WHAT is it about Russia that winds everyone up so much? Why all the anger, the endless barrage of alarmist rhetoric and ruthless drive to isolate a great power with a vast arsenal of nuclear weapons?
From left to right, hyperventilating pundits and politicians warn that the Bear is on the prowl and that Vladimir Putin is the saboteur of American democracy. As a result, they have spread exaggerations about the Russian threat, which have fuelled hatred and sowed misunderstanding.
I am no Putin apologist. The thuggish Russian leader commands near-absolute political dominance at home. Nor do I defend the Russian-backed rebels who badly mishandled the MH17 Ukraine plane-crash controversy in 2014.
My point is that there is nothing peculiar or pathological in Russia’s behaviour: it is protecting legitimate security interests in the Baltics and the Middle East and its objectives are limited. Any western politician or propagandist who claims otherwise is either ignorant or suffering from Russiaphobia.
What about the charges of Moscow’s interference in America’s presidential election?
They have certainly strengthened the demand to treat Russia as the enemy. But outrage should be tempered by the recognition that if such interference justifies condemnation, then many nations have grounds for condemning Washington.
For decades, the US has itself interfered in the domestic affairs of other nations — not just enemies and competitors, but western friends and allies. From 1946 to 2000, according to Carnegie Mellon University’s Dov Levin, the US interfered in foreign elections 81 times compared to 36 by the Russians.
Besides, there is a big difference between hacking and disseminating. The US report on Russian hacking, which justified new sanctions and recalling diplomats, provides no evidence that Putin’s regime gave emails from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman to Wikileaks in the lead-up to the November 8 election.
Washington has to prove that Moscow disseminated the information; it can’t just prove it was involved in hacking.
What about Ukraine? When Putin seized Crimea (home of the Russian Black Sea fleet) in 2014, it was a reaction to provocation from Brussels and Washington. Years of EU and NATO expansion into what historically has been Russia’s sphere of influence culminated in the western-backed coup to topple a democratically elected, pro-Kremlin government in Kiev. Today NATO artillery — just not just bombers and missiles — can hit St Petersburg.
None of this is to say Moscow’s meddling in Ukraine has been legal or moral. It’s just that Putin’s rational calculations are based on an age-old truth of geopolitics: that a great power doggedly protects its near abroad.
Would China allow Taiwan or Tibet to become independent? Would Washington allow the Kremlin to sign up Cuba in a military alliance and try to plant missiles there pointing north?
Why, then, would Moscow allow the west to peel Ukraine away from its strategic orbit? It is, as the distinguished political science professor John Mearsheimer notes, a vast stretch of land that Napoleonic France and the Germans had crossed to attack Russia.
Although the Kremlin won’t tolerate a situation where Ukraine is a western bulwark on its border, its actions have been more restrained than the west recognises. Has Putin allowed the rebels in eastern Ukraine to grab larger parts of Russian-speaking eastern and southern Ukraine? Has he marched into Kiev, as the conventional wisdom predicted three years ago?
As for Syria, Russia’s intervention in the civil war in 2015 sought to rescue its Shiite-aligned client in Damascus from Sunni insurgents. Nothing odd about that: a year earlier the US rescued its Shiite client in Baghdad from Sunni insurgents.
Toppling the Assad regime — an outcome the west had enthusiastically encouraged — would have led to handing Syria over to terrorists. Imagine an Islamic State base on the eastern Mediterranean.
It’s time we asked why we in the west can’t work with the Kremlin when interests overlap, as they do in defeating Islamic jihadists and keeping in check a rising China. Once we do that — and start treating Russia like the great power it still is — we may find it easy to strike a deal that can satisfy all sides.
Alas, among the policy elite and media class, describing oneself as a supporter of engaging Russia invites scorn and derision. But the position reflects a political tradition with roots in the American past.
It was those Cold Warriors Nixon and Reagan, remember, who embraced detente with the Soviet Communists. A time, as leading historian Stephen Cohen reminds us, when a far more vibrant debate about Russia took place.
Still, not everyone is hawkish. In a most encouraging sign, Donald Trump and his secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson want to deal with Putin. So, too, does Francois Fillon, the French conservative presidential candidate. In a forthcoming book, Return to Moscow, former Australian diplomat Tony Kevin makes a personal appeal against the hostile western drive to a new Cold War with Russia.
If their views were to become western policy, the prospects for co-operation and reduced tensions with Moscow would be excellent. If not, the outlook for the world is grim.
The Sydney Morning Herald, January 9.
Tom Switzer is a senior fellow at the University of Sydney’s United States Studies Centre and a presenter on the ABC’s Radio National.
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