BRANDON J. WEICHERT | THE WEICHERT REPORT
Russia views the United States as an adversary, that much is clear. The Russians are upset that the United States retains its powerful status after the decades-long Cold War, even as Russia itself continues its inexorable decline. For Russia’s leadership–mostly men who lived through the collapse of the Soviet Union–they are envious of America’s vaunted position whilst being increasingly concerned with Russia’s declining position in the world. Theirs is a quest to remain relevant on the international stage.
Of course, the Russians have but one move (a failing one) to make: ensure that the world becomes dependent upon a Russian-dominated energy market. Yes, the Russians are moving their center of gravity in both military and energy development operations northward to the Arctic, where vast untapped energy wealth exists. No, they will not be able to develop these resources fully before their country undergoes violent convulsions from the precipitous decline of Russia’s population (due to endemic low fertility rates), the inevitable collapse of Putin’s kleptocracy, or the destabilizing impact of native Russian citizens being out-birthed by a Muslim minority population from southern Russia and a predominantly Chinese minority population in Russia’s Far East and Siberia.
Russia is weak. What’s more, Russian President Vladimir Putin knows that Russia is weak. Further, most of the Russian elite understand that after Putin’s reign (the man is 65 years-old, whether he’s toppled or simply dies in office, his time is relatively limited) there is no one left to succeed him. Or, rather, anyone who could potentially succeed him (such as Viktor Zolotov or Vladimir Yakunin) are either just as old or older–and are unlikely going to be able to hold together the declining Russia in its present form. Thus, the idea that Russia will pose some form of long-term, existential threat is silly. Quite the contrary, it is in the short-to-medium term when the Russian threat will be most fully felt.
Since Russia is a heavily nuclear-armed society in decline, the last possible thing that the United States should be doing is agitating for increased hostilities with a Russia that increasingly has little to lose. Further, the very last thing that the United States should be doing is to create a negative incentive system that rewards Russian misbehavior abroad and punishes Russian attempts at creating more stable international relations. Did the Russians use active measures to attempt to influence America’s election in 2016? Undoubtedly, yes. Going back to the 1920’s, the Russians have used such techniques to attempt to influence not only the United States, but all democracies. Oddly enough, the American Left from the 1920’s until 2015, not only had little problem with Russian active measures, but also, in several cases, willingly appealed to the Russians (the Soviet Union at that time) and attempted to gain electoral advantage with such appeals.
Given the prevalence of Russian hacking today, it is likely that they did hack into both the Democratic National Committee’s and the Republican National Committee’s servers during the 2016 election, undoubtedly looking for political dirt with which to bamboozle American voters in 2016. The Russians did not care who won the election, they just wanted to sow chaos, in order to weaken their American rivals. When they hacked the two party’s servers, they found a plethora of usable material on the DNC’s servers but little much on the RNC’s (in fact, the RNC claims that its electronics were mostly uncompromised, due to effective cyber-security measures).
Further, President Donald Trump had a lock on the electoral college vote whereas Hillary Clinton had a reasonable confidence in her popular vote. Because of Trump’s electoral college victory, he won the White House. This had little to do with Russian meddling and everything to do with socio-economic factors within the American electorate that were reacting negatively to the previous eight years of the Obama Administration–of which Hillary Clinton was a critical member. All that the Russian “hacks” did to Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party was reinforce a negative perception of Hillary Clinton in the public eye–and there is some question as to whether those hacks were really as effective as the Democrats claim.
Considering this, is it really worth pushing Russia toward potential conflict with the United States, in order to defend Hillary Clinton’s or the Democratic Party’s “honor”? I don’t think so. I have said it before, I shall say it until I’m blue-in-the-face: Russia is the Ottoman Empire in its final years, not the Roman Empire at its height. We must respond accordingly. During the Ottoman Empire’s final days, the great powers of the time in Europe desperately tried to keep the “sick man of Europe” upright, thereby preventing the chaotic collapse that ultimately befell Europe and the Middle East in the aftermath of the First World War. Of course, as David P. Goldman (a.k.a. “Spengler”) points out in his fantastic 2011 book, “How Civilizations Die (and Why Islam Is Dying Too),” declining societies that have little hope for the future can become threats to international stability as much–if not more so–as rising rival states.
The solution, therefore, is to give those declining states hope; to help them make an investment in a better tomorrow. Trade and amicable relations through effective diplomacy become the best solutions to this problem. Be sure to beef up your military forces, just in case trade and diplomacy fail–to ensure peace one must prepare for war, after all–but don’t make the military the opening act of your diplomacy with a declining state like Russia. Keep it in reserve. Sharpen your stick, but speak softly and come with a big bag of carrots–and arm Russia’s targets to the teeth, as Angelo Codevilla advised last year. Leave Russia only one avenue going forward: amicable relations with the United States and the West, so that we can build a mutually beneficial international order that marginalizes Islamic extremism and contains Chinese revanchism.
For years, the Russians have insisted that the West treat them with the respect that they believe they deserve. To the Russians, they are a great, historical power who still maintain the world’s largest nuclear arsenal; who produce brilliant scientists; they still have outsized geopolitical impact on the surrounding region; and they retain a leading space program–the symbol of an advanced and powerful country. Since the end of the Cold War, the West has far too often ignored or disrespected Russia–either through ignorance or malice (or both)–and that has only pushed the Russian polity toward extremism. This extremism has compounded with the already negative trends of post-Soviet Russia, leading to the current predicament of Russia. In their anger over the perceived mistreatment by the West, the Russians opted to place an old Soviet KGB apparatchik, Vladimir Putin (and his cadre of siloviki) in power. This has only further created the terrible conditions in Russia today.
