All Too Little, All Too Late: On the Open Letter ‘It’s Time to Rethink Our Russia Policy

Agroup of 103 international relations scholars has come out for change in America’s Russia policy course in an Open Letter headlined with the bleeding obvious—‘It’s Time to Rethink Our Russia Policy (www.politico.com/news/magazine/2020/08/05/open-letter-russia-policy-391434). One is tempted to respond simply, ‘No shXX’. More appropriately, such a call might have been a surprise, but such has been in order since about 1992.

Not only the text is comment-worthy; the group of signatories is of some interest. Some of the statement’s 103 signatories possess a sound record of sincere support for a realist or at least reasonable American policy towards Russia. Indeed, at least one of them, Dmitrii Simes, has been accused of being a Kremlin asset in the Soviet vigilante style of U.S. media copiously on display during the Russiagate hysteria. However, many are partly responsible for the sad state of U.S.-Russian relations in having supported some of the worst aspects of America’s Russia policy. Some are only narrowly or casually familiar with Russian politics, and many are compromised by the specific nature of their deep involvement in American politics. Consequently, their collective statement has both weak and strong points. Most disappointingly, the latter do not go far enough. Therefore, it is unlikely their call for a new Russia policy will impart the necessary drive for a significant revamp of U.S. policy and will have little demonstrable effect on U.S.-Russian relations. It will have equally limited impact on the already hyper-cynical Russian elite’s view of American policymaking circles’ own cynicism, biases, insufficient knowledge, and considerable Russophobia. Its most positive effect may be in preventing the complete monopolization by the most jaundiced perception of Russia, gradually establishing a stranglehold on U.S. discourse about Russia. But let’s review the statement’s actual content. Unfortunately, one has the sinking feeling or at least fear that the appearance of the letter in the midst of the U.S. presidential election campaign reveals that the authors are issuing a subtle rebuke to President Donald Trump, for such a statement should have come during every previous U.S. administration. Only a few of the signatories protested the more hawkish aspects of America’s Russia policy in any fundamental way in those periods; examples are former Defense Secretary William Perry and, paying a price, Dmitrii Simes. On the other hand, it could reflect most of all real alarm over the dangerous NATO-Russia confrontation in western Eurasia and the dissolution of arms control and non-proliferation regimes and thus constitute a helping hand in any Trump effort to reverse the course of the Democratic Party’s failed policies and Russia hysteria.

Indicative of just how far intellectual and ethical rot in has penetrated the Washington elite – even without reference to the impending Epstein pedophile scandal, the Bidens’ Ukraine corruption, the Clintons’ unique brand of across the board corruption, or the Obamas’ cryptic or stealth-like undermining of the rule of law – is that the authors are finally compelled to do something they should have done at least a decade ago on an individual basis at least a decade ago on geostrategic catastrophes such as NATO expansion, which represented the triumph of blind hubris over statesmanship and vision inside the Beltway. America’s devolution is most evident in the co-signatories’ felt need to appeal for something that should be matter of course in government, intelligence, research institutes, and media—“careful, dispassionate analysis.” In particular, they hope to generate this “imperative” in service of another—a  “change of our current course” in relating to Russia.

Indeed, in recent decades, Russian policy and its study perhaps more than any other policy or research area has been held captive by domestic politics, rampant careerism, intellectual corruption, and the destructive force of political correctness in American academia, mainstream media, think tank and intelligence analyses. Pervasive enough under the Clinton and Bush admonstrations, these cancerous cells mestasticized into full-blown tumors spreading uncontrollably through the American body politic after the onset of the Barack Obama administration. The resulting nearly universal demand for thought slavery and uniformity has for at least a decade been ubiquitous in the very academia, media, analytical, and government milieu within which the signatories have long circulated. While those who spoke out were being run out of these institutions, very few if any of the signatories spoke out and some were complicit in the poisoning of the American mind.

Also, continued foreign policy hubris and arrogance is inferable from the document’s following statement: “Russia complicates, even thwarts, our actions, especially along its extended periphery in Europe and Asia. It has seized territory in Ukraine and Georgia. It challenges our role as a global leader and the world order we helped build. It interferes in our domestic politics to exacerbate divisions and tarnish our democratic reputation.” Lacking in this list of Russian behaviors and the statement as a whole is any kind of mea culpa—any acknowledgement of Washington’s and Brussels’ even greater responsibility for the sad state of US-Russian and US-Western relations than that of post-Soviet Russia. The American superpower’s enormous advantage in the correlation of power over the politically divided, economically depressed, and geopolitically isolated Russia — not to mention the extraordinary power gap between the entire West and Russia — both today but especially in the formative period of post-Cold War relations in the early to middle 1990s left the onus for the development of sound, just relations on Washington and Brussels. Instead of acting magnanimously, the Cold War victors rubbed wounded Moscow’s nose in new humiliations: NATO expansion, treaty withdrawals, EU expansion, color revolutions, condesecending even insulting statements, and a general disdain for Russian interests and security perceptions.

