President Donald Trump entered office saying that he wanted a better relationship with Russia. Instead, the two governments edged closer to conflict.
The administration increased sanctions on Moscow, expelled Russian diplomats, expanded military assistance to Ukraine, and inserted more troops and money into NATO for Europe’s defense. U.S. and Russian forces directly confronted each other in Syria.
The Putin government openly challenged Washington in Venezuela, ignoring the venerable Monroe Doctrine, and helped trigger an oil price war intended to bankrupt America’s shale oil industry. The administration withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, threatening to trigger a new nuclear arms race. In a reversal of Richard Nixon’s famous opening to Beijing, Russia and China forged a cooperative relationship based almost entirely on hostility from and to America.
These ominous developments raised tensions between the world’s two most important nuclear powers. The result wasn’t quite a new Cold War, since Putin is no ideologue, communist or other. However, Moscow demonstrated that even a weakened regional power could put significant obstacles in the way of an arrogant hyperpower that had overextended itself.
Then along came COVID-19.
Moscow sent medical supplies to the US Washington offered to reciprocate. The shared threat got the two sides talking. Reported CNN: "President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin appear to have had more sustained contact with each other in the past two weeks than at any time since 2016, as the Kremlin tries to use the coronavirus pandemic and close personal ties between the two leaders to normalize long-standing relations with Washington."
Under normal circumstances this would be considered a positive development. After all, no one should welcome the possibility of conflict breaking out, however small the chance. But not in the nation’s capital. The foreign policy establishment, progressives no less than conservatives, considers Moscow to be an eternal enemy, at least so long as anyone but a Western-style liberal rules.
Russian assistance was widely seen as a "propaganda coup for Putin," in the words of Andrew Foxall, director of London’s Henry Jackson Society, named after the American senator who almost perfectly embodied the US welfare/warfare state. Of course, the government is rare which does not attempt to use even humanitarian assistance for PR purposes. Many also use such programs to pay off domestic interests – such as food aid for farmers, in the case of Washington.
Some observers see Moscow’s efforts as even more nefarious, even dangerous. "Reaching out to the United States," warned Andrew Weiss of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, "is part of Putin’s long-term plan to basically undermine the credibility of the United States as an important stalwart player in the global system, to undermine our alliances, and then to create as many lasting sources of tension between Donald Trump and his own national security team."
Apparently, it’s not believed possible that Putin might want to ameliorate the disastrous impact of the pandemic on both nations. And simultaneously reduce tensions with and threats from America. In so doing, he could reduce sources of conflict and make his nation more secure.
Much has been made of the divergence in views between Trump and his aides on policy toward Moscow. Complained Weiss, Putin "has basically shown the rest of the US government that their view on Russia don’t matter, that he has direct access to the US president." This claim is nonsensical, ridiculous even for a Washington pundit. So far American policy toward Russia has been set by the administration officials, not the president. On what issue has he prevailed against the bureaucracy? Until now Putin’s "direct access to the US president" has gotten Moscow precisely nothing.
Yet Trump is the one elected by the American people and who possesses constitutional and political authority to set policy. The shocking development of the last three-plus years has been the president’s seeming inability to affect policy on such an important issue in the slightest. When it comes to Russia, at least, the 2016 election appeared to have no impact.
Stipulate that Putin is a bad dude who puts his nation’s interests first. This sounds like a lot of American "allies." Consider Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, the Central Asian states, and assorted other petty tyrannies. Oppression by other governments does not legitimize Moscow’s abuses, but the high dudgeon expressed by critics of any American softening toward Russia is both hypocritical and foolish.
Also stipulate that Moscow has treated Ukraine badly. However, the sanctimony of Washington’s foreign policy elite is beyond measure. US policymakers have spent some three decades starving, bombing, invading, and occupying other nations. The American government took a lead role in destroying Iraq and Libya and played an important supporting role in doing the same in Syria and Yemen. The US continues to underwrite tyranny in a gaggle of friendly dictatorships. America has piled sanction upon sanction to further impoverish those already suffering immiserating poverty in Iran and Venezuela, without effect. No less than Russia, Washington acts when it wants against who it wants irrespective of international law and sentiment.
Of course, "Whataboutism" cannot justify Putin’s policies. However, he always appeared to be more nationalist than communist, with little inherent antagonism toward America. But he could not be reassured after the US and Europeans lied to Russian officials in promising not to expand NATO up to Russia’s border. Nor be pleased when the Western alliance dismantled a historic Slavic friend, Serbia, and attempted to bar Moscow from playing any role in the aftermath of the war over Kosovo. Indeed, the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, US Gen. Wesley Clark, ordered his British subordinate to confront Russians occupying the Pristina airport. British Gen. Mike Jackson courageously refused to do so, reportedly saying: "I’m not going to start the Third World War for you."
