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Thinking About Russia: Pigeonholing Doesn’t Work

Black-and-white thinking rarely works and certainly not about Russia.

Consider the following.

Only days ago, about 100 Russian troops landed in Venezuela to deter a U.S. invasion.

At home, Russian security forces continue to repress pro-democracy movements, dissidents and LGBT rights activists.

The Russian military has long aided the Bashar al-Assad regime, which is responsible for widescale prisoners of war abuse and targeting mass civilians in aerial assaults. Yet this same assistance to Assad has helped prevent another American invasion of a MENA nation.

In 2014, Russia took over Crimea and helped fuel a separatist rebellion in eastern Ukraine, which after 5 years of fighting has killed 13,000 people and continues to take civilian lives on a daily basis. This was heavily rooted in NATO’s expansion well beyond U.S. Secretary of State James Baker’s promised boundaries.

Russians understandably credit Vladimir Putin for restoring national pride and bringing the Russian economy out the 1990s gutter. While Russians may not have confidence in their democratic institutions, in 2017, Putin’s approval rating was at 80%.

Russia employed soft power efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election on behalf of Donald Trump, but this likely had a negligible impact on the outcome. Democrats should face it – the American people are responsible for electing a lunatic in a baby carriage.

How can Russian’s diverse array of behavior be understood?

Within the context of all the world’s governments, Russia is moderately repressive at home. It also is an occasional protector of sovereignty abroad.

Yet there are important caveats.

Sovereignty will be protected by Russia even if the foreign leader is a war criminal, but not if the nation is within the traditional Russian/Soviet sphere of influence, such as Ukraine or Georgia. Then, it will employ soft power efforts to maintain a Russian-leaning leader in power. When the U.S. disturbs this ecosystem, as in the Euromaidan overthrow, a Russian invasion may eschew soft power, and with it, national autonomy.

Russia has acted as a check on U.S. power. Unlike in the early 2000s, when the U.S. had free reign to invade countries while Russia was recovering from vulture capitalism, Russia has been back on its feet for well over a decade. Because it acts as a check on American power, Russia is a demonized enemy. This pervades into U.S. pop culture, where Russia and other Eastern Europeans are often depicted as backward and of totalitarian inclination, such as in the sitcoms Jane the Virgin and New Girl.

Russia demonization has long been politicized.

The 2017 FBI memo on Russian election interference focused heavily on Russian media influence, such as RT and Sputnik, while failing to add any evidence connecting the DNC hacks by Guccifer 2.0 to Russian intelligence agents. Yet, still Russian interference is a media parade and a Democratic strategy to retake the White House in 2020. Mueller’s recent report may not even have put an end to this.

As Russia and the U.S. engage in atavistic great power politics, China is, more quietly, expanding its global reach through the 5G network and the Belt Road Initiative. Whether Chinese infrastructural loans will place host nations in a virtual debt prison remains to be seen. Yet one has to wonder whether this debtor prison will be any worse than IMF loan obligations, often tied to subverting nations’ economic policies to the IMF’s demands. The U.S. attempts to oppose Chinese soft power efforts, such as through having Canada arrest Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou. Yet it’s an exercise in futility as the U.S. and Russia, for that matter, have nothing better to offer. Therefore, Italy, despite its membership in the EU and NATO, recently signed on to China’s Belt and Road initiative.

So, what of Russia?

Russia is no demon. It is far from the world’s most oppressive nations, such as el-Sisi’s Egypt, Duterte’s Philippines, occupied Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Myanmar and others. But Russia is also far from a human rights-protecting nation; it supports national sovereignty largely as a Machiavellian means-to-end to keep American power at bay.

As all nations, Russia acts according to its own perceived interests, which are neither black nor white. It sometimes protects the sovereignty of nations, but primarily when they are not within its historic sphere of influence and, especially, when they U.S. has a mind to invade them.

And Russia did not elect Donald Trump. We did.

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