A nuclear exchange between Russia and the U.S. is clearly a thing to be avoided. Indeed, war of any kind is unthinkable. Yet, tensions between the two countries are rising, driven today by the daily drip of revelations of Russia's "meddling" in the 2016 election. Any stated reason for the discord, however, is less important than the simple need for it. From Crimea and Ukraine to Syria, and on to the presidential election, the usual suspects in the anti-Russia chorus continue to serve the usual, well-entrenched interests. As professor emeritus Stephen F. Cohen stated recently, "It's a new Cold War":
I assure you, this new Cold War is much more dangerous, much more likely to end in Hot War, was then the 40-years of Cold War, which we barely survived.
Cohen continued by saying that the conflict is unfolding on Russia's borders in the Baltic and in Ukraine. As NATO builds its military presence there, the Russians are forced to counter, although their build-up is within their own national borders. Cohen says, "the chances of hot war are now much greater than they were before."
American antagonism today can be understood through Paul Jay's insightful comments on these tensions, which he says, "are being driven by the arms industry which is very disappointed with the Trump administration. If you read the defense press that caters to the arms manufacturers, the arms manufacturers thought that $54 billion was not nearly enough. ... Trump had promised the arms industry a massive increase in expenditure. They're saying this $54 billion Trump proposed was only something like only 2 percent more than Obama was going to do anyway. Congress, already the Armed Services Committee, is talking about another $10 billion, $15 billion on top of the 54." And here's Jay's central point:
You need the anti-Russian narrative. You need an existential threat. You don't need a $13 billion aircraft carrier which is the Ford class aircraft carriers, of which they are planning to build 10, $13 billion apiece. ... But you don't need $130 billion aircraft carrier program to fight ISIS. You don't need it even to do a regime change in some of these smaller countries. You need an existential threat of a major power. So the Russian narrative is absolutely critical to the scale of the arms purchases the arms industry wants.
The magnitude of the Russian military threat is, of course and again, hugely overstated. Russia as a military and economic power is disproportionally weak compared to the U.S. (and to the Europeans). As Jay says, "Russia is a pipsqueak, honestly, compared to the size of these things. But they have a large nuclear weapons program, so they're an existential threat. If you don't have that threat, why do you need so many aircraft carriers?"
As the military-industrial complex seeks to further enrich itself by leveraging the Russian "threat," (not for the first time) Donald Trump has maintained a mostly consistent and positive position (a remarkable achievement for him) on Russia. His presidency began with a narrative at odds with the received wisdom of the security state, when he suggested "we could get along with Russia." The distance between Trump and his security team was amplified when, following his first G-20 summit, he declared “Now it is time to move forward in working constructively with Russia,” only to be schooled the next day by his UN Ambassador, Nikki Haley, who told the media, despite her boss's views on Russia, “It doesn’t mean we ever trust Russia. We can’t trust Russia, and we won’t ever trust Russia.”
The extent to which the U.S. foreign policy establishment, the political class, and military leadership, has sought to maintain a deeply and uniformly antagonistic position towards Russia begs the question: Why? Yes, there is an enormous amount of money to be made, but is that all? The insights of renowned specialist on Russian and post-Soviet politics, Professor Robert English, are instructive:
You know, four or five reasons that all come together, pushing in this Russophobic direction. We've always had sort of unreconstructed Cold Warriors, people who never were easy with the new Russia, right? Zbigniew Brzezinski and people of that ilk, who wanted to just push Russia in a corner, take advantage of its weakness, never give it a chance. Then you have people in the military-industrial complex, for lack of a better term, whose vested interests lie in a continued rivalry, and continued arms-racing, and continued threat inflation. You have other people who normally would be liberal progressive, but they're so angry at Hillary Clinton's loss, they're so uncomprehending of how someone they see as vulgar and unqualified as Trump could get elected, that they're naturally unwilling to let go of this "the Russians hacked our election, the Russians got Trump elected" theme, and therefore, Russia is even bigger enemy than they would be otherwise. These and other strains all come together in a strange way. Some of this is the hard right, all right? Some of it is from the left, some is from the center. And across the board, we have ignorance. Ignorance of Russia.
The U.S. political class seeks to make Putin their primary focus, the evil man, who is responsible for the state of poor relations with Russia. But, as Professor English notes, for the seeds of his antipathy towards America: "You can go back just to the '90s, when we interfered in Russia, when we foisted dysfunctional economic policies on them, when we meddled in their elections repeatedly, and basically for an entire decade, we were handmaidens to a catastrophe - economic, political, social - that sowed the seeds of a resentment that continues to this day."
The seeds of Russian resentment and fear were first sowed by America in 1917, and have for a full century been painstakingly nurtured by the U.S. foreign policy establishment.
A Century of American Aggression This year marks the centenary of the Russian Revolution. The absence of any State-sanctioned celebration of this world-changing event within Russia shows just how deeply divided the country remains one hundred years after the events of February and October, 1917. Beyond Vladimir Putin's many reasons for avoiding the issue today, it is important to understand that the events of that time set two competing visions for the 20th century in direct opposition to one another. And thus began the century-long campaign of American aggression against Russia.
Before we explore that animus, it is perhaps surprising to recall that in the history of America's relations with Russia there have been moments of true warmth and generous spirit. From the depths of the Great Depression, before the horrors of Stalin's cruelty were discovered, "Soviet communism seemed to be producing a dynamic egalitarian society that offered a viable alternative to the moribund capitalist order." (Stone and Kuznick)
Soviet leaders sparked the interest of American intellectuals in 1928 by announcing their first Five-Year Plan, which promised a rational, centralized economy that would create abundance by unleashing science and technology. Socialists and progressives had long favored intelligent planning over a seemingly anarchic system in which individual capitalists made decisions based on maximizing profits. The concept of planning had inspired works as disparate as Edward Bellamy’s 1888 socialist masterpiece Looking Backward and Walter Lippmann’s 1914 Drift or Mastery, the bible of the Progressive movement. Many intellectuals agreed with editor of The Nation Oswald Garrison Villard, who, in late 1929, described the Soviet Union as “the greatest human experiment ever undertaken.”
The results seemed to justify that description. While the United States and the rest of the capitalist world plunged deeper into depression, the Soviet economy appeared to be booming. In early 1931, the Christian Science Monitor reported that not only was the Soviet Union the only country to have escaped the Depression, its industrial production had jumped an astronomical 25 percent from the previous year. In late 1931, The Nation’s Moscow correspondent described the Soviet frontier as “a charmed circle with the world economic crisis cannot cross. … While banks crash…abroad, the Soviet Union continues in an orgy of construction and national development.” The Nation could be dismissed as a liberal publication, but similar reports in Barron’s, Business Week, and the New York Times were harder to disregard. As the U.S. unemployment rate approached 25 percent, a Times report that the Soviet Union intended to hire foreign workers caused desperate jobless Americans to stampede Soviet offices in the United States. Despite official Soviet disclaimers, Business Week reported that the Soviets planned to import 6,000 Americans and that 100,000 had applied. Soviet society seemed to be undergoing an incredible transformation from agrarian backwardness to industrial modernization before people’s eyes.
Many American intellectuals had also begun to see the Soviet Union as a place of intellectual, artistic, and scientific vibrancy compared with the United States’ stultifying bourgeois culture. In 1931, economist Stuart Chase wrote, “For Russians the world is exciting, stimulating, challenging.” The next year, he asked, “Why should Russians have all the fun of remaking a world?” New Republic literary editor Edmund Wilson noted that when visiting the Soviet Union, he felt as if he were “at the moral top of the universe where the light never really goes out.” Socialized medicine for all, remarkable scientific breakthroughs, dazzling economic growth – Soviet progress, many Americans believed, was vastly eclipsing that of its economically struggling capitalist competitors.
The appeal of the Communist Party of the United States of America was greatly enhanced by this mood, "at a time when so many Americans were looking for alternatives." In this social environment, American radicalism became a powerful force for change - before it was systematically rooted out and destroyed by the State.
Later, the Soviets’ courageous resistance against the Nazis captured Americans’ imagination and sympathy. "The resulting outpouring of goodwill toward the Soviet Union would lay the basis, many hoped, for friendship and collaboration in the war’s aftermath as well." (Stone and Kuznick)
Within days of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Soviet diplomat Maxim Litvinov visited the State Department. Secretary of State Cordell Hull used the occasion to applaud the Soviet Union’s “heroic struggle” against the Nazis. Before long, the notion of Soviet “heroism” was ubiquitous. In April 1942, New York Times correspondent Ralph Parker commended “how rapidly and how completely the Russian people” had adapted themselves to war condition.” He applauded their willingness to sacrifice and their extraordinary work ethic. “The whole people are caught up with an enthusiastic passion to be doing something constructive for the common task.” He proclaimed, “It would need a Tolstoy to describe the heroic endurance of the men and women who have made these things possible.” In June 1942, the month marking the first anniversary of Soviet resistance to the German invaders, Orville Prescott, the New York Times’ principal daily book reviewer, was already crediting the Red Army with winning the war and saving humanity. “The vast armaments, the fighting skill and magnificent courage of the Red Army may prove to have been the decisive factors in the salvation of the human race from Nazi slavery,” Prescott gushed. “Our debt of gratitude to the millions of Russian soldiers who have fought and died in this war and who will continue to do so is beyond estimation or expression.” General MacArthur credited the Red Army with “one of the greatest military feats in history.”
