(CNN) — Madeleine Albright died just as the murderous historical forces she had tried to quell during her career are raging across Europe again, unleashed by her nemesis, Vladimir Putin, whom she had constantly warned was a grave threat to peace.
The first female US secretary of state was twice exiled as a refugee child from the country of her birth, the former Czechoslovakia, by fascist and communist tyranny. That experience and the impact she had on her family shaped her destiny as an American scholar, diplomat and patriot. She also shaped her focus on post-Cold War Europe and the devastating conflicts in Bosnia and Kosovo during her time in the Clinton administration, as well as her strong support for NATO expansion to the nations of the former Warsaw Pact. While holding Ukraine hostage before the invasion, Putin tried to force the Western alliance to reverse that move east.
Madeleine Albright’s death comes at a time when Europe is once again gripped by fears of a belligerent Russia, massive refugee flows, the slaughter of civilians and fears of nuclear war, as the invasion of Ukraine by Putin’s part shatters 30 years of strategic stability.
Until the end of his life, Albright sounded the alarm about Putin’s intentions and character and predicted the strategic disaster and bloody resistance he would face if he invaded Ukraine.
“Instead of paving Russia’s path to greatness, invading Ukraine would ensure Mr. Putin’s infamy by leaving his country diplomatically isolated, economically crippled, and strategically vulnerable to a stronger and more united Western alliance,” Albright wrote in an essay. in The New York Times on the eve of the war last month. “Ukraine has the right to its sovereignty, no matter who its neighbors are. In the modern age, big countries accept that, and so must Mr. Putin,” Albright wrote. “That’s the message underpinning recent Western diplomacy. It defines the difference between a world ruled by the rule of law and one that doesn’t answer to any rules.”
Those words, some of the last that Madeleine Albright would publish, defined a diplomatic career characterized by unconditional support for democracy and the right of people to live in freedom, but also by a willingness to try to convince strong men, including Putin or the late North Korean tyrant Kim Jong Il, the father of the current dynastic leader of the Stalinist state, whom he had visited in 2000.
‘Smart, but a very bad person’
Albright had an early opportunity to examine Putin’s character, and was the first high-level American official to meet the new Russian president, in early 2000, shortly after he was inaugurated by Boris Yeltsin.
He emerged from their first three-hour meeting in the Kremlin praising the Russian leader’s “can-do approach” as he sought ways to engage Moscow to prevent a return to the cold of the Cold War. But as he revealed in The New York Times last month, his private opinion, recorded while flying home, was more scathing and sinister and has been confirmed by later events.
“‘Putin is small and pale,’ I wrote, ‘so cold he almost looks like a reptile,'” Madeleine Albright recalled in the diary essay. She also cited another impression of him at the time that portended more than 20 years of growing hostility toward the West, culminating in the invasion.
“‘Putin is ashamed of what has happened to his country and is determined to restore its greatness,'” Albright wrote, citing his impressions at the time.
Ironically, Madeleine Albright used that meeting to try to convince Putin to show mercy in a war against separatists in the Russian republic of Chechnya, which involved relentless bombing that killed thousands of civilians. “None of us pulled any punches on Chechnya,” he told reporters after failing to ease a Moscow offensive that is now seen as a model for relentless bombing of civilians in Ukraine in a bid to break their will and resistance.
Albright generally supported efforts to convince Russia that NATO did not pose a threat to its security, at a time when the Obama administration was trying to “reset” relations with Moscow.
But in 2014, when Putin annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea in what, in retrospect, was a rehearsal for his march on the rest of the country last month, Albright again warned of the Russian leader’s broader ambitions.
“Putin is delusional,” he said on CNN’s “New Day” in March of that year. “I think he doesn’t have the facts, he’s getting propaganda or his own propaganda,” he said, responding to Russia’s claims that he had a right to be in Crimea, which reflect the Russian leader’s justification for the wider war eight years later.
Again, in 2016, Madeleine Albright warned of the need to confront Putin, calling him “clever, but a very bad person” in an interview with Austria’s Die Presse.
But Albright’s internal political loyalties as a Democrat had occasionally led her to ignore her own instincts. In 2012, for example, she argued that then-Republican presidential candidate and now Senator Mitt Romney of Utah did not know what she was talking about when he said that Russia was the number one security threat. But unlike many others, she said “I’m sorry.”
“Personally, I owe now Senator Romney an apology,” Albright said at a House Intelligence Committee hearing in 2019. “We underestimated Russia and Putin has brought them back into the picture.”
Madeleine Albright, an ardent critic of Trump
Madeleine Albright, a professor at Georgetown University, spent decades studying communist and fascist autocracy before being plucked from relative obscurity to serve as then-President Bill Clinton’s ambassador to the United Nations. That experience also shaped her outspoken criticism of former President Donald Trump, whom she warned was a threat to American democracy long before he denied defeat in the 2020 election and incited the US Capitol insurrection.
“I’m not calling him a fascist, I’m saying he has anti-democratic instincts that I’m very concerned about,” he told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria in 2018. Albright put his comments about Trump in the context of the need to confront anti-democratic movements early on, before they became dangerous extremism. Trump’s anti-immigrant demagoguery and her hostility toward her refugees worried her, especially as someone who had sought refuge from tyranny in the US.
At the end of his life, Albright made no secret of his fear that the vicious political forces of extremism, which had defined his destiny and caused so much carnage over the decades in Europe, would stir up again.
“I’m 80 years old and I’ve seen a lot of things. It took me a long time to find my voice,” Albright told Zakaria in the 2018 interview.
“I didn’t have a high-level job until I was 55 years old. And I’m not going to shut up, frankly. I do think it’s important that those who have seen this kind of thing issue a warning.”