The current hubbub about Russian interference in the U.S. political process, subsequent to anonymous whispers to the New York Times and Washington Post by U.S. intelligence officials, as ever aligned with the Left side of American politics, is based on exactly, precisely, zero facts we know of.
Contrast this with the Soviet era, when the Kremlin’s arguably principal preoccupation was destructive interference in American life, and when these very U.S. officials and media spared no effort to minimize the obvious existence and import of countless pro-Soviet, anti-American organizations and “front groups.” Today, statements such as those of U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) that the Russians “interfered in our elections” and “are trying to destroy democratic movements all over the world” compound partisanship with ignorance.
The Good News
Today’s Russia is not the Soviet Union, not in its internal structure or in any of its capacities, nor in its leaders’ intentions, nor most importantly in the sentiments it inspires among the world’s peoples.
Vaclav Havel is right: The Russian people are freer than they have been in a thousand years—admittedly a low bar. When Communist ideology died, the Kremlin lost the capacity to marshal Russian society’s forces through the vast, pervasive party structure that ruled thought, word, and deed from the Kremlin. Vladimir Putin’s powers, much diminished in Russia, do not reach beyond its borders. More than we, Putin knows that the international hand he plays is weak because he can only ask, not command, from a people who have little to give and less inclination to give it.
It is weak most directly in relation to its most important international objective: securing as much of the former Soviet empire in as many ways as possible—Ukraine above all. That is because while the Russian army can defeat those of any and all of the empire’s successor states, it would be incapable of holding any of them against popular resistance. Nor would the Russian people support the attempt to do so. That is why Putin has pushed against mostly open doors: absorbing mostly Russian Abkhazia, Crimea, and the Donbass at the cost of heightening already high anti-Russian sentiments in the “near abroad.”
Russia’s hand is weak because its economy, unlike the Soviet economy, is not largely self-sufficient. Tied to the rest of the world, dependent on the sale of commodities, with a convertible currency the value of which rests on the supply of reserve currencies that come through international channels, it is vulnerable to sanctions as well as to ordinary economic vagaries.
Above all, Russia’s hand is infinitely weaker than the Soviet Union’s because it utterly lacks the fascination that monster exercised on the world’s intellectuals and rulers. Within recent memory, whole sectors of the world’s polities had defined themselves de facto if not viva voce by allegiance to Moscow’s priorities and spared no effort to support them. Today, nobody does that. The bitter divisions among Americans today are, in substantial part, the legacy of the affections for Soviet communism that used to threaten our regime.
In sum, Putin’s imperialism, being of the traditional Russian kind, does not threaten our regime.
There is no good reason for enmity between America and Russia. During our Revolutionary War, Russia was neutral on America’s side. John Quincy Adams’s excellent relations with the czar contributed to his initiative for peace in the War of 1812. Lincoln called the czar his “great and good friend.” Theodore Roosevelt helped end the Russo-Japanese war of 1905 on terms better for Russia than military results would have indicated.
America’s natural focus on the oceans and Russia’s equally natural one on Eurasia augur natural harmony. But the Soviet era taught us that, while Russia as a major power among other Eurasian powers with due influence in its neighborhood is very much in America’s interest, a Russian empire that bids for hegemony over Eurasia, never mind overseas power, is to be avoided even at substantial cost.
The Bad News
Putin has played his weak hand masterfully. While he has pushed only against mostly open doors, entirely too many doors from the Baltic to the Mediterranean have been open. The doors leading to the Atlantic are ajar and undefended politically as well as militarily. Putin has moved to the edge of resistance. But serious resistance has been lacking. This means that circumstances and opponents’ incompetence, as much or maybe more than Putin’s willfulness, may make of Russia a Eurasian hegemon inimical to America’s interest.
Necessarily, Ukraine is the focal point. Without Ukraine, Russia is a European power. With Ukraine incorporated, Russia’s “near abroad”—the Baltics, Belarus, and Georgia—would be hard put to maintain their independence. With these more or less incorporated, a 21st-century Russian empire would overawe today’s terminally somnolent Europe. It might well be welcomed by it as protector of what is left of European civilization against Islamic barbarism.
Thus far, the fact that U.S policy maintains an excess of commitments over the capacity or even the intention to meet them has only increased this prospect’s likelihood by telegraphing a lack of seriousness. The United States induced Ukraine to give up its nuclear arsenal to Russia in exchange for a half-sincere promise to uphold its independence and territorial integrity. When Russia struck, U.S. support amounted to words plus its armed forces’ “meals ready to eat.” (At least it might have paid for Italian rations, which come with wine).
The United States expanded NATO to “cover” the Baltic States. But as Russia looms over them, the United States is orchestrating the deployment of one battalion to each country to serve as “trip wires.” But what happens when Russia trips these “wires” by surrounding the battalions with, among other things, S-400 anti-aircraft systems that foreclose resupply because are beyond U.S. technology’s capacity to surmount? American surrender and Russian hegemony. Not good.
What Is To Be Done?
A bargain is possible, if the United States will a) get serious about our own armed forces; b) decide what boundaries we are willing to enforce between our interests in Eurasia and Russia’s; c) get serious about what Eastern European countries we will enable to defend themselves and how; d) decide, for real, that if Russia tries to break those limits, it will—in addition to running into the local resistance we will have armed—suffer a U.S. cutoff of financial relations and a secondary trade embargo.
Seriousness in negotiation about war and peace with a nuclear power require actual, workable plans for the use of nuclear weapons. Currently, the U.S. government has zero preparations for the conduct of nuclear war principally because, since the mid-1960s, the U.S. government (rhetoric notwithstanding, sometimes) has built, planned and trained to make sure that America is wholly without defense against Russian (and Chinese) nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles. This is not the place to discuss that issue—only to note that Russia’s armed forces today equip, plan, and train for using nuclear weapons, that the Soviet Union and Russia have always done everything in their power to safeguard their population against missiles, and that Putin is fully aware that the U. S. government has an unbroken history of backing off any and all commitments as soon as the remotest possibility of nuclear war arises. American fecklessness adds an ace to Putin’s otherwise weak hand.
Today, the official U.S. position is that Russia must give back Crimea and the Donbass to Ukraine. To that end, the U.S. government is maintaining economic sanctions that cause Russia enough inconvenience to let Putin blame America for his people’s deprivations, but not enough to force anything. Earth to D.C.: Cheap sanctions are not serious. Serious ones are not cheap. The U.S. government had better decide what it is really prepared to do. Russian-speaking areas were Stalin’s poison-pill gift to Ukraine and remained Moscow’s levers over Kiev. Hence, while keeping Moscow from absorbing Ukraine makes sense for America, doing it halfheartedly for the whole thing does not.
The independence of the Baltic States and Georgia, in addition to that of Ukraine, is important to forestalling a Russian political juggernaut to the Atlantic. Fortunately, as we have seen, Russia does not have the military capacity to undo their independence. But for the United States to take these countries formally under its wing via NATO or the 1994 semi-treaty with Ukraine while doing next to nothing to bolster their capacity to deter eventual Russian forays, ended up provoking Russia while leaving it free to work its will.
Common sense dictates the opposite. Speak softly to Russia. But arm their targets to the teeth.
Putin, who is even less stupid than crazy, may be trusted to respect actual indigenous forces arrayed against Russian forays just as he can be expected to have contempt for “tripwire” battalions and solemn declarations. In the unlikely case that he were to press the issue, the United States could remind Putin by deeds rather than words that we are unique in the world with the capacity to devastate any country by instituting a secondary trade embargo—because nobody can afford to choose dealing with the target thereof rather than with the United States.
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