Time for Trump to Talk to Putin

Recall the stunned faces of all the cable news anchors on the eve of the 2016 election. How could Trump have won, when all the polls placed him so far behind? Hillary Clinton quickly faulted James Comey, claiming his announcement about more of her missing emails a week before the vote cost her the race. And people suddenly discovered the “working class” (reviving a term long avoided due to its Marxist associations, and the propogation of the American myth of a vast middle class hovering over the “poor”)—specifically the white working class portrayed as angry about economic stagnation, immigration, and minority advances and receptive to Trump’s buffoonery. But as stories leaked about “Russian interference” and the lame-duck president commissioned a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) from U.S. intelligence agencies to examine that phenomenon, this interference became the main explanation for Hillary’s loss.

Not Comey. Not ideologically backwards white workers. Russia. Putin. Oligarchs.”Pro-Russian” Ukrainians.

Just as the Birthers had sought to de-legitimize Barack Obama (as foreign born), many of Trump’s foes have sought to de-legitimize Trump (as a foreign agent or stooge). No amount of redacted or unredacted material will convince them that the president is innocent of collusion. They know he loves Russia. Why, for godssakes, does he never condemn Vladimir Putin like normal people are supposed to do?

The NIE document, released January 6, 2017, was actually a shoddy piece of work, largely detailing the positive coverage of Trump in the Russian press, and pointing to “fake news” posted by Russians in U.S. social media. It was however seized upon as conclusive proof, supposedly presented by all the U.S. intelligence agencies, of Russian electoral interference. Thus Congress asked the Attorney General, Jeffrey Sessions, to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate. But Sessions recused himself from oversight of the investigation due to his admitted (innocent) meetings with Russians during the campaign. Trump was of course outraged by this recusal, considering it a personal betrayal. But the deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein appointed Robert Mueller, a generally respected figure, as Special Counsel and he worked quietly for two years. Trump growling about the investigation itself seldom impugned Mueller’s integrity, and he was generally praised by the press as methodical, competent, apolitical.

The Mueller Report: the Russophobes’ Chagrin

During this period, a steady stream of indictments having little if any to do with election interference kept hope alive—hope that really damning facts would eventually come out! The cable anchors waited with bated breath for the release of the Mueller Report, although days in advance one heard warnings that it might be a “letdown.” And then high hopes were dashed as Attorney General William Barr published his four-page summary stating that there was no conclusive evidence about Russian collusion.

Oh the dismay! The sorrow, sadness, regret, distress, chagrin! For Rachel Maddow, experiencing her abyssmal ratings drop: O! the humiliation!

Up until this point the drive to remove Trump (probably by impeachment) has drawn upon and exploited primitive Cold War-type Russophobia. (How many times have we been told that Trump staffers succeeded in removing a reference in the Republican platform to U.S. military aid to Ukraine, and that this obviously shows slavish loyalty to Russia? This is a central talking-point used by those arguing for collusion. We are supposed to assume that giving lethal weapons to the neofascist-ridden Kiev government was the natural, proper course for Washington, but it was thwarted by Putin’s agents like Paul Manafort.)

As it happens, Trump has since supported military aid to Ukraine, and he has taken many unfriendly actions towards Russia, producing the worst period in Russo-U.S. relations in many decades. Having once (rationally) questioned the continuing relevance of NATO, he has, as the alliance’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg notes, strengthened it and supported its expansion. Whether this is because he is mercurial and indecisive, or unusually susceptible to the blandishments of men in uniform, it doesn’t inspire trust in the world. Too often Trump tweets something almost immediately countered by the brass or the evil councilors Pompeo and Bolton.

Now Trump Can Talk with Russia

But now that Trump can claim the report has cleared him of Russian collusion, he may have the political capital and freedom to reach out to the other great nuclear power. He is capable of thinking outside of the box. He has in the past (June 2018) even entertained the possibility of recognizing Russia’s annexation of Crimea. (I doubt he will do that, but I didn’t expect him to recognize the Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights in defiance of international law.) He could at least offer Putin a freeze on NATO expansion, which would be a very good thing for the world.

But Stoltenberg recently (March 25) reiterated NATO’s intention, first announced in 2008 to include Georgia and Ukraine. 2008 was the year the U.S. recognized Kosovo—wrenched from Serbia 1999 and now hosting a huge NATO base—as an independent nation. This infuriated Russia, as Serbia’s traditional ally. In response, Russia recognized the breakaway Georgian republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia after a brief war on Georgia. (This followed the death of Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia in a Georgian attack, and was presented by Moscow to the world as a case of self-defense.) Similarly Russia’s annexation of Crimea and assistance to separatists in Ukraine followed the U.S.-backed coup in February 2011. The addition of these countries to NATO would nearly complete the encirclement of European Russia. Russia’s actions were designed in part to discourage this.

