With relations between Washington and Moscow at a low ebb, can simply talking to Russians provide hope that there might still be room for cooperation?
I recently returned from spending a few days in Moscow, speaking at a conference hosted by RT International, Russia’s global television news service. One of the few major countries I have never visited, Russia proved to be quite a pleasant surprise. Moscow was modern, clean and far removed from its gray socialist roots, a very “European” city in every sense. As my wife and I were driven into the city from the airport, the road turned on a bend in the Moscow River and suddenly the Kremlin walls, surmounted by the golden domes of the churches within appeared bathed in late afternoon sunlight. It was a once in a lifetime vision combining place, time and context that can be unforgettable, like the first time one recalls Gibbon’s words while looking out over the Roman Forum.
Admittedly, we conference attendees were being entertained in VIP style, to include a fabulous gala dinner with entertainment provided by the Russian Army Chorus and an opera singer performing pieces from Borodin’s Polovtsian dancers. Mikhail Gorbachev and Paata Shevardnadze were in attendance and President Vladimir Putin was a surprise speaker. The sponsors worked hard to create a good impression for the speakers, who came from twelve countries, and in that they were eminently successful as their hospitality was exceptional.
Did we know we were being manipulated? Of course, but we were careful not to regurgitate propaganda. On my panel, “Information, Messages, Politics: the Shape-Shifting Powers of Today’s World,” Wikileaks founder Julian Assange spoke by video link from the Ecuadorean Embassy in London.
I argued that security and privacy could indeed coexist in most countries but that it would require governments to reign in the extralegal powers that they have accumulated over the past fifteen years in their respective “wars on terror” and the creation of a clearly defined set of rules for police intervention into one’s privacy. Namely, one must go back to the old practice in many countries requiring convincing a judge to issue a warrant or the equivalent to undertake a clearly defined limited action based on probable cause. And, I added, the judge should work in consultation with something like an ombudsman, a non-government adviser, whose sole responsibility would be to make the case for not violating someone’s civil liberties. I concluded pessimistically that I see no chance of any American president doing the right thing, noting that President Barack Obama had basically rejected reasonable corrections on surveillance proposed during the past year.
I should perhaps unnecessarily point out that no speaker at the conference was coached in any way to adhere to a line, while many of the enduring insights derived from the experience were obtained from mixing with the Russian people. That was relatively easy to do because, even though my Russian is elementary, Russians have for some time been learning English in their schools from the first grade on up and are, unlike Americans, very well informed on what is going on in the world.
In my previous life I encountered many Russians overseas and so was prepared to note yet again that they are by and large like what most Americans believe Americans to be—hard working, friendly and somewhat chatty. Like nearly everyone else on this planet, the talk of Russians turns quickly to their children, schools, where they live and what kind of lives they want to have. They are quick to produce photos of their pet dogs and cats. They are also increasingly religious, with the Russian Orthodox church playing a leading role in the state. Christmas lights were on display everywhere, churches destroyed by Stalin are being rebuilt and there was even a bustling Christmas Market in Red Square.
But there was also a dark side that kept surfacing. Both ordinary Russians and those who are journalists or teachers kept coming around to the same issue: why does the United States hate Russians so much and why does the American press seemingly have nothing good to say about them? They were questions I could not answer in any coherent way. I observed somewhat defensively that Russia under Vladimir Putin had become more authoritarian, that the media has lost much of its freedom and that the old Yeltsin style gross systematic corruption has reportedly been replaced by a newer, more subtle cronyism version of something similar. And I mentioned both Crimea and Ukraine as sometimes mishandled in the government’s undeniable agitprop while also conceding that the Russian case was legitimate on many levels. I expressed my own view that the crisis had been engineered by Washington in the first place, seeking to bring about regime change in Kiev. Concerning RT International itself, I mentioned to several of its spokesmen and reporters that its coverage was frequently unreliable on subjects that are close to home as it was skewed to adhere to the government line. They did not disagree with me.
