Thursday, March 09, 2017

The Russians Are Coming

Given what we know about Russian activities in the 2016 election and the opacity of the so-called Trump Administration, I have no reservations about a thorough investigation of those activities and Russian connections with the Trump campaign.  Nor would I limit that investigation to just the election.  How much of America's polarization and mistrust is influenced by false information spread by Russian state media and trolls?  Beyond the meddling, Russian nationalism and aggression are also cause for real concern.  And, of course, Putin is a thug.  Whip all of that into America's consciousness and Americans have every reason to be wary of Russia and to seek answers.

What we have no reason to do is to hate Russia or its people.  I've never been to Russia and I have been exposed to negative stereotypes of the country and the people my entire life but I have studied Russian history, including first-hand accounts of life in Russia.  What I have learned is that Russians are as patriotic as any American and take great pride in their history and culture.  Like us, they want peace and security.  Unlike us, Russians have endured privations and hardships that Americans can hardly imagine.  Russians are human beings endowed with the same inalienable rights that we claim as Americans.  Russia has its share of miscreants, bullies and opportunists--just like America--but everything I've learned about the country and its people tells me that Russians deserve my respect. 

To read the news these days, it would seem that the Russians are the archenemy, engaged everywhere, a threat to everything.  Concern over possible election meddling gives creedence to American militarists who see Russia as nothing but a naked aggressor.  But Russian history offers plenty of clues for understanding and defusing its aggression.  Simply put, Russia is insecure.  Always has been.  Tsar, Commissar or Oligarch, it makes no difference.  Russia feels exposed without control of its "near abroad".  The devastating German invasion in WW2 cemented that need into modern Russian consciousness.  Stalin built the "Iron Curtain" ut that fell apart with the collapse of Communism.  Now Vladimir Putin is trying to assemble his own version of the near abroad.  It's what Russian leaders do.

American and NATO policy since the fall of Communism have given the Russians reason to feel exposed.  Not only did the countries of its near abroad abandon Communism, but many Soviet republics that had previously been part of Imperial Russia became independent and hostile to all things Russian.  If that were not enough to unsettle Russia, many of its former allies joined NATO and turned their weapons east.  At the same time, the free marketeers and capitalists were looting the country in a fire sale of state assets to privileged insiders while destroying the economic security all but a privileged few.

Russians look back on the past 25 years and see disappointed hopes and lost greatness.  This is clearly evident in Svetlana Alexileivich's excellent collection of oral histories, Second Hand Time, that covers the years 1991 to 2012.  That sense of loss gives rise to a politician like Putin who can reassert Russian authority and restore a degraded society.  Putin has been clever enough to manipulate Russia's weak democratic institutions to create a new autocracy.  Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy's Mr. Putin:  Operative in the Kremlin provides a good analysis of his thinking and his methods.  

History offers a cautionary tale for our times.  WW1 ended with a vindictive treaty that set the stage for Hitler and WW2 two decades later.  WW2 ended with a settlement that accommodated Russian (if not Eastern European nations') interests and lasted for half a century.  The Cold War ended with Americans and the West dancing on the Soviet Union's grave and the impoverishment of many Russians.  Why is anyone surprised that Russians found that unacceptable?  Russians have long memories.  The West will be a long time earning the trust and respect of Russians.  Trust and respect are work both ways, after all.

Donald Trump is absolutely correct in seeking improved relations with Russia.  That's a no-brainer.  What is difficult is understanding the Russians and bridging our differences with them.  I realize that is always challenging and have no easy answers.  The one answer I can offer is to demilitarize and avoid war.  It's not easy and certainly runs counter to trends in Europe these days that more resemble 1914 than what we hoped for the 21st century.

Another answer is to investigate Russian attempts to covertly influence American elections and policy.  Like Russia's assertion over its near abroad, its covert activities are nothing new.  They've been doing it in one form or another for close to 100 years.  These days the methods are more sophisticated and its reach vastly multiplied by the internet, but the basic function is unchanged:  to thwart adversaries and create an environment favorable to Russia's interests.  That is unlikely to change.  What an investigation will do is tell us its extent, methods and how best to protect our democracy.

Freedom isn't free but the answer is not always a bullet.

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