Congratulatory Calls and Cold War II

Donald Trump congratulated Vladimir Putin on his recent reelection to a fourth term, and the mimetic Russia pundits are outraged again. And their outrage is again more outrageous than the actual sin.

True, a U.S. president should not be praising an authoritarian like Putin. But the fact that Trump’s utterance has ignited such a fury – while more serious offenses have not – reveals just how far our country’s Russia obsession has removed us from reality. For some sense of the problem, consider the MSNBC guest who, with no apparent objection from the show’s host, claimed last week that the congratulatory phone call to Putin may mark the "lowest point" in Trump’s presidency so far. Oh, sure, it may be "low" of Trump to enable the wholesale starvation of Yemen, but not as low as this!

Of course, such a warped sense of proportion is by now de rigueur. For more than a year, we have been expected to believe that the alleged "bromance" between Trump and Putin warrants greater concern than the threat of U.S. imperial aggression against a whole host of countries, Russia most certainly among them. Meanwhile, Cold War II has expanded apace, with U.S. agents inching ever closer to large-scale shooting matches against Russian forces on two continents. But again, let us not lose sight of the real crisis: Trump is so darn nice to Putin!

This hankering for some grand confrontation between Trump and Putin is definitely absurd, but it is no laughing matter. By insinuating that the two leaders are joined at the hip, our Russia pundits indeed make it easier for Americans to overlook the ever-growing list of Trumpian maneuvers that should be troubling all of us more: the closure of Moscow’s consulate in San Francisco, the deployment of troops to Poland and the Baltics, the provision of lethal assistance to Ukraine’s anti-Russian government, to name just a few. Heck, Trump is even expelling 60 Russian diplomats over Moscow’s alleged role in the poisoning of Sergei Skripal – an attack that Trump was condemned for not mentioning in his phone call to Putin last week. Will that be enough to satisfy the New Cold Warriors and their friends in the media?

I wouldn’t bet on it.

As painful as it is to acknowledge, there are influential Americans whose thirst for a fight with Russia is not even close to slaked. One of them is John Bolton, Trump’s incoming National Security Advisor who calls economic sanctions nowhere "near sufficient" and advocates a "decidedly disproportionate" campaign of cyber sabotage to put the fear of God into our Russian enemies. Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of Defense James Mattis are no Russia doves either, what with their documented appetite for "low-yield" nuclear weapons and their assorted threats against Russian allies in Syria. Such militarists have our president’s ear, and we shouldn’t much doubt they’re screaming into it.

Now, is it possible that this administration – perhaps because of some "dirt" that the Kremlin has on Trump – is deliberately refraining from getting even tougher on Russia? Anything is possible at this point, but we shouldn’t let the conjectural distract us from the verifiable: hawks in Washington are bolstering Moscow’s enemies, ejecting its diplomats, stationing troops near Russia’s border, and likely gearing up for more. If that worries us less than some ceremonial remarks to Putin do, then the worst of Cold War II may be yet to come.

Tommy Raskin is a writer working on Middle East policy in Washington, DC. Send him email at tommy.raskin@gmail.com.

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