Russia is back as the ultimate bad guy in the US political agenda. Last week, the Washington Post’s deep-dive piece about President Vladimir Putin’s master-plan to subvert the 2016 US presidential election painted it as the political “crime of the century.”
It follows almost a year of US media coverage that has positioned Russia as a lurking enemy seeking to subvert an honest democracy. The takeaway: Either you see that Russia is bad, or you are an enemy of the free world.
Such a binary stance is ridiculous, selective in its memory of events, and dangerous. I’m not merely referring to the nuclear arsenal Russia possesses and the potential for another cold (and maybe even real) war.
That Russia must once again be enrolled as the pantomime villain ignores the reality that other countries have a legitimate interest in competing with the US for geopolitical influence – including inside the US.
It also ignores various maneuvers against Russian interests over the last two decades, including the Nato expansion, placement of anti-missile systems in eastern Europe and the Kosovo bombing.
Putin may well have orchestrated a campaign to promote Donald Trump’s election, deeming him to be a man with whom he could do business as opposed to rival Hillary Clinton.
It’s legitimate for the US to probe what occurred and learn how to defend its political process from interference.
But, is it legitimate to dismiss the idea that Russia acted to protect its interests in the face of a Clinton presidency? Just because Russia’s interests do not coincide with the US should not make it Enemy No 1.
Back to the future
The revived narrative of Russia as an “Evil Empire,” coined by former President Ronald Reagan appeals to the American public because it is familiar.
Decades of the Cold War, followed by years of presenting Putin as an evil genius, allow for the depiction of a bad guy that appeals to both old-school Republicans and the left-leaning media.
Writing in Foreign Policy, John Hannah, former Vice President Dick Cheney’s national security advisor, describes Russia as one of three most “dangerous enemies” for the US, along with the Islamic State and Iran.
National Affairs contributing editor James Poulos, describes Russia’s regime as “cruel, conniving, and malevolent” – a description that wouldn’t look out of place in a high-school Shakespeare essay.
Writing in The Week, Poulos says Russia is the No 1 geopolitical foe because it is “too broken to fix.”
He explains this rests on Russia having bad demographics, bad economy, weak borders, religious troubles, and restive minorities. I can’t think of another country with those issues. No, none at all.
Suddenly, the 2012 utterings of presidential candidate Mitt Romney against Russia are being recalled as prophetic. These are the same comments that the Democrats and Barack Obama said at the time were anachronistic.
Even The Washington Post, in its story last week, calls for “punishing” Russia, as if it were a naughty child and not a regime acting in self-interest.
Of course, for those saying that in 2016 Russia crossed some invisible diplomatic red line, I suggest a read of the 2016 study by UCLA scholar Dov H Levin, titled “When the Great Power Gets a Vote.”
Levin found that both the US and the USSR/Russia have intervened in one of every nine competitive national level executive elections around the world between 1946 and 2000. Levin found that such interference helps swing the vote by about 3%.
Levin also found that the US intervened in 81 global elections to Russia’s 36. Perhaps, the US is so offended by the 2016 election because it was so close to home?
Yet, even here The Post reports former Director of National Intelligence James R Clapper Jr saying that Russia had “a long history” of meddling in American elections.
Or what about the claims by former Israeli premier Ehud Olmbert that Benjamin Netanyahu tried to promote Romney and undermine Obama in the 2012 race?
What of the Federal Bureau of Investigations statement in 1997 that they uncovered evidence of Chinese government’s illegal contributions to the Democratic National Committee?
At times of demonization, other crimes are reprised against Russia. Did you know that Putin used to be a spy? Did you know that Russia cracks down on political opposition? Did you know there is discrimination against the gay community?
While most of the above is true, it is also true of many other countries that the US counts as allies.
Confronting Russia’s alleged interferences in 2016 as something that must be punished is not a winning strategy.
What can the U.S. deliver as punishment? Cyberattacks on key national infrastructure? They would receive the same in return, much like in a nuclear scenario.
Economic, diplomatic isolation
Sanctions might hurt Russia’s GDP in the short to mid-term but they are likely to have even less success than against Iran and North Korea, much smaller countries and with narrower global support networks.
Surely, a better way forward is to engage with Russia, where possible. That doesn’t have to mean public displays of affection for Putin and it certainly doesn’t require fancy “reset” buttons and slogans.
It means working despite frustrations to find common ground on real issues.
President Donald Trump’s idea of trying to resurrect better relations with Russia is not actually such a crazy foreign policy. Obama’s was the same when he took office and his vice president, Joe Biden, had this to say in 2015 about the “reset” with Russia:
“[…] once we pressed that reset button in 2009, between then and 2012, we achieved a great deal in cooperation with Russia to advance our mutual interests and I would argue the interests of Europe […]”
The West do not have to like Putin or what he is doing. It doesn’t have to stop all criticism or ignore that Russia is engaging in some dangerous political games of its own. However, if the US decides to treats Russia as an enemy, what will likely ensue is another world war.
Is that what the US really seeks?