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Russia’s Improbable Role in Everything

Russia is not going to invade Ukraine. And the hysterical alarmism that they are capable of anything, while Washington and its allies are not, serves no interest better than Moscow’s. The only real threat is to the defense industry’s bottom line and the Clinton campaign, both of which benefit heavily from perpetuating the image of smirking villain Vladimir Putin’s crooked finger hovering impatiently over the button…

Ironic how the tables have turned. Long a talking point of the rabid right, liberals have at last managed to successfully weaponize conservatives’ favorite stalking horse back against them: soft on Russia!

It may be the world’s largest country, but Russia’s modern incarnation does not deserve to play such an outsized role in U.S. politics. Live and let live; they haven’t done a thing we haven’t done ourselves dozens of times.

And if it truly sits on the brink of systemic collapse so gleefully fever dreamed by our investor-political class, then far-flung military misadventures to extend and solidify a new frontier across 600 miles of hostile territory would be a fatal step. Failing states have enough troubles of their own to not seek out additional ones in the physical occupation of vast, densely and diversely populated, ungovernable neighbors.

Crude and unsophisticated it may be, but as NATO handshakes, roundtables, and coffeebreaks its way inexorably forward, all of the frozen or freezing conflicts with little green men and token ethnic separatists have flared up along its creeping edge: Donetsk, Luhansk, Crimea, Abkhazia, Ossetia, Transnistria. Yet these are not signs of Russian power ascendant, but in decline.

Reconjuring our ancestral cold war enemy and imbuing them with magical powers of ubiquitous influence is self-disempowering and discredits our standard of living. And Putin’s Russia, in particular, certainly does not merit the hysteria with which the neolibercon foreign policy establishment reflexively greets it. After all, life is clearly better here; the world’s refugees and migrants overwhelmingly come west, rather than go east.

Not to rub it in their faces, but artless reasons abound to not have a crisis of confidence, hyperventilating about omnipotent Kremlin puppet masters and keeping up with the Russian joneses. We’ve commoditized and sold our culture far and wide to billions of satisfied customers; the world prefers ours to theirs. And, Russia remains a natural ally in the war on terror; we have much more in common with them than sandy extremists. Lest we forget, they were fighting the Afghan War 20 years before we adopted it, under similar circumstances and for similar reasons.

Shortly after the uprising in Ukraine’s eastern oblasts began, Putin ominously told Portugal’s then-prime minister that he could take Kyiv in two weeks; Barroso should have asked him why. It’s logistically infeasible and Russia doesn’t want to win. The worst outcome for Moscow in Donbas would be a “you break it, you buy it” scenario wherein they themselves become responsible for absorbing and rebuilding the devastated territories. Holding Kyiv a hostage of instability is the goal, because that’s how they stop NATO and the EU.

New Russia, a land bridge physically connecting contested territories spawned by Moscow, is the cause célèbre over which imminent invasion enthusiasts agonize, but Transnistria has survived without one for 25 years, and the eventual completion of an actual bridge across Kerch is Crimea’s alternative. Russia’s real objective is not complex. It is simply to call euroatlantic aspirants’ territorial integrity and governability into question.

Staggering from constitutional crisis to constitutional crisis doth not a good ally make, and perpetual states of military readiness are a great way to ensure that transparent civilian control of the armed forces and their accountable democratic oversight remain unreachable benchmarks for broke, wannabe democracies on Russia’s border.

Although, Ukrainians should not be blamed for trying. Who wouldn’t choose our rights-based world over the corrupt, rusting alternative proffered by Moscow? But not everything must be at their expense. Everything is not always Russia’s fault. Yanukovych’s stifling presidency may have been a crushing blow to Ukraine’s fledgling democracy, but in the long run, perhaps not so damaging as his violent ouster.

By the time the Maidan prevailed, Ukraine had less than one year to go until its next regularly scheduled presidential election; almost made it. A lawful transition of power by democratic means within the existing constitutional framework would have gone a long way toward proving as a good faith gesture Ukrainians’ oft-touted, still-unproven commitment and capacity to join the euroatlantic space.

Teetering skeptically on the geocultural edge of these resurrected cold war animosities, Ukraine understandably fears the rights-based world might move on, and turn its attention away from undeniable instances of Russian aggression. There’s also a hint of desperation; that no one really cares about its wartorn eastern territories anymore.

So, as attention seekers are wont to do, many now cry wolf every time anything happens; despite however unlikely those things may be. Thus, is everything wrong with Ukraine, no matter how inconsequential or outlandish, Russia’s fault. None of it has anything to do with the region’s endemic soviet legacy of corruption and uncontrolled profiteering. It can’t just be the product of secret perestroika auctions and years of infrastructure abuse and mismanagement…

No, it must be the hybrid war: every ill a component of some fiendish Moscow-orchestrated plot. From backwater Ternopil’s lowest vagrant scavenging scrap metal to the Range Rovers-everywhere obscenity of Kyiv and hourly ceasefire violations in Donbas, it’s all meticulously commanded and controlled by Kremlin wizards hard at work waging the information war. And they are so good at it.

Their social media troll tentacles even stretch beyond old Ostblock borders to Allied capitals, where Russian cyberfingers and nationalist party palmgreasing now threaten to manipulate and destabilize our very democracies. Ukraine’s intelligence chief even went so far as to claim that Russia bombs our airports. It will only be a matter of time before they’re blamed for Hillary Clinton’s pneumonia.

Yes, indeed; a crumbling dictatorship relentlessly pummeled by sanctions and long prophesied to be on the verge of utter collapse has its hands around not only Kyiv’s throat but the entire free world’s. Ye gods, we are so helpless.

And neatly coming full circle, Russian public opinion shows they feel exactly the same way about little, ole, omnipotent us.

Abel Cohen lives in the former Soviet space, observing and reporting on democracy and nationalism. He speaks Russian and feels guilty about not knowing Ukrainian.

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