In the last debate of the 2012 presidential race Governor Romney discussed the potential threat of Russia. He was widely criticized by President Obama who maintained the Cold War ended in the 1980’s. Since then, of course, we have had a national “reset.” Vladimir Putin’s aggressive action in eastern Ukraine, Syria and his openly provocative statements about the Baltic states and the use of nuclear weapons offer revealing insights into Russian aims. Still there are those who believe Russia can be an ally, at least in areas where U.S.-Russian interests converge, e.g. battling militant Islam.
However, if one considers the history of Russia since the presumptive end of the Cold War, a different conclusion is plausible. Since 1989, Russian policy has been designed to undo the crumbling of the Soviet Empire, what might be described as Global Revenge. Putin’s stance is to reclaim the Near Abroad – those nations once within the Soviet orbit. Using the appearance of “democracy,” religious observance and elections, Russia’s president has moved assiduously to destroy internal adversaries and external opponents. The velvet glove of concern for those lost in the 9/11 attack concealed the iron fist of invasion and intimidation.
Despite its newly adopted nomenclature, the KGB operatives dominate foreign policy. The Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov is expected to be a magician who has veils behind veils in his Orwellian rhetoric. On the one hand, he speaks with compassion about the victims of bombing in Aleppo and then signals Russian planes to engage in indiscriminate bombing in this Syrian city. What you see is only what you think you see. Having played Secretary of State John Kerry like a drum, Lavrov has converted Russia into the strong horse in the Middle East and reduced the United States to irrelevance.
With the crumbling of communism, Russia became distracted by privatization schemes in the 1990’s. What these schemes truly represented was the emergence of a new elite that distributed national wealth to the soon to be oligarchs and the former KGB leaders who slowly entered into “partnerships” with the corporate and banking sectors. Revelations of Putin’s wealth suggest he may be the richest man on the globe. In fact, his daughter, who hasn’t engaged in any legitimate business activity, has an estimated wealth of $16 billion.
Opposition voices in Russia have been stifled. Dozens of journalists and human rights activists were murdered. Khodorkovsky, a Putin rival, languished in prison for ten years on trumped up charges. American lawyer Sergey Magnitsky was tortured to death. Boris Nemtsov, leader of an opposition party, was gunned down 300 yards from the Kremlin walls. Alexander Litvinenko, a former officer of the Russian Security Service (FSB) and KGB, receiving political asylum in England was poisoned mysteriously on the streets of London. Add to these victims, thousands of businesses taken from rightful owners through intimidation and murder.
As oil prices rose dramatically at the onset of the twenty-first century, Russia was awash in petrodollars which could be used to bribe politicians and business leaders throughout Europe. The former German Chancellor, Gerhard Schroder, became a board member of Gazprov where he was in charge of the North Stream pipeline from St. Petersburg to Germany.
The Russians are masters of sabotage. It has been alleged that the bombing of apartment houses in Moscow that killed dozens was attributed to Chechens as a KGB plot to assist with Putin’s ascendency as national leader. The incident, of course, was never fully investigated. It has also been suggested that KGB operatives coached and trained al Qaeda in the use of Improvised Explosive Devices (IED’s) which killed and maimed American soldiers in Iraq.
While Putin and Lavrov will speak publicly about cooperation with the United States, Russia’s guiding principle in international affairs is the supremacy of its power in Europe and the consequential declination of American influence. The resurrection of empire is expressly discussed in the Putinesque belief in international order through spheres of influence.
For President Trump the challenge will be resisting the siren call for collaboration with Russian leaders and push back on Russia’s acquired taste for imperial power. Some might contend this position is opening a Pandora’s Box for a Second Cold War. As I see it, these ideas are not intended as a casus belli, but rather as a way to ensure American interests against an aggressive rival.
Edmund Burke argued that “the decent drapery of life,” the “new conquering empire of light and reason” had “rudely torn off” that which is used “to cover the defects our naked, shivering nature.” If only that were true. Putin’s Russia is the polar opposite – a nation in which the naked shivering nature of mankind is on display and what counts is the iron fist behind the screen of deceit.