Dr. Emma Ashford, of the (generally conservative) Cato Institute, proposes that we, in the US led West, should reconsider what she calls our “reflexive hostility” towards Russia. Her remarks are addressed, in the main, towards US leaders but, of course, many in the chattering classes, which includes me, to be sure, are equally prone to take a semi-automatic “belligerent stance” towards Russia.
What’s needed, Emma Ashford says, is a new approach. She explains, and I agree, that “Today’s confrontational rhetoric and policies toward Russia often ignore reality and highlight the need for an alternative approach. A more accurate assessment of Russia today would certainly acknowledge that the country has engaged in belligerent behavior, including repeated attempts at election meddling and violentmurders of Russian defectors inside Western countries. It would also recognize Russia’s continued aggression toward its neighbors, including military action in Georgia and Ukraine, and its profoundly undemocratic political system. Yet at the same time, it would affirm that there is an underlying rationale for many of these actions. Some, such as the seizure of Crimea, reflect security concerns—in that case, the need to maintain Russian military bases inside Ukraine. The same can be said of Russia’s development of new nuclear weapons, which is a response to the George W. Bush administration’s decision to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which effectively initiated a new arms race. Domestic politics play a role, too. Russian President Vladimir Putin fears the West’s more open political systems, and he benefits from today’s antagonism, which helps prop up his domestic popularity.” I do understand Russia’s paranoia about NATO. There was, at the very least, an implicit promise ~ at least Mikhail Gorbachev thought there was ~ that NATO would not expand to the East, into what Gorbachev considered to be “buffer states” between Russia and an heavily armed Western alliance. Even NATO acknowledges the fact that negotiations “may have left some Soviet politicians with the impression that NATO enlargement, which started with the admission of the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland in 1999, had been a breach of … Western commitments.” Looking at the map it is not hard to see why Russia feels threatened. The Warsaw Pact was, once, large and provided a major “buffer” zone between NATO and “Mother Russia.” Equally, I can understand Russia’s pressing, indeed vital strategic imperative, to have its Black Sea fleet in a secure base … plus, Crimea was, traditionally (since 1783), Russian ~ it was only “given’ to Ukraine by Khrushchev in 1954. The constitutionality of that aside, Sevastopol was, prior to 2014, a major Russian naval base and, some would argue, Ukraine provoked the Russians into seizing the entire peninsula in order to secure their naval base there.
“Ultimately,” Dr Ashford opines, “a more realistic U.S. approach to Russia would reflect the limits of what Washington can and cannot achieve and thus define U.S. interests far more narrowly. At the most basic level, Washington has a clear interest in preventing Russia from dominating Europe, a possibility that is today so far-fetched as to be laughable. Despite the talk of a new Cold War, Russia is not the Soviet Union. The United States also has a clear interest in preventing Russian from meddling in the United States’ domestic politics and in the domestic politics of its closest allies, whether that takes the form of hacking, election meddling, or other violations of sovereignty … [but] … At the same time, the United States also has an interest in avoiding pointless conflict with Russia over states that are simply not that important to U.S. national security, including Syria and Ukraine. Although Washington’s broader stake in regional and global stability may extend to diplomatic or humanitarian engagement in these countries, it is not sufficient to justify military involvement or the risks of inadvertent escalation with Russia. It is unfortunate that in recent years, policymakers in Washington have often construed U.S. interests so broadly as to be meaningless. Instead, they should focus on—and more clearly define—the U.S. interests that are of true concern. This includes maintaining Russian cooperation on key global issues, such as nonproliferation, Iran, and North Korea. The good news is that these narrow interests are actually achievable. By shifting away from confrontational rhetoric and policies, Washington can lower tensions, create effective deterrence on issues of critical importance, and reengage with Russia on topics of mutual interest.” I’m not sure that countering Russian support for e.g. Syria is, for the West, a “pointless conflict.” Securing some kind of
peace stability in the Middle East is a vital strategic interest for the US led West from Australia and Japan to Norway and the Netherlands.
I agree with Dr Ashford that the “confrontational rhetoric” that comes out of Washington and London and Ottawa can and should be toned down … it may make Chrystia Freeland feel better but it doesn’t help. I also agree that we, the US led West (if ‘lead’ and Donald Trump can be used in the same sentence) need to identify our “issues of critical importance” ~ which I would suggest include lowering tensions in Eastern Europe and in the Middle East ~ and making sure that the Russians understand our aims and are quite sure of the “red lines.”
The European situation may require that some Western leaders eat a little crow … it is too late, in my view, to carve NATO up, for better or worse the former Warsaw Pact nations that Russia wants to serve as a buffer zone are alliance and EU members now. The goal must be to allow the Russians free access to Kaliningrad and, therefore to the Baltic … for the foreseeable future.
The Middle East could be the flash point that ignites a regional and, potentially, global nuclear war. Russian meddling in the region is unhelpful … US meddling is about the same. The Arabs and Iranians are, I suspect, on the cusp of a Islamic civil war which will be long and bloody. Only a few nations will want to stand aside and I am convinced that Israel can and will protect Jordan IF we, the collective world, can keep nuclear weapons out of Arab and/or Iranian hands. I have said before that there are four traditional claimants to the title of “master” of the region: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey. I believe that all four, but especially the last three, still want to “lead” the whole of North Africa, the Middle East, part of the Near East and part of West Asia. That plus an ancient and bitter religious division, is what I guess the Islamic civil war will be about. Our strategic aim should be to let the Arabs and Iranians and North Africans and Turks fight it out amongst themselves … we, the US led West should guarantee the safety of Israel and Jordan (and Lebanon , if it asks for protection … that implies the full force of our nuclear arsenals; enough to totally destroy Saudi Arabia or Iran for and make any rebirth impossible for hundreds of years.
The West’s decisions to push, hard, right up to the borders of Russia has provoked anger but China provokes real fear. China, I think, wants to separate Asian Siberia ~ say, just for argument, everything East of the mighty Yenisei River ~ from Russia and leave the latter as an essentially European state while there are two or three or more quasi-independent (think Mongolia) Asian states in West, Central and Eastern Siberia. That is consistent with China’s long term “world view” as I think I understand it. Russia is doing whatever it can to keep China “on side” as a trading partner, military ally and friend, but behind it all lies fear of China’s ambitions.
On balance I think Emma Ashford is more right than wrong … Russia is a problem, but it is mainly a threat because of what I have described as Putin’s adventurous opportunism or opportunistic adventurism. But there are other, more immediate, problems, like the Middle East, in which we and Russia may have more in the way of common interests than we imagine. We must also realize that while Russia is angry with us it really fears China. We can, and should, do little or nothing to reduce Russia’s fear of China but we can and should try to help them focus on their real enemy, which is not the US led West.
I would encourage readers who are interested in the Russian problem to explore an anthology of 40+ articles in Foreign Affairs, going all the way back to George Kennan’s (then writing as X) famous article that, arguably, started the Cold War and prevented a hot one. Churchill was right, Russia is, indeed, “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma,” but that is, mainly, because Russia is not “like” Britain and France or Belgium and Germany or even Sweden or Italy … it’s history and culture are vastly different and Russian people and Russian leaders do not respond the way we often expect. We will not change Russia just by reducing our “reflexive hostility” and the “reflexive hostility.” The Russians have some, a few, legitimate grievances, especially regarding NATO’s expansion and our support of a corrupt Ukrainian government. But Russia is, also, acting in both a hostile and dangerous manner and the US led West does need to protect and promote its own interests in the face of that dangerous hostility.