Why Must We Sanction Russia?

Donald Trump is no peacenik. In the footsteps of Barack Obama, he has worsened the man-made famine in Yemen, now the epicenter of the world’s largest humanitarian crisis since 1945. He has decertified Iranian compliance with the JCPOA, even though the IAEA, U.S. intelligence agencies, and Israeli intelligence agencies all agree that Iran is respecting the agreement. On top of that, he has killed civilians in Iraq, extended the 16-year occupation of Afghanistan, and issued terrifying verbal threats to the North Korean government. But just as a broken clock is right twice a day, an otherwise dependable militarist sometimes falls into a peaceful position. For Trump, who earlier this month seemed to lament that “Russia has been very, very heavily sanctioned,” now might be one of those times.

Criticizing sanctions against Russia, even in the implicit way that Trump does, means questioning the widespread assumption that our government has a moral obligation to punish Russia’s crimes. But this mainstream wisdom, which sometimes construes Russian President Vladimir Putin as an almost uniquely evil and implacable Hitlerian, dangerously misrepresents the nature and context of the Kremlin’s misbehavior. In reality, many of Putin’s battlefield opponents are just as illiberal as he is, and nonviolent engagement with Putin—the sort that Trump pursued earlier this week—is probably adequate to improve Putin’s treatment of the United States. Even if we disregard the general failure of sanctions to achieve their supporters’ stated objectives, then, we have good reason to oppose our government’s provocative, lopsided, and civilian-harming sanctions against Russia.

For a glimpse of the misguided anti-Russia fervor currently motivating U.S. action, consider the sanctions bill that Congress passed in July to punish Putin for facilitating nefarious activities in such places as Syria. Proponents of that legislation certainly have great reasons to despise Russia’s allies in the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad, but exactly which of the real-world alternatives to Assad would our pro-sanctions compatriots prefer? Having struck out for Syria’s “moderate” rebels, a good many of whom joined forces with Islamists, the U.S. should realize that Assad is quite possibly the least atrocious figure capable of maintaining some semblance of Syrian stability through these final (or simply newest) stages of the Syrian Civil War. Putin’s aid to Assad is still condemnable, of course, but it does not justify the United States’ sweeping retaliatory sanctions and the resulting deterioration in U.S.-Russian relations.

The same is true of Russia’s interventions in Ukraine, where Putin is not the only criminal and maybe not even the most malevolent one. Although our government endlessly criticizes the Kremlin for annexing the once-Ukrainian Crimea, many Crimeansprobably most—actually prefer Russian rule. Their lives under Moscow are far from perfect, but the majority of them are ethnic Russians who tend to consider Kiev the greater enemy for its attacks on Russian culture. By trying to force a Russian withdrawal, the U.S. is therefore working to undermine many Crimeans’ pursuit of self-determination.

Russian violence in the Donbas does not justify sanctions either. Put simply, the region’s Russian separatists align with Moscow’s villains, while the Ukrainian counterinsurgents align with Kiev’s villains, some of whom are genuine fascists and even more of whom routinely overlook fascist hooliganism in their country. Neither warring party is particularly attractive, in other words, so the U.S. should stay out of the melee and eliminate sanctions that increase hardship in Russia without decreasing it in Ukraine.

As for Putin’s interference in the U.S. presidential election? We still do not know precisely what happened, but it seems clear that any Russian intrusion was largely defensive. Putin was understandably discomfited by the West’s illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the killing of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, the former of which Hilary Clinton endorsed as a voting U.S. senator and the latter of which she helped facilitate as secretary of state. It is no far stretch to suppose that when Clinton then joked about the grisly assassination of Gaddafi, questioned the legitimacy of Russia’s 2011 parliamentary elections, and called Putin’s militarism “reminiscent” of Hitler’s, the Kremlin resolved to prevent this tried-and-true militaristic busybody from antagonizing Russia as the United States’ next president.

