When Did Russia Become an Adversary?

Photo by Alexei Kuznetsov | CC BY 2.0

“Russia is an adversary.” How many times have we heard this lately?  Perhaps in some schoolmarmish reminder from a CNN, MSNBC or Fox anchor. Everybody’s just supposed to know this.

But when did it become received wisdom?

How many times did we hear that Russia was an adversary in the 1990s, when Boris Yeltsin ruled over the Russian Federation, presiding over a bleak decade of economic downward spiral, banning the Communist Party (1991-93), bombarding the Duma building in 1993 during a constitutional crisis, colluding with the U.S. to fix the 1996 Russian presidential election, tolerating repeated U.S./NATO interventions in former Russian ally Yugoslavia from 1994 to 1999, welcoming Harvard Business School advisors to Moscow to reform the Russian economy?

(Oops, I must remind myself that my current university students were for the most part born in the late 90s. So they might not remember hearing much about Russia at all.)

Actually we didn’t as I recall hear anything at all about enmity with Russia.

Russia had gone from being the hulking Eurasian brown bear of the Cold War era to the cuddly teddy bear of a drunken buffoon, Boris Yeltsin. Russia was not an enemy but a pathetic foil, the other superpower experiencing abject defeat as the U.S. asserted “full-spectrum dominance” during the “American Century” of the 2000s, an object of amusement by those crowing over the U.S.’s (imagined) victory in the Cold War.

Russia was not an adversary when, following the 9/11 attacks, Yeltsin’s successor Vladimir Putin offered NATO a transport route through Russia to supply the alliance in its Afghan War. I don’t recall hearing any official announcement to the effect that Russia had been judged an adversary at that point—by anyone I respect, anyway.

Was it in June 1999 when the Russian Army moved to secure Pristina Airport in Kosovo, at the end of NATO’s aggressive campaign in the Serbian province? This incident strikes me not as a provocation but  as a measured move and pointed statement to NATO (the anti-Soviet military alliance that refuses to fold as the Warsaw Pact did in 1990, and which has increasingly become a tool of U.S. imperialism) that Russia too retains historical interests in the Balkans.

The fact that Russia opposed the cruelly absurd Rambouillet ultimatum followed by the NATO war on Serbia did not make Russia my enemy; I absolutely agreed that the war was wrong. My adversary was Madeleine Albright, who wanted war in Kosovo and delighted in the result (an independent country of Kosovo, a failed state wrenched illegally from Serbia, a drugs hub and ceter of human trafficking scheduled for NATO admission).

Did Russia become an adversary in 2008, when (after the U.S. had recognized Kosovo’s independence, as a thing needing no justification because it was as Condi Rice put it “sui generis”) Russia went ahead and recognized two separatist republics in what had been the Georgian SSR, South Ossetia and Abkhazia? Did it become such when Russia briefly invaded Georgia, where a poathetic U.S. puppet (Mikhail Saakashvili) brought to power during the “color revolution” (Rose Revolution) of 2003 emboldened by a promise of foture NATO membership provoked Russian forces stationed in South Ossetia?

Recall how at the time Sen. John McCain said, “We are all Georgians now” and called for military aid to Georgia. (McCain’s always been clear on who the enemy was, and while you might suppose that his extreme militarist views would have wholly discredited him, he is every news anchor’s ideal, the ultimate U.S. patriot and war hero.) But the Bush administration declined to provoke Russia; had not Bush seen into Putin’s soul, the soul of a man deeply concerned about the interests of his country?

Enter the Obama administration and Hillary Clinton as secretary of state intent on arranging a “reset” of the bilateral relationship. But the expansion of NATO to include Albania and Croatia was not helpful. Nor was the campaign, waged by the “National Foundation for Democracy” and other foreign NGOs in Ukraine, to topple the elected president Viktor Yanukovych (an opponent of Ukraine’s NATO entry) and replace him with one that would join the anti-Russian alliance.

In February 2014 a coup plainly conceptualized in Washington, amply documented by intercepted calls between Victoria Nuland and the U.S. ambassador in Ukraine, succeeded in toppling Yanukovych, who fled to Russia. Ethnic Russians who dominate in the eastern Donbas region predictably rebelled against the fascist-tinged new Kiev government. Russia predictably annexed (re-annexed) Crimea to insure its continued control over its bases.

Look at the map. Look at how big Russia is. Look at where it has naval bases. Russia is not like the U.S. with coasts dotted with naval bases. It has some on the Baltic Sea, one in Vladivostok on the Pacific, Murmansk on the Barents Sea in the far north. The Black Sea Fleet present in Crimea from the 1770s is important to what any objective professor of international relations would call “Russian national security.” Of course the Russians were angry and concerned.

That I think was the decisive point. Yes, February 2014. The relentless drive of the U.S. to complete the expansion of NATO, to integrate the largest nation on the European continent, which some neocons call “the crown jewel” into the alliance, using in this case the cause of “the Ukrainian people’s European aspirations” failed. It invited an immediate, decisive Russian response. An investment of $ 5 billion and preposterous interventions such as the visits of Nuland, John McCain and Lindsey Graham to the Maidan Square in Kiev had produced a new government of dubious legitimacy as well as a frozen conflict.