Hollywood pitched in too. Though it had once scrupulously avoided making films about the Soviet Union, in July 1942, at least nine movies about the Soviet Union were in production or under consideration by such major studios as MGM, Columbia, United Artists, Twentieth Century-Fox, and Paramount. Five significant motion pictures eventually appeared: Mission to Moscow, North Star, Song of Russia, Three Russian Girls, and Days of Glory.
The Yalta Conference of 1945 was one of the last great examples of U.S.-Soviet cooperation. While "they didn’t see eye to eye on Germany," they "decided to establish a reparations commission, which could base discussions on a figure of $20 billion, with half going to the Soviet Union. Stalin agreed to come into the war against Japan three months after the end of the war in Europe. In return, the United States promised territorial and economic concessions in East Asia that largely restored what Russia had lost to Japan in the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War." (Stone and Kuznick) President Roosevelt addressed Congress upon his return from Yalta, concluding:
"The conference in the Crimea was a turning point, I hope, in our history, and therefore in the history of the world. … We shall have to take the responsibility for world collaboration, or we shall have to bear the responsibility for another world conflict. … And I am confident that the Congress and the American people will accept the results of this conference as the beginning of a permanent structure of peace upon which we can begin to build, under God, that better world in which our children and grandchildren, yours and mine, the children and grandchildren of the whole world, must live and can live. And that, my friends, is the only message I can give you, for I feel very deeply, and I know that all of you are feeling it today and we are going to feel it in the future."
Such moments were, however, fleeting, and a capitalist America has remained more or less continuously at odds with a communist (later, oligarchic) Russia. From the beginning, President Woodrow Wilson, who was witness to the birth of the Russian Revolution, held deeply conservative political views, writing"In politics nothing radically novel may safely be attempted. No result of value can ever be reached ... except through slow and gradual development, the careful adaptations and nice modifications of growth." As Stone and Kuznick wrote:
He disapproved of labor and agrarian radicalism and expressed greater sympathy for business than for labor. Overall, Wilson had a deep abhorrence of radical change in any form.
He would be tested, then, when emerging from the darkness of World War I, on November 7, 1917, the world saw the beginnings of what became perhaps the greatest political experiment in human history:
Not since the French Revolution some 125 years before had Europe been so profoundly shaken and changed. Lenin's vision of world-wide Communist revolution captured the imagination of workers and peasants around the globe, posing a direct challenge to Wilson's vision of liberal capitalist democracy.
Wilson's Anglophile secretary of state Robert Lansing reported disappointingly that Lenin's Communist message was resonating with workers. He warned Wilson on January 1, 1918, that Lenin's appeal was directed "to the proletariat of all countries, to the ignorant and mentally deficient, who by their numbers are urged to become masters. [emphasis ours - this view prevails today, one hundred years later, that only the anointed understand what's best for the great unwashed masses] Here seems to me to lie a very real danger in view of the present social unrest throughout the world."
Wilson responded to that very real Bolshevik challenge with his Fourteen Points, an anti-imperialist peace plan that "endorsed self-determination, disarmament, freedom of the seas, free trade, and a League of Nations." With his plan, "...suddenly, two competing new visions of the postwar world were on the table." And thus began the century-long campaign of American aggression toward Russia - continuing to the present day - which the U.S. initiated within months of the Revolution through the deployment of 15,000 American troops on Russian soil, who remained there until 1920. The United States would not recognize the Soviet Union until 1933. U.S. antipathy continued. The history of World War II is very much the history of an America mostly at odds with the Soviet Union, even as allies against Germany. The Stone/Kuznick video series and companion book, The Untold History of the United States, reprised in full elsewhere on this site, provide an insightful commentary on this contentious relationship - a thorough reading of the Stone/Kuznick project is an important primer for anyone interested in truly understanding the context of today's deteriorating U.S.-Russia relationship. Just a few of the key points from their sweeping study offer some balance to the current negative American narrative:
The suffering endured by the Soviet people during World War II is far beyond Americans' imagining. The Soviet Union lost 27 million citizens in the war, 14 million of them Russians; by contrast 400,000 Americans died. Not a shack on the U.S. mainland was destroyed in the conflict, while Russian territory equating to a third of the continental U.S. landmass was razed to the ground by the Germans (a fact only acknowledged long after the war, by President Kennedy in his 1963 address at American University).
It was the Soviet Union, not the United States, that won the war in Europe. The Soviets "tore the guts out of the German war machine." The Red Army, until the Normandy landing, routinely faced 200 German divisions, while the Allies at any one time faced no more than ten - President Roosevelt remarked to Douglas MacArthur in May 1942, “I find it difficult…to get away from the simple fact that the Russian armies are killing more Axis personnel and destroying more Axis materiel than all the other twenty-five United Nations put together." And it was General MacArthur who credited the Red Army it its victory over the invading Germans as “one of the greatest military feats in history.”
The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were judged by the majority of five-star U.S. officers as militarily and morally indefensible. These atrocities were in fact demonstrations to Russia, a clear warning to America's central ally in the European theatre. The Soviets knew "the bomb was not needed to defeat a nation already on life support," and "they concluded that the Soviet Union was the real target. The Americans, they figured, wanted to speed the Japanese surrender in the hope of preempting Soviet gains in Asia. Even more disconcerting, they concluded that the Americans, by using it on Hiroshima when it was clearly not necessary, were signaling that the United States wouldn’t hesitate to use it against them too if they threatened U.S. interests." Following Roosevelt's death, an unprepared President Truman adopted a belligerent and threatening tone in his administration's first contacts with the Soviets, setting the stage for the rapid escalation of tensions between the U.S. and the USSR.
As they had committed at Yalta, the Soviets entered the war against Japan in Manchuria on August 9, just a day after the Americans dropped the second atomic bomb. While the bombs certainly contributed to the Japanese surrender, it is now widely recognized that this was secondary "to the dramatic impact of the Soviet invasion, which convinced the Japanese leaders that even holding for a last decisive battle on the Japanese mainland was no longer a viable option." And thus Truman succeeded in limiting Soviet territorial and economic gains promised by Roosevelt at Yalta. The Soviets, however, did not become more pliable, as Truman hoped. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki "merely convinced Stalin that the United States would stop at nothing to impose its will and that the Soviets must speed the development of their own atomic bomb as a deterrent to the blood-thirsty Americans."
In the months following the war, Truman and his key advisors mounted a full-throated campaign of aggression against the Soviets:
In mid-September, Secretary of State James Byrnes traveled to London to confer with Vyacheslave Molotov and other foreign ministers. Before leaving, he made clear his intention to use the U.S. atomic monopoly to force Soviet compliance with U.S. demands.
By the end of the year, General Leslie Groves, Director of the Manhattan Project, was openly advocating for a preemptive nuclear strike against the Soviet Union (at that time, incredibly, Groves had unilateral control over the nuclear arsenal). As he later testified: “There was never, from about two weeks from the time I took charge of this Project, any illusion on my part but that Russia was our enemy, and that the Project was conducted on that basis.”
As a brief recap, then, a country that had twice been invaded in a span of less than 30 years, that had lost 27 million citizens in World War II, that had been substantially destroyed in repelling the German invader, that was largely responsible for winning the Second World War, was then forced to consider the prospect of nuclear annihilation at the hands of its wartime ally.
Much of Truman's disastrous presidency was devoted to a policy of aggression toward the Soviets. Stone and Kuznick characterize this period as "the tragedy of a small man." Their Untold History project captures the extent of the U.S. nuclear aggression under Truman that marked the beginning of the Cold War:
Anti-Soviet sentiments were clearly on the rise in early March 1946 when Winston Churchill spoke in Fulton Missouri, with Truman sitting on the platform. His bellicose words delivered a sharp, perhaps fatal, blow to any prospect for postwar comity, captured in the famous line: "From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain had descended across the Continent."
Following Churchill’s speech, U.S.-Soviet relations deteriorated rapidly. The Soviets had invaded Iran in 1941 to deny the Germans access to the Baku oil fields, and remained there after the war. At the United Nations, the United States pressed for a confrontation over Iran, despite the Soviet Union’s agreement to withdraw its troops. When Soviet troops stayed beyond the March 2 deadline for their removal, Truman threatened war - he summoned Soviet Ambassador Andrei Gromyko to the White House and informed him that if Soviet troops weren’t out in forty-eight hours, “We’re going to drop it on you.”
While Truman was making atomic threats, the public quaked at the prospect of atomic war. Henry Wallace pushed Truman to pursue international control of atomic weapons. The Soviets submitted a counterplan of their own, which would ban production, stockpiling, and use of atomic weapons. Existing stockpiles would be destroyed within three months. The U.S. decision to proceed with a July 1 atomic bomb test in the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands sent the Soviets another chilling message about U.S. intensions, causing them to wonder why the Americans would go to such lengths to improve their bombs if they were serious about disarmament.
Henry Wallace understood the urgency of the developing nuclear crisis. Among several important actions, he gave a major peace address on September 12 in New York’s Madison Square Garden. The backlash from Truman's top advisors moved him to fire Wallace and, with his departure, the last chance to avert the Cold War and nuclear arms race disappeared. A report at the time ruled out further efforts to negotiate with the Soviets. “The language of military power,” it said, “is the only language” the Soviets understand. Hence, the report warned ominously, “the United States must be prepared to wage atomic and biological warfare” against the Soviet Union.
Truman increased tensions with his announcement of the Truman Doctrine. Pravda accused the United States of “imperialist expansion under the guise of charity” and trying to “extend the Monroe Doctrine to the Old World.” Not only did the Soviet Union not have a blueprint for postwar Sovietization of Eastern Europe, it hoped to maintain friendly and collaborative relations with its wartime allies. The last thing it wanted was confrontation with the West. As Russian scholars Vladislav Zubok and Constantine Pleshakov explain, there was “no master plan in the Kremlin, and Stalin’s ambitions had always been severely limited by the terrible devastation of the USSR during World War II and the U.S. atomic monopoly.”
