In theory, the United States, in realpolitik fashion, could be playing Russia off against other rivals and enemies to our advantage — now seeking temporary shared agendas, now in keen rivalry over irreconcilable differences.
The fact that Russia is the sole country in the world that always could destroy the United States has, since 1949, proved an incentive to U.S. administrations, particularly Democratic ones, to find some sort of wary realist accommodation with the Russians.
Its worries that its border regions were being populated with nuclear powers — China, India, North Korea, Pakistan — might have made it interested in triangulating against nearby Iran, a would-be nuclear nation.
Russia distrusts China as much as we do—as China and the U.S. in turn distrust Russia, as Russia and China distrust us. The idea that a nuclear North Korea could prompt nearby Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan to become nuclear should be worrisome to the Russians.
Russia’s weakening economy, its slipping natural-gas grip on Western and Eastern Europe, its oil income halved — all that might have made a vulnerable Putin somewhat receptive to being of some help, now and again, with a few common concerns.
Privately, the United States might have recognized that Russia saw post–Cold War NATO expansion as a threat, because a few of its former Soviet republics were being realigned with old rivals. Iconic World War II battles, such as the horrific Kiev Pocket or the siege of Sebastopol, might have provided some context as to why Russia felt that Crimea and Ukraine resonated with the Russian people in way not fully understood in the United States.
The point is not advocacy of friendship or alliance with Putin’s Russia, and certainly not a renewal of the failed Obama-Clinton reset. Instead, we should be open to a realist understanding that on occasion we might cooperate with Russia both to avoid a nightmarish Armageddon and to solve rare common problems.
Putin Is Putin Is Putin
In the 2016 campaign, Trump bluntly alluded to all that — an effort that came back to haunt him in 2017 under the progressives’ wolf-calling of “collusion.”
Yet we now find ourselves in a strange and dangerous rivalry to see which political party can outdo the other in its public loathing of a nuclear and angry Russia.
The new progressive hatred of Russia is baffling. Of course, Vladimir Putin is a thug and a killer who in the grand tradition of Russian autocracy has no intention ever of holding free elections. But he is perhaps no more a murderer than are the Castro brothers in Cuba, with whom we have concluded a détente and who have no arsenal capable of destroying the U.S.
Putin is no more or less trustworthy than are the Iranians, with whom in 2015 we cut a deal on nuclear proliferation and who are far more likely than the Russians to send a nuclear missile into Israel someday. Putin’s brutal suppression of the press recalls the ongoing repression by President Recep Erdogan of Turkey — a linchpin member of NATO.
There is no freedom in China. The Communists still in control have the blood of 50 million Chinese dead on their hands from Mao’s brutal revolutions and genocides. Yet we enjoy all sorts of cultural, political, and economic bipartisan relationships with China, whose nuclear patronage of North Korea has done more damage to U.S. security than any plot from the dark mind of Vladimir Putin.
In terms of Russia’s macabre history, Putin is a piker compared with Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin, who may have orchestrated the deaths of 20 million Russians. After December 1941, the United States concluded a “Big Three” wartime pact with Stalin and supplied 20 percent of the Soviet Union’s wartime resources and arms — some of it later lavishly recycled to post-war Communist uprisings around the globe.
Has progressives’ sudden furor, then, arisen understandably over the fact that Putin hired hackers who leaked embarrassing information both during the 2016 election and earlier during the last years of the Obama administration? Or are they enraged over Putin’s efforts to leak, lie, and disrupt our elections?
But if so, why did the Obama administration —in power until January 20, 2017 — never react forcefully to such undeniable provocations? Obama himself even discounted the ability of Russia to do much to influence the election, whatever Russia’s real intent. Obama merely told Americans, in mid-December 2016, that he had asked Putin “to cut it out.” Ipse dixit.
Is it a noble tenet of U.S. policy to renounce all foreign interference in any nation’s sovereign’s elections?
I wish it were, but it seems not so. Liberal politicians and administrations in relatively recent times have interfered with both our own and foreign elections. The Obama administration did not try to cover up the fact that it tried its best to make Bibi Netanyahu and his conservative Likud Party lose the 2015 Israeli election. The point is not that “everyone does it,” but that we should have expected interference from any quarter (and prepared for it), in the same way that we ourselves seek to stealthily advance agendas we perceive as favorable in other countries.
Obama himself in that infamous hot-mic episode with outgoing Russian president Medvedev whispered:
On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this, this can be solved but it’s important for him to give me space. . . . This is my last election. After my election, I have more flexibility.
Had Trump been surveilled and unmasked on a U.S. intercept saying exactly these words to a high Russian official, Robert Mueller would have his case.
The obvious meaning was that the president of the United States was stealthily referencing some prior understanding, in which if Putin did not cause embarrassing problems overseas during Obama’s 2012 reelection bid, then Obama would later reciprocate by offering concessions (“flexibility”) in the general topic under discussion: missile defense. What is often forgotten is that Putin (John Kerry’s supposed WMD savior in Syria) was relatively quiet and helpful in 2012, Obama did win reelection, he did show flexibility after the election with Putin, and the U.S. did curtail much of its advocacy of foreign-based missile defense.