The US backed Georgia and Ukraine for NATO membership, which would have brought the alliance to lands once integral to the Russian Empire and Soviet Union, along much of Russia’s western border. The Europeans sought to detach Ukraine from Moscow economically; then they and Washington backed a street putsch against the elected (though highly corrupt) elected president of Ukraine friendly to Moscow. At serious risk was Russia’s Black Sea naval base in Sebastopol. Of course, none of this justified military action against Ukraine, but it is worth reflecting how Washington would have reacted had Moscow sponsored a coup against an elected, pro-American government in Mexico and invited it to join the Warsaw Pact. Not well, shall we say. US policymakers would not likely have been overly concerned about diplomatic niceties in responding.
As for Syria, the Obama and Trump administrations acted like the Bible’s King David. He had his choice of beauties in his kingdom but wanted one more despite her being married to another. Hence the scandal of Bathsheba. Washington is allied with Egypt, Jordan, Israel, Turkey, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Kuwait. Yet the US government insists that the Putin government backing Syria, which has been allied with Moscow since the 1950s, poses a grave threat to regional peace and American influence.
So Washington effectively supported jihadist radicals, including the local al-Qaeda affiliate, against the Syrian government, which had become the refuge of Christians and other religious minorities after Iraq’s implosion. Syria and Russia obviously were brutally careless of civilian lives, but so were the insurgents supported by America. Ironically, after Turkey’s invasion of Kurdish areas in northern Syria Washington complained about atrocities committed by the insurgents employed by Turkey – who previously had been funded and armed by America to battle Syrian forces.
Perhaps the most monumental stupidity of US policy toward Russia is that Washington has inadvertently pushed Moscow toward China, which most analysts believes poses the greatest future challenge to America. Russia is a declining power, with shrinking population, limited economic base, and difficult political transition when Putin leaves the scene. Like pre-1914 imperial Russia, today’s Russian Federation wants to be treated with respect and have its interests, including borders, respected. It is not interested in a globe-spanning rivalry with America. Moscow isn’t even interested in war with Europe, which enjoys ten times the economic strength and three times the population. Italy’s GDP is as large as Russia’s.
No doubt, there always will be important issues which divide Washington and Moscow. But there is no essential conflict over territory, population, economy, or survival. To the contrary, all other things being equal, Russia would be more inclined to lean West, where it has lived out most of its history, than East.
Instead of constantly ratcheting up pressure, the US should follow an increasingly pacific-minded Europe in seeking a modus vivendi with Russia. America has a vital interest in the integrity of its elections, but has interfered in far more contests, including the 1996 Russian poll, than has Moscow. In contrast, Putin has been more likely in recent years to send assassins against his enemies. Sanctions should be eliminated as both sides step back from constant confrontation.
On security issues the US should pledge an end to NATO expansion, especially to Georgia and Ukraine. Their desire for Western, meaning American, protection is irrelevant: it is not in this nation’s interest to foment conflict with Russia over countries of minimal security interest to the US In return Moscow should end its backing for Ukrainian rebels. As reflected in the Minsk accords, Kiev should devolve substantial autonomy to the Donbass areas currently in revolt.
As for Crimea, Moscow will not disgorge that territory – long part of the Russian Empire and Soviet Union – absent defeat in a general war. Making that a condition for sanctions relief ensures that sanctions will be forever, which antagonizes everyone while benefiting no one. The allies should drop the penalties, while withholding formal recognition of annexation. However, they should offer to respect an internationally accepted referendum and grant their official imprimatur to Crimea’s transfer if a popular majority backs that position.
As for other potential conflicts – Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, North Korea, Iran – the Moscow and Washington should accept differences and make compromises. If the US was not actively backing Tbilisi and Kiev, Russia would have less reason to intervene in Cuba and Venezuela. Even if Moscow was involved, it would be better for the Syrian government be in control of its borders than either Turkey or Iran. Moscow doesn’t want Pyongyang to have nuclear weapons and would be more helpful to America if the US was not increasing economic pressure on Russia. Finally, in the potential century-long competition between China and America, it would be better if Moscow tossed its lot in with Washington than Beijing.
Many US policymakers appear to fear peace. Contrary to their view, the latest faint signs of rapprochement between Russia and America are positive. Past experience suggests caution, even pessimism, in assessing future prospects for the relationship. But today’s mini-Cold War is in neither America’s nor Russia’s interest. Before his term ends President Trump should make a major attempt to improve relations.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.