Following the end of World War II, the United States slowly built its stockpile of atom bombs from thirteen in mid-1947, only one of which could have been operational with two weeks, to three hundred by mid-1950. At the same time, it enhanced its ability to deliver those bombs. The advent of the atomic age revolutionized strategic thinking. Airpower would now reign supreme. The United States Air Force (USAF) became an independent service in 1947. One of the USAF’s three units, the Strategic Air Command (SAC), assumed primary responsibility for delivering the new weapons. In 1948, Lieutenant Curtis LeMay, the mastermind of the United States’ terror bombing of Japan, took charge of SAC and set out to turn it into a first-rate fighting force – one that would be ready to do battle against the Soviets at a moment’s notice. “We are at war now!” he declared. When fighting began, he intended to simply overwhelm Soviet defenses, dropping 133 atomic bombs on seventy cities, knocking out 40 percent of Soviet industry, and killing 2.7 million people. The SAC Emergency War Plan he designed called for delivery of the entire stockpile “in a single massive attack.”
Truman was a man woefully inadequate to the demands of the presidency. He lacked both the intellect and the temperament necessary for the role (a lament sadly reprised in 2017), qualities desperately needed at such a perilous time in world history - he was judged “an honest and diligent mediocrity…a bungling if well-meaning amateur.” The truest measure of Truman's deficiencies can be seen in the advisors with whom he surrounded himself, people who often fed his own worst impulses. Men such as James Byrnes, his first Secretary of State (and Truman's mentor during his nondescript days as Senator from Missouri), Averell Harriman, Edward Stettinius, James Forrestal, and Dean Acheson were central actors in driving Truman's anti-Soviet post-war policies. As Stone and Kuznick wrote, "The most vociferous critics of the Soviet Union shared a similar class background that inclined them to mistrust the Soviets' motives and intensions."
Harriman, the son of a railroad millionaire, had founded Brown Brothers Harriman. Forrestal had made a fortune on Wall Street. And Stettinius had been chairman of the board of U.S. Steel, the nation’s largest corporation. They would join with other wealthy international bankers, Wall Street and Washington lawyers, and corporate executives, who had also inherited or made their fortunes during the interwar years, to shape postwar U.S. policy. These men included Dean Acheson of Covington and Burling; Robert Lovett of Brown Brothers Harriman; John McCloy of Cravath, Swain and Moore; Allen and John Foster Dulles of Sullivan and Cromwell; oil and banking magnate Nelson Rockefeller; Paul Nitze of Dillon, Read; Ferdinand Eberstadt of Dillon, Read and F. Eberstadt and Co.; and General Motors President Charles E. Wilson, who, in 1944, told the Army Ordnance Board that in order to prevent a return to the Depression, the United States needed “a permanent war economy.”
Added to the many acts of overt aggression it initiated against the Soviet Union, the Truman administration was also notable for the Communist scare it fostered at home, for the loyalty checks it mandated for all government employees, and for the House Un-American Activities Committee it oversaw. It was the time of J. Edgar Hoover and Eugene McCarthy. What is more, Truman's congress "passed the greatest military reform in U.S. history."
The National Security Act created the National Military Establishment (later called the Department of Defense), consisting of the Departments of the Army, Navy, and Air Force, headed by a secretary of defense, and a Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS). Truman appointed the anti-Soviet hard-liner James Forrestal as the first secretary of defense. Creating a new U.S. Air Force separate from the army confirmed the importance of atomic warfare in future military planning.
The act also created the National Security Council, a War Council, the National Security resources Board, and the Central Intelligence Agency. Although the act specifically authorized the Agency only to collect, analyze, and disseminate intelligence, it also empowered it to perform “other functions and duties related to intelligence affecting the national security.” The Agency used that vague wording to conduct hundreds of covert operations, including eighty-one during Truman’s second term alone.
In December 1947, Truman approved secret annex JSC 4-A, authorizing the CIA to conduct covert operations. In the summer of 1948, he approved NCS 10/2, which called for “propaganda, economic warfare; preventive direct action, including sabotage, anti-sabotage, demolition and evacuation measures: subversion against hostile states, including assistance, to underground resistance movements, guerrillas and refugee liberation groups, and support of indigenous anti-Communist elements in threatened free countries of the free world.” These activities were to be done in a way that would always afford the U.S. government plausible deniability. In August 1948, Truman approved NSC 20, which authorized guerrilla operations in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
In 1950, Truman accepted the conclusions of National Security Council Paper NSC-68, a report considered "among the most influential documents composed by the U.S. Government during the Cold War." NSC-68 posited that the Soviet Union, now armed with atomic bombs and “a new fanatic faith,” was seeking “to impose its absolute authority over the rest of the world.” The report's recommendations became policy, and the United States Government began a massive military build-up in which the Truman administration almost tripled defense spending as a percentage of the gross domestic product between 1950 and 1953 (from 5 to 14.2 percent).
Truman ended his presidency amidst historically low public approval levels. He was undone by the Korean War, in which, he announced publicly, he was prepared to deploy nuclear weapons. As Stone and Kuznick recount:
LeMay volunteered to direct the attacks. Representative Mendel Rivers of South Carolina declared, “If there ever was a time to use the A-bomb, it is now.” Senator Owen Brewster from Maine proposed using it against the Chinese. Representative Tom Steed of Oklahoma preferred “the Kremlin.” Representative Joseph Bryson of South Carolina just wanted to make sure it was dropped on somebody: “The hour is at hand when every known force, including the atomic bomb, should be promptly utilized.” Lloyd Bentsen of Texas, the future Democratic vice presidential candidate, proposed that the president “advise the commander of the North Korean troops to withdraw…beyond the 38th parallel within one week or use that week to evacuate civilians from a specified list of North Korean cities that will be subjected to atomic attack by the United States Air Force.”
On December 9, 1950, MacArthur requested authorization to use atomic bombs at his discretion. On December 24, he submitted a list of twenty-six targets. He also requested four bombs to drop on invading forces and four more for “critical concentration of enemy air power.” He calculated that dropping thirty to fifty atomic bombs “across the neck of Manchuria” could produce “a belt of radioactive cobalt” that would win the war in ten days. But that was just the short-term effect. The rest of radioactive cobalt would spread “from the Sea of Japan to the Yellow Sea.” Therefore, he figured, “For at least 60 years there could have been no land invasion of Korea from the North.”
Harry Truman presided over an unimaginable transformation of America and Americans. The optimism that had reigned in the aftermath of the war "had given way to a new sense of fear and anxiety" (a condition that persists through to the present day). The Communist triumph in China and the Soviet's successful atomic test heightened Americans' sense of being "besieged by enemies at home and abroad." In driving the country to this new state of fear and anxiety, Truman altered completely Roosevelt's plans for comity in the post-war world, plans based on agreements he had entered into with Stalin. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Soviets reacted to the Truman administration's aggression in the way they did - the surprise may be in the level of restraint they displayed.
Immediately following Stalin's death, Soviet leaders attempted to reach a new consensus with America, as Stone and Kuznick write:
Soviet leaders secretly decided to ease tensions with the capitalist West so they could focus on improving conditions at home. Georgi Malenkov, Stalin’s successor, speaking at Stalin’s funeral, called for “international cooperation” and economic relations with all countries – a peace based on “prolonged coexistence and peaceful competition” between capitalism and socialism. The new Soviet leaders held out an olive branch. Would the United States’ newly elected president, Dwight David Eisenhower, and his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, accept it?
The short answer was no. Despite many opportunities to roll back the Cold War and the arms race, Eisenhower and Dulles passed on them all:
Presiding over the world’s most powerful nation during perhaps the tensest extended period in history, he could have taken bold action that could have put the world on a different path. Signs emanating from Moscow indicated that the Kremlin might be ready to change course. But because of ideology, political calculations, the exigencies of a militarized state, and limited imagination, he repeatedly failed to seize the opportunities that emerged. And although he deserves credit for avoiding war with the Soviet Union at a time when such a war seemed quite possible, he left the world a far more dangerous place than when he took office.
In fact, the U.S. nuclear arsenal expanded at an astonishing pace during Eisenhower's term in office, growing from slightly over 1,000 in 1952 to over 22,000 bombs when he left eight years later. As Stone and Kuznick note: "Eisenhower used atomic bombs as repeatedly throughout his presidency in the same sense, as Daniel Ellsberg has argued, that a robber holding a gun to someone’s head uses the gun without pulling the trigger." Nuclear extortion became a regularly employed tool in America's foreign policy toolkit. As Ike's vice president, Richard Nixon learned from and later credited Eisenhower's approach to nuclear diplomacy, coining the phrase "the madman theory" to explain his frequent threats of atomic annihilation against the Vietnamese years later.
Eisenhower's dangerous reliance on nuclear blackmail to gain advantage in the Cold War was aggressively championed by his Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, who defied the predominant view of most of humanity, insisting, as noted by Stone and Kuznick, that "recklessly brandishing nuclear threats was not only defensible, it worked. An early-January 1956 interview in Life magazine quoted Dulles as saying the Eisenhower administration had 'walked to the brink' of nuclear war on three recent occasions and forced the Communists to back down. U.S. resolve, he argued, had thwarted Communist aggression in Korea, Indochina, and the Formosa Strait." In 1957, the Soviets began to aggressively counter U.S. nuclear blackmail with successes in its intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) program, and with the launch of Sputnik:
For the Soviet Union, ICBMs could potentially offset the enormous military advantage the United States derived from bombers housed at NATO bases in Europe.
