For a moment, at least, the latest crisis is in Latin America, not the Middle East. The Trump administration is hoping to overthrow the disastrous Maduro government, which is busily destroying Venezuela. Although the issue would appear to be of little concern to Russia, its government is actively opposing U.S. efforts.
Washington should insist that Moscow stay out—remember the long ago Monroe Doctrine? But how could anyone, and especially Russian President Vladimir Putin, take such a claim seriously? America incessantly meddles along Russia’s border, up to which it wants to expand NATO, just a couple hundred miles from the Russian capital. Washington’s intentions don’t matter; it’s effectively invited Moscow to return the favor. Thus is Russian involvement also growing in Cuba, another revolutionary failure.
U.S. policy towards Russia has become a hopeless muddle. Historically, America and Russia were friends. Unlike other leading European countries, it did not lean toward the Confederacy during the Civil War. In what should be a lesson for today, Washington similarly stayed out of European battles with Russia, including the Crimean War and later struggles in the Balkans that ultimately triggered World War I.
The latter conflict spawned the Bolshevik Revolution, along with the Red Terror, Stalinist madness, and the simmering Cold War, during which Moscow and Washington were estranged. But Christmas 1991 presented an opportunity as the Soviet flag was lowered for the last time over the Kremlin. Friendship with Russia seemed possible again. Alas, the West underestimated the difficulty of the transition from totalitarian communism to democratic capitalism. And the U.S. and Europe appeared determined to constantly deepen Moscow’s humiliation, incorporating its former allies and even former Soviet republics into NATO, pushing the alliance ever eastward.
Putin initially appeared to harbor little animus towards the West. However, he and his people—Putin is far more representative of the Russian public than Americans want to believe—saw Western behavior in the Balkans, Georgia, and Ukraine as hostile. Moscow’s response to the anti-Russian street putsch in Kiev, ostentatiously backed by American and European officials, was brutal but effective. Russia reincorporated Crimea under its control after a six-decade hiatus and enmeshed Ukraine in an ongoing internal conflict, making it ineligible for NATO membership. Sanctimonious complaints about Russian behavior notwithstanding, no U.S. government would have stood idly by had the old Soviet regime staged a coup against a democratically elected, pro-American government in Mexico, and then invited the new regime to join the Warsaw Pact.
The result has been a renewed rivalry highlighted by steadily worsening bilateral relations. Western sanctions have caused pain but had no apparent impact on Moscow’s behavior. Russia played in the U.S. election, countered Washington’s wildly unrealistic objectives in Syria, strengthened North Korea’s position, expanded cooperation with the People’s Republic of China, and reemerged as an inconvenient influence in Latin America. Only the election interference involves a vital U.S. interest—and Washington has meddled far more frequently and effectively in the votes of other nations. The rest are inconvenient but hardly surprising given America’s behavior.
All this suggests it is time to give negotiation a chance. Trump has had the odd impact of bringing together liberal Democrats and neoconservative Republicans to proclaim Russia to be the next Big Threat. That’s nonsense. Russia remains a shell of the Soviet Union. Putin is ruthless and repressive but no Stalin. Moscow has no global appeal, unlike the USSR. The Putin government has rebuilt the Russian military, but still spends less than Saudi Arabia on defense. Putin has governed longer than Adolf Hitler, but his “conquests” so far are only the former Russian territory of Crimea—whose return was almost certainly supported by a large majority of Crimeans at the time—and some measure of influence over the beleaguered, unprofitable territories of the Donbass in Ukraine and Abkhazia and South Ossetia, formerly part of Georgia. Yet we are supposed to believe he is contemplating a blitzkrieg attack on Europe. The European Union enjoys 10 times Russia’s economic strength and three times Russia’s population.
Perhaps most irritating, though not decisive, is Moscow’s global effort to counter U.S. policy. But again, Uncle Sam has only brought this on himself. For instance, by targeting Russia, the Obama administration encouraged Putin to mimic Richard Nixon’s famous turn to China. Increased American economic pressure on North Korea gave Moscow a good opportunity to revive Cold War ties there. Washington’s willingness to aid even an al-Qaeda affiliate against the Syrian government allowed Russia to pose as an enemy of terrorism and a savior of order.
Closest to home is Moscow’s meddling in the Western hemisphere. A previous round nearly led to global conflict in the Cuban Missile Crisis. The issues are less serious today, but Russia nevertheless empowers regimes arrayed against America as well as its own people. In both Cuba and Venezuela, the Putin government is subsidizing failed revolutions that have left millions of people poor and unfree.
It is time for serious negotiation.
First, Europe. It doesn’t matter that “we” believe the Russians should not fear NATO. They do, and an expansion policy doesn’t increase America’s security. The latest inductees, Montenegro and soon Macedonia, just add to the number of defense welfare clients, expanding U.S. responsibilities without adding any corresponding resources. Prospective members Georgia and Ukraine are far worse, defense black holes accompanied by active conflicts. That they would like to be defended is obvious. That America should do so is not.
An obvious deal emerges. Washington and Brussels should indicate that NATO expansion is over. No invitations will be extended to Georgia and Ukraine. No new bases will be established and no new troops will be deployed in the east. In return, Moscow will end election meddling in America and Europe and military meddling in Ukraine. When Russia’s involvement ceases, economic sanctions will be lifted.
Recognizing that Russia will not return Crimea to Ukraine absent war—and cannot fairly do so if its people do not desire to go—the West should offer de facto acceptance while withholding de jure recognition. Diplomatic disapproval should be maintained, while economic sanctions, which will not change the situation, should be dropped.
In Latin America, the Trump administration should revive the Monroe Doctrine. The Russian intervention is less deadly than during the Cold War but remains disruptive. My Cato Institute colleague Ted Galen Carpenter points to Moscow’s recent dispatch of two Tu-160 bombers, capable of carrying nuclear weapons, to Venezuela. Russia has also trained with and equipped the Venezuelan military. Moreover, the Putin government is improving economic and military links with Cuba.
Washington should propose mutual restraint in both nations’ “near abroad.” Countries in the corresponding regions would be free to choose their relationships with the dominant powers. However, America and Russia would stop undermining each other in areas of special interest. That would significantly reduce opportunities for confrontation and conflict.
Of course, such an accord would run against the instincts of the militaristic social engineers who have captured U.S. foreign policy. But it would be to the American people’s great benefit. Most prior interventions have turned out badly, sometimes disastrously so. Moreover, reducing hostility with Russia would reduce the likelihood of potentially costly future confrontations, whether intentional or inadvertent. Over the long-term, such an accord would also reduce ongoing pressure for Moscow’s realignment with Beijing. Best for Asia would be the development of a balance of power constraining China if the latter eventually gains superpower status. Moscow would be an important part of such a balance.
Washington has unnecessarily and destructively made an enemy of Russia. The Putin government shares the blame, of course, and bears responsibility for steadily restricting fundamental liberties that only briefly emerged after the Soviet Union’s collapse. However, the West’s presumption that it can do whatever it wishes irrespective of the impact on Russia reflects a toxic mix of hubris, naivete, and stupidity. Moscow may not have won the ensuing confrontation, but neither have the U.S. and Europe.
The president has long said he wants a different relationship with Russia. To do that, he needs to initiate a serious and wide-ranging negotiation with Putin. Trump’s objectives should be open and the talks should be transparent. And he should challenge his critics to explain what they expect to achieve from the confrontation with Moscow that they desire.
Right now, the situation seems both dangerous and hopeless—rather like that between the U.S. and North Korea a year ago. But the president found his way out of that crisis. He needs to do the same with Russia.
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.