Is Putin’s Russia the critical threat Americans believe it to be?

Ronald Suny | (The Conversation) | – –

U.S. intelligence agencies – 17 of them – agree that evidence shows the Russian government hacked the Democratic National Committee and waged a campaign to influence voters in 2016.

Although no evidence of collusion between U.S. citizens and Russia has been proven yet, President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s attempt to improve relations with Russia has been hobbled.

The cloud hanging over the White House seems to be growing, with Congress considering sanctions against Russia. A majority of Americans view Russia unfavorably and believe it represents a threat, according to Gallup. Russia is depicted daily as a major menace to the United States. The slightest concession by an American to a Russian overture has become suspicious and smells of capitulation.

As a historian who has watched and written about the rocky ride Russians have experienced since the collapse of the USSR, I offer a look at the broader context of U.S.-Russia relations.

While Russia has certainly caused mischief for Washington and Europe, I don’t believe we should consider negotiation and compromise with Putin as appeasement – as we did during the Cold War. Careful consideration of how Russia views its own vital interests may help us see past the noise.

How big a threat is Russia?

In reality, the most powerful country in history and on the globe at the moment, the United States, faces a considerably weaker adversary in Russia.

The Kremlin spends about 10 percent of what the United States spends on defense (US$600 billion). The United States spends more on defense than the next eight countries combined.

Putin slashed military spending a few months ago by 25.5 percent, just as Trump plans to increase American defense spending by more than $54 billion.

Russia’s economy pales in comparison to America, Europe, Japan and China. It has an economy roughly the size of Italy’s, but must provide for a larger population, territory and defense budget.

It’s true that a somewhat weaker power can annoy, pressure or even harm a stronger power. And while Russia has a huge nuclear arsenal and impressive cyber capabilities, it is seriously outmatched by the United States in terms of influence and power. Obama referred to Russia as “a regional power,” and Putin thinks of America as a “global hegemon.” There are important truths in both of their statements.

Both Putin and his predecessor, the late Russian President Boris Yeltsin, repeatedly complained about the expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe, and even into countries formerly part of the Soviet Union – the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The Kremlin made its opposition clear in 2008 when it launched a devastating incursion into Georgia, a country that hoped to join NATO. In 2014, Russia, Europe and the United States maneuvered for dominance in Ukraine – this time Russia lost. Moscow exacted its revenge by annexing Crimea in March 2014, which only drove Ukraine deeper into the arms of the West.

Putin occasionally overreaches, as he did in Crimea. Yet the Russian president usually plays his comparatively weak hand rather shrewdly. In Syria, for example, Putin supports the Bashar al-Assad government, a truly vicious regime that is prepared to kill hundreds of thousands of its citizens to hold on to power. Here the United States tried regime change, but Putin and Iran’s backing of Damascus made that impossible. As both the Obama and Trump administrations struggled to formulate a policy in Syria, Putin effectively marginalized the United States by forging a common front with Turkey and Iran.

And while the United States and Russia might disagree about the Syrian regime, they do have some common ground. Both powers have decided that the first priority is to combat the Islamic State. Both countries have found reliable allies against IS in the Syrian Kurds, which my research suggests is a distinct nation prepared to fight for their autonomy or independence. Despite Russia’s first priority to defend Assad’s government, both the United States and Russia appear at the moment to be working together with the Syrian Kurds to contain IS, the most immediate danger to the Middle East and by extension much of the world.

The crises over Syria, Ukraine and Georgia, as well as Russia’s blustering threats against the Baltic republics, all are responses of a relatively vulnerable, less-than-superpower. Russians feel threatened, humiliated by the West’s military expansion eastward. American troops regularly exercise in what was once the Soviet Bloc. American rockets have been placed in the Czech Republic and Poland. Russian and American planes buzz each other near the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad.

Although it is unable to reestablish the kind of dominance in Eastern Europe that it enjoyed during the Cold War, the Kremlin is determined to retain an influential position in the part of the world closest to its borders. What we are watching, in my view, is an uneven struggle between a real superpower and global hegemon, the United States, and a regional hegemon, Russia, that feels it has been backed into a corner.