[With Sputnik,] the Soviets punctured the belief that the United States’ technological sophistication and the Soviet Union’s backwardness would guarantee U.S. victory in the Cold War.
An irrational fear of being overtaken by the Soviets spurred intelligence officials to advance preposterous estimates of Soviet military strength: "In December 1957, a National Intelligence Estimate projected a potential Soviet arsenal of a hundred operational ICBMs in the next two years and projected a worst-case scenario of five hundred Soviet ICBMs in 1960." Such wild speculation was not confined to intelligence officials - the ICBM and Sputnik shocks were gifts to enterprising politicians, including John F. Kennedy, who in 1957 levelled a series of accusations warning of the growing "missile gap" between the U.S. and the USSR that placed the United States in mortal danger. Of course, this existential crisis was a fiction, as Eisenhower had already made clear in his public assurances regarding America's vast military superiority:
"Our nation has…enough power in its strategic retaliatory forces to bring near annihilation to the war-making capabilities of any other country. Atomic submarines have been developed. … A number of huge naval carriers are in operation, supplied with the most powerful nuclear weapons and bombers of great range to deliver them. Construction has started and soon will produce a carrier to be driven by atomic power. … In numbers, our stock of nuclear weapons is so large and so rapidly growing that …we are well ahead of the Soviets…both in quantity and in quality. We intend to stay ahead."
Not for the last time would fabrications and fear be employed to drive ever greater expenditures for the now-permanent war economy of the United States. Eisenhower's Farewell Address rings particularly hollow given the central role he played in birthing the military-industrial complex. In the months following the Bay of Pigs fiasco, newly-elected President Kennedy had his first meeting with the Soviet's Khrushchev, who "had earlier reached out to the new president, hoping to ease tensions and reach an accord on nuclear testing, Laos, and Berlin." Given the utter failure of the Cuban adventure, though, the mood changed, as Khrushchev may have sensed an opportunity to exploit weakness:
During the summit, the Soviet premier bristled with accusations. Khrushchev berated the young president for the United States’ global imperialism. He declared that U.S.-Soviet relations hinged on resolution of the German question and deplored Germany’s remilitarization and prominence in NATO.
Even after two World Wars, Kennedy and his advisors had gained no appreciation for the terror a remilitarized Germany instilled in the Soviets, and this contributed to the standoff in Berlin. In turn, the Berlin crisis caused the Americans to renew plans for a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union.
Dean Acheson, who prepared the background papers on Germany for the summit, advised Kennedy to take a strong, uncompromising stand on Berlin and avoid negotiations. He felt that nuclear war was worth the risk. In the event of a confrontation, the United States planned to send a few brigades to Berlin. If the Warsaw Pact resisted militarily, the United States was ready to launch an all-out nuclear attack. As Bundy explained to Kennedy, “The current plan calls for shooting off everything we have in one shot, and it is so constructed as to make any more flexible course very difficult.”
Kennedy was briefed twice on plans for a nuclear attack against the Soviets, first in July, and then in September. In the second, SIOP-62, an option was included for "a full-scaled preemptive attack against the Soviet Union." As Stone and Kuznick noted, a "chilling specter of nuclear war hung over the first two years of the Kennedy presidency. Having won the election in part by exploiting the fear of a missile gap, once in office Kennedy asked McNamara to quickly ascertain just how big the gap was. It took only three weeks to confirm that a gap did exist, but was in the United States’ favour." Kennedy allowed this disparity to become public knowledge, as a way to intimidate the Soviets:
McNamara publicly confirmed that the United States possessed “nuclear power several times that of the Soviet Union.” Several times was an understatement. The United States had approximately forty-five ICBMs. The Soviet had only four, and those were very vulnerable to a U.S. attack. The United States had more than 3,4000 deliverable nuclear warheads on submarines and bombers. The United States had more than 1,500 heavy bombers to the Soviets 192. The United States also had some 120 IRBMs stationed in Turkey, Britain, and Italy, 1,000 tactical fighter bombers with range of the USSR, and nuclear missiles on Polaris subs. Overall, the United States had approximately 25,000 nuclear weapons; the Soviets had one-tenth that number.
The Soviets interpreted the American admissions to mean that “the imperialists are planning…a surprise attack on the USSR and the socialist countries.” They responded by detonating a 30-megaton bomb, the biggest yet to be tested, followed by a 50-plus-megaton bomb which they could have made 100 megatons. As a sign of the madness of the times, as Stone and Kuznick wrote, "LeMay had reportedly advocated building a single bomb big enough to destroy the entire Soviet Union." Kennedy’s unwavering commitment to overthrowing the revolutionary Cuban government further inflamed tensions with the Soviet Union.
Robert Kennedy told CIA head John McCone in January 1962 that overthrowing Castro was “the top priority of the United States’ Government.” Two months earlier, the Kennedy’s unleashed Operation Mongoose, a terror campaign against Cuba under CIA auspices. Robert Kennedy outlined the policy: “My idea is to stir things up…with espionage, sabotage, general disorder, run and operated by Cubans themselves.” The objective was to wreck the Cuban economy and assassinate Castro. Kennedy put master counterinsurgent and dirty-tricks expert Edward Lansdale in charge. The CIA assembled an enormous intelligence operation that included 600 CIA officers in South Florida, nearly five thousand contractors, and the third largest navy in the Caribbean. In March, Lansdale asked the Joint Chiefs for a “description of pretexts” to justify “US military intervention in Cuba.” Brigadier General William Craig, the Operation Mongoose Program Officer, quickly produced an astounding list, which was approved by the Joint Chiefs and actively promoted by Chairman Lemnitzer.
U.S. actions throughout 1962 convinced the Soviets that such an invasion was imminent. In January, the United States coerced Latin American countries to suspend Cuba’s membership in the OAS. In April, 40,000 U.S. troops engaged in a two-week exercise culminating in an invasion of a Caribbean Island. Two smaller exercises followed in May. During the summer and fall, the United States intensified its contingency planning for an invasion. In October 1962, the U.S. announced Operation Ortsac, a large exercise including a mock invasion by 7,500 marines of a Caribbean island replete with the overthrow of its government. The message was clear; "Ortsac" was Castro spelled backward.
As Stone and Kuznick noted: "The last thing the Soviets wanted in 1962 was a direct military confrontation with the United States."
With little more than ten ICBMs that could reliably reach U.S. soil and fewer than 300 nuclear warheads, they stood no chance against the United States’ 5,000 nuclear bombs and nearly 2,000 ICBMs and bombers. Fearing a U.S. first strike, the Soviets gambled that placing missiles in Cuba could deter both an attack on themselves and protect Cuba against an anticipated U.S. invasion. Khrushchev also saw this as an inexpensive way to placate Kremlin hawks. Having deliberately misled Kennedy with promises that no offensive weapons would be placed in Cuba, he said he wanted to give the Americans “a little bit of their own medicine” and show them that “it’s been a long time since you could spank us like a little boy – now we can swat your ass.” Khrushchev equated Soviet missiles in Cuba with U.S. missiles on the Soviet Union’s border in Turkey and in Western Europe.
The seemingly inexorable path to nuclear war reached its apex with the Cuban Missile Crisis. Curtis LeMay was adamant in his view - shared by the entire U.S. military leadership - that the time was ripe not only to overthrow Castro but to wipe out the Soviet Union as well. The very real prospect of global annihilation served to sharpen the focus of both Kennedy and Khrushchev, causing them to draw back in horror at what they had almost wrought. In the months following the crisis, Khrushchev made a series of bold proposals that would eliminate “everything in our relations capable of generating a new crisis.” Stone and Kuznik note: "Kennedy’s most emphatic response to Khrushchev’s peace overtures came in his June 1963 American University Address. He and his closest advisors had drafted the speech without input from the Joint Chiefs, the CIA, or the State Department. It may be the most enlightened speech made by any president in the twentieth century." And so, from the Cuban Missile Crisis arose a brief period of detente and arms control.
The very public positions taken by presidents in opposition to the USSR were often supported, if not initiated, by policy wonks on the fringes of U.S. administrations. The anti-Soviet bias forged in the early days of the Cold War became received wisdom across the entire U.S. foreign policy establishment, leaving little room for alternative views. The establishment's assessments of Soviet capabilities and intentions, as noted by Stone and Kuznik, were generally wrong - often deliberately so.
Following Nixon’s ouster, conservatives set out to purge the intelligence community of CIA analysts who didn’t believe the Soviets were out to conquer the world. Led by Air Force Intelligence Chief Major General George Keegan, they convinced CIA Director George H. W. Bush to give a group of anti-Soviet hardliners, labeled Team B, unprecedented access to the country’s most sensitive intelligence so that they could challenge the CIA’s findings about the Soviet Union. In the eyes of CIA analysts, Keegan had already discredited himself with fanciful reports of a Soviet-directed energy weapons program that would give the Soviet Union an enormous advantage over the United States. Rebuffed by military and intelligence experts, he went public with his outlandish theories when he retired. He convinced the editors of Aviation Week & Space Technology to write in May 1977, “The Soviet Union has achieved a technical breakthrough in high-energy physics applications that may soon provide it with a directed-energy beam weapon capable of neutralizing the entire United States ballistic missile force and checkmating this country’s strategic doctrine. … The race to perfect directed-energy weapons is a reality.” Despite the fact that no such Soviet project existed, the United States began its own space-based laser weapons program in 1978 under the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). This eventually led to the much-ballyhooed and incredibly wasteful Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). Keegan also incorrectly insisted that the Soviets were building a large-scale civil defense system designed to safeguard much of the Soviet population in the event of a nuclear war. Howard Stoertz, who oversaw the production of the National Intelligence Estimates on the Soviet Union, explained why he and others at the CIA objected to this type of outside scrutiny: “Most of us were opposed to it because we saw it as an ideological, political foray, not an intellectual exercise. We knew the people who were pleading for it."
