Putin and the Super Power Super Bowl Ring Scandal

There’s a lot of interest in New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, team owner Robert Kraft, and the controversy over deflated footballs.  It has football fans following and reporting on every detail.  What is the proper psi rating for a football in the NFL?  There are fans and reporters who can tell you.

But this story serves only to bring to mind a much more deflating episode of Super Power history.  In 2005, Russia’s vozhd (boss) Vladimir Putin hosted a meeting in the Kremlin with Patriots owner Robert Kraft.  Admiring Kraft’s Super Bowl ring, he said: “I could kill a man with this.”  That phrase, coming from a former kahgehbeest (KGB agent), should have sent chills down everyone’s spine.

What happened next was even worse.  Putin pocketed the ring.  Now, this did not make him Lord of the Rings, but it did provide an early test of American strength and self-respect.  Our government failed that test.

Robert Kraft was understandably upset.  Not to worry.  The White House will know what to do.  An unnamed Bush administration official at the White House told Kraft not to make a fuss.

"It would really be in the best interest of US-Soviet relations if you meant to give the ring as a present," Kraft said he was told on the White House call. "I really didn't [want to]. I had an emotional tie to the ring, it has my name on it. I don't want to see it on eBay. There was a pause on the other end of the line, and the voice repeated, 'It would really be in the best interest if you meant to give the ring as a present.'"

Note that anachronism – U.S.-Soviet relations.  Was this Kraft’s error?  He also refers to Putin being surrounded by “KGB” agents.  Did he mean FSB?  That’s what Putin calls his security apparatchiks.  The KGB, we were assured, had been dissolved for nearly fourteen years by this point (2005).  Or had it?

The administration of George W. Bush cannot escape criticism for this stumbling response.  Should we have gone to war with Russia over a stolen Super Bowl ring?  Of course not.  But should we have allowed Putin to pocket it?

There was an entire range of options available to the Bush administration at the time.  No “summits” with a thief, for starters.  No visas for Russian officials to visit the U.S.  A freezing of Russian assets in America to the value of a Super Bowl ring.

Owner Robert Kraft didn’t want to see it show up on eBay.  No fear of that.  For Vladimir Putin, that Super Bowl ring is a trophy, symbol of Russia’s resurgence.

The loss of an historic opportunity to repair U.S.-Russian relations is not George W. Bush’s fault.  It’s Bill Clinton’s fault.  It was Clinton who took us on “a holiday from history” in the 1990s.  It was Clinton who would not and could not teach Americans what seventy years of Communist tyranny had meant for Russia and the captive nations behind the Iron Curtain.

Failure to address that past led to failures in addressing the present.  Americans and freedom-lovers around the world rejoiced on Christmas night, 1991, as the old red hammer-and-sickle were lowered over the Kremlin to be replaced by the old flag of Russia.  We yearned for a new world of freedom for millions who had been imprisoned in what Ronald Reagan called an Evil Empire.

So eager were we, however, that we overlooked some troubling signs in the 1990s.  Then, boisterous Boris Yeltsin, the bibulous reformer, succeeded the last red tsar, Mikhail Gorbachev.  When Yeltsin proposed a new constitution for the Russian Republic, too few Americans were paying attention.  We were distracted by eight years of mounting Bill Clinton scandals.

But history didn’t stop.  Journalist and religious freedom investigator Larry Uzzell warned that the new Russian constitution Yeltsin had crafted gave too much power to the Federation president and failed to protect the religious freedom of minority faiths in Russia.  Uzzell, fluent in Russian, had traveled extensively in that vast country that spans twelve time zones.  Uzzell testified before Congress.  Some heeded him.  This from the International Religious Freedom report issued by our State Department:

Some [Russian] Federal agencies and many local authorities continue to restrict the rights of various religious minorities. Moreover, contradictions between [Moscow] and local laws and varying interpretations of the law provide regional officials with opportunities to restrict the activities of religious minorities. Many observers attribute discriminatory practices at the local level to the greater susceptibility of [these] governments than the [Moscow] Government to discriminatory attitudes[.]

Translated from the bureaucratese: Moscow says it’s for religious freedom.  Certain Russian constitutional provisions protect religious freedom.  But in practice, the religious minorities are at the mercy of the local bosses, and they, in turn, cut deals with the Russian Orthodox Church.

Uzzell reported at the time (1990s) that the Russian Orthodox Church was the only institution in Russia that had not undergone “perestroika” – Gorbachev’s famous word for “restructuring.”  Today, commentators on Russian affairs might add to those unreformed institutions the FSB, which increasingly functions as its KGB predecessor did.

By failing to press Russia on religious freedom, we saw all of Russia slipping back into the mists of a thousand years of despotism.  The Russian Orthodox Church contains millions of true believers, a point to be emphasized.  But it is also the case that the Russian Orthodox Church has been under the thumb of the tsars and then the commissars since the days of Peter the Great.

The sad experience of Russia shows us again how exceptional American freedom truly is.  And that freedom is founded on religious freedom.  James Madison understood this implicitly.  He said so in Federalist No. 51.

In a free government the security for civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights. It consists in the one case in the multiplicity of interests, and in the other in the multiplicity of sects. The degree of security in both cases will depend on the number of interests and sects; and this may be presumed to depend on the extent of country and number of people comprehended under the same government.  

As Family Research Council President Tony Perkins has reported, the Obama administration has shown little concern for Christian persecution abroad.  And few of our leaders at elite levels show an appreciation for America’s strong history of emphasizing religious freedom.  The Founders saw it differently.  They called this “the lustre of our country.”  And they acted upon that belief.

When we turn a blind eye to religious freedom in other countries or in our own country, we cannot be surprised when all civil liberties are endangered.  And we will have to endure the humiliation of tyrants treating us with contempt and brazenly stealing even our Super Bowl rings.

Ken Blackwell and Bob Morrison are senior fellows at the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C.