacts and reject a retreat to the siren’s call of isolationism, all the while denying Putin the opportunity of a lifetime to secure his place in history as the man who reconstituted Russia from an ailing middle-power into a great Eurasian hegemon. President Obama learned this the hard way when he pleaded with Medvedev for “more space” to achieve normalization in 2012, and the rest of us are now paying for it dearly.
The peace we seek, which is the only lasting one the world can obtain, will require steadfast determination, but also a worthy accomplishment. What does it entail? For starters, it means acknowledging Russia as the greatest geopolitical foe the United States faces in the short-term — a foe whose determining ideology is hatred of our values and a willingness to do anything in order to weaken our resolve and increase our self-doubt. In one example, a foe that is willing to send its worst jihadis into the arms of ISIS, promptly enter a war under the auspices of fighting Islamic terrorism, but actually end up committing heinous war crimes against any pro-Western elements unfortunate enough to land up in its sights. This is not a foe we can afford to strengthen or legitimize in any way, even in diplomatically “cheap” ones that are win-wins for both nations; not in enhanced intelligence cooperation in Central Asia, not in global health and environmental initiatives, not in any area whatsoever, as any government willing to risk the lives of its own chronically ill orphans in the name of scoring a cheap political point is not one that can be expected to uphold its end of any bargain.
Helsinki may be our darkest hour. Yet, not all hope is lost. There are multiple, meaningful ways through which this battle may yet be won, some of which the President has even demonstrated openness to implement. But make no mistake, unless this battle is one, the coming one on the horizon will be nearly impossible. Unless the West is able to act as a united front and assert itself against Russia’s negative influence on the world stage, our ability to counter the grander ambitions of Beijing will be non-existent just at the moment when they are most necessary. Russia has the potential to be a genuine partner and ally for the West on a whole host of issues, and I fully believe that in the long term it is in both parties’ interests that we build a collaborative relationship. But it cannot come at the cost of sacrificing the security and sovereignty of our allies and allowing serious violations against global order to go unpunished. Before Russia can be welcomed back into the fold of nations, where it stands to greatly increase its long-term security, prosperity, and standing in the world, it must begin to act in good faith and abandon its project of coercion and destabilization around the world. Until these conditions have been met, and as long as the Putin regime continues to be committed to its present policies, the Western World has no choice but to respond with force.
Our first step must include directing substantial economic and political aid from the West to those areas of the world most endangered by Russian destabilization tactics. This essentially consists of NATO allies bordering Russia or with strong pro-Russian minorities in the Balkans and the Baltic States, as well as aspiring NATO members in Ukraine, Georgia, and Macedonia, the latter of which is almost certainly on the brink of a Russian-linked political warfare operation the likes of which will make the infamous Montenegro coup attempt look like child’s play. However, as with the (completely justified) push to increase military spending among NATO allies, the United States cannot be expected to shoulder this burden alone, and requires the full public and private backing of all its allies.
This directly bleeds into the question of commercial ties with Russia, particularly in its most geopolitically sensitive manifestation: energy. The discussion surrounding the need to wean European consumers off of reliance on Russian gas and provide LNG exports from the United States is decades in the making. In this regard, the Trump-Junker summit is a major step in the right direction, as it has the potential to greatly increase U.S. LNG exports to Europe. But this solution is still not immediate, and the continuing threat of Nord Stream II and other measures that directly contradict Europe’s long-term energy security remains. To this end, the opening up of the Leviathan natural gas field by Israel and Cyprus presents a new and exciting alternative for a great deal of Europe’s energy future. Through a new LNG terminal or lengthening of a pipeline across the Mediterranean to Italy or the Balkans, the West can embark on a brand new project that would finally present a viable, major competitor to Russian gas on the European market — one which would also have the immediate effect of reducing the natural gas prices that the Russian government relies on for revenue.
Exploring all of these options and expanding the map for international cooperation to contain Russian expansionism must be a global effort, requiring the support of allies outside of Europe and NATO, including Argentina, Mexico, Columbia, Thailand, and undoubtedly Israel. Applying diplomatic pressure on these and other allies to join the sanctions regime against Russia, while offering possible economic aid and trade inducements in exchange for lost tourism and export revenues, would not only help further isolate Putin on the world stage, but would also bring those countries’ banks into stricter enforcement of the sanctions against Putin’s top associates — all of whom are more than happy to use any vulnerability in the global financial system to launder and stash funds abroad. Lastly, perhaps most obviously, direct investment in our conventional military deterrents against Russian aggression — most especially in the U.S. naval presence in the Black and Baltic Seas, including the possible establishment of permanent joint NATO bases in Bulgaria/Romania as well as in the Baltic States to better monitor Russian naval activity in Europe would be a vital and necessary commitment to our long-term security that would demonstrate the seriousness of our intent to Moscow.
Although the events of 1939 and 2018 bookend the legacy of Helsinki as a backdrop to decisions that led to enormous consequences for the globe, almost exactly in between the two, the city was the sight of a great triumph for the principles we hold most dear dear. The 1975 Helsinki Final Act, signed by the United States, the Soviet Union, and many European countries, made the USSR to an international treaty that included as its obligations respect for human rights and political freedoms. The Helsinki Final Act proved to be vital to Soviet dissidents in their campaigns for greater openness in Soviet society, as well as a means for the West to publicly call out the Kremlin for its abysmal record on human rights as part of its international its treaty obligations — a realm the Soviets had long insisted was purely a matter of internal affairs. These freedoms, which so many fought so hard to achieve, are worth fighting for, and by the virtue of their very existence threaten those who crave to control, manipulate, and suppress. Vladimir Putin is one such person, and his vision for the world involves the evisceration of these very freedoms. It is our obligation, as free people living in free countries to ensure that he does not succeed.