Harvard Russia historian Richard Pipes, a virulently anti-Soviet Polish immigrant, was put in charge of Team B. Pipes quickly recruited Paul Nitze and Paul Wolfowitz. According to Anne Cahn, who worked at the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency under President Carter, Team B members shared an “apoplectic animosity toward the Soviet Union.” They greatly overestimated the USSR’s military spending and capabilities, predicting that the Soviets would have around five hundred Backfire bombers by early 1984, more than double the actual number. They put the most malign interpretation on the Soviets’ intensions, accusing them of using détente as a ruse to gain hegemony. They rejected the CIA assessment that Soviet nuclear capabilities were primarily defensive in nature, designed to deter and retaliate, not attack.
Pipes complained that the CIA assessments “happened to favor détente and to place the main burden for its success on the United States.” He attributed this to the fact that the CIA’s “analytic staff…shared the outlook of U.S. academe, with its penchant for philosophical positivism, cultural agnosticism, and political liberalism.” Actual Soviet behavior, Pipes argued, “indicated beyond a reasonable doubt that the Soviet leadership…regarded nuclear weapons as tools of war whose proper employment…promised victory.” Pipes’ report found the Soviets far ahead in every strategic category. The CIA dismissed it as “complete fiction.” Cahn concluded, “if you go through most of Team B’s specific allegations about weapons systems,…they were all wrong.
Hard-line anti-détente forces gained momentum inside government, and were increasingly supported by outside advocacy groups. The Committee on the Present Danger (CPD), originally formed in the 1950s, was reprised in 1976 by Nitze, James Schlesinger, and former Undersecretary of State Eugene Rostov.
Among the early supporters were Mellon heir Richard Mellon Scaife and the future Director of Central Intelligence William Casey. Members included Commentary magazine editor Norman Podhoretz, Richard Perle, Dean Rusk, and Ronald Reagan. The CPD’s founding statement warned that the Soviet Union sought dominance through “an unparalleled military buildup” and that under the cover of arms control, it was preparing to fight and win a nuclear war.
The Team B CPD efforts to subvert the intelligence community and drive country to the right were cheered on by a network of newly formed organizations and think tanks funded, in part, by the Scaife family, the Coors family, and William Simon, president of the John M. Olin Foundation. Among the recipients of such largesse were the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, the Hudson Institute, the Manhattan Institute, the Federalist Society, the Washington Legal Foundation, the Institute for Justice, the Hoover Institute, Freedom House, and the Ethics and Public Policy Center. These interests backed a series of right-wing publications, including National Interest/Public Interest, Commentary, and The American Spectator.
The roster of the founding members of the second CPD was impressive for its representation of key elements of the foreign policy establishment. It ultimately provided 33 officials to Ronald Reagan's administration, including Director of CIA William Casey, National Security Advisor Richard V. Allen, UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, Secretary of the Navy John Lehman, Secretary of State George Shultz, and Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Perle. Regan was himself a member of the CPD in 1979.
Jimmy Carter was going to be a different kind of president - in a post-Nixon, post-Watergate, post-Vietnam world, he came to the office "with a moderately progressive vision of what the United States could become."
Among his top priorities was cutting defense spending. During the campaign, he had denounced U.S. nuclear hypocrisy: “by enjoining sovereign nations to forgo nuclear weapons, we are asking for a form of self-denial that we have not been able to accept ourselves.” Rejecting the typical double standard that powerful nations imposed on weaker ones, he recognized that the United States didn’t have the “right to ask others to deny themselves such weapons” unless it was actively moving to eliminate its own nuclear arsenal. “The world is waiting, but not necessarily for long,” he realized. “The longer effective arms reduction is postponed, the more likely it is that other nations will be encouraged to develop their own nuclear capability.”
Carter promised to restore U.S. moral standing in the world, and to learn the lessons of Vietnam. He declared:
“never again should our country become militarily involved in the internal affairs of another country unless there is a direct and obvious threat to the security of the United States of its people.” He vowed never to repeat the “false statements and sometimes outright lies” that his predecessors had used to justify the U.S. invasion of Vietnam. He raised the hopes of mankind by announcing that the United States would “help shape a just and peaceful world that is truly humane. … We pledge…to limit the world’s armaments. … And we will move this year a step toward the ultimate goal – the elimination of all nuclear weapons from this Earth. We urge all other people to join us, for success can mean life instead of death.”
These declarations - to the extent they represented his true intentions - were doomed from the start (only the slickly packaged Obama yielded a more grievous litany of failure - if not outright deception - than Carter's). Whereas the ill-prepared Harry Truman had relied on Jimmy Byrnes' dangerous views to guide his thinking, the foreign policy novice Jimmy Carter succumbed to the nefarious control of the virulent anti-Communist, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who bragged he was “the first Pole in 300 years in a position to really stick it to the Russians.” In his memoirs, Brzezinski described the process by which he came to shape Carter’s thinking on foreign policy issues:
In effect, the morning briefing involved a touching of bases, some prodding of the President to think about problems that in my judgement needed attention, the planting of basic ideas, and – especially in the first months of his Presidency – some wider discussions of conceptual or strategic issues. This was particularly important in the initial stages, when we were defining our goals and setting our priorities. I also used the sessions occasionally to make suggestions to Carter as to what he ought to stress in his public statements, including possible formulations or wordings. He was extremely good at picking up phrases, and I was often amazed how after such a morning briefing he would use in a later press conference or public appearance words almost identical to those we had discussed.
The daily dose of anti-Communist rhetoric that was the subtext of Brzezinski's instruction ultimately hardened Carter's views, resulting in his administration's harsh attacks on the Soviet Union over human rights issues. This brought a deep chill to U.S.-USSR relations, as the Soviets noted the hypocrisy of U.S. tolerance for widespread abuses in Iran, the Middle East and Central America. Brzezinski's influence was also seen in Carter's opposition to Soviet support for African liberation movements. But nowhere were the lessons more fully applied than in Carter's response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which he called “the greatest threat to peace since the Second World War” (a statement ripe with hyperbole, when compared with the Berlin Blockade, the Korean War, the Suez criss, or the Cuban Missile Crisis). He went on to declare in his 1980 State of the Union address:
The region which is now threatened by Soviet troops in Afghanistan is of great strategic importance: It contains more than two-thirds of the world’s exportable oil. The Soviet effort to dominate Afghanistan has brought Soviet military forces to within 300 miles of the Indian Ocean and close to the Straits of Hormuz, a waterway through which most of the world’s oil must flow. The Soviet Union is now attempting to consolidate a strategic position, therefore, that poses a grave threat to the free movement of Middle East oil. … Let our position be absolutely clear: An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.
As Stone and Kuznick note, that last sentence became enshrined as the Carter Doctrine, and "was interpreted in the Kremlin as a clear threat of war – even nuclear war." And that threat was reiterated by Assistant Secretary of State William Dyess in an interview a month later, when he said “the Soviets know that this terrible weapon has been dropped on human beings twice in history and it was an American president who dropped it both times.” Afghanistan prompted Carter to withdraw the U.S. ambassador from Moscow, and he took SALT II off the table. He cut trade between the two countries, banned U.S. athletes from participating in the Moscow Olympics, and increased defence spending. He then sent Secretary of Defense Harold Brown to China to sound out Chinese leaders about establishing military ties. The cumulative effect of these actions dashed "the hopes that Carter embodied for a safer and more peaceful world." Stone and Kuznick summarize Carter's failures thusly:
During his one term in office, he managed to support research on the neutron bomb, authorize deployment of nuclear-armed cruise missiles to Europe, commission the first Trident submarine, and double the number of warheads aimed at the Soviet Union. Thus, despite having Carter in the White House, the CPD’s campaign to defeat SALT II and increase defense spending had succeeded beyond its wildest dreams. In fact, by the end of his term, Carter had done a complete about-face and bought the CPD’s view of an aggressive Soviet Union that had to be contained. Détente was dead.
[H]e made a major adjustment in nuclear strategy, issuing Presidential Directive 59, which changed the U.S. nuclear war-fighting strategy from fighting wars of mutually assured destruction to fighting “flexible” and “limited” nuclear wars that the United States could win. Not only did Carter’s effort to eliminate nuclear weapons fall flat, PD-59 initiated a massive increase in conventional and nuclear arms. Under it, the United States prepared to fight a protracted nuclear war, first targeting Soviet leaders, while holding attacks on cities in abeyance.
Contrary to his campaign positions, Carter did not reduce defence spending but significantly increased it, from $115.2 billion in his first budget to $180 billion in his final one. The Soviets were greatly alarmed by America's behavior. Future CIA director Robert Gates would later state, “the Soviets saw a very different Jimmy Carter than did most Americans by 1980, different and more hostile and threatening.” By his actions, Stone and Kuznick note, Carter "laid the groundwork for the extreme views that Ronald Reagan would bring to the White House."
In the one hundred years of American aggression toward Russia, Ronald Reagan stands apart. He will, of course, forever be associated with the phrase "evil empire" to characterize the then-Soviet Union. But the phrase itself was merely a marker for the much deeper aggression that found expression in the so-called Reagan Doctrine. Whereas the earlier Truman Doctrine had called for containment of Soviet ambitions and engagement around the world, the Reagan Doctrine was intended to actively and aggressively intervene in rolling it back.