Common interests

More than anything else, in my opinion, Russians wish to be taken seriously.

Putin still refers to the United States not as an adversary but as a partner, as he did repeatedly in interviews with film director Oliver Stone. At the same time, unwilling to accept American global dominance without challenge, he fails to face the effects his policies have on Western leaders and the broader public. He repeatedly declares he is perplexed by the hysteria in America that demonizes Russia.

While investigations into Russian hacking and Trump’s campaign ties must continue, the major hot spots mentioned above will continue to smolder and may suddenly flare up. The stakes are high and Russian and American interests coincide in many areas. There are few that can not be ameliorated, if not fully resolved, through negotiation.

The ConversationYet, the distance between the two countries grows wider by the day. Wrangling inside the Beltway – one of the signs of a healthy democracy – continues. But above the din, few voices can be heard calling for a more sober and farsighted evaluation of our strategic interests. In my years as a historian, I have found that it is precisely in such moments of heightened confrontation and deafness to the interests of others that unpredictable and destructive conflicts break out. As impossible as it seems at the moment to deescalate inflammatory rhetoric, I believe only discussion and negotiation offer a way forward.

Ronald Suny, Professor of History and Political Science, University of Michigan

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Related video added by Juan Cole:

CGTN: “Tensions between Russia and US over Syria ratchet up”

10 Responses

  1. We need to see the larger danger. The package of technologies used in the Russian project against the 2016 election are probably available to any sizable nation that’s willing to make the investment, including the US. That’s bad news. Like drones, any new technology that is successfully used to damage rivals (which was the very least that Putin was attempting to do) while evading the definition of “act of war” will be exploited by all great powers. Get out of the mindset of all evil coming from Russia or all evil coming from America. All evil is what you can get away with.

    And elections, under these circumstances, may have just been rendered obsolete. The accusations against Russia are that it attempted attacks on the voting machines themselves using a stolen NSA key – which itself proves that this is not just a Russian threat, that it attempted attacks on voter data lists in Democratic districts, and that it manipulated anonymous Internet commenters to alter consensus on who we should vote for. So we don’t really know who to vote for, who should be allowed to vote, or who really voted for whom.

    And that is what every country is going to try to do to its enemies.

    Don’t deny the implications of that because you don’t want an excuse for renewed hostilities between the US and Russia. Under these conditions, we will all be living in Orwell’s world anyway.

    The only solution is a strategic election-fraud ban between the major powers. I see no way that can happen when Russia and the US are led by men tied together by an act of election fraud which they refuse to investigate, and the only other major power out there is Communist China.

  2. Very sensible viewpoint, Prof. as seen from outside the US where Russia isn’t actually demonised these days!
    It seems ludicrous to me that anyone can think Putin wants a war with the US – for the reasons you state.
    I think Trump is a loathsome toad but the only good idea he had was to end the stand-off with Russia. (The only reason that might be unadvisable is if there is any truth in the idea that the Oil nations are in cosnpiracy to defeat attempts at green energy).
    IF Putin personally approved attempts to upset the US election, then Hillary Clinton brought it on herself, living as she seems to in Cold War mode. There’s a form of blowback here – threatened people usually try to defend themselves eventually!
    The US establishment comes over as a grudge-holder of mammoth proportions. Iran, Russia, poor little Cuba… I’m from NZ where a refusal – at the request of our PEOPLE – to allow nuclear ships in our territory had us shunned considerably for 25 years! Frankly, under recentish & current management I hope you keep on shunning!
    I too notice that Putin has international law on his side in Syria – he’s there at the request of the elected govt. (even if it is bad) & sounds reasonable in his attitude to matters in the international arena.
    But then, the US MIC is bigger than Russia’s & has more to lose if peace was to break out, yes?

    • The Syrian government was not elected. Police states often stage spectacles of coerced acclamation they call elections. Syria lost its seat at the UN and is not legitimate.