Despite his macho rhetoric, Putin is no fool: he understands that the country is declining at breakneck speeds. And, whatever his hopes for becoming the leader of the natural gas and oil-producing countries, Putin continues to make the situation in Russia worse (after all, one way or another, the world will be weaned off nonrenewable, foreign-produced fossil fuels in the decades to come). His only hope going forward is for normal, stable, and prosperous relations to exist between Russia and the West–specifically for a revitalization of Russo-American relations.
Since the election, the Americans have been on a witch hunt for Russian agents of influence. While the aim has clearly been a partisan one (avenging Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016), the effect has actually been somewhat helpful: it has created a sense that the United States neither needs Russia nor will tolerate its boorish behavior. Also, the American public is now turned on to that which those of us in the national security sector have known for decades: the Russians are not our friends and we are increasingly vulnerable to attack and disruption from cyberspace (and space). What’s more, the national security team that surrounds the President is fully well aware of the level of threat that Russia poses. With this in mind, then, we can now formulate a policy of quiet strength and respectful dialog. Such a program would undoubtedly return dividends that could establish a more peaceable, prosperous world going forward.
Just look at how desperate the Russians have begun acting. Last month, Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, floated a proposal for creating a joint-NASA-Roscosmos space station in orbit of the Moon. NASA has said that they are seriously looking into the proposal, since such an endeavor would be hugely beneficial for future planned missions to the Moon. The European Space Agency (ESA), Japan’s space agency (JAXA), and the Indian space agency (ISRO) have all announced their intentions to join this new endeavor. What we could be witnessing is the formation of a new alliance–not necessarily a permanent one based on shared values, but one based on common interests. In an era in which China’s rise to a global hegemonic status seems almost a fait accompli; in a period when Russia could prove decisive in both decimating jihadist terror networks as well as stabilizing the Middle East by hemming in Iran, it makes sense to try and build common ground with the Russians.
Don’t think that the Russians are pining for greater interaction with the United States (which, if done properly and with enough sense of history, could be a win-win for both the United States and Russia)? Look at Vladimir Putin’s fawning over Donald Trump at the recent APEC summit in Vietnam. Due to political tensions at home, the Trump Administration had neglected to include a face-to-face meeting between Presidents Trump and Putin at APEC–despite Putin’s desire for such a meet up. Trump was giving the duplicitous Putin the diplomatic equivalent of the cold shoulder throughout the meeting, despite Trump’s own wish to work closer with Putin’s Russia to resolve the outstanding disputes in Ukraine, Syria, and with North Korea.
The game is afoot.
Trump is being cold to Putin, both out of diplomatic calculation as well as out of domestic political necessity. If the Trump Administration is allowed to play its hand fully, the entente with Russia can be completed. If President Trump is forced to conform with ridiculous domestic politics, then a significant diplomatic opportunity may be missed. The time is fast approaching for the Trump diplomatic strategy with Russia to pivot and create an opening with Russia that Putin himself cannot resist. We must recognize that while Russia does have some advantages, the greatest advantages remain with the American side. We can control this pivot toward diplomatic and economic engagement with Russia, so long as we have the political will and strategic patience to outlast Putin’s maneuvering. Yet, again, it is clear that Putin greatly desires a close relationship with the United States; he must undoubtedly recognize that the long-term political trends in Russia are working against him, and he needs to make serious and considerable changes to his approach to governance, lest he be subsumed by the centrifugal forces of Russia.
A Russo-American entente going forward must be predicated on mutual respect backed up by American strength and resolve. This is possible. We’ve done this before: what I am advocating is a smaller-scale version of what the Reagan Administration ultimately engaged in with the Soviet Union when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power. Obviously, Putin is not Gorbachev. No major political reforms should ever be hoped for. However, America has done good business with bad leaders before. In the age of nationalism and the return of competitive great power politics–the rise of the multipolar world–there is no need to lecture or preen about morality. Unfortunately, we no longer have that luxury. Now is the time for hard-nosed, cold and calculated realpolitik.
It’s time for a new Russo-American entente. Together, we can shape the international order and reduce tensions and increase mutual prosperity. Don’t listen to the toxic domestic political pundits in the West. Russia’s decline must be managed, not exacerbated or ignored. We should live by Abraham Lincoln’s creed of “with malice toward none, with charity for all.” Also, we should remember George Washington’s farewell address to the nation when he advised Americans to, “steer clear of permanent alliance with any portion of the foreign world.” Further, we should also recall Washington’s successor (and fellow Founding Father), John Adams’ quip about not going abroad in search of foreign monsters to destroy, lest we ourselves become the “dictactress of the world.” Lastly, Adams’ successor (and stalwart “frenemy”), Thomas Jefferson said in his inaugural address that, “Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations-entangling alliances with none,” were not only his nascent administration’s plan, but also the mission statement of American foreign policy.
Thus, a bettering of relations between the United States and Russia is needed. At the same time, American leaders should recognize that our two countries will never see eye-to-eye on everything; that there will be times when we are actively opposed to each other over select issues. However, much like how the British and French Empires of old managed to keep relative peace and prosperity between their two countries, the United States and Russia must learn to balance each other peacefully–and work together more often and more amicably.