An Ignorant Media and Defense Establishment Prevents a Sober Russia Policy

In yet another reminder of the damage inflicted by the Trump-Russia collusion hoax on the establishment media’s credibility and sanity, liberal pundit Keith Olbermann recently took to Twitter to renounce “the stain of Russian heritage” that apparently haunts him. 

It’s unclear where this is coming from in the first place. In 2007, Olbermann spoke of “my immigrant German ancestors” to try to score a point against conservative immigration restrictionists. More than a decade later, he seems to have discovered new foreign blood to weaponize against his political opponents. But indiscriminately trashing Russia—not just its government, but the nation as a whole—is nothing new to establishment propagandists. Since the 2016 election, pundits like Rachel Maddow and Jonathan Chait have spun elaborate Russian conspiracies. In 2017, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told NBC that Russians are “almost genetically driven to co-opt, penetrate, gain favor, whatever.” 

Russia and Russians are some of the American media’s few remaining acceptable targets because the U.S. defense establishment prefers to focus on Russia to the exclusion of more dangerous enemies. The Obama Administration spent eight years compromising the United States’ ability to respond to Islamic extremism, and the Biden Administration is now re-opening the door to Chinese influence on American institutions. 

This leaves Russia as not just a competitor to the United States but as the only foreign power against which the national security state and its supporting actors in the media can deploy unrestrained aggression. 

Russia Is Inconvenient

Let’s quickly dispense with the idea that the U.S. government opposes Russia because of democracy or human rights concerns. America has no trouble allying with countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, two theocratic dictatorships currently tearing apart their neighbor, Yemen. Moreover, America’s allies in the West often disregard values like freedom of expression: they forcibly shut down activist groups and deploy the police to shut down speech.

So what have Russians done for the past few decades—aside from having the audacity to put their country next to all those NATO bases—to become the ultimate villains in the minds of people in America’s foreign policy establishment? 

The short answer is that Russia is inconvenient.

Russia is a standard regional power with standard motivations: maintaining its sphere of influence and securing territories from which to project force—especially naval force, since Russia has few warm-water ports. American experts struggle to relate, since the United States military enjoys a global reach.

Russia’s secondary motivation—protecting the interests of ethnic Russians in neighboring countries—is even more of a mystery to Western observers, for whom a nation that defends its recognized historical demographic is an alien concept. 

Because of this, they offer outdated and misleading explanations for Russia’s behavior. They say Vladimir Putin wants to rebuild the Soviet Union, ignoring Putin’s own remark that anyone who wants to bring back the USSR “has no brain.” Putin, they say, wants to rebuild the Russian Empire, even though the Russian regime has neither the internal stability nor the economic leverage to pursue this objective. It’s ironic that America, whose foreign policy is based on ideological goals like spreading capitalism and promoting liberal values, accuses Russia of Communist or imperial ambitions.

Understanding Post-Soviet History

To get a balanced view of Russia’s motivations, Americans need to set aside these preconceptions and understand the history of Russia’s post-Soviet relationship with the West.

It started in the late 1990s. Russian oligarchs advised by American economists had spent nearly a decade snatching up Russia’s recently-privatized industries, enriching themselves while their country descended into poverty, crime, and misery. Then President Boris Yeltsin, the bumbling alcoholic who had seized nearly unlimited executive power with military force just six years prior, announced his resignation in 1999. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin became acting president, then won the election of 2000—not an entirely clean affair, but an improvement over 1996, when the United States openly intervened to help Yeltsin win.

At which point Putin did something he wasn’t supposed to do: he brought the oligarchs to heel, jailing those he could do without and bringing the rest into the fold. It was a setback for the American and European business interests that had helped the oligarchs strip the nation for parts, and the beginning of Russia charting her course away from that of the West. 

Conditions in Russia steadily improved in the early- and mid-2000s. Wages, life expectancy, and other metrics approached or met European standards. By 2002, Putin and President George W. Bush reported a trusting and productive relationship. But the opinion-shapers of the American foreign policy establishment would have none of it. In 2004, the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof tipped his hand, complaining that Putin “is not a sober version of Boris Yeltsin.” Two years later, the Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens announced that it was “time we start thinking of Vladimir Putin’s Russia as an enemy of the United States.” 

Despite nominally good relations, America continued encroaching on Russia’s sphere of influence. NATO had absorbed the Baltic states and most of Eastern Europe by 2004, even though President George H.W. Bush had promised to Yeltsin in the 1990s that the alliance would not expand further. Then in 2008, Georgian president and aspiring NATO vassal Mikheil Saakashvili invaded the pro-Russian border region of South Ossetia. It took just over a week for Russian forces to repel the Georgian military and permanently annex the region. 

Despite the fact that Georgia had undeniably initiated the conflict, the U.S. media uniformly portrayed Russia as the aggressor. Fox News even cut off an interview with a South Ossetian woman who described being rescued by Russian troops and said that Georgia had invaded first. The agenda was set: from now on, Russia would be considered a rogue illiberal state with troubling expansionist ambitions. 

Declining Relations, Irrational Responses

U.S.-Russia relations continued to deteriorate over the next several years, with the Obama Administration’s attempt at a “reset” proving largely unsuccessful. All the while, the United States continued its efforts to draw Eastern Europe away from Russia. The 2014 U.S. facilitated coup in Ukraine was the culmination of this process: the new Ukrainian government immediately began to marginalize Ukraine’s large Russian population by restricting recognition of Russian language and culture. This disproportionately affected Crimea, the majority-Russian peninsula which had hosted Russian naval forces for centuries. In February 2014, the Russian military annexed Crimea. The next month, the peninsula’s temporary authorities declared autonomy from Ukraine and accepted Russian rule. 

The United States responded with predictable outrage. But to the American national security establishment, this was much worse than the conflict with Georgia: something had changed since 2008. The Russian units that annexed South Ossetia fought well, but were assembled piecemeal and encountered serious command and control issues. The green-clad troops with no identifying patches who appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, and took Crimea practically without a single shot were something else entirely. (The demonstrative politeness of the “little green men” became somewhat of a meme on the Russian internet.)

The ensuing seamless integration of Crimea into the Russian Federation concerned the United States even more. The annexation demonstrated that the Russian military had learned the lessons of 2008, and that the Putin regime had moved on to a phase of aggressively asserting national interests, including protecting Russians abroad and reclaiming historical Russian territories. 

Unfortunately, Western analysts and pundits were unable to take a sober look at the situation. The post-Crimea burst of activity by American foreign policy observers was also the beginning of the Russia derangement which would go on to spike during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Russia expert Mark Galeotti interpreted an obscure article by Russian General Valery Gerasimov as an outline of Russia’s nefarious new grand strategy. Molly McKew, another such expert who once served as an advisor to Georgia’s Saakashvili, picked it up and ran with it after Trump took office. But in 2018, Galeotti penned an apology for essentially inventing the “Gerasimov Doctrine” out of thin air.

The U.S. foreign policy establishment had once again created a narrative without any attempt to understand the actual motivations of Putin, the Russian state, or the Russian people. 

With a mindset like this, it’s not surprising that the American national security state and media acted the way they did in 2016. No matter that the Trump-Russia collusion narrative completely fell apart just a few years later. We can only hope that America will one day see Russia as a competitor with rational motivations, not as a target for the ever-shifting ideological agendas of the U.S. government.

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About Chris Nagavonski

Chris Nagavonski is a writer and translator from Washington, D.C. who specializes in Eastern European affairs.

Photo: John MacDougall/AFP via Getty Images