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Delusions About Russia

Delusions About Russia

Russia is a dangerous adversary. But treating it as an outright enemy could result in a self-fulfilling prophecy, triggering mortal threats to its neighbors which otherwise may not be in the cards.

Accordingly, most Russians deeply resented being treated as a defeated country by the West. After the Cold War, Russians anticipated that they would be viewed not as a vanquished adversary, but instead as a courageous ally who played an indispensable role in destroying the Soviet bloc to achieve a common victory in the Cold War. By repeatedly siding against Moscow in each of its post-Cold War disputes with its new neighbors, the West treated Russia like a defeated state that had accepted an unconditional surrender and was now trying, in disregard of its legal obligations, to establish hegemony over its neighbors. The Russian political elites, initially strongly pro-Western, felt betrayed and offended. They saw a diktat from the West.

Many Russians also hold that insidious actions by Western powers greatly contributed to the Soviet collapse. There is very little evidence to support this claim; as late as August 1991, President George H.W. Bush argued against Ukraine’s seeking full independence, stating that “Americans will not support those who seek independence in order to replace a far-off tyranny with a local despotism. They will not aide those who promote a suicidal nationalism based upon ethnic hatred.” Yet the Russian political class has increasingly persuaded itself that its country was intentionally destroyed by Western powers, masquerading as friends of the USSR during perestroika while secretly attempting to sabotage the Soviet state. It is through the prism of those beliefs that one must look to understand how Russia might act in the event of a military confrontation with the West.

RUSSIA’S GRIEVANCES, real or imagined, are not justifications for the United States abandoning the pursuit of its own interest and allowing Russian domination of Eurasia. And there is no doubt that Russia and the United States are adversaries and that, at this point, apologies are likely to be viewed by Moscow as a sign of weakness to be exploited, not reciprocated.

The Trump administration is right to insist on a significant increase in America’s military budget, and officials in the administration are also right to insist that alliances are a major source of American strength that need to be reformed rather than discarded. Similarly, when U.S. and Russian interests collide, as was the case with Iran, Syria and the withdrawal from certain arms control agreements, America should be able to vigorously, albeit carefully, defend its interests despite Moscow’s opposition. It would be overly optimistic to expect a real friendship or partnership with Russia in a near future, especially considering the hostility many in the Russian elite feel today towards the United States. Nonetheless, even America’s harshest critics of Russia would not advocate starting a war to overthrow Putin’s government. American and Russian interests overlap on a number of issues, ranging from a concern with China’s rise, to avoiding nuclear proliferation and to maintaining stability systems of international finance and trade. America should not preclude the possibility of cooperation on those issues of mutual interest simply to prevent Putin from scoring political points.

While it is legitimate to view Russia as America’s adversary, it is mistaken to approach the relationship through a zero-sum lens. Quite the contrary. Something that can hurt Russia can also damage the United States; just as we should not encourage global warming in hopes that a rise in temperatures would do slightly more damage to Russia than it would to us, so would it be foolish to hope for a Russian defeat in Syria when such an event could cause an ISIS resurgence which would assuredly harm American interests.

We must also be realistic about our own conduct when considering what we want from Russia.

Russia’s interference in the American political process was serious and real, but it was hardly unexpected or the cause for righteous indignation. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton openly sided with opposition groups in Russia and expressed sympathy with mass anti-government demonstrations whose organizers made no secret of their objective to remove Putin from power. In March 2011, Vice President Joe Biden told Russian opposition leaders that it would be “bad for the country and for himself” if Putin attempted to run for president the following year, according to the later murdered Putin critic Boris Nemtsov. I have spoken with people who were present at Biden’s meeting with the Russian opposition, and there was no question in their mind that Biden fully intended to pressure Putin not to run again. Biden and Clinton were not acting out of turn; the Obama administration put its money where its mouth was, giving millions of dollars to political opposition groups in Russia. Today, leading Democrats are demanding that Russia refrain from intervening in the 2020 elections, but what implications do such demands have for America's own willingness to take sides in Russian political disputes?

Indeed, what did the architects of this earlier effort to intervene in Russian elections expect Putin to do in response? If they believed he would fold under American pressure, this was a massive failure of judgement that indicated how little the Obama administration understood what made Putin, a former KGB operative, tick. If they did not expect Putin to give up and cry uncle, why did they not expect retaliation? Putin had sufficient resources to strike back at America both covertly and overtly, and it is now clear that these efforts began to take shape as early as 2014, before Trump decided to run.

Last but not least, we must be willing to be clear that we are not beholden to shaping American policy exclusively to align with the whims of our allies. Relationships between former iron curtain states are remarkably complex and fraught with centuries of painful history, making them prone to conflict with one another. It is precisely these parochial European conflicts which George Washington strongly advised against being involved in, stating in his farewell address that America should be wary of entangling, “our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor, or caprice.”

 

WASHINGTON ALSO spoke about those, “ambitious, corrupted, or deluded citizens,” who become so enamored with the causes of their favorite countries that they not only lose perspective of American interests, but are even prepared to accuse those who disagree with them of a lack of patriotism and, in modern times, of being a Putin lackey. One does not need to be a supporter of President Trump to understand that these pseudo-patriots do not serve American interests or American values well. In April 2019, 73 percent of the Ukrainian people rejected President Petro Poroshenko, who ran on a nationalist, anti-Russian platform. While few American and European experts were willing to acknowledge that the Poroshenko government was corrupt, inept, and, according to Ukrainian media, willing to use money to influence the American political process, they were suddenly willing to make such pronouncements as soon as the election results were solidified. America cannot allow the designation of an “ally” to make any states immune from disagreement or criticism. When the stakes are as high as nuclear war, America cannot afford to conduct foreign policy based on the whims of its domestic constituencies or the sentiments of those very "deluded" citizens about whom Washington warned. 

Great American presidents of the past knew how to be loyal allies, but to do it in a calibrated and deliberative fashion. President Dwight D. Eisenhower fully understood the importance of the transatlantic alliance, having fought to preserve it in World War II, yet in 1956 he refused to support Britain and France during the Suez Crisis when doing so went against America’s national interest. Similarly, despite being a genuine friend to Israel, Ronald Reagan was willing to condemn it for going overboard in Lebanon in 1982. But today, to suggest that America is not obliged to support with blood and treasure the actions of our allies and friends is considered morally unacceptable. That is why whenever Baltic states, Georgia and Ukraine have any disagreement with Russia, America automatically denounces Russia as the aggressor, regardless of the historical background, geopolitical context, and even, as in the case of Russia’s war with Georgia in 2008, who attacked whose troops first. 

 

America and Russia appear unlikely to resolve their hostilities any time soon. America has a long tradition of standing tall and being prepared to be ruthless in the defense of its interests, but also in being careful not to unnecessarily entangle itself in the conflicts of others. If the United States starts treating Putin’s Russia like it is Hitler’s Germany, moves from supporting Ukrainian and Georgian sovereignty to encouraging these states to conduct hostile policies towards Moscow, and strengthens NATO’s military position in the Baltics, Russia may feel confronted by an existential threat. Treating Moscow as an enemy may very well result in a self-fulfilling prophecy, triggering mortal threats to Moscow’s vulnerable neighbors which otherwise would probably not be in the cards. Confrontation with Russia would force America to choose between abandoning its Eastern European client states to their fate and suffering potentially irreparable reputational damages or fighting World War III not to defend Berlin or Warsaw, but rather Mariupol or Gori. History will not forgive U.S. policymakers if they needlessly present the United States with this kind of fateful choice.