Major media outlets on both sides of America’s political divide ran denunciations of Russian President Vladimir Putin last weekend. These include a lengthy extract in the Wall Street Journal from the memoirs of Sen. John McCain, calling Putin “an evil man … intent on evil deeds” who “means to defeat the West.” Meanwhile, Washington Post foreign policy pundit Jackson Diehl praised a delegation of Putin’s opponents, asserting that Russia “is a place where discontent is growing, the desire for civil rights is tangible and the prospect of democratic change is, in the longer term, real.” The Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies linked Diehl’s column in its May 14 blast email. The Wall Street Journal devoted its weekend interview to Putin foe Bill Browder, who qualified the Putin government as a “criminal enterprise.”
This sort of unanimity in the American Establishment is rare, and when it appears, it is invariably wrong.
The last time the Republican and Democratic Establishments evinced such agreement was in 2011, when both hailed the so-called Arab Spring as a great leap forward for democracy. The Republican neo-conservatives vied with the Obama Administration in their ardor for the overthrow of Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. For their troubles they got chaos in Libya, civil war and a mass flight of refugees in Syria, and a return of military rule in Egypt.
In this case there is one dissenting voice in the policy arena, and it belongs to President Donald J. Trump. He intervened to block additional sanctions on Russia, as American media reported. Inundated by charges of “collusion” with Moscow in the 2016 elections, the president has been at pains to show that “there’s been nobody tougher on Russia than President Donald Trump,” as he said April 18. Liberal CNN averred: “Trump’s reversal once again raises questions about his affinity for Russia despite Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 US election, its alleged use of chemical weapons on foreign soil to target a former spy and its backing for the Syrian regime as it conducts possible war crimes against its own people.”
Underneath the cloud of dust thrown up by Washington’s gutter brawls, though, the president continues to pursue what I characterized as the “Trump Doctrine.” This doctrine “reserves the use of American military power for vital American security interests, while seeking compromise with competing powers — namely Russia and China — where such compromise is possible.” It is visible in America’s coordination with China over the North Korea problem. It is less visible in the case of the Middle East, where the Administration’s tough stance towards Iran requires some degree of acquiescence from Moscow.
Washington wants to stop Iran from pursuing an imperial policy whose object is a “Shi’ite Crescent” stretching from Lebanon and Syria on the Mediterranean into Afghanistan. It agrees with Israel that Iran intends a de facto occupation of Syria, including the establishment of permanent bases, the importation of 80,000 Shi’ite mercenaries from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Lebanon, and the emplacement and manufacture of weapons that threaten Israel’s northern flank.
As former Pentagon official Stephen Bryen wrote in Asia Times May 11, Russia’s tacit approval for Israel’s massive air strike on Iranian bases in Syria last week marks an important shift in the strategic landscape. Israel is an American ally, as Russia well knows. It has no illusions that Israel will be anything but an American ally within any possible horizon of strategic calculation. President Putin’s remarkable reception of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at last week’s World War II victory celebration was not only a gesture to the Middle East’s pocket superpower. It was a gesture to the United States by proxy. The symbolism of the Red Army Band playing Israel’s national anthem (at the 5:00 mark in this video) is typically Russian in its heavy-handed emphasis.
If Russia wanted to sabotage American policy, it would do its best to help Iran shoot down Israeli planes flying combat missions in Syria. On the contrary, Russia last week announced that it would not deliver the S-300 air defense to Syria, because Syria “has all the air defense it needs” — after Israeli raids destroyed a substantial part of the country’s air defense network.
By allowing Israel to humiliate the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps in Syria, it is contributing to the Trump Administration’s main policy objective, namely regime change in Tehran. Russia entered Syria because the country’s civil war had become a Petri dish for Sunni jihadists, including thousands of Muslims from the Russian Caucasus who received terrorist training from rebels. Russia’s naval station in Syria, moreover, was a key element of its military presence in the Eastern Mediterranean. As Gen. Michael Flynn warned in a now-notorious intelligence memo, America’s support for Sunni rebels in Syria inadvertently aided the rise of ISIS. Iran provided cannon fodder for the Syrian Civil War and wrecked its economy by diverting resources to an imperial adventure in the Levant, as I reported in this space in March 2017. Russia provided the air support to prop up the Assad regime while Iran provided the boots on the ground.
It is now generally acknowledged that Russia’s alliance with Iran was a matter of convenience in Syria, and that Moscow now finds Tehran’s imperial ambitions a burden; Raja Abdulrahim and Thomas Grove offer a fair sampling of Russian views on the subject in a survey for the May 14 Wall Street Journal. Former Russian diplomat Nikolay Kozhanov told the newspaper, “Russia would like to see Iran’s influence reduced in Syria, especially since they have radically different views on what post-conflict Syria should look like.”
The American foreign policy Establishment has seven years of investment in the efforts of Sunni rebels to overthrow the Assad regime, and its reflex reaction is to denounce Russia as the source of all evil in Syria. Last month’s reported poison gas attack on Syrian civilians prompted the Trump Administration to impose new sanctions on Russia. Since then no additional proof has emerged that the Assad government (which has already killed half a million of its citizens with such devices as barrel bombs) was responsible for the attack, and the issue has vanished from the news cycle. This reinforces my initial skepticism about the first reports.
More broadly, the utopian narcissism of Mainline Protestant missionaries still informs Establishment thinking about Russia. Like Mr. Diehl of the Washington Post, the Establishment believes that Russia’s democratic evolution is predestined, and that Putin’s authoritarian regime represents a temporary aberration in the inevitable course of Progress. Most of the allegations concerning Putin’s brutal repression of political dissidents as well as commercial competitors probably are true in whole or in part, but that is beside the point. Regime change in Russia is a delusion within any possible horizon of strategic calculation, and the Putin regime is simply a fact of life.
The problem is not so much Putin, who is an autocrat in the old Russian mold. The old Imperial Russia is stirring. The percentage of Russians professing Orthodox Christian faith has risen from a mere 31% after the collapse of Communism to 72% in 2008, according to the Pew Research Survey. Correspondingly Russia’s total fertility rate rose from a post-Communism trough of 1.25 children per female to about 1.7 today. Russia still faces enormous demographic problems because the fertility collapse of the 1990s and 2000s reduced the number of prospective future parents. But it will not disappear as a power.
American and Russian interests do not converge in the Middle East, to be sure, but they overlap in some respects. Russia will not help the United States bring down the Iranian theocracy, but it may not stand in the way of American efforts to do so, either. There is room for negotiation. Russia’s position well may make the difference between success and disaster for the Trump Administration’s initiative against Iran. That is why a Russian-American rapprochement is possible, despite the dudgeon of the foreign policy Establishment. For the past ten years I have argued that the most important trade-off would be American legitimization of Russia’s takeover of Crimea in return for Russian help with America’s policy objective in the Middle East.