The KGB file noted that Kennedy would lend Andropov a hand to ‘counter the militaristic policies’ of Reagan. In return, the Soviets would lend the Democratic party a hand in undermining Reagan’s chances of reelection.
Obviously Obama did not wish to discuss with voters such an implicit understanding with Russia that in theory privileged his own political agendas over those of his country. Such “collusion” is reminiscent of Senator Ted Kennedy’s infamous 1983 communications, via intermediary John Tunney, to Soviet General Secretary Yuri Andropov. In a Soviet memo, which surfaced only after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russians claimed that Kennedy was dangling before them an “unabashed quid pro quo,” as Peter Robinson put it, writing for Forbes. The KGB file noted that Kennedy would lend Andropov a hand to “counter the militaristic policies” of President Reagan. In return, the Soviets would lend the Democratic party a hand in undermining Reagan’s chances of reelection in 1984.
Again, the conniving Russian efforts to wage cyber warfare against the United States and to foul up American elections is the sort of electoral-sandbagging behavior typical of Russian. On rarer occasions and to a lesser extent, it’s apparently typical of U.S. politicians, at least in the case of Israel and Russia. And Obama publicly weighed in on which side he favored in the recent Brexit vote and in the French national election; in fact, he released a video endorsement of Emmanuel Macron a few days before French voters went to the polls.
Were the Democrats and Obama, then, properly skeptical of the Putin plutocracy and neo-czarist regime, and were they ready to strike back? Hardly.
Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton came into office promising to “reset” Russian relations that purportedly had been unilaterally ruined by the Iraqi warmonger George W. Bush, who, in their view, had overreacted to Putin’s Georgia aggressions by siding with the breakaway Ossetians.
So was born the progressive “reset” with Vladimir Putin —over the objections of much of the Republican congressional establishment. Missile defense with the Eastern Europe was sidetracked. Russian cyber provocations were mostly ignored. Obama and the Democrats mocked Mitt Romney in 2012 when he warned about Russia’s existential threats to the U.S. A 20 percent sale of North American uranium to Russian interests was approved by the Obama administration. The likes of the Clinton Foundation, Bill Clinton, John Podesta’s associates, and some American anti-fracking activists all at various times were showered both directly and indirectly with Russian financial largess. Thugs roughed up an American citizens in front of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, and Russian hit-men likely took out a dissident in Washington, D.C. — all to snores of the Obama administration, eager to offer any sort of appeasement in order to save its constantly referenced “reset.”
When Putin went into Crimea and eastern Ukraine, the Obama administration offered rhetorical rebuffs but otherwise did not do much — again still hoping that the reset (marked by the ridiculous red plastic Jacuzzi reset button ceremony in Geneva in 2009) might prove an Obama “legacy.”
In general, over the last 70 years — whether in the Roosevelt administration or the 1950s State Department, or in Democratic calls for a nuclear freeze in the 1980s, or in Democrats’ pressure on Reagan to embrace détente with Gorbachev — Democrats have been more accommodating with Russia, whether its Soviet or post-Soviet governments. Even after proof of all sorts of provocations, Obama was still playing down the Russian threat in the month before he left office:
There have been folks out there who suggest somehow if we went out there and made big announcements and thumped our chests about a bunch of stuff, that somehow it would potentially spook the Russians. I think it doesn’t read the thought process in Russia very well.
Trump’s campaign message — rebuilding the military, restoring deterrence abroad, Jacksonianism instead of Obamism, and pushing fracking and horizontal drilling to crash world oil prices — laid out an anti-Russian agenda, at least in comparison with Hillary’s.
Clearly, Trump’s campaign message — rebuilding the military, restoring deterrence abroad, Jacksonianism instead of Obamism, and pushing fracking and horizontal drilling to crash world oil prices — laid out an anti-Russian agenda, at least in comparison with Hillary’s green advocacy and the chance that she’d continue the reset polices in place during her tenure as secretary of state. As expected, Trump’s first six months of governance have proved more bothersome to Russia than were the Obama administration’s in 2009.
In sum, the idea that progressives and Democrats as longtime Russian hawks are suddenly clamoring to punish Putin’s Russia as the existential enemy once outlined by Mitt Romney is nuts.
Russia Did It!
So what drives this about-face?
Not the fact that Russia tried to cause chaos in 2016, as it has for many years with all Western democracies. Perhaps it is only because a supposedly unbeatable Hillary inexplicably lost to the unlikely Donald Trump — thanks to her own campaign’s incompetence rather than Russian collusion.
Had Hillary Clinton just campaigned in Wisconsin once, and more in Pennsylvania and Michigan (and less in Georgia and Arizona), President Hillary Clinton might now be lecturing us about her reset 2.0 outreach to Vladimir Putin.
Instead, a moment after her electoral demise, “the Russians did it” trope bloomed, the disseminated Steele–Fusion GPS file resurfaced to become the buzz of the properly toadyish media, and “collusion” was born — a charge that so far has not proven true, even though it has consumed thousands of hours of investigations, and millions of hours of media hysteria.
As a result of a McCarthy-like Russian-under-every-American-bed hysteria, we now have all became far less safe in an already very, very dangerous world.
— NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author of The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won, to appear in October from Basic Books.