We should take comfort in the fact that Russia has not always been this confrontational towards the U.S. Although his authoritarian sympathies and skepticism of the West probably date back to the Cold War, Putin and President George W. Bush actually managed to maintain an amicable relationship before the Bush administration’s headlong march to Baghdad. It was only after more than a decade of Western mischief overseas that Putin may have decided to defend himself by striking back in such a significant way. That being the case, it might not be too late for Trump to reverse our course by talking to Putin, removing sanctions, and promoting a more nuanced understanding of the Kremlin’s foreign policy. If he does not, peace will slip further away.

More articles by:
Weekend Edition
March 16, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Michael Uhl
The Tip of the Iceberg: My Lai Fifty Years On
Bruce E. Levine
School Shootings: Who to Listen to Instead of Mainstream Shrinks
Mel Goodman
Caveat Emptor: MSNBC and CNN Use CIA Apologists for False Commentary
Paul Street
The Obama Presidency Gets Some Early High Historiography
Kathy Deacon
Me, My Parents and Red Scares Long Gone
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Rexless Abandon
Andrew Levine
Good Enemies Are Hard To Find: Therefore Worry
Jim Kavanagh
What to Expect From a Trump / Kim Summit
Ron Jacobs
Trump and His Tariffs
Joshua Frank
Drenched in Crude: It’s an Oil Free For All, But That’s Not a New Thing
Gary Leupp
What If There Was No Collusion?
Matthew Stevenson
Why Vietnam Still Matters: Bernard Fall Dies on the Street Without Joy
Robert Fantina
Bad to Worse: Tillerson, Pompeo and Haspel
Brian Cloughley
Be Prepared, Iran, Because They Want to Destroy You
Richard Moser
What is Organizing?
Scott McLarty
Working Americans Need Independent Politics
Rohullah Naderi
American Gun Violence From an Afghan Perspective
Sharmini Peries - Michael Hudson
Why Trump’s Tariff Travesty Will Not Re-Industrialize the US
Ted Rall
Democrats Should Run on Impeachment
Robert Fisk
Will We Ever See Al Jazeera’s Investigation Into the Israel Lobby?
Kristine Mattis
Superunknown: Scientific Integrity Within the Academic and Media Industrial Complexes
John W. Whitehead
Say No to “Hardening” the Schools with Zero Tolerance Policies and Gun-Toting Cops
Edward Hunt
UN: US Attack On Syrian Civilians Violated International Law
Barbara Nimri Aziz
Iraq Outside History
Wilfred Burchett
Vietnam Will Win: The Long Hard Road
Victor Grossman
Germany: New Faces, Old Policies
Medea Benjamin - Nicolas J. S. Davies
The Iraq Death Toll 15 Years After the US Invasion
Binoy Kampmark
Amazon’s Initiative: Digital Assistants, Home Surveillance and Data
Chuck Collins
Business Leaders Agree: Inequality Hurts The Bottom Line
Jill Richardson
What We Talk About When We Talk About “Free Trade”
Eric Lerner – Jay Arena
A Spark to a Wider Fire: Movement Against Immigrant Detention in New Jersey
Negin Owliaei
Teachers Deserve a Raise: Here’s How to Fund It
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
What to Do at the End of the World? Interview with Climate Crisis Activist, Kevin Hester
Kevin Proescholdt
Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke Attacks America’s Wilderness
Franklin Lamb
Syrian War Crimes Tribunals Around the Corner
Beth Porter
Clean Energy is Calling. Will Your Phone Company Answer?
George Ochenski
Zinke on the Hot Seat Again and Again
Lance Olsen
Somebody’s Going to Extremes
Robert Koehler
Breaking the Ice
Pepe Escobar
The Myth of a Neo-Imperial China
Graham Peebles
Time for Political Change and Unity in Ethiopia
Terry Simons
10 American Myths “Refutiated”*
Thomas Knapp
Some Questions from the Edge of Immortality
Louis Proyect
The 2018 Socially Relevant Film Festival
David Yearsley
Keaton’s “The General” and the Pernicious Myths of the Heroic South