At the core of Reagan's world-view was an unflinching sense of American exceptionalism coupled with a strident anti-communism. He held deep religious beliefs as well as strong conservative convictions, and was also a man of very limited knowledge. As Stone and Kuznick noted, his vice president, George H. W. Bush, found Reagan's views on international relations "almost unimaginable." Bush reportedly said that he was “simply amazed to see to what extent Reagan was dominated by Hollywood clichés and the ideas of his wealthy but conservative and poorly educated friends from California.” The outgoing president was likewise concerned:
Jimmy Carter was deeply troubled by Reagan’s complete lack of curiosity when he tried to brief the incoming president on the challenges he would face, assessments of world leaders, and command and control of nuclear weapons. Carter aide Jody Powell recounted, “The boss really thought it was important for Reagan to know this stuff before he was sworn in and as he ran through it he couldn’t believe that Reagan wasn’t asking any questions. He thought maybe Reagan wasn’t taking any notes because he didn’t have a pad and pencil and finally offered him one, but Reagan said, no thanks, he could remember it. It was just the damnedest thing.”
As Stone and Kuznick wrote, Reagan's close associates were often struck by the depth of his ignorance. Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill, who served in the House for 34 years, said that Reagan "knows less than any President I've ever known."
When William Clark, a former California Supreme Court justice, took over as the national security advisor in 1982, he was shocked to discover how little Reagan actually knew about the world. He instructed the Pentagon and CIA to produce films explaining security issues and describing the world leaders Reagan would be meeting. (In 2017, the same approach is taken to inform an equally impaired president.)
Upon returning from his late 1982 Latin American tours, Reagan told reporters, “Well, I learned a lot. … You’d be surprised. They’re all individual countries.” Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau wondered, “What planet is that man living on?” when the president told him that “the Soviets [had brought] an American priest to Moscow in order to send him back to be a spokesman for Actors Equity.”
Reagan lacked the curiosity and intellect to be an effective participant - much less, leader - in matters of foreign policy. His disengaged style gave license to the host of ideologues populating his administration. As Stone and Kuznick write: "The CIA, which had largely been kept in check by Carter, played a major role in Reagan’s new anti-Communist crusade."
The CIA analysts had long prided themselves on professionalism and distance from the operations side of the Agency. That would not fly with the Reagan team. The assault that began via Bush’s Team B reached fruition under Casey. Administration hard-liners wanted intelligence that supported their view of a dangerous, hostile, and expansion-minded Soviet Union regardless of how far such a perception departed from reality. Casey, a multimillionaire Wall Street lawyer and devout Irish Catholic, had come to the CIA, according to his deputy Robert Gates, “to wage war against the Soviet Union.” According to Gates, “the Reaganites saw their arrival as a hostile takeover.” Casey had read Claire Sterling’s The Terror Network and was convinced that the Soviet Union was the fount of all international terrorism. According to Melvin Goodman, head of the CIA’s office for Soviet analysis, “Several of us met with Casey to try to tell the director that much of Sterling’s so-called evidence was in fact CIA ‘black propaganda,’ anticommunist allegations planted in the European press.” But, he added, “Casey contemptuously noted…that he ‘learned more from Sterling than from’” all of them. Others who touted the Sterling line included Haig, Wolfowitz, State Department consultant Michael Ledeen, and State Department official Robert “Bud” McFarlane. CIA experts, however, knew that the Soviets, for all their faults, actually discouraged terrorism.
Casey and Gates began a purge of analysts who refused to knuckle under. If their reports railed to support the administration line, Casey just wrote his own conclusions. Goodman, who served as a senior CIA Soviet analyst from 1966 to 1986, observed, “The CIA caricature of a Soviet military octopus whose tentacles reached the world over supported the administration’s view of the ‘Evil Empire.’” Goodman blamed “the fact that the CIA missed the most important historical development in its history – the collapse of the Soviet Empire and the Soviet Union itself” – largely on “the culture and process that Gates established in his directorate.”
Reagan's anti-Communist crusade, taken up so assiduously by the CIA, also provided cover for the militarization of Central America and the atrocities visited upon the peoples of Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador.
As Reagan increased defence spending - by a staggering 51 percent in 1985 over 1980 expenditures - the Soviet economy stagnated. The nuclear arms budget increased so dramatically that none other than George Kennan, the architect of U.S. containment policy going back to 1948, felt compelled to remark on this senseless buildup:
“We have gone on piling weapon upon weapon, missile upon missile, new levels of destruction upon old ones. We have done this helplessly, almost involuntarily, like the victims of some sort of hypnotism, like men in a dream, like lemmings headed for the sea.”
As Stone and Kuznick note, Reagan and Bush "rejected the widely held view that nuclear war would lead to mutual destruction and began planning to win such a war". In this, they adopted an approach advocated by nuclear extremists like Colin Gray and Keith Payne, who declared in 1980, “The United States should plan to defeat the Soviet Union.”
They believed that the United States might lose 20 million citizens in the process. The key to surviving a nuclear attack, they posited, was an effective command-and-control structure to prevent chaos and keep the lines of communication open. The military called “C3”: command, control, and communications. Reagan invested heavily to ensure its invulnerability. Perversely, he projected such a war-winning strategy onto the Soviets. He pointed to a massive Soviet civil defense program as proof, even though no such program existed.
In the midst of this preparation for winning a nuclear war, however, Reagan had actually begun to ponder a core reality of the U.S.-Soviet relationship. He wrote in his memoirs,
“Three years had taught me something surprising about the Russians: Many people at the top of the Soviet hierarchy were genuinely afraid of America and Americans. Perhaps this shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did. In fact, I had difficulty accepting my own conclusion at first.” When he came to office, it didn’t dawn on him that the Soviets could actually fear a U.S. first strike. “But the more experience I had with the Soviet leaders and other heads of state who knew them, the more I began to realize that many Soviet officials feared us not only as adversaries but as potential aggressors who might hurl nuclear weapons at them in a first strike.”
Stone and Kuznick suggest that this new insight into conflict with the Soviet Union can be back traced to his first presidential briefing on nuclear weapons:
One of the first statistics I saw as president was one of the most sobering and startling I’ve ever heard. I’ll never forget it: The Pentagon said at least 150 million American lives would be lost in a nuclear war with the Soviet Union – even if we “won.” For Americans who survived such a war, I couldn’t imagine what life would be like. The planet would be so poisoned that “survivors” would have no place to live. Even if nuclear war did not mean the extinction of mankind, it would certainly mean the end of civilization as we knew it. No one could “win” a nuclear war.
In light of this no-win scenario, Reagan was presented with an historic opportunity to eliminate the threat of world-wide nuclear annihilation, in the form of newly installed Soviet Premier, Mikhail Gorbachev.
Gorbachev "brought new energy and vision to the job." Stone and Kuznick wrote, as a young man, Gorbachev "had witnessed the horrors of war. Later, as a Communist Party official, he had traveled widely in the West. As premier, he intended to realize his dream of revitalizing Soviet socialist democracy and improving the lives of the Soviet people. Like Khrushchev and other reformers before him, he knew that that could not be accomplished as long as military expenditures continued virtually unchecked." He described the situation he inherited,
“Defense spending was bleeding the other branches of the economy dry.” Visits to defense plants and agricultural production complexes drove home the point. “The defense production workshop making modern tanks…had the newest equipment. The one working for agriculture was making obsolete models of tractors on old-time conveyor belts.” The cause of this disparity was obvious. “Over the previous five-year plans,” Gorbachev wrote, “military spending had been growing twice as fast as national income. This Moloch was devouring everything that hard labor and strain produced.” But even Gorbachev found it difficult to obtain the hard data needed to fully assess the situation. “What made matters worse,” he explained, “was the fact that it was impossible to analyze the problem. All the figures related to the military-industrial-complex were classified. Even Politburo members didn’t have access to them.”
In order to realize his goals for revitalizing his nation, Gorbachev needed to end the arms race and redeploy the nation's resources to productive purposes. He also needed to end the war in Afghanistan, a conflict he believed was a "bleeding wound." As Stone and Kuznick noted, "Gorbachev wrote his first of several extraordinary letters to Reagan on March 24, 1985. It was a letter that might have been written by Henry Wallace forty years earlier."
Our countries are different by their social systems, by the ideologies in them. But we believe that this should not be a reason for animosity. Each social system has a right to life, and it should prove its advantages not by force, not by military means, but on the path of peaceful competition with the other system. And all people have the right to go the way they have chosen themselves, without anybody imposing his will on them from the outside.
Gorbachev also echoed Kennedy’s American University commencement address when he wrote to Reagan in October that despite their differences, they must “proceed from the objective that we all live on the same planet and must learn to live together.”