      • Ok, that’s a point. But so is the fact that the UN has vetoes & often equally not legit. How come Saudi Arabia is there? Wanting to chair Human Rights I read !!!!
        If we go back to the early days of the rebellions, with all the diversity of groups vying for supremecy, what’s the bet Assad, who protects diverse groups himself (do the “virtuous” GoP not care about the the Xtns there?) would have won on a Winner Take All system?
        Decomcracy is itself diverse; lots of people in the world don’t think Trump is legitimately elected seeing he didn’t win a majority vote. Or have to form a coalition as happens elsewhere.

        • Try diagramming your submission. You have not said anything, but have implied some propaganda. I would not normally even bother with it but it is a reply.

          Two wrongs don’t make a right.

          Assad provoked the Civil War to stay in power and is one of the great monsters of the young twenty-first century.

  3. U.S. intelligence agencies – 17 of them – agree that evidence shows the Russian government hacked the Democratic National Committee and waged a campaign to influence voters in 2016.
    This is not actually true. It’s a “fact” that gets tossed out but is no truer today than it was when Hillary Clinton made the statement during a debate last Fall. When Hillary made the statement the number of agencies/offices that had “signed” off on this idea was two. Since then that number has increased to three. Far cry from the seventeen that gets bandied about with no factual basis. Even the number three is circumspect in that a large portion of the report had nothing to do with cyber espionage, but supposed biased coverage of RT and Sputnik, and there is little actual evidence, but just conclusions by analysts.
    The analysts could be correct, but there’s almost no real evidence. The FBI never was granted access to the server that was hacked. The code that CrowdStrike claims to have discovered is over five years old, and available to hackers, so not definitive proof of Russian government hacking. The CIA report had even less physical evidence, its conclusions solely based on analysts interpretations, yet this is treated like hard evidence.

  4. Now that the pathological liar-in-chief denier acknowledges there was in-fact Russian interference in his election. What will he do about it? So far, in the name of defending our country against this continuing threat:

    • Blame it all on Obama.
    • Eliminate those investigating Russia from authority.
    • Officially mock those concerned over the Russian “attack” on our national elections.
    • Make broad unsubstantiated counter-attacks on media intent tacitly on behalf of Russia.
    • Takes no action against Putin or Russians responsible.

    Under Trump will we see the TU-95 Bear over Texas?

  5. It is absolutely not true that 17 intelligence agencies endorsed the Russia hacking dossier. In fact it was four, and their “assessment” (ie, opinion piece) was written by “hand picked” analysts, according to the DNI. To date, their hasn’t been any hard evidence released to substantiate the charge.

    • Releasing “hard evidence” prematurely weakens a case making such evidence inadmissible.

      Defending the mistake made in November is a “fool’s errand.”

  6. The MIC needs an “enemy”. Russia is a convenient and easy target. Billions in contracts are involved: from carriers to planes to nuclear arsenals to meet the need for “readiness”.
    The US constantly involves itself in the internal politics of many countries; including Russia. This is never mentioned in US news coverage.
    The US economy has long been dependent on “friendly” sources of raw materials on convenient terms; as Gen. Butler explained in “War is a Racket” and Perkins in “Confessions”. Our economy depends on our military influence and our military depends on our economic strength.
    The expansion of NATO towards Russia is in part to deny markets to Russia and partly to create armament sales for MIC. The Ukraine owed $10 billion in energy bills to Russia before the coup by the US. Natural gas pipelines taking Russian natural gas to Europe were pinched.
    Putin insists on maintaining his bases in Crimea and Tartus. Putin is merely trying to parry moves by the US and maintain a status quo.
    The world has yet to design a satisfactory method of dealing with dictators who have run amuck; such as Assad. Sanctions and invasions obviously don’t work. Just ask the millions of refugees. Rightly, the loss of power is seen as certain death. The British were successful in sending Napoleon to St. Helena. Why not guarantee your despots a safe and lavish retirement? Replace them with a form of receivership to keep their countries running in a normal way.
    Don’t expect support for such an idea from the world’s arms dealers; it’s not a good business model.

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