Russia became an “adversary” because it refused to accept massive U.S. intervention in the politics of a neighboring country more closely integrated into Russian history and civilization that Mexico is integrated into the U.S. in such respects. It’s an adversary because it opposes NATO, which is to say, it resists its own military encirclement. As any U.S. leadership would under similar circumstances. (Imagine an existing Russia-centered military pact including most of Central America, Cuba and Venzuela moving to include Mexico. The  “Monroe Doctrine” forbids colonization and the establishment of military bases by Old World powers in the New World. But the U.S. expects Russia to accept NATO bases on its very borders. And no TV journalist bothers to raise this, or think historically, critically, comparatively.)

But don’t expect cable commentators to dwell on NATO. No, Putin is hostile to the west because he hates liberal democracy, the value of the free ballot, human rights. He just wants to divide Europe, supporting nationalists over mainstream parties. He wants to disrupt democracies like the Grinch wanted to spoil Christmas. It’s not a matter of attributing him a particular ideology like Marxism. He’s just evil, and you, dear viewer, are supposed to realize that.

* * * *

The basis of Kantian ethics is Matthew 7:2. Do unto others what you would have them do unto you. The U.S. is—through NATO expansion, provocations of Russia, application of sanctions of Russia and demand for allies’ participation in them—subjecting its one-time (Yeltsin-era) “partner” to insulting treatment.

NATO announces expansion. Moscow complains, asks “Why?” NATO responds: “Don’t worry. This is not directed at you.” Russia replies: “Of course it’s directed against us. Don’t be silly.”

In its long history, Russia has been attacked from eastern or central Europe many times (as well as from the Caucasus in southern Europe). German crusader knights invaded in 1242. Lithuania invaded in the fourteenth century, when the Lithuanian state was greater than Muscovy. In the seventeenth and eighteenth century there were multiple invasions from Sweden and/or Poland. Napoleon invaded between 1798 and 1815; Tolstoy’s War and Peace chronicles this epic conflict. Probably around 400,000 civiian casualties. In 1940  the Germans launched Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of Russia that took eleven million soldiers’ lives and those of 26 million civilians.

What has the U.S. experienced comparable to these invasions? How well can a brainwashed North American understand the problem of securing borders, not against poor immigrants, but against invasion? How many are equipped, by education, media, and political discourse, to understand geopolitics from the point of view of Russians?

(I do not mean to suggest that Russians have a common view; Russia is a civil society and debates rage. But my sense is that Russians of many different stripes see NATO as frightening and threatening and will support the regime in resisting its expansion. As they and all of us should.)

The summit is imminent. I would hope that Putin in Helsinki says, “Look, let’s agree state-sponsored hacking and surveillance, as conducted by many governments,  are big problems.  Let us work to resolve these issues. I’m just glad you were elected, not Hillary, because she was horrible. Look what she did in Libya and Syria. You seem sincere about improving relations but we’re concerned about apparent divisions in your staff since we keep getting conflicting messages….

“In Syria we want a stable secular (not religiously-based) regime. We think the Syrian Arab Army is the best guarantor of stability and the defeat of ISIL and other al-Qaeda spin-offs. We understand your desire to continue to confront ISIL in northeastern Syria, such as it is, and although our Damascus ally condemns it as a violation of Syrian sovereignty we have been cooperating with you off and on against ISIL—even though in Sept. 2016 you sabotaged an agreement with us to coordinate strikes when you attacked Deir Ezzor killing 100 of our Syrian allies.

“We want to facilitate the departure of your forces as you’ve indicated you want to accomplish. As for arranging Iranian departure, we do not control Iran and the Iranians have made it clear they will withdraw advisors from Syria and Iraq only at their governments’ request. I our view they have played a positive role against ISIL and other al-Qaeda factions and spin-offs. We do not agree with your vilification of Iran and indeed will be expanding commercial and military ties. We urge you not to pressure your allies to cut all trade ties with Iran; we and the Chinese will profit in any case.

“On Ukraine, you know, Russia will never return Crimea to Ukraine. You must please decide whether you want to sanction us forever for something that is not going to change, or do what Condi Rice did in 2008 (recognize a sui generis) and reset the U.S.-Russian relationship as loser Hillary could not do. We can make a deal about concrete implementation of the Minsk Agreements.

“We are still very interested in an Exxon-Gasprom deal on Arctic oil drilling, the one Rex Tillerson was negotiating when the sanctions were applied in 2014. Of course we want a Trump Tower eventually. Why can’t we be friends?

“Let’s announce U.S. full participation in the Astana negotiations with Syria, Turkey, Iran and Russia to facilitate inter-Syrian dialogue to produce a peace settlement and new elections, and in the Minsk talks between Russia, Ukraine, the Ukrainian opposition, and European parties.  And maybe an agreement not to expand NATO to include Ukraine or Georgia. That will show the world tensions are declining an enhance your prospects for that Nobel Peace prize you so deserve.”

May flattery make Putin a friend. He is not my adversary, or this country’s adversary. He’s the adversary of those who, in their desire to topple Trump on any basis whatsoever, are happy to mentally leapfrog back to the McCarthy era, trash their object of disdain as a Russian puppet and even demand that Trump cancel his summit because of a suspiciously time Mueller Investigation announcement of more Russian indictments.

Russophobia has proven as strong as “anticommunism” as a persistent, unquestioned force in this country at this critical time. Both its strength and stupidity are frightening. If Trump’s uniquely odd presidency sees the possibility of rapprochement with Russia—smothered by the traditional wise and evil councilors—-we might as well have Goldwater Girl Clinton in the White House, labeling Putin Hitler and likening Crimea to the Sudetenland.

Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu