As Helsinki’s one-on-one presidential summit looms, with foreign policy mavens fearing that Vladimir Putin will run circles around a clueless Donald Trump, it’s time to examine what makes the Kremlin’s Chekist-in-Chief tick. Our president’s troubling statement that Putin and his KGB background are “fine” at least focused attention where it needs to be, on the undeniable fact that a career in the Soviet secret police made the Russian strongman who he is.
The Chekist worldview that forms Putin’s mental furniture is cynical and cunning to a degree that naïve Westerners—and from the Kremlin point of view pretty much all Westerners are naïve and easily exploited—find difficult to believe. Westerners simply shut eyes and ears, since the reality is so unpleasant. The casual manner with which Kremlin spies ruthlessly exploit others for their own ends is not a nice story, given that their methods embrace violence and life-ruining measures as nonchalantly as Westerners order a cup of coffee.
The cornerstone of the Chekist worldview is provocation, what the Russians call provokatsiya. It’s not new, indeed it was honed into a secret weapon in the late Tsarist era, to be perfected under the Bolsheviks. I’ve tried to explain this alien concept to Westerners for years, and it really boils down to a basic, rather nasty concept:
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