America and Russia: The Tale of the Tape

There’s no there there. The Mueller Report is (basically) in and (gasp!) and it seems the special counsel found no evidence of overt collusion between President Trump and Russia. You could almost hear the life force being sucked out of Rachel Maddow and a mainstream liberal crew that had foolishly gone all in on Mueller and impeachment. Many of us predicted this eons ago, warned the cultivated, anti-Trump elites not to count on the Hail Mary pass of indictment or impeachment. We were ignored. Now they look foolish.

Lord knows this author is no fan of Trump, his politics, or his "movement," such as it is. Nonetheless, it seemed obvious from the start that then candidate Trump and his team of Keystone Cops had neither the discipline nor competence to pull off a treason so complex. Still, coast-dwelling urban "liberal" elites – unable to fathom how such a coarse character as The Donald could possibly win the election – invested almost messianic faith and confidence in Saint Mueller and his holy report. And now they’ve handed a massive political win to their nemesis just as the 2020 presidential campaign gets ready to kick off.

Here’s where it gets more complicated: what the two-year failed Mueller crusade did do was expose the cynicism of the establishment Democrats. For the impeachment scheme to work, liberal elites needed you to believe something far greater than Trump collusion. Specifically that Russia – Reagan’s “evil empire” reborn – and its authoritarian leader, Vladimir Putin, are monsters bent on world domination, are existential threats to the U.S. and the American way of life. And boy did they sell it! So it was that recycled neocons and assorted war-hawks were paraded on the cable news shows – particularly MSNBC and CNN – to remind Americans to afraid, be very afraid, of the resurgent Russia Bear. "Liberal" pundits and politicians sold their souls to the war machine and military-industrial complex rather than accept that Donald Trump is, in fact, president.

The truth, of course, is, for anyone interested in finding it, far different. Yes, Putin is a corrupt tyrant, and yes, the persecution of Russia’s LGBT community is horrendous. And sure, like the United States, Russia "meddles" in the affairs of its neighbors. All that said, Russia possesses neither the intent or capacity – short of a catastrophic nuclear exchange – to dominate the world, heck even dominate any major region. Putin is a master of playing a weak hand strongly, but he holds weak cards indeed. Furthermore, he knows it, and, thus, his goals are far more circumscribed than the alarmists would have you believe.

What, precisely, has Russia done this century that is so great a threat that it requires the US to go on military alert and prepare for measures short of (and including) war? Not quite as much as it may appear, especially when one looks closely and considers context. In 2008, Russia fought a five-day war with one of its former republics, Georgia, but didn’t actually annex the nation. Then in 2014, Putin intervened in Eastern Ukraine (also a bordering former Soviet Republic) and seized Russian-speaking-Russia-favoring Crimea. And…that’s just about it. Of course its spies spy and its diplomats squawk, but that just comes with the territory of being a large power.

Besides, the United States meddles, intervenes, and bombs far more countries far more distant from its homeland than does Russia. Putin knows his limits and generally acts out only in his own neighborhood – it’s all he can do. Imagine the United States’ reaction if another great power muscled in on the Caribbean or Central America. That’s our "sphere of influence" after all, and, apparently, no other nation is allowed their own. Viewed from Moscow, American meddling in Ukraine (oh, it happened) was far more aggressive, given Ukraine’s distance from Washington, than Russian activity in its adjacent neighbor. To be clear: its not that Russia is innocent or that Putin is a swell guy – rather its a matter of perspective and honest context.

One last thing on this matter – isn’t it a bit ironic (and hypocritical) that the US should be shocked, just shocked, that Russia annexed Crimea, when Mr. Trump has officially recognized Israeli sovereignty over the conquered Golan Heights – a region that doesn’t want to be ruled by Israel and is widely recognized the world over as occupied territory? Washington ceded the moral high ground, and demonstrated its duplicity, the moment it did so, and, furthermore, why complain about Putin’s kleptocracy while the US backs a slew of nefarious nations? Trump’s three Mideast favorites include a burgeoning apartheid state led by an indicted prime minister (Israel), a military dictatorship that mows down its own people (Egypt), and perhaps the last absolute monarchy on earth (Saudi Arabia). Now that’s ethical consistency!

Finally, while Russia does possess the requisite nuclear arsenal to destroy human life on this planet, it presents nowhere near the threat the born-again liberal war-hawks would have you believe. Russia is a petrostate, a slave to global oil prices, and has an economy about the size of Spain. It’s shrinking population and veritable demographic crisis will only lessen the influence of a much truncated Russia over the course of the 21st century.

As for military power, yes, Russia is modernizing its armed forces – but so are we and so is…everybody. Nonetheless, the numbers speak for themselves. The Pentagon outspends the next seven world militaries combined, spends about eight times more than the Kremlin, and – if one includes the weight of U.S. allies – far more than that. The US can project power – on sea and in the air – at levels Russia could only dream of. For example, the US counts more than ten large aircraft carriers, whilst Russia has one outdated carrier.

As for power projection and the forward basing of troops, the UScounts 800 military bases in 80 countries; Russia has about 20, mostly close to home. Yes, yes, Moscow has that haunting naval base in Syria. But wait, it’s had the base for decades and Syria has long been in Russia (and the Soviet) orbit – so what’s the net gain? I say let Russia have Syria; the place is the biggest mess in a messy region and far from a vital US national interest. Besides, paradoxically, Washington and Moscow actually share some goals in the Mideast. Want ISIS and other terrorists brutally squashed? Leave it to Russia. Putin will oblige.

No doubt, congressional hawks, corporate arms dealers, and – as far as I can tell – my old peers in the military officer class, will be shocked by my assessment. They’ll say I’m appeasing Putin, downplaying Russian malignancy, and underestimating Moscow’s military. They’ll insist, just insist, that the US must "contain" Russia all over again, send more infantry and armor divisions deep into Eastern Europe to "check" Putin. They’re stuck on Cold War language and a Cold War playbook.

See doing so is good for business, it means profits for the merchants of death in the US arms industry, and it gives military professionals a sense of purpose, a tangible enemy they can assure you they’ll protect you from. The dirty little secret is that many military officers miss the simple Manichean diplomatic binary and the conventional tactics of the Cold War era. Screw all this counterinsurgency nonsense, they’ll say; give us a real enemy to train for, plan for, and – if "necessary" – duke it out with on the plains of Europe.

It’s all so exhilarating…and ludicrous. War with Russia would be catastrophic and put the human race at risk. It’s also unnecessary. Putin is a nuclear armed unsavory character – fine, sure. But the US rode out tense nuclear standoffs with the likes of Stalin, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev. I’m pretty sure we’ll survive the cautious saber-rattling of Vladimir Putin. Trump is a nightmare. This author will oppose him at every turn when necessary, but will also choose country over partisanship. Trump has often been right to oppose escalation and seek détente with Russia.

So, here’s a plea to my many progressive friends: just because you hate Trump and Trump seems to admire Putin, that doesn’t mean Russia is evil, bent on world conquest, or a vital national security threat. It just means you hate Trump, obsessively, to your own and your party’s detriment.

Go ahead and run against Trump and not for something in 2020 – and I’ll see you at The Donald’s second inaugural address!

Danny Sjursen is a retired U.S. Army officer and regular contributor to He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.

[Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.]

Copyright 2019 Danny Sjursen