President Trump offended the entire political spectrum with a tweet this morning blaming the U.S. for poor relations with Russia. “Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity,” the president said, and he is entirely correct. By this I do not mean to say that Russia is a beneficent actor in world affairs or that President Putin is an admirable world leader. Nonetheless, the president displayed both perspicacity and political courage when he pointed the finger at the United States for mismanaging the relationship with Russia.
Full disclosure: I was a card-carrying member of the neoconservative cabal that planned to bring Western-style democracy and free markets to Russia after the fall of Communism. As chief economist for the supply-side consulting firm Polyconomics, I got an appointment as an adviser to Boris Yeltsin’s finance ministry and made several trips to Moscow. Of course, the finance ministry really was a family office for Yeltsin’s oligarch friends, who were too busy stealing Russia’s economy to listen to advice. The experience cured me of the neoconservative delusion that democracy and free markets are the natural order of things.
Unfortunately, the delusion that the United States would remake Russia in its own image persisted through the Bush and Obama administrations. I have no reason to doubt the allegations that a dozen Russian intelligence officers meddled in the U.S. elections of 2016, but this was equivalent of a fraternity prank compared to America’s longstanding efforts to intervene in Russian politics.
The United States supported the 2014 Maidan uprising in Ukraine and the overthrow of the Yanukovych government in the hope of repeating the exercise in Moscow sometime later. Then-Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland pulled whatever strings America had to replace the feckless and corrupt Victor Yanukovych with a government hostile to the Kremlin. She didn’t say it in so many words, but she hoped the Ukraine coup would lead to the overthrow of Vladimir Putin. Evidently Nuland and her boss, Hillary Clinton, thought that the Ukraine coup would deprive Russia of its Black Sea naval base in Crimea, and did not anticipate that Russia simply would annex an old Russian province that belonged to Ukraine by historical accident.
At the time, liberal opinion evanesced with the notion that Moscow would follow Maidan. The Christian Science Monitor reported in February 2014:
Some in Russia’s liberal community see in the Maidan a hope that the Kremlin, no matter how solid it looks, could one day crack under similar popular pressure. “What we are seeing in Ukraine is the realization of the Ukrainian people’s aspiration for democracy, of the right to revolt,” says Sergei Davidis, a board member of Solidarnost, a liberal opposition coalition. “It doesn’t mean we’re ready to follow that example. Russian conditions are different. But in the long run, as the contradictions pile up, we may well come to the same pass and find ourselves with no alternatives but the Ukrainian one.”
Of course, no such thing occurred.
The Maidan coup was the second American attempt to install a Ukrainian government hostile to Moscow; the first occurred in 2004, when Condoleezza Rice was secretary of State rather than Hillary Clinton. As I wrote in Asia Times a decade ago, “On the night of November 22, 2004, then-Russian president – now premier – Vladimir Putin watched the television news in his dacha near Moscow. People who were with Putin that night report his anger and disbelief at the unfolding ‘Orange’ revolution in Ukraine. ‘They lied to me,’ Putin said bitterly of the United States. ‘I’ll never trust them again.’ The Russians still can’t fathom why the West threw over a potential strategic alliance for Ukraine. They underestimate the stupidity of the West.”
American efforts to promote a democratic opposition to Putin have failed miserably, and as John Lloyd wrote recently at Reuters, the Russian president remains genuinely popular. This remains a source of perpetual frustration for the neoconservatives, who cannot fathom why dictatorships still exist. Russia is a brutal country that always has been governed by brutal men. No-one talks about Ivan the Reasonable. Compared to Peter the Great or Alexander II, let alone Stalin or Ivan the Terrible, Putin is one of Russia’s gentler heads of state. I attempted to explain why in this 2016 essay for Asia Times.
Thanks to President Trump, Russia (as well as China) now understands that America’s intervention in Iraq was not a deliberate effort to destabilize the region, and that its support for Sunni jihadists in Syria was not a deliberate effort to create an Islamist monster with which to destabilize Russia. Under the headline “They’ll never believe we’re that stupid,” I wrote in May 2015: “Beijing and Moscow made up their minds some time ago that the United States had deliberately unleashed chaos on the Levant as part of a malevolent plan of some kind. The Chinese and Russians (and most of the rest of the world) simply cannot process the notion that the United States is run by clueless amateurs who stumble from one half-baked initiative to another, with no overall plan (except, of course, to persuade the Persians to become America’s friends rather than enemies). …Incompetence has consequences. One of the consequences will be that our competitors and adversaries will take us for knaves instead of fools, or even worse, will recognize that we are fools after all.”
Russia is in crisis, but Russia always is in crisis. Russia has a brutal government, but Russia always has had a brutal government, and by every indication, the people of Russia nonetheless seem to like their government. If they want a different sort of government, let them establish one; what sort of government they prefer is not the business of the United States. America’s attempt to shape Russia’s destiny, starting with the Clinton administration’s sponsorship of the feckless, drunk and corrupt Boris Yeltsin, had baleful results. So did the State Department’s attempt to manipulate events in Ukraine in 2004 and 2014.
I’m no Russophile. I’m an old Cold Warrior. I don’t like Putin. I don’t even like Dostoevsky (he invents improbable characters to suit his theological agenda) or Tolstoy (Pierre Bezukhov and Anna Karenina bore me). I don’t especially like Tchaikovsky or Mussorgsky. I don’t like drinking Russian-style (get as drunk as you can as fast as you can). I like a lot of individual Russians — they have guts, and tell you what they think. I’m so leery of Putin’s machinations in Europe that I prefer Angela Merkel to the Putin-friendly German right wing.
Nonetheless, it was America that made a mess of relations with Russia, and President Trump’s tweet this morning was right on the mark. You can usually gauge the merits of this president’s public statements by the decibel level of the protests.
Postscript: To restrain Russia, we should immediately begin an R&D program with Manhattan Project intensity to neutralize Russia’s state-of-the-art air defense systems (S-400 and soon the S-500). We know in theory how to do this, for example with drone swarms, but implementation involves non-trivial programs. The Trump administration has failed to address the erosion of America’s edge in military technology in a number of fields, and this is one of them.