Why don’t we trust the Russians? For those of us who lived through the greater part of the Cold War, it is ingrained. For the rest of us, it is a question. All of of us must avoid the trap of believing without examining. So let’s reopen the question.
In what follows, I’ll take a deliberately provocative-to-us line, challenging the assumption that our moral superiority makes specific requirements of U.S. foreign policy. The distinction to be explored is whether a moral mandate has any chance of improving the state of the world, as opposed to a mere matter of principle.
In notable exception, the defense of Eastern Europe is not just for principle. It is real and effective, protecting our closest cultural relations, from Russia, as they aspire to the lofty values of our common cradle. Russia is a threat to Eastern Europe because those countries have greater levels of human development than Russia. But in most other spheres, conflict with Russia has little rationale.
Russia has greater human development than several of the countries in the Arab world where Russia has intervened. In Libya, Russia has recently aligned with Khalifa Haftar. If, hypothetically, Haftar were to become the strongman of Libya, would this represent a tragic loss for potential democracy? It is doubtful. In the state of social development of Libya, a Russian model “Potemkin democracy” would be a way out of chaos, a great improvement on the current situation. And unlike a real democracy, which has not been achieved by any Arab state except, possibly, Lebanon, it is within the realm of possibility.
In Syria, the real problem is not the impress of Russian values. It’s that Assad is hanging about 11,000 Syrians a month in his prisons and commits war crimes against the Syrian population at large. But Russia’s representations to the West about their intentions in Syria serve as the most recent benchmark for the saying, “You can’t trust the Russians.”
The Yalta Conference is often cited as the start of distrust. In the years that followed, Russian promises of free determination for the nations of Eastern Europe were replaced by imposed satellite regimes. The list of military occupations by the Soviet Union is long, but Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 stand out, as advanced societies whose aspirations were crushed by the armies of the Warsaw Pact.
This is why, if Vladimir Putin’s accusations of NATO’s broken promises have any validity, we excuse ourselves. And the Russian intervention in Ukraine implies a continuity of thought, from the old Soviet Union to modern Russia.
Perhaps George F. Kennan was right in his warning about the expansion of NATO. But history cannot be reversed. The way out is not backwards. The question of the day is, under what circumstances can Russia be trusted? This is pertinent not just to the rare treaty, but in every interaction. Russia successfully paralyzed a Western response to the Ukraine conflict with a fog of misinformation. A similar approach in Syria has been partly confounded by the Syria Observatory for Human Rights, and independent observers. With the new porosity of Western media to “fake news”, misinformation has become an important Russian surrogate for actual military power.
Presidents are politicians with the personal touch. A good politician has a manner of dealing with people that increases his success in building his personal network and his power base. It’s natural to try these domestic tools with foreign policy. This is why most presidents attempt what Barack Obama called a “reset” with Russia. It’s a computer term. When you push the reset button, the computer forgets it’s current frame of mind, and gives you a fresh new screen.
The “reset” idea reoccurs with each administration. It is a reliable failure. Russian institutional memory is too long for the mere push of a button, There was a time, post Glasnost, when it could have worked, but we ignored, or bungled, or misused the opportunity. What went wrong would take volumes. In result, the old institutional memory of Soviet Russia, absent the ideology, resumed.
Fiona Hill, Trump’s Putin specialist, wrote Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin, in which she asserts that, in time, Putin can slowly develop trust. I disagree with Ms. Hill in two seemingly opposite ways. Her detailed psychoanalysis damning Putin is simply implausible at the distance of her observation. I would not go so far. Russia was failing as a state when Putin came on the scene. The legitimate doubts are the classic ones: whether he has become as much part of the problem as the solution. Domestically, Russians don’t think so. They enjoy their abridged liberties with a diet rich in potatoes and poor in everything else. Who are we to second guess them?
But Russia’s foreign policy is relevant to us. In common with the advocates of the “reset”, Hill invokes the abstraction of building “trust”, abstract as separate from real foreign policy, realpolitik. This, in my opinion, is a big error.
Next: If not trust in the abstract, what is the way forward?