It is interesting to ‘mirror-image’ the above list of Russian behaviors, rewriting it as if a Russian wrote it. Each item on the list in such case is even more true, except for outright territorial acquisition: ‘The US and the West complicates, even thwarts, Russian actions, especially along her extended periphery in Europe and Asia. They have seized (geostrategic) territory in Eastern, Northeastern, and Southeastern Eurpe (Ukraine and Georgia). They challenge Russia’s role as a regional leader and the multipolar order she is trying to build. They interfere in our domestic politics and those of our neighbors and allies to exacerbate divisions and tarnish our democratic reputation.’ There is a hint, though not a full deployment, of American rusology’s tradition of referencing only Russian actions among the causes of the poisoning of U.S.-Russian and Western-Russian relations. Thus, America’s agency is deflated, “our foreign-policy arsenal reduced mainly to reactions, sanctions, public shaming and congressional resolutions.”

In these ways and throughout their statement, the author/signatories, like the reigning US policy elite they represent, ignore two-three decades of NATO and EU expansion at the expense of Russian national security efforts to construct her own economic and later security blocs (EEU, CSTO, later SCO) in western and central Eurasia after being de facto excluded from the West’s blocs. Glaring is the absence of any acknowledgement of the Western meddling and escalation in not just strategically crucial (for Russia not the U.S.) Ukraine and Georgia but all along Russia’s ‘extended periphery.’ (compare the enormous scale of that decades-long meddling with the U.S. reaction to minor Russia forays into ‘our’ hemisphere in Venezuela, a long way from the U.S. border). Recall the almost immediate resort to NATO expansion at a time in the early 1990s (when it was forst broached) when Russia was hoping to be a partner in the democratic community and its main outpost in the Eurasian region. Then there are the decades-long political, economic, and propaganda interference in Russia’s internal affairs—an interference both in government and society that leaves Russia’s troll farms paling in significance. After Moscow had given up its external and much of its internal empire, democratized, and fell into economic depression in part as a result of erroneous Western economic counsel and woefully insufficient and belated assistance it was slapped in the face with the broken promises regarding NATO expansion and being integrated into the Western security and economic infrastructure. Moreover, the authors fail even the hint of an acknowledgement of: (1) the Clinton administration’s illegal NATO military actions in Yugoslavia; (2) the George W. Bush administration’s expansion of NATO to Russia’s borders and wittingly or unwittingly encouraging Georgia to attack South Ossetiya; and (3) the Barack Obama administration’s degeneration of too much of American foreign policy and public diplomacy into smug virtue-signalling and deployment of jihadist and Ukrainian neo-fascist proxies to do American bidding in Libya, Syria, and Ukraine—truly disturbing trends that mirror equally troubling domestic crimes.

The authors’ main purpose is to put forward six “broad prescriptions” for America’s Russia policy. First, we must “deal effectively with Russian interference in U.S. elections and, most important, block any effort to corrupt the voting process” and “engage Russia through negotiations out of the public glare, focused on each side’s capabilities to do great damage to the other side’s critical infrastructure.” Absent is any call to ‘deal effectively’ with U.S. interference in the domestic politics of Russia or that of its allies and neighbors towards the goal of expanding NATO and the EU at the expense of Russia’s attempts to maintain a buffer from Western invasion and interference that has been a intermittent fact of Russian life for centuries. There also is no mention of the decades of financing Russian opposition parties and media, micromanaging Russian government in the early 1990s, continued propaganda and often disinformation by U.S. government media targeting the Russian people with American values, the more recent faked Trump dossier and evidence that the only documentation of any Russian role in the hacking of the Democratic Party’s servers and Clinton emails has been acknowledged by its Crowdstrike authors to be inconclusive; a point that was hidden from the American public for nearly three years until the revelations in the FBI interview of the company’s official in charge of the post-hack investigation interview released last month. What is Moscow to make of members of an American elite that foster or tolerate the use of unverified information and outright disinformation to the detriment not only of US-Russian relations also to the political stability and thus national security of their own country in order to discredit Moscow and worsen US-Russian and Western-Russian relations?

A logical proposal would have been the pursuit of including Russia in the West’s security and economic infrastructures. Now relegated to some time in the relatively distant future, a revamped version of such an aspiration would be the beginning of work towards discussions specifically geared to such inclusion, which is now unthinkable for both sides until a new Russian leader comes to power. This latter prospect could be as much as two decades in the offing. This along with the emerging China-Russia-Iran axis is the bitter fruit of Western actions’, especially NATO expansion’s rekindling of Russia’s traditional culture of authoritarianism and statism and strategic and political cultures focused on vigilance against exyernal and internal threats emanating from the West.