Stoltenberg, a former Norwegian prime minister and hawk who supported the U.S. war on Iraq, declared in Tblisi during joint Georgia-NATO drills that Georgia would eventually join NATO and “Russia can’t do anything about it.” He wants the world to believe it inevitable that the anti-Russian military alliance will border southern Russia as it already borders it to the north (in Estonia and Latvia). Just add Belarus and Ukraine and Russia will face a nearly united European continent military bloc. One seldom hears it explained why this would be helpful to anyone.

Among the religiously held premises of virtually all TV anchors are that Russia is our adversary, challenging our interests around the world; NATO is a good thing, guaranteeing stability and peace; capitalism is good; and socialism is bad. And while once socialist Russia has thoroughly restored capitalism, and NATO is no longer driven by anticommunism but mere Russophobia, the lingering Cold War mentality is evident when, for example, commentators refer to contemporary Russians as “Soviets.”

Russophobia and the Attack on Socialism

Meanwhile MSNBC’s Willie Geist asks guests: “Do you agree that capitalism has been a progressive historical force?” and, “What is your view of your party’s drift towards socialism?” He wants to instill pro-capitalist orthodoxy, which means support for capitalist imperialism. (Notice how outraged the Morning Joe hosts were when Trump announced a withdrawal of troops from Syria, where they operate illegally, uninvited, on the grounds that this would mean “betraying our allies.” Or how they respond to Trump’s stated hope to withdraw from Afghanistan sooner rather than later.

Russophobia is part of a continuum of delusions, including the notion that capitalism is the best of all possible systems, the idea that “regime change” wars produce democracies, that U.S. troops fight and die “for our freedoms,” and that the U.S. needs to station 200,000 troops in 150 countries to maintain world peace. It is a part of the virtual state religion.

Trump personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani has provoked amazement and outrage for stating, ‘There’s nothing wrong with taking information from the Russians” in a CNN interview, “It depends on where it came from.” Giuliani is a reactionary swine, but he’s spot-on here. For too long the assumption has prevailed that contacts with Russians are more problematic than contacts with (say) Germans, Uruguayans, Omanis, Fijiians or Canadians, constituting threats that ought to automatically be reported to the FBI. If Giuliani is demystifying (and de-vilifying) Russophobia, in order to defend his client, well and good. Trump should be ousted, yes; but not in such a way as to strengthen the Russophobes’ position in this imperialist country.

As Marx declared, the working people of the world have no country. We all live in countries governed by ruling classes that try to unite their peoples using patriotic nonsense, positing foreign threats to “us.” The idea that NATO protects the North Atlantic and beyond from (a supposedly expansive) Russia is one of those religious articles of faith that any CNN talking head will aver. It doesn’t really make any sense.

A recent article by Ted Galen Carpenter in The National Interest (a journal of the “realist” school of foreign policy) notes, “NATO was an institution to deal with the Cold War; it is obsolete for the conditions of the twenty-first century, and it has become a dangerous albatross around the neck of the American republic.” Article V of the NATO charter requires all member states to come to the aid of any attacked. Suppose that Stoltenberg’s wish comes true and Georgia or Ukraine become NATO members, and as such attack Russian forces to regain control of South Ossetia or the Donbas region. Article V is invoked like the clauses in the secret treaties were invoked as Europe descended into the First World War. This would be the third such.

Russia in the World

Russia has sustained the secular regime of Syria, which is surely far preferable to Daesh or al-Qaeda which would be blowing up the churches of Damascus right now, and any Shiite mosques or synagogues, and crucifying children had those thugs and their “moderate” U.S.-back allies swept to power (as Hillary Clinton had hoped). It appears that many Syrians are grateful to Russia, a longtime ally, for preventing a Libya-type disaster, and that the Russians have shown a remarkable ability to coordinate with dissimilar forces such as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Hizbollah militiamen, Iraqi Shiite militias, Kurdish peshmergas, and even Turkey in insuring the survival of the modern Syrian state. The U.S. was meanwhile unable to recruit more than a handful of Syrian soldiers for its proxy war intended to effect regime change.

