President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin are pictured in this composite from a 2020 meeting.
This time of year, Hollywood portrayals of Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” are nearly mandatory viewing. Instead of visiting Ebenezer Scrooge, suppose the ghosts of Christmases past, present and future had haunted Russian President Vladimir Putin in his alleged billion-dollar dacha two nights ago and then showed up at Mar-a-Lago to taunt Donald Trump. Would the messages of the three ghosts have any impact?
In all likelihood, the ghosts of Christmases past and present would be useless in their visitations, overwhelmed by what the future may have in store for Putin and Trump. Even though both men rose to positions of stature and wealth through very different means, neither Putin nor Trump would be impressed by recitals of ancient history other than to reinforce their mutual egos.
Putin’s family, along with many millions of other Russians, endured and greatly suffered from the ravages and destruction of World War II. The Soviet Union was devastated. Some 20 million of its citizens perished.
Between Hitler’s invasion and Stalin’s scorched-earth policies (and rejection of aid from the Marshall Plan), the Soviet Union was in dire straits. Forty-six years after the war ended in 1991, the USSR imploded, becoming the bankrupted and corrupted Russian Federation. On New Year’s Day 2000, Putin, a former KGB lieutenant colonel, was appointed acting president of Russia by Boris Yeltsin. With an interlude as prime minister, Putin has been in charge of Russia ever since.
Putin would dismiss the Christmas Ghosts of Past and Present. What lies ahead will define Putin’s legacy and determine his continued leadership of the Russian Federation. Ukraine may seem to be Putin’s most vital challenge and threat. But in cementing his power as president, Putin returned to the central control model of the defunct Soviet Union as his principal means of governing.
The flaws, as the Ghost of Christmas Future will tell Putin, are that this form of government needs the legitimacy of ideology to rationalize control and a means of enforcement beyond the secret police that in the USSR was the Communist Party. Putin has rejected ideology as part of a new Russia. And the current Russian Communist Party is not even a shadow of what it was in the USSR. Further, the brittleness of the old Soviet system has not been corrected in the Russian Federation.
Thus, the Ghost of Christmas Future would paint a bleak picture of what lies ahead for Putin. The war in Ukraine is going badly and will lead to deadlock. Under those circumstances, will Russia or Ukraine and its allies prove more determined and resilient? And if conditions worsen for Putin, what viable options might he have? And will Putin heed these warnings? Press reports today claim Putin believes the war is proving “extremely complicated.”
The Ghosts of Christmases Past and Present would remind Trump of his conduct as president, the “Big Lie” of a stolen 2020 election and his many legal problems, including the Jan. 6 commission’s findings. But Christmas Future is the only significant ghost.
The critical questions that ghost would ask are: Will Trump be indicted on a variety of state and federal criminal charges? And if so, would a jury convict him? Bluntly put, is an orange jumpsuit in Trump’s future? Or will he still have the run of Mar-a-Lago and another chance at the presidency?
In the novel, Scrooge was so shocked and awed by the three ghosts that he experienced a profound and near instantaneous character change. Tiny Tim would not die thanks to Scrooge’s intervention, and Bob Cratchit would be compensated for his worth.
But there is no reprieve for Tiny Tim or Bob Cratchit in the futures of Putin or Trump. Both are so frozen in their ways that any alteration in character would arise only in an afterlife, if there were one. Perhaps Tiny Tim had the best answer in his final and eloquent toast: “God bless us one and all.” But will that advice be taken to heart? Not likely.
Harlan Ullman is senior adviser at the Atlantic Council and the prime author of “shock and awe.” His latest book is “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large.” Follow him on Twitter @harlankullman.