NEW YORK – President Trump will meet with his Russian counterpart in Helsinki, Finland, on Monday, which makes this the perfect time to take a closer look at the former KGB agent dubbed "The New Tsar."
Vladimir Putin does not come by that nickname by accident. In "The New Tsar," author Steven Lee Myers portrays how Putin's past life of intrigue led to his current life of intrigue, where shady things happen all the time, all aimed at strengthening the strongman's strong hand.
Now these shady things – audacious military actions and mysterious murders, mostly – never seem to hurt Putin politically. He defends and revels in his strongman tactics while denying any connection to the deaths that befall so many of his opponents.
Even so, common decency calls on us to remember those military moves and mysterious deaths if we find our president once again fawning over the New Tsar on Monday.
To that end, here's a quick look at Putin's greatest hits, the most atrocious atrocities to happen under his watch:
The downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17: The American media didn't seem to notice, but Dutch and Australian investigators issued a damning report this May that said, in essence, that Russia is responsible for the death of the 298 people aboard that flight, which crashed into a field in Ukraine in 2014 after being hit by a missile.
Investigators said the evidence they found indicates that missile "originates from the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile brigade, a unit of the Russian army from Kursk in the Russian Federation."
In other words, Putin's army shot down that plane -- and 298 innocents died in a flash as collateral damage in the Russian leader's little-noticed war in eastern Ukraine, where it appears Putin is trying to reclaim territory that once belonged to the Soviet Union.
“The Netherlands and Australia are now convinced that Russia is responsible for the deployment of the Buk installation that was used to down MH17,” Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs Stef Blok said after the report was issued.
Putin, predictably, denied it. Asked if Russian forces shot down that plane, he said: "Of course not."
The seizing of Crimea: When Saddam Hussein's Iraq seized Kuwait in 1991, the U.S. and other western nations drove the Iraqis out. The idea of one nation swallowing up another was seen as unacceptable, even though Kuwait was at one time part of Iraq.
But then, in the spring of 2014, Putin's Russia seized the Crimea, a province Russia gifted to Ukraine six decades earlier, and the West did nothing.
Think about that for a minute. It's sort of akin to American forces gathering in Western New York and the North Country to launch an invasion and annexation of Ontario.
What's more, Putin's move had huge implications. It gave the Russian Navy broad access to the Black Sea. And it signaled to the West that Russia wouldn't stand aside and watch NATO, the western military alliance, grow in Russia's backyard.
And Putin, of course, defended this snatching of foreign territory, saying: “Crimea has always been an integral part of Russia in the hearts and minds of people."
The choking of Chechnya: It's little remembered now, but in the early 2000s, Putin's forces put down a rebellion in the Muslim province of Chechnya in the most brutal of ways, kidnapping and killing many rebels, laying waste to entire towns and essentially turning the area into a police state.
Now Chechnya is run by Ramzan Kadyrov, a Putin acolyte whose tenure is lowlighted by the torturing and killing of gay men.
The subjugation of Syria: Syrian strongman Bashar al Assad was losing a civil war until Russia came to his rescue. Now, Assad remains in power, sort of, as Russia's emissary in the Middle East. The price of this? The subjugation of the Syrian people to a tyrant many despise, and a continuing refugee crisis in Europe.
All those mysterious deaths: The recent poisoning of a former Russian spy in Great Britain -- which the spy somehow survived -- is just the latest of upwards of a dozen incidents where Putin's adversaries met with grave but obviously premeditated misfortune. The Washington Post last year counted 10 Putin opponents who died mysteriously.
For example, opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was shot four times in the back within shouting distance of the Kremlin. Former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko died after someone poisoned his tea with a radioactive substance. Journalists Anna Politkovskaya, Anastasia Baburova and Natalya Estemirova were all shot to death, while journalist Yuri Shchekochikhin keeled over dead of a mysterious illness.
In other words, the man Trump will meet on Monday is, to put it mildly, no ordinary leader.
He's a man with blood on his hands -- blood that Trump may or may not notice when he shakes hands with Putin in Helsinki.
President Trump continues his European trip...The Brookings Institution sponsors a discussion on the Trump administration's changes to the Affordable Care Act and their impact on states...The American Enterprise Institute holds a discussion on "Wages, Benefits, and Skills: What Corporate America Can Do For Employees."
Politico dives deep into President Trump's contentious summit with British Prime Minister Theresa May...The Washington Post notes that Jared Kushner is still having security clearance problems...The New York Times offers a gruesome tale of undocumented immigrants who die in the southwestern desert...And Roll Call explains what's happening with "Abolish ICE" legislation.