Alex K. writes in the comments under this post:
The idea that Russia helped install Trump in the White House is not much different from the Kremlin’s favorite talking point (much parroted on the American left and right), that the 2014 protests in Kiev were nothing but a US-manufactured coup d’etat.
Alex’s comment illustrates the point that finding sensible commentary on Russia is difficult (which is why his own blog is worth reading). I am often told I see things in black and white too often, but when it comes to Russia I find it is others whose views fall into one of the following two categories:
1. Russia is America’s number one enemy, they rigged the US election in order to install their puppet Trump, they are hell-bent on taking over Europe by force and they must be confronted in Syria.
2. Russia is absolutely no threat to Europe, Crimea rightfully belongs to Russia and the annexation was perfectly above-board, they have been forced to launch a war in Eastern Ukraine because of Western plans to encircle them, they are directly threatened by NATO and they have shown us all how things ought to be done in Syria.
There doesn’t seem to be a lot of in between, which is a bit depressing. Then again, I’ve always thought people were a bit clueless when it comes to Russia. Insofar as I am concerned, the actual situation lies somewhere in the middle and recognising this is the first step to understand how to deal with Russia.
Russia ought to have been confronted more forcefully, albeit diplomatically, over its annexation of Crimea and the failed attempt to carry out a popular uprising in Eastern Ukraine. Russia’s claims over the strategic value of Sevastopol were always bullshit, as were their claims that US/CIA/NATO/EU backed fascists were about to take over Ukraine at the expense of the ethnic-Russian population. Yes, Russia did have historical claims to Crimea and the majority of the population might have wanted to join Russia, but the way they went about it ought not to have been tolerated. Those claiming parallels between Crimea and Kosovo don’t appear to understand the difference between secession and annexation, and should be ignored. As I have written before, the pro/anti-Russian sides in Ukraine cannot be simply split by language, and nor can they be split by geography. There are no simple solutions, and anyone who thinks there is should be ignored. Ukraine is notoriously corrupt and dysfunctional and is likely to stay that way regardless of whether Russia gets to control the place.
Russia should have been confronted more forcefully, again diplomatically, over the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. Perhaps it was the Ukrainian military, but the missile is far more likely to have been fired by a rag-tag pro-Russian militia with the direct support of the Russian military. Finding out the truth ought to have been a priority, but the West caved in to Russian obstructionism and misinformation. If there was one incident for which Putin should have been raked over the coals, this was it. The financial and other sanctions should have been doubled or tripled at that point, but I guess the glorious Western leadership preferred a quiet life and German businesses wanted to keep making money in Russia.
Russia’s “concerns” over NATO exercises in Poland, Estonia, and elsewhere should be roundly ignored as these countries have a far more recent and unpleasant history of being invaded and subjugated by Moscow than vice versa. If Russia doesn’t want Poland defending itself, then they should look at how they’re behaving towards Ukraine. If Russia wants to believe NATO intends to invade them, then let them. But they don’t really believe that any more than they believe half the crap they broadcast on Russia Today.
The constant drive to incorporate more NATO countries into the alliance is unwise, e.g. Montenegro. Nobody in the West is going to risk nuclear war with Russia over Montenegro, and this continuous expansion seems to be driven by organisational empire building rather than defence concerns. This plays straight into the hands of Russia and it’s apologists who whine that NATO is an expansive, offensive alliance that wants to encircle and conquer Russia.
Rather than confront Russia over blatant land grabs in Europe and the shooting down of civilian airliners, some clowns seem to think the West should confront Russia in Syria. Why the fortunes of Syria are of any interest to those in the West I don’t know, save for the fact that we are subject to mass migration of those fleeing the war zones, or at least pretending to. If that is our concern then the priority should have been to end the war as quickly as possible instead of letting it drag out by arming the rebels such that they could not be beaten but also could not prevail. The US/CIA didn’t start the war in Syria, but for some reason Western policy is to insist that Assad goes even though there is nothing even remotely close to an alternative on offer. If we were to jettison this idiotic policy then there is no reason to believe Russia is an enemy of the West in Syria. Sure, their methods might be appalling and we should and could criticise them, but their actual aims – smashing ISIS and restoring Assad to the head of a functioning country – are not wildly different from what anyone sensible in the West wants. So Russia gains “influence” in the Middle East? Let ’em have it.
Could Russia be a valuable ally in the war on terror? Possibly. In some instances yes, others no. They can be relied upon to kick the shit out of Islamists either using a Kadyrov in Chechnya or carpet-bombing in Aleppo, but let’s not kid ourselves that wedding ourselves to Russia and these sort of tactics will yield results to our liking. I think the West should cooperate with Russia in this regard and grudgingly appreciate that they are not squeamish about dealing with Islamists, but I don’t think their assistance is worth giving them a green light to do what they like in Ukraine and the Baltics.
I don’t think Russia is interested in conquering Western Europe, but I do think they might be interested in grabbing more former-Soviet territory if they can get away with it easily, like they did in Crimea. If they get away with more of that, they’ll keep pushing until they meet some resistance. So provide stiff resistance to Estonia, Poland, and others but let’s not get carried away in thinking Russia is some mighty foe that directly threatens America. Russia doesn’t want a war, they want quick and easy results. Making sure they don’t get the latter will prevent the former.
The hysteria over Russia “hacking” the election and Trump being Putin’s puppet is just the latest line excuse the Republicans and Democrats are using to explain why their preferred candidates got soundly beaten by an outsider nobody fancied. As Streetwise Professor explains, Putin is probably slowly realising that Trump winning might not have been to bis advantage after all. He’s going to have a lot more difficulty going up against Mattis and Tillerson than he would whichever shower Hillary would have picked. Trump was not Putin’s puppet and he is unlikely to do Putin’s bidding, but nor is he likely to start giving orders to shoot down Russian planes in Syria and other acts of rank stupidity. If Trump is “soft” on Russia regarding Syria, there is no reason to think that is a green light for Putin to help himself to Estonia. If Trump talks about easing sanctions on Russia in order to secure their help fighting ISIS, this doesn’t mean the US is about to recognise the Crimea as part of the Russian Federation. If the people in the West do have concerns with Russian influence on their politics then maybe they should say something about Germany’s cosy relationship with Russia which run so deep that Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder was able to take a high-profile job on a Gazprom project mere days after he left office. Nobody said a thing, but now we’re supposed to believe that Trump is compromised? Please.
In other words, the West should deal with Russia by treating each situation and policy separately instead of going for a blanket approach, and understanding that the place is complicated and requires certain nuances that aren’t going to fit in a single line or Twitter comment. Russian interests both align with and oppose Western interests depending on what we’re talking about, and a mature, balanced approach is required to deal with them. Trump’s first step towards achieving this should be to utterly ignore most contemporary commentary on the matter.