A sound interim step until relations can be more substantially improved would to initiate talks on a U.S.-Russian or international moratorium on interference and then a bilateral or multinational treaty on non-interence in the domestic politics of each other or all foreign states, based on the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and the OSCE ‘Helsinki Final Act’ so willfully violated by all foreign parties responsible for the Ukraine crisis—the U.S., EU, and Russia alike (see (https://treaties.un.org/doc/Treaties/1964/06/19640624%2002-10%20AM/Ch_III_3p.pdf; “Budapest Memorandums on Security Assurances,” Council on Foreign Relations, 5 December 1994, www.cfr.org/arms-control-disarmament-and-nonproliferation/budapest-memorandums-security-assurances-1994/p32484; “Helsinki Final Act, Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, Helsinki, 1975,” Osce.org, http://www.osce.org/mc/39501?download=true, p. 5, last accessed 4 February 2016; for more detail see Gordn M. Hahn, Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West and the “New Cold War” (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland Publishers, 2018), pp. 188-9).

Second, the signatories call for “(r)estoring normal diplomatic” as a “top priority for the White House and supported by the Congress.” They add: “In the wake of the Ukrainian crisis, key governmental contacts were severed, consulates shuttered and embassy staff drastically reduced.” Of course, restoring normal diplomatic relations is necessary because of abnormal diplomatic relations – the ‘new cold war’ so to speak – cemented by the Ukrainian crisis that began in late 2013-early 2014. However, cracking the nut that is the Ukraine crisis involves restraining the ultranationalist and neofascist element inside the Ukrainian state and society, which is actively preventing a resolution of the Donbass civil war, the clincher and anchor of the new cold war. Thus, the U.S. must urge Kiev to move away from the nationalist radicals, and this involves acknowledging the real history of the Maidan crisis and its causes.

But the authors make no mention and unlikely ever will mention what is the Maidan regime’s central myth – a profoundly false one: the persistent Obama administration lie, reiterated every February for five years (thus extending into the Trump era) by our State Department regarding Maidan’s genesis and especially that about the perpetrators of the 20 February 2014 Ukrainian snipers’ massacre on Kiev’s Maidan. The ruse persists, and not one of the statement’s signatories – many of whom are relative moderates when it comes to Russia, not hawks – has publicly acknowledged that the snipers were not deployed by ‘Putin puppet Viktor Yanukovich’ but rather were members of the ultranationalist and neofascist wing of the Maidan revolution itself deployed by some of its leaders, including the Maidan regime’s first ‘acting president’ and its first speaker of parliament, among others. George Washingtons and Thomas Jeffersons they were not. For any of the signatories to do so, would be the death knell of one’s career ambitions to become Secretray of State, National Security Council advisor for Russia, professor of government at Harvard, expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. This and the fact that the Russiagate hoax and Trump impeachment drive were based on Ukrainian and U.S. Ukraine-driven disinformation demonstrate just how difficult it will be to get the needle moving in the other direction. Without the courage to challenge such forces, the signatories will be destined to failure in any attempt to re-rationalize America’s Russia and Eurasia policies.

Third, the signatories propose the West adopt the “strategic posture…that…served us well during the Cold War: a balanced commitment to deterrence and détente…, while maintaining our defense.” Standing alone, this would be nothing more or less than a call for a return to a cold war relationship with Moscow: nuclear arms control, “make safer and more stable the military standoff that cuts across Europe’s most unstable regions, from the Baltic to the Black Sea,” retention of the late Cold war Open Skies Treaty, and “new confidence-building measures.” However, they also propose – and this is a potential plus – to “engage Russia in a serious and sustained strategic dialogue that addresses the deeper sources of mistrust and hostility and at the same time focuses on the large and urgent security challenges facing both countries.” This addresses my own primary critique of the Obama-Clinton ‘reset’ in which I argued we must discuss the most difficult issues plaguing the relationship. The ‘reset’ at best addressed only the low hanging fruit in the relationship – for example, cooperation in the war against jihadism – and at worst served as a cover for more of the same old hegemonic expansion of color revolutionism, creeping NATO and EU enlargement, human rights bullying, and the like (https://gordonhahn.com/2015/06/14/u-s-russian-relations-the-problem-is-not-resolving-the-relationships-core-problems/ and https://gordonhahn.com/2016/01/21/report-the-russian-american-reset-nato-expansion-and-the-making-of-the-ukrainian-crisis/). At this point, however, I have grave doubts any constructive dialogue is possible given the geopolitical distance and increasingly ideological distance that needs to be overcome, and the unlikeliness that Washington would appoint sufficiently constructive interlocutors.

