Donald Trump

"Russia is not the Soviet Union, this is not the Cold War, and Moscow is not looking for world domination."

Putin is an awful, awful ruler. But can the United States get real about his goals and and his limits?



For the American press and many partisans, one of Donald Trump's very gravest sins is his "bromance" with Russian leader Vladimir Putin. It's a sure sign of The Donald's stupidness, ignorance, naiveity, or flat-out lack of any moral seriousness that he seems to be OK with the Russians grabbing Crimea, edging its way into Ukraine, helping an even-bigger POS, Bashar al Assad, in Syria, and even "hacking" an election (or maybe not).

These are all serious actions and worthy of argument, analysis, and sharp disagreement. But the presumption of most of Trump's critics (they exist on the right, too) when it comes to his Putinphilia is the unexamined equation of today's Russia and the Soviet Union. Just like the Soviets, this unspoken argument goes, Russia is bent on world domination or, at the very least, regaining the contours of its former empire of Soviet republics and effective control of countries in the Baltics and Eastern Europe.

Against such a dire and unexamined starting point, Washington Post Moscow Bureau Chief David Filipov has written an important article worth reading. After recounting the very good year that Putin had in 2016 (brokering a cease-fire in Syria, winning praise from President-elect Trump, getting his "man" elected in the U.S., high-though-not-stellar approval ratings at home), he reminds us:

Russia is not the Soviet Union, this is not the Cold War, and Moscow is not looking for world domination. Putin's goal is limited to reducing U.S. influence while ensuring Russia's vital interests, and the power he can project is still limited by a weak economy and a global reach that pales in comparison to that of the United States.

He can't act anywhere he wants, he can't do it alone, and a lot still depends on whether and how far President-elect Donald Trump decides to go along with him.

Filipov notes that Russia's economy is still in the shitter and highly dependent upon energy exports. Even though Putin has a personal rating in the 80s, only around half of the country thinks it is heading in the right direction and all sorts of structural reforms of the public sector and the economy have stalled or failed miserably. The typical Russian household is spending more than half its money on food and groceries for the first time in seven years and Russian GDP has declined from a peak of $2.2 trillion in 2013 to just $1.3 trillion, which works out to a second-world per-capita figure of $9,000. Putin recently refused a plan from his military to re-establish naval bases in Cuba and Vietnam, at least in part because of the cost.

Filipov concludes:

Putin has succeeded because he only picks fights with the United States when Russian vital interests are at stake and Russia has a reasonable chance of prevailing, said Simon Saradzhyan, founding director of the Russia Matters Project at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

Saradzhyan argues that the primary consideration here is whether the United States is willing to commit its full might: In Ukraine, U.S. vital interests were not at stake, and ultimately, he said, the Obama administration decided they were not in Syria, either.

"Soviet leaders sought to counter the United States everywhere and anywhere," Saradzhyan said. "Putin has a much more limited outlook shaped by capacities of his country's economy, demographics and other components of national might."…

Even as Putin steams into 2017 at the height of his power, the question is what happens to Russia's standing the moment Trump takes control of the world's most powerful nation. While Moscow is likely to continue to push to expand its influence where it can at the expense of the United States, co-opting the new administration — for example, in the fight against terrorism — wherever it is feasible, Putin is unlikely to act in a way that openly challenges the new U.S. president.

Read the whole thing.

HT: John Hudson at Foreign Policy.

This is, to be sure, a generous reading of Putin's actions, but it's also a fair one. Most important, it forces Americans to break with the Cold War lens through which we continue to view geopolitics. But we're not in the Cold War anymore and we need to think very differently about foreign policy (first and foremost, we need to stop equating foreign policy with military interventionism). Filipov's analysis helps to do that and it also implies that Donald Trump, for all of his doltishness, may well be more strategic than most of his critics (including GOP neoconservative types) give him credit for. After all, Europe can and should take of itself pretty well. It's a rich, well-defended part of the world. When it comes to expanding its influence, China is much more of a rising power in military, economic, and scientific terms and however much it cuts against 70 years of anti-Soviet animus, it may make sense for the United States to build a stronger alliance with Russia as a way of helping to modulate China's hard and soft powers (this is simply reversing one of the main goals of Nixon's opening up China in the early 1970s).

I'm fond of saying that the 21st century has not yet quite begun yet, that we are essentially still stuck in a "long 20th century" and all that implies for politics (chief among the implications is dwindling enthusiasm for either major party, as they reflect fewer and fewer Americans' dreams, hopes, and anxieties). Foreign policy and especially U.S. military interventions have been an almost unbroken string of unmitigated disasters since 9/11. We need to start thinking of different ways of approaching the world, including our longtime arch-nemesis Russia and exactly what America's role in the world can and should be. It's proving very hard for conventional right- and left-wingers to do so, partly because they use supposedly abstract principles mostly as a means only of securing short-term political advantage. Hence, conservatives were mostly aghast that President Obama dare relax restrictions against Cuba, as if our embargo would suddenly start working in its sixth decade. And liberals, who became increasingly antagonistic to George W. Bush's war machine over time, are now vastly disturbed when the U.S. sits out Syria or Crimea and cheered the utterly indefensible intervention in Libya.

But if we believe that we should only intervene militarily when serious national interests are at risk, we're going to be doing a whole lot less intervening with guns and tanks and soliders. And we're going to be trading more in things like food, energy, and culture than in "arming" moderate rebels. These should not be seen as the signs of a "weak" country but of a self-secure one and if Donald Trump of all people turns out to be the vehicle by which the United States actually stops being the world's policeman, we should at least have the gratitude to tip our hats to him.