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THE 800-POUND BEAR IN THE ROOM

IT’S NOW VLADIMIR PUTIN’S WORLD, AND THE WEST IS JUST TRYING TO SURVIVE IN IT

IT WAS a few days after the start of the new millennium, and the U.S. Embassy in Moscow was holding a reception at Spaso House, for decades the elegant residence of the American ambassador. Russia’s tumultuous Boris Yeltsin era had come to an abrupt, shocking end on New Year’s Day, when the Russian president who had brought down the Soviet Union and turned his country into a chaotic, ledgling democracy announced his resignation. His successor was the man he had named his prime minister just four months earlier, a man barely known to most Russians, let alone to the outside world: former KGB oicer Vladimir Putin.

As Jim Collins, a soft-spoken career diplomat who was then the U.S. ambassador to Russia, made the rounds at that reception, querying guests as to what they thought of the dramatic shift atop the Kremlin, the overwhelming sentiment was relief. The Yeltsin era, which had begun with so much promise, had turned into a shambolic, deeply corrupt dystopia. Yeltsin, who had burst to prominence with a burly energy— his climb atop a tank in central Moscow to turn back revanchists who sought to save the Soviet dictatorship is one of the iconic moments of the Cold War’s end—had become chronically ill and increasingly fond of his vodka. A group of politically connected businessmen had raped the country economically and spirited most of their gains ofshore. Its budget was busted, its civil servants unpaid. (I did a story then about a colonel in the Soviet Rocket Forces who killed himself because he could not aford to throw his wife a birthday party.) The once mighty—and mightily efective—KGB had to watch its best oicers go of to work for private businessmen, leaving the state security services demoralized and increasingly corrupt. Russia was in chaos.

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THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA James Comey talked too much. He talked too much about Hillary Clinton’s emails. And then he talked too much, too late, about the Russians and Team Trump. Both exercises got him fired. President Donald Trump and his most rabid advisers among them self-proclaimed dirty trickster Roger Stone, according to some accounts felt they had an opening to take down Comey. They thought it would be a clean kill, just like their immigration executive orders. Again, they were wrong.
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