Max Baucus, former U.S. senator for Montana and ambassador to China, says the United States is squandering its leadership role in the world, setting the stage for the rise of autocrats like Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Speaking to Lee Montana newspapers Tuesday, Baucus said it was time for the United States to begin working with its traditional allies to put Putin on notice that the world will respond to Russia’s election tampering and invasion of independent nations, like Ukraine.
“Because the United States is withdrawing from its leadership role, it enables people like Putin to push their weight around. And he’s doing that, obviously, whether it's Ukraine, Crimea, interference in U.S. elections,” Baucus said.
“It’s probably because (Russia) is an authoritarian government, not a democracy and he’s in charge and he likes power,” Baucus said of Putin. “He’s former KGB. He knows and likes power. And he’s very popular at home.”
Baucus, Montana’s longest-serving senator, was the sixth most powerful person in the Senate when he retired in early 2014 to become U.S. ambassador to China. He was chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, a role that made him point man for international trade relations in the U.S. Senate. His interactions with Russian officials were regular as President Barack Obama attempted to use economic diplomacy to establish peace and security with the former Cold War adversary.
Contacted by Lee, the former senator offered his observations about a diplomacy trip made by eight Republican congressmen last week, including U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont. Baucus also spoke about President Donald Trump’s key July visits with NATO and later with Putin. Trump touched down Tuesday in Brussels for his NATO meeting.
Trump needs to be working with NATO allies on a plan to stop Putin’s disruptions of Western democracies and invasions of independent nations, Baucus said. What Russia pays attention to are deeds, actions and U.S. power in consort with other countries so that Putin knows he cannot get away with what he’d like to do, he said.
Diplomatic visits, like the one by the U.S. congressional delegation last week, won’t do much, Baucus said. The delegation met with members of the Russian congress along with veteran Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. All eight lawmakers returned to the United States saying they had warned the Russian officials not to meddle in U.S. elections. Both House and Senate intelligence committees have concluded Russia used thousands of social media accounts to exploit existing divisions in American culture during the 2016 election cycle. The Senate Intelligence Committee last week concluded Russia’s goal was to help elect Donald Trump.
Daines told the press Monday that Russian officials denied election meddling. Baucus said he wasn’t surprised.
“I’ve met with Lavrov several times. He’s a pro. My gosh. He’s been around the track 15 times,” Baucus said. “To meet a Congressional delegation that’s new, that’s one of the problems we have here, Lavrov and Putin, they’re there for the long haul. Members of Congress come and go. They don’t pay much attention to them.”
In 2012 Baucus, working closely with Obama, traveled to Russia to meet with then-President Dmitry Medvedev to talk about ending Cold-War-era trade restrictions.
The senator had long supported Russia becoming part of the World Trade Organization, the international body that governs the rules of trade for most nations.
Baucus also advocated for normalizing trade between the United States and Russia, which meant thawing Cold War trade conditions that left it up to Congress annually to decide whether the U.S. would give Russia preferred nation status for the next 12 months. Lawmakers had the power to restrict trade with Russia over issues like human rights violations.
There was also money to be made doing more business with Russia, which had the world’s seventh largest economy at the time of the Baucus visit. Russia’s economy was growing by 7 percent per year, making it one of the world’s best up-and-comers.
Russia was the United States' fifth largest export market for beef in 2012. Joining the WTO, Russia had U.S. beef exporters expecting 60,000 tons of beef to be exported into Russia. Montana ranchers stood to benefit.
Those awaiting Baucus were Russian officials who operated without the threat of legitimate elections, autocrats who viewed Western politicians as here today, gone tomorrow. Lavrov met the senator with a warm smile, Baucus said, and denied every injustice the senator raised. It’s the Russian way.
“We have a good ambassador over there, Jon Huntsman, I think he’s very good, but his hands are tied, too, because he works for the administration,” Baucus said. “But he’s very good.”
Huntsman told the delegation last week U.S. and Russian relations were at the lowest point since the Cold War.
Every U.S. president attempts to improve relations with Russia through diplomacy, Baucus said. Both George W. Bush and Obama did. But all countries pursue their own national interests. Glad-handing goes only so far.
“Nice smiles and handshakes and backslapping look nice for the cameras, nice for the press, but basically it doesn’t mean very much,” Baucus said. “What it really comes down to is results. It comes down to actions, decisions. And I believe with respect to an authoritarian president like Vladimir Putin, you have to stand up to him.
“It’s outrageous that they interfered with our elections," Baucus said. "It’s an outrage, an absolute outrage. And he will keep it up until he cannot anymore. And that means a lot better defenses, cyber defenses. It means working with other governments, allies, and et cetera. The evidence stands for our president to sit down with the Europeans, our allies, and say, ‘Hey, folks. We got a problem here. It’s Russia. We’ve got to figure it out together.’ Because basically all Western countries agree.”
Trump will meet with Putin in a private meeting Monday. There will be a lot on the line, including the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which is set to expire in 2021.
The United States and Russia control 90 percent of the world's known nuclear weapons stockpiles. Allowing START to expire could spark another Cold War, Baucus said; Americans should be concerned. Congress should pressure Trump to stand up to the Russian president and ask why Trump doesn't seem to be doing so currently, Baucus said.