Gorbachev continued to pursue with Reagan this line of thought throughout the next year, culminating in the October, 1986, Reykjavik summit. The Soviet leader caught the American team completely by surprise with his bold plans for disarmament. He had already - in January of that year - written to Reagan offering “a concrete program…for the complete liquidation of nuclear weapons throughout the world…before the end of the century.” As Stone and Kuznick noted, in this meeting, Gorbachev was fully prepared to eliminate all nuclear weapons if only Reagan would set aside his "Star Wars" fantasy (the Strategic Defence Initiative) and restrict it to laboratory testing only. Reagan clung to the right to conduct atmospheric tests, and so they reached an impasse. In his appeal to Reagan, Gorbachev said:
If we sign a package containing major concessions by the Soviet Union regarding fundamental problems, you will become, without exaggeration, a great president. You are now literally two steps from that. … If not, then let’s part at this point and forget Reykjavik. But there won’t be another opportunity like this. At any rate, I know I won’t have one. I firmly believe that we could come to an agreement. Otherwise I would not have raised the question of an immediate meeting with you; otherwise I would not have come here in the name of the Soviet leadership with a solid store of serious, compromising proposals. I hoped they would meet with understanding and support from your side, that we could resolve all issues. If this does happen, if we manage to achieve deep reductions and the destruction of nuclear arms, all of your critics will not dare open their mouths. They would then be going against the opinions of the overwhelming majority of people in the world, who would welcome our success. If, on the other hand, we are not able to come to an agreement, it will obviously become the job of another generation of leaders; you and I have no more time. The American side has essentially not made any concessions, not a single major step to meet us halfway. It’s hard to do business on that basis.
But for Reagan's inability to accept to the word "laboratory," the world might today be free of nuclear weapons. Years later, Gorbachev described his last moments with Reagan at the summit:
It was already dusk. The mood was downcast. Reagan reproached me: “You planned from the beginning to come here and put me in this position!” “No. Mr. President,” I replied. “I am prepared to go back inside right now and sign the document concerning the issues we already agreed upon if you will refrain from plans to militarize space.” “I’m extremely sorry,” Reagan answered.
In his report to the Politburo, Gorbachev referred to Reagan as a man “who exhibited extreme primitivism, a caveman outlook, and intellectual impotence.” He also expressed a deep bitterness toward the U.S. negotiators: “representatives of American administration are people without conscience, with no morale. Their line is one of pressure, deceit or greedy mercantilism.” In the wake of the Reykjavik failure, the prospect of eliminating nuclear weapons was lost, and Reagan would be undone by the Iran Contra affair. In summarizing his legacy, Stone and Kuznick bluntly comment:
One of the most poorly informed and least engaged chief executives in U.S. history, he empowered a right-wing resurgence of hard-line anti-Communists who militarized U.S. foreign policy and rekindled the Cold War. He paid lip service to democracy while arming and supporting repressive dictators. He turned local and regional conflicts in the Middle East and Latin America into Cold War battlegrounds, unleashing a reign of terror to suppress popular movements. He spent enormous sums on the military while cutting social programs for the poor. He sharply reduced taxes on the wealthy, tripling the national debt and transforming the United States from the world’s leading creditor in 1981 to its biggest debtor by 1985. In October 1987, he oversaw the worst stock market collapse since the Great Depression. He let the chance to rid the world of offensive nuclear weapons slip through his fingers because he wouldn’t let go of a childish fantasy.
The authors suggest Reagan's "much-vaunted role in ending the Cold War" is instead rightly credited to his Soviet counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev.
On December 7, 1988, in a speech to the United Nations, Gorbachev declared the Cold War over:
the use or threat of force no longer can…be an instrument of foreign policy. This applies above all to nuclear arms. …let me turn to the main issue – disarmament, without which none of the problems of the coming century can be solved. …the Soviet Union has taken a decision to reduce its armed forces…by 500,000 men. …we have decided to withdraw by 1991 six tank divisions from East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, and to disband them. … Soviet forces stationed in those countries will be reduced by 50,000 men and their armaments, by 5,000 tanks. All Soviet division remaining…will become clearly defensive.
He spoke of Soviet plans for the “transition from the economy of armaments to an economy of disarmament” and called upon other military powers to do likewise through the United Nations. He proposed a 50 percent reduction is offensive strategic arms, asked for joint action to eliminate “the threat to the world’s environment,” urged banning weapons in outer space, and demanded an end to exploitation of the third world, including a “moratorium of up to 100 years on debt servicing by the least developed countries.” He called for a UN-brokered cease-fire in Afghanistan and proposed an international conference on Afghan neutrality and demilitarization. He held out an olive branch to the incoming administration of George H. W. Bush, offering a “joint effort to put an end to an era of wars, confrontation, and regional conflicts, to aggressions against nature, to the terror of hunger and poverty as well as to political terrorism. This is our common goal and we can only reach it together.” As Stone and Kuznick wrote:
The New York Times characterized Gorbachev’s riveting hour-long speech as the greatest act of statesmanship since Wilson’s Fourteen Points in 1918 or Roosevelt and Churchill’s Atlantic Charter in 1941, “the basic restructuring of international politics.” And, the Times proclaimed, “he promised to lead the way unilaterally. Breathtaking. Risky. Bold. Naïve. Diversionary. Heroic. …his ideas merit – indeed compel – the most serious response from President-elect Bush and other leaders.” The Washington Post called it “a speech as remarkable as any ever delivered at the United Nations.”
With the end of the Cold War came the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany. Perestroika came to the countries of Eastern Europe. And Gorbachev believed the Soviet Union and its allies could now divert its energies to developing "humane, democratic socialist systems." What Gorbachev saw as a new beginning was declared by U.S. policy makers as vindication and triumph in the Cold War. In their view, it left the United States free to now conduct military operations without constraint, wherever necessary.
In launching the radical transformation of Eastern Europe, "Gorbachev hoped the end of the Cold War would lead to the dissolution of NATO as well as the Warsaw Pact." As it became increasingly clear NATO would not be disbanded, Gorbachev insisted the West's military alliance not expand farther to the east. In his discussions with U.S. Secretary of State James Baker and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, Gorbachev received such assurances:
Baker met with Gorbachev on February 9 and asked him, “Would you prefer to see a unified Germany outside of NATO, independent and with no U.S. forces or would you prefer a united Germany to be tied to NATO, with assurances that NATO’s jurisdiction would not shift one inch eastward from its present position?” Baker recorded Gorbachev’s reply that “any extension of the zone of NATO would be unacceptable.
Helmut Kohl met with Gorbachev the following day and stated that “naturally NATO could not expand its territory” into East Germany. On February 10, German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher conveyed the same message to Eduard Shevardnadze, stating, “We are aware that NATO membership for a unified Germany raises complicated questions. For us, however, one thing is certain: NATO will not expand to the east.” To make sure that his Soviet counterpart understood that this applied to all of Eastern Europe and not just Germany, Genscher added, “As far as the non-expansion of NATO is concerned, this also applies in general.”
Of course, U.S. officials over the years have insisted that no such promises were ever given, though, as Stone and Kuznick note, the historical record supports Russia's claim:
U.S. Ambassador to Moscow Jack Matlock has agreed that the Soviet Union was given a clear commitment.” The German newsmagazine Der Spiegelconducted its own investigation in late 2009, finding that “after speaking with many of those involved and examining previously classified British and German documents in detail, SPIEGEL has concluded that there was no doubt that the West did everything it could to give the Soviets the impression that NATO membership was out of the question for countries like Poland, Hungary or Czechoslovakia.” Historian Mary Elise Sarotte, author of an award-winning book on this period, explained, “In summary, Gorbachev had listened to Baker and Kohl suggest to him for two days in a row that NATO’s jurisdiction would not move eastward, and at the end he agreed to let Germany unify.”
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the Clinton, second Bush, and Obama administrations have expanded NATO membership right up to Russia’s doorstep. The alliance added the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland in 1999. It expanded even more dramatically in 2004, adding Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia. In 2009, it added Albania and Croatia, and in 2017, Montenegro. Of the countries currently seeking acceptance into the alliance, none is more controversial than Ukraine, which committed in 2017 to enacting the internal reforms necessary in order to “have a clear schedule of what must be done by 2020 to meet the NATO membership criteria.”
Today, the Western military alliance has effectively encircled Russia, with one very clear objective.
The summary material above, drawn principally from the Stone and Kuznick Untold History project, provides a factual retelling of some of the key events and actors in America's one hundred years of aggression against the Russian state. The Cold War was a product of American opposition to and hatred of the alternative social system offered by communism - it also reflected George Kennan's policy advice following World War II that America could tolerate no competitor that might threaten its newfound position of dominance in the world. Ultimately, the threat of nuclear annihilation against the USSR, so often employed by Truman and Eisenhower, ignited the arms race and sustained the existential threat under which we all live, still, today.
Nuclear brinksmanship and military confrontation were not the only forms of aggression America has employed against the Soviet/Russian state. In the aftermath of the Soviet Union's collapse, the U.S. engineered a takeover of the new Russian Federation's political system. As renowned Russian scholar, Robert David English has written, the 1990's are viewed by most Russians as a period of "degradation." As he says, Russians believe: "Washington not only took advantage of Moscow’s weakness for geopolitical gain but also repeatedly interfered in Russia’s domestic politics to back the person - Yeltsin - who best suited U.S. interests." Professor English notes:
Russia’s misery during the 1990s is difficult for outsiders to comprehend. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia’s economy entered a sharp slide that would continue for over eight years. Although this decline is rarely referred to as a depression in Western media, in fact it was much worse than the Great Depression in the United States - between 1929 and 1932, U.S. GDP fell by some 25 percent, whereas Russia’s fell by over 40 percent between 1990 and 1998. Compared with the Great Depression, Russia’s collapse of the 1990s was nearly twice as sharp, lasted three times as long, and caused far more severe health and mortality crises. The public health disaster reflected Russia’s prolonged agony: stress-aggravated pathologies (suicide, disease caused by increased alcohol and tobacco use) and economically induced woes (poor nutrition, violent crime, a crumbling public health system) combined to cause at least three million “excess deaths” in the 1990s.
