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Pushing Russia’s Buttons

Assume for a moment that the popular allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 election are all true. How should the US government retaliate?

Short answer: it shouldn’t (any more than it already has). If the Kremlin sneakily helped Donald Trump to victory, then it is likely that our government’s longstanding and unnecessary “punishment” of Russia largely motivated the interference. To reduce the chances of something so appalling from happening in future elections, we should therefore move to relieve the dangerously high tensions that have been mounting between the US and Russia for decades.

For détente to succeed, leaders in the US must try to understand and allay Russia’s legitimate security concerns. That begins with acknowledging the profound Russian trauma caused by World War II, a tragedy to which the Soviet Union lost hundreds of towns and more than 20 million people in less than a decade. Given the depth of that horror, the US should appreciate why Russians today get squeamish when foreign powers start flexing their muscles on Russia’s western border.

Russian statesmen have explained their fears before, but to seemingly little effect. Strong evidence suggests that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, scared of Western encroachment, agreed to NATO’s incorporation of a reunified Germany in 1990 only because the US in turn agreed not to expand the alliance any further east than that. But in flagrant disregard for the objections that the Russians had previously articulated, NATO exploited its newfound strength in post-Soviet Europe by subsuming Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Poland under President Bill Clinton in 1999.

Tasked with ushering Russia into the new century, President Vladimir Putin established some rapport with the incoming US President George W. Bush in 2001. However, relations chilled in 2002 when the US officially abandoned the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and thereby opened the door to a US defense system capable of stopping Russia from effectively using its own nuclear arsenal in response to a US nuclear attack. Against that backdrop, Russia grew even more worried about US recklessness when Bush defied Putin by beginning a protracted and bloody occupation of Iraq in 2003.

Meanwhile, US activity in Europe continued to drive the two governments further apart. In 2004, NATO reignited the Kremlin’s unease about Western military expansion by admitting another set of European countries, this time bringing the alliance all the way up to Russia’s border. Then, shortly before Bush left office, the friction became even more palpable when the United States’ Georgian clients fought Russian troops in the brief but devastating Russo-Georgian War of 2008.

Although President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tried initiating a so-called “reset” in US-Russia relations upon taking office, the new Cold War raged on. In the wake of Russia’s 2011 parliamentary election, Clinton proclaimed that Russian leaders should be “accountable” and requested a “full investigation” into allegations of election “fraud and intimidation.” These thinly veiled jabs at Putin, combined with Clinton’s role in the then-recent ouster and killing of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, increased Moscow’s disquiet about Clinton’s aggressively meddlesome tendencies.

Clinton resigned before Obama levied sanctions in response to Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea, but she continued to promote militarism from the sidelines. Notably, she advocated a no-fly zone to check the power of Kremlin-backed President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, endorsed sanctions against Russia itself, and criticized European leaders for their generally weak response to the authoritarian, pugnacious Putin. Of course, Assad’s Islamist enemies and Putin’s various fascist enemies in Ukraine were not exactly peaceniks either, but Clinton didn’t seem to mind much. Even if it meant strengthening a few terrorist rebels and neo-Nazis along the way, the aspiring Democratic president was apparently intent on putting Russia in its place.

What happened next is still unclear, but let us again consider what it would mean if Russia—likely in hopes of keeping a proven warmonger out of the White House—then executed the alleged plans to undermine Clinton’s campaign. For one, it would mean that the Kremlin behaved despicably, especially because vulnerable Americans who played no role in our government’s provocation of Russia may now be paying the price for it under the rule of an erratic President Trump. However, it would not mean that the US should heighten its attacks on Russia. In fact, any conceivable Russian interference in the 2016 election would give Washington an additional reason to reduce tensions with Moscow today, to try to keep the Kremlin from destabilizing our country again.

Although conventional wisdom may suggest otherwise, the US can pursue this type of détente without sacrificing its national assertiveness. It is no contradiction for the US to promote de-escalation—by lifting sanctions, refusing lethal assistance to Ukraine, and generally scaling down military involvement in Europe—while retaining the option of strongly penalizing Russia if the Kremlin later proves to be the incorrigible, chaos-craving, empire-enhancing government that so many in Washington seem to imagine. At this point, though, it seems likely that Russia is more interested in softening the United States’ aggressive geopolitical posture than in triggering American chaos for the sheer heck of it. That is why peace with Russia is probably still achievable through diplomacy, but we will have to seize the moment before the new Cold War spirals even further out of control.

Tommy Raskin has written on US foreign policy for Antiwar.com and The Nation. Follow him on Twitter @TommyRaskin. 
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