Sam Nunn on Vladimir Putin and the danger of silence

The language of campaigning and the language of governance are often at odds. But perhaps, at least on some important topics, we should work harder to bring them together.

Marco Rubio passed through town on Monday, looking to start up his Georgia presidential operation. In an effort to emphasize his foreign policy chops, the Republican senator from Florida made mention of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“A thug and a gangster,” Rubio said. The description has a routine spot in his stump speech.

Like the pope, Putin will arrive in New York City within a few days for a United Nations session likely to dwell on the Syrian civil war and the largest flood of refugees to hit Europe since World War II.

President Barack Obama, who has turned a cold shoulder to Putin since Russia’s incursion into Ukraine, may meet with Putin. Donald Trump, too. Carly Fiorina wouldn’t.

“Having met Vladimir Putin, I wouldn’t talk to him at all. We’ve talked way too much to him,” Fiorina said during last week’s CNN GOP presidential debate in California. She would rebuild both “the missile defense program in Poland” and the U.S. Sixth Fleet. “Vladimir Putin would get the message,” she said, no doubt channeling her inner Maggie Thatcher.

I have never met Vladimir Putin. My social set is so small that I know only one person who has. Twice. In his dacha.

Sam Nunn still keeps a small office on the fringes of the Georgia Tech campus. The post-industrial location belies its clout. On Tuesday, just down the hall from the former U.S. senator, was a welcoming party for the newest member of the Tech faculty, retired Adm. James “Sandy” Winnefeld, who recently stepped down as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Maintaining high-level contact with the Russians has been something of a crusade for Nunn. Last year, in the face of the Ukraine crisis, he wrote the White House to urge the Obama administration to deploy a special envoy to Putin. Nunn suggested Colin Powell. Nothing came of it.

I asked Nunn why he thought high-level silence, whether Democrat or Republican, was dangerous. “I think that you start with the premise that Russia is the only country in the world that can destroy the United States while we’re having this interview – if it lasts more than an hour,” he replied. Well, then.

We don’t talk about nuclear war much anymore, but the threat still exists. One glitch in Russia’s warning system, or ours, and the world is toast. “When you’re not communicating, accidents are more likely. When you’re not communicating, suspicions are more difficult to deal with,” Nunn said.

The former senator said he agreed that a firm response to “a flat-out Russian invasion of Ukraine” has been necessary. And that the incursion has made Putin’s other neighbors very nervous.

(Nunn visited one of those neighbors – Kazakhstan – just last month. Representing his Washington-based Nuclear Threat Initiative, the senator served as witness to an agreement that will let the International Atomic Energy Agency establish a low-enriched uranium bank there – to give small countries a source of nuclear fuel for peaceful purposes. Warren Buffet is an investor in the project.)

But back to the Ukraine. Nunn said he was puzzled by Fiorina’s proposal to rebuild Poland’s anti-ballistic missile systems – a George W. Bush initiative scrapped by Obama. “It was totally irrelevant,” he said. “I don’t think the threat over there is a ballistic missile attack on Estonia. It’s the Russian population in Estonia that is stirred up. There’s a different kind of threat.”

During that California debate, in a somewhat offhand manner, Fiorina said she might also “send a few thousand more troops to Germany.”

That, Nunn said, is precisely where the response to Putin should focus. “The truth is that NATO has expanded and expanded and expanded, and they have not expanded their conventional capabilities. They’ve decreased them,” Nunn said. “We’re going to have to beef up our presence, but the Europeans are going to have to do their part. That’s where the problem is. Without the Europeans, the NATO alliance doesn’t work with the number of troops we’ve got over there.”

Nunn said he’s still not sure what to make of a newly strengthened Russian presence in Syria, presumably to prop up President Bashar al-Assad, even as the U.S. is bombing ISIL targets two or three doors down. But Nunn said that it might be something worth talking about – as our two militaries are now doing. If the U.S. can put aside, at least temporarily, its insistence that Assad be forced out, “that may be a bridge” that could lead to a joint effort to combat ISIL, he said.

Assad may be a very bad fellow, Nunn said, but the Muslim radicals are “a nightmare.” And remember that we held our nose and linked arms with Joe Stalin once, to go after Adolph Hitler.

I asked Nunn what his personal impression of Putin was. “He’s a guy that has extreme pride in his own country. I think he reflects the Russian population in that he has been embarrassed by the collapse of the Soviet Union,” Nunn said. “I do believe he is a sober guy, he’s a smart guy, and he’s going to do what’s in the Russian interest. He’s the card the Russian people have dealt.”

The name-calling, the former senator said, isn’t helping. “I think using derogatory terms to describe someone you have to communicate with and deal with is counterproductive. Even if that’s what you think,” Nunn said.

Funny thing. Shortly after our conversation, I went home, parked myself in an armchair and watched the Bulldog’s Mark Richt describe Saturday’s upcoming game against lowly Southern University. Richt was utterly respectful. He used phrases like “impressive” and “good balance.”

Richt understands that, regardless of size, an angry opponent is more difficult to deal with on the field. But sometimes this kind of common sense just doesn’t translate to other, more important areas of life. And that can be dangerous.

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