Trump has on occasion indicated his preference that the Syrian matter be handled by Russia (and even Iran). For him, Syria is no doubt one of those “shithole countries” unworthy of much attention. (Good, may he leave it alone, or at least coordinate with Russia in mopping up the last Daesh militants.)

Russia has established intelligence cooperation with Iraq and Iran, in connection with Syria. It was a partner with the U.S. in negotiating the Iran Deal (which Trump of course has shamefully abandoned). It has a constructive relationship with North Korea and could assist in a nuclear deal with the DPRK, were the U.S. serious. I dare say Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov is more respected in the world than bible toting Mike Pompeo.

The Arrogance of Secondary Sanctions

The U.S. is about to arrogantly provoke great countries like China, India, Japan, South Korea and Turkey by commanding them to end all trade with Iran. Trump in his determination to fulfill a campaign promise has sabotaged the most well-negotiated and positive international agreement in many years, in essence demanding the Iranian mullahs capitulate to all U.S. demands as the price of selling petroleum.

This is explained to the masses as the U.S.” lifting sanctions waivers” on countries hitherto enjoying such grace from the U.S. as to be allowed to buy oil from a country that all countries of the world (except for the U.S., Israel and UAE) want to treat normally, not destroy. Russia cannot presently and probably never would engage in such egregious, insulting intimidation. This is a feature of “American Exceptionalism” that the world increasingly mocks. The world is tired of it. When the Europeans actively strategize to evade U.S. secondary sanctions, and warn that they threaten the Atlantic Alliance, you know they (the Europeans) are getting serious about defying this boorish Trump figure.

On its current course, Trump’s USA is headed towards more NATO expansion, deadlock with North Korea, showdown with Iran, further deployments (some secret) in Libya, Niger, Mali, Somalia, anywhere. It’s not much different from Obama’s USA. It’s headed towards trouble in its relations with Europe, in part because its imperialist wars are perceived as the main source of the immigrant problem and in part because its insistence on anti-Russian sanctions harm European business. In Latin America, despite recent neofascist advances, peoples are sick and tired of Yanqui interventions and will not tolerate one in Venezuela. Russia and China have both offered help to Nicholas Maduro in resisting U.S. designs.

Trump and Putin

Vladimir Putin is perhaps a cruel, corrupt, hypocritical, filthy-rich, former KGB colonel. It may be he has ordered the murder of journalists and critics. He is also very sharp, articulate, cautious, and diplomatic, reaching out to both Iran and Saudi Arabia (which the U.S. refuses to do). He may well develop a rapport with the new Ukrainian prime minister, Volodymir Zelensky, maybe arrange for real implementation of the Minsk Accords (brokered by Russia and the OSCE, no thanks to the U.S.). He probably has friendlier and more respectful relationships with Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron than Trump does. He is not the obstacle to improved U.S.-western relations.

Trump lacks Putin’s polish, trim figure, steely gaze, ability to speak addressing complex topics while thinking on his feet. Pine though he might for a Nobel Prize, he doesn’t cut the figure for it. He is a pathetic buffoon, rather comparable to Boris Yeltsin (just without the alcohol), the Russian leader loved by the U.S. in the 1990s as he presided over the establishment of the oligarchic capitalist system that now prevails, whom as you know was aided by U.S. interference in the 1996 Russian election. But the Mueller Report establishes that Trump is not a Russian agent, and “the Russians” did not determine the outcome of the U.S. election. The accusations themselves fuel irrational international animosities in the context of ongoing plans for NATO expansion, which are hardly subject to debate in this fine free country.

If the Democrats, demanding strenuous investigations following up on the Mueller Report—and his implied invitation to Congress to determine whether Trump is guilty of “obstruction” of his investigation (which, again, found no evidence for the main charge of collusion) may continue to hammer away at Russia, and Trump’s alleged ties with Russia—they may simply become the New Cold War Party, versus the party of potential rapprochement.

It would be tragic if this rare era—in which we’ve actually started to see some debate about capitalism and socialism in the mainstream media, fueled by the victories of “Democratic Socialists”—produces a party that while advocating free college education, debt relief and universal health care, and even perhaps loath to engage in more imperialist wars, views the world through simplistic Russophobic lenses. Even now a single incident on the Estonian border could lead to World War III as NATO members fulfill their Charter obligations to collectively combat Russia.

“There’s nothing wrong with taking information from the Russians,” says Giuliani. Well, there’s nothing wrong with talking with them either. Top topic on the agenda should be dissolving NATO. Thirty-eight years after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union, it’s high time.

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