But somehow none of the back and forth seemed to answer the question and in retrospect I don’t think I have a good response. President Vladimir Putin has numerous critics inside Russia but he remains wildly popular and is viewed as a genuine nationalist of the old school, meaning that for most citizens he is perceived as behaving in terms of Russia’s actual interests. That has made him an appealing figure on the world stage. A recent opinion poll in the United Kingdom revealed that four out of five Britons would vote for Putin rather than their own Prime Minister David Cameron if given the choice. I wonder how a similar poll would play out in the U.S. as the Obama Administration does little to inspire, believing as it does in globalism rather than nationalism. Nor does it admit to many genuine national interests in foreign policy instead choosing to encourage tokenism combined with a bizarre desire for constant agitation to create new democracies.
As for the negativity regarding Russia, to be sure there are many older Americans entrenched in the media and government as well as in the plentitude of think tanks who will always regard Russia as the enemy. And then there are the more cunning types who always need the threat of an enemy to keep their well-paid jobs in the government itself and also within the punditry, both of which rely on the health and well-being of the military-industrial-congressional complex. And there will always be reflexive jingoists like Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham.
But all that hardly explains why there appears to be little understanding in the media and inside the Beltway that a good relationship with Russia is indispensable, and not only because Moscow has the power to incinerate the United States if it is ever backed into a corner and motivated to do so. Russia has proven to be a good partner in Syria where it negotiated and carried out Damascus’s elimination of its chemical weapons in early 2014. It is also the driving force behind current negotiations to end the conflict completely. It has consistently been a reliable ally against terrorism, in recognition of its own vulnerability to ISIS and other Islamic militants. What Russia’s elected leaders do inside their own country should be largely irrelevant to America’s interests, but somehow the cart has been put before the horse, a practice not uncommon in the U.S. media.
Other speakers at the conference were as dismayed as I was by the negativity towards Russia and also provided some additional insights into why Americans just don’t get it. One European speaker joked that U.S.A. could stand for United States of Amnesia in that developments elsewhere in the world are subjected to a superficial 24-hour news cycle before being completely forgotten. Professor Peter Kuznick of American University observed that students in the U.S. rank low on science and math scores, which makes the news, but the area in which their scores are actually lowest is history. He quizzed a class of top students on the Second World War and asked how many Americans died in the conflict. The response was 90,000, which is nearly 300,000 short of the true number. How many Russians? The answer was about 100,000, which is 27,900,000 short. Not knowing something about that number means not understanding what motivates Russia. Kuznick observed that roughly 3,000 Americans died on 9/11. To use the numbers of 9/11 as a basis for appreciating the impact of the Russian war deaths would require the U.S. to experience a 9/11 attack every day for the next 24 years.
But there maybe is hope. I returned to Washington to read a short New York Times article by Professor Jeffrey Sommers of the University of Wisconsin:
The Syrian crisis presents an opportunity for a real ‘reset’ with U.S.-Russia relations. Policy and opinion makers in both countries poorly understand each other… maintaining progress can only advance in a stable world, not through upending states from Egypt, Iraq, Libya to Syria, while hoping democracy follows… The architect of U.S. Cold War policy, George Kennan, warned at the end of his life, in 1998, that President Clinton’s policy of advancing NATO east risked war… It’s clear Putin never intended to seize Ukraine, or even the Donbass. Instead, Putin’s actions signaled that the status quo over NATO’s forward movement must change. The Donbass was his leverage. Putin is a tough nationalist, but rather than fueling the fire of Russian revanchism, Putin is actually the one carefully dousing those flames. Putin wants partnership with the West, but is not willing to be its supplicant… The United States and Russia will not reconcile their worldviews soon. Yet they can pursue common objectives in the Syrian-ISIS crisis that over time could expedite resolution of that challenge.
One does not have to love Mother Russia or Vladimir Putin to appreciate that it is in America’s interest to develop a cooperative relationship based on shared interests. Ukraine, which is every bit as corrupt as Russia if not more so, is not a vital U.S. interest while working with Russia is. The regime change in Ukraine, which was engineered by the United States, created the current crisis, not Putin. Putin several times asked for dialogue, asking only that Washington show some respect to Moscow, a reasonable plea. This year, he has stated very clearly that his country wants to work with the United States. It is an offer that should not and cannot be refused by anyone who genuinely cares for the United States of America and the American people.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.