A similarly important point is the fourth proposal’s call for changing “current policies” sufficiently to improve U.S-Russian relations such that Moscow desists from its “readiness to align with the least constructive aspects of China’s U.S. policy.” While an admirable goal, especially in its attempt to reverse the dynamic of Sino-Russian alliance-making in all but mutual security guarantees, it is fraught with grave difficulties, not least of which is that it comes too late. China is now too powerful to be substantially distanced military-politically or economically by Moscow. The moment when Moscow could have been won for the West has passed and is a non-starter in lieu of substantial regime change in Russia. NATO expansion was preferred to having Russia as a potential ally and Western power. The absence of any concrete proposals for achieving this goal demonstrates just how difficult it will be to ‘move the needle in the opposite direction.’ The only real option is a moratorium on further NATO expansion to accompany the proposed talks on the deeper issues confronting the Western-Russian relationship.

NATO expansion touches specifically on the signatories’ fifth proposal: “On salient issues where U.S. and Russian interests are in genuine conflict, such as Ukraine and Syria, the U.S. should remain firm on principles shared with our allies and critical to a fair outcome. More attention, however, should be paid to the cumulative effect that measured and phased steps forward can have on the overall relationship, and in turn the opportunity an improving relationship creates for further steps forward.” The call for incrementalism is appropriate, but the signatories reveal the conservatism of their approach by insisting that “U.S. and Russian interests are in genuine conflict” in “Ukraine and Syria.” This means that they are unwilling to acknowledge that the American interest in NATO expansion to Ukraine is a fool’s errand and stands at the center of the core of what galls Moscow and threatens Russian national interests and security. It also means that they remain committed to the destabilizing fiasco that has been America’s attempt at regime change in Syria and other countries not ready for democracy.

Sixth, they propose smart sanctions that are “targeted,” flexible, and can be “eased quickly in exchange for Russian steps that advance negotiations” regarding unispecified “outstanding conflicts,” including efforts to cease interference in the U.S. “electoral process.” The signatories’ proposal correctly criticizes the “steady accumulation of congressionally mandated sanctions as punishment for Russian actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, the poisoning in Salisbury, violations of the INF treaty and election meddling” because it “reduces any incentive Moscow might have to change course since it considers those sanctions permanent.” Unfortunately, since there is no American/Western qud pro quo offered regarding Western interference in Russian political processes, Western actions in Ukraine, and treaty withdrawals, Moscow might simply respond to the lifting of sanctions by lifting sanctions they instituted in response to the West’s own.

In order to salvage America’s Russia policy, its foreign policy and the American experience itself, some U.S. foreign policy some mea culpa, at least one internally recognized is necessary. I am not talking about repentance for slavery, Jim Crow, or apartheid – that has been an American practice for a century and 60 years , respectively – but rather an internal discourse that at least allows open discussion if not a conclusive recognition of the anti-constitutional and illegal actions undertaken by recent U.S. administrations in relation to Russia and Eurasia since the Cold War’s ostensible end. Some who have been inside the Washington swamp far more deeply than I ever was or wanted to be certainly possess important secrets symptomatic of the disease and must come forward to save the country, eschewing careerism for country and truth. Like the alcoholic or drug addict, the ill must acknowledge her disease in order to begin to cure it. America must begin this now before it is too late.

To be sure, Russia is a problem. She overreacts to slights and is not as democratic or republican as we had dreamed, but Russia is their dream to fulfill not ours. Russians, Ukrainians, and others living under authoritarian-inclined regimes will most smoothly and quickly attain democracy and markets when they do so on their own without outside interference, using the knowledge of how to do this extant in the West, Japan, India, and elsewhere. America’s responsibility is to establish good relations with Moscow to an extent possible and that does not render Moscow a threat to others or an enabler of our post-Cold war sicknesses of arrogance and ambition. Russia should act in a similar fashion towards the U.S. Unfortunately, America’s post-Soviet Russia policy has been precisely what was needed to achieve the contrary to a secure, democratic, and free market Russia. Now U.S. politics and culture are headed in an authoritarian and unpredictable direction, upping the anxiety regarding Washington felt in Moscow, Beijing, and elsewhere. The first Cold War directly and indirectly corrupted our political culture in many disparate ways. The new cold war will drive the country to a bitter end. The signatories have performed overall a service to the country by perhaps reopening the gates to freedom of speech in America about Russia.

The text represents the point of view of the author

Gordon M. Hahn

Gordon M. Hahn

– Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics, http://www.canalyt.com and a Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, www.cetisresearch.org. Dr. Hahn is the author of the forthcoming book: The Russian Dilemma: Aspiration, Trepidation, and the West in the Making of Russia’s Security Culture (McFarland, 2021). Previously, he has authored four well-received books: Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the “New Cold War” (McFarland, 2018); The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction, 2002).
He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media. Dr. Hahn also has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution.

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