And while Americans are today outraged by the alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election (an assertion oddly juxtaposed with the recent revelation that HRC rigged the Democratic primary), it is instructive to recall President Clinton's far more egregious support for Boris Yeltsin, "by winking at such electoral violations as state media working to elect Yeltsin or the gross violations of campaign spending limits, and even by sending U.S. advisers to help Yeltsin’s stumbling campaign."
Economic aggression against post-Soviet Russia was an equally important element of the decade of degradation to which the Russian people were subjected. Stone and Kuznick wrote:
Yeltsin turned to Harvard economics Jeffrey Sachs and other USAID-funded Harvard experts for help in privatizing the economy. Sachs had advised on Poland’s initial transformation from socialism to capitalism, an effort that would double poverty in two years and, by some estimates, plunge over half of Poland’s population into poverty by 2003. Sachs and company encouraged First Deputy Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar and Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly Chubais to subject Russia to even more intense “shock therapy” than Poland had experience. Gorbachev had resisted similar demands by the G7, IMF, and World Bank. Another key player was Undersecretary of the Treasury Lawrence Summers. As the World Bank’s chief economist, he had recently created a furor by signing a supposedly sarcastic memo, declaring, “The economic logic behind dumping…toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable,” adding, “I’ve always thought that under-populated countries in Africa are vastly UNDER-polluted.” Brazil’s secretary of the environment told Summers, “Your reasoning is perfectly logical but totally insane…a concrete example of the unbelievable alienation,…social ruthlessness and…arrogant ignorance of many conventional ‘economists.’”
Russia’s flirtation with crony capitalism proved equally insane. Before the Russian people knew what hit them, Yeltsin had deregulated the economy, privatized state enterprises and resources, eliminated desperately needed subsidies and price controls, and established privately owned monopolies. The Western aid and debt relief that Sachs promised never materialized. Sachs later blamed Cheney and Wolfowitz for pursing “long-term U.S. military dominance over…Russia.”
Conditions worsened throughout Clinton's time in office. In what Russians called “the great grab,” the nation’s assets and resources were sold off at fire-sale prices to private investors, including former Communist officials, many of whom became multi-millionaires overnight.
The conditions for life and for living in Russia during this period - as described in an article below - were stark. Putin inherited an economy in steep decline, and a population reeling from the resulting public health disaster. The "shock therapy" applied by U.S.-led predator-capitalists produced a level of corruption incomprehensible to ordinary Russians, destroying both their faith in democracy and respect for America. The years under Putin have seen a remarkable recovery for the Russian people, though life there is by no means perfect. And while Vlad the Terrible can rightly be criticized for any number of internal failings, Western media (and the U.S. mainstream in particular) might first reflect on current conditions in America - such as how the U.S. has become a domestic surveillance state, how so many people of colour are executed in the streets by the police, how mass shootings have become a weekly news event, how the U.S. democratic process has been so completely subverted by the ruling class, and how America has entered its own period of steep decline - before it continues to demonize all things Russian and all things Putin. The form of social organization chosen by the Russian people - in 1917 and in 2017 - is simply not subject to veto, even by the self-anointed "indispensable nation."
On This Page The United States' animus toward the Soviet Union was foundational to the American century, which, in turn, blossomed in the confrontation with its newly-nominated existential foe. The Cold War thus forged the military and ideological cohesion necessary to confirming the American identity in the American century. By setting itself apart, as the principle adversary of Communism everywhere - and of the USSR in particular - and through its self-proclaimed role as the leader of the free world, America embraced the narrative first put forward in 1948 by George Kennan. Decades later, Andrew Bacevich neatly restated this narrative,
"For the American way of life to endure, freedom must prevail everywhere," and America's focus on freedom and democracy has served "as an infinitely expansible grant of authority, empowering the United States to do whatever it wants because, by definition, 'it acts on freedom's behalf'."
America conjured the Cold War in service of its own self-interest, even as the Soviet Union sought to avoid yet more conflict amidst the ruins of World War II. The post-war comity proposed by Roosevelt - as also understood by Stalin - was quietly buried. Confronted by Truman's terrifying aggression, the Soviet Union became aware of its impending annihilation. Despite this peril, the Soviets proposed to Eisenhower a peace based on "prolonged coexistence and peaceful competition", but U.S. aggression grew, and Ike left the world "a far more dangerous place than when he took office." Then, first in Berlin, and next in Cuba, as the world veered toward the brink of nuclear war, President Kennedy transformed from hardened Cold Warrior to thoughtful statesman, though Khrushchev's bold proposals to eliminate “everything in our relations capable of generating a new crisis” died with JFK. Carter and Brzezinski set the stage for Reagan's monumental failure at Reykjavik. So it fell to Mikhail Gorbachev to give the world a demonstration of statesmanship unequalled in the annals of international diplomacy, and by that act deprive America of the comforting status quo of superpower conflict.
The final verdict on the Cold War already tilted in Russia's favour when in 1987 Georgi Arbatov said to America: "We are going to do something terrible to you. You will no longer have an enemy."
The U.S. was blind to this development, the CIA unaware of the Soviet Union's impending collapse. It was an outcome for which America was totally unprepared. And given the institutional bias to rabid anti-communism that informed the entire U.S. foreign policy establishment, America's elites were not content to simply celebrate victory, but rather sought to dominate their adversary in defeat. In the process, Clinton badly overplayed his hand, and brought about a brutal degradation of the Russian people. The American-made disaster that was Boris Yeltsin convulsed Russian politics, ushering a return to order and authoritarianism in the person of Vladimir Putin. And so, America, in response to Georgi Arbatov, settled comfortably back into conflict with its old enemy. This page concludes with two entries. The first is an exceptional commentary that describes that period in the 1990s of terrible suffering for the Russian people, from which the rise of Vladimir Putin seems, in retrospect, a rather predictable outcome. Indeed, in responding to this period of unimaginable hardship, Putin himself might well have proclaimed a slogan whose counterpart is today so clearly resonant - #MakeRussiaGreatAgain. Professor Robert David English writes this of the last 25 years of U.S.-Russian relations:
Washington has pursued policies that have ignored Russian interests (and sometimes international law as well) in order to encircle Moscow with military alliances and trade blocs conducive to U.S. interests. It is no wonder that Russia pushes back.
As Professor English suggests, the expansion of NATO under Clinton (so diligently pursued by Bush and Obama) was deeply shortsighted, a view he then amplifies with this caution,
George Kennan, author of the Cold War containment policy, warned that pushing NATO toward Russia’s borders was “a strategic blunder of potentially epic proportions.”
This economic and military aggression by the U.S. and its allies is part of a larger strategy. From his first days as leader of the Russian state, America's elites and their media enablers have conducted a full-throated campaign to demonize Vladimir Putin. Granted, and without question, some of Putin's policies and actions must rightly be condemned, but they also without question pale in comparison to the policies and actions of Bush 43 (a million dead in Afghanistan and Iraq, chaos unleashed throughout the Middle East, the adoption of the Patriot Act, the illegal surveillance of the American people) and of Obama (the destruction of a sovereign Libya, chaos in Syria, the execution of civilians in three countries by drone warfare, twenty-six-thousand bombs dropped in 2016 on countries with whom the United States is not in a formal state of war, and a general assault on the constitution). As Professor English suggests "demonization that veers into delusion by denying [Putin] credit for major progress (and blaming him for all problems) is foolish."
Foolish because it widens the gulf between U.S. and Russian perceptions of what is going on in their country, with Russians rating Putin highly because they value the stability and pride he has revived. Foolish because it encourages the illusion that everything bad in Russia flows from Putin, so that if only Putin were removed then Russians would elect another liberal like Yeltsin. And foolish simply because that is how American leaders look when they mock Russia’s prospects, as former U.S. President Barack Obama did when he said, “Russia doesn’t make anything. Immigrants aren’t rushing to Moscow in search of opportunity. The population is shrinking.”
On the subject of undignified taunting, the world is today aghast when His Ornangeness mocks Kim Jong Un as "Rocket Man", thereby raising the nuclear stakes between the two countries, if not for the entire world. But, as Professor English notes, both Secretary of State Clinton and President Obama were guilty of similarly odious behaviour - Clinton, when she compared Putin to Hitler, and Obama, when he compared Putin to Saddam. As Professor English notes, "it is undignified and unwise for a U.S. president to disparage not just a foreign leader but his entire country in the way that Obama did." This dominant attitude of the U.S. foreign policy elite suggests a new détente remains a distant hope, no matter what Orange Thing (and the rest of us) may desire.
The final entry on this page features a November 21 TRNN commentary by Paul Jay and Lawrence Wilkerson on America's antagonism toward Russia. As Jays says in his introduction, from the end of World War II "it's been a strategic objective of U.S. foreign policy that this should be a single superpower world." As has been previously described on this page, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the economic disaster that befell the new Russian Federation set the stage for today's tensions between the U.S. and Russia. As Jays says,
Now we're back into a world where the U.S. is the ultimate power, but not as ultimate as it would like. The United States does not like the rise of regional powers, especially regional powers with a certain amount of global reach, any regional power, like a Russia, or a China, or an Iran that is not under the control of the United States. They don't mind regional powers like Saudi Arabia that are more or less under the control of the United States, but ones that are not are considered threats, not just to regional hegemony but countries like a China, perhaps a Russia at some point can become real global competitors. Certainly Russia has become that in Syria.
Colonel Wilkerson brings some coherent insights to the current U.S.-Russia situation, and he notes with some admiration that Putin is a "virtuoso" in the way he plays the Trump administration - the full commentary is an important assessment in real time of the tensions between the United States and the Russian Federation.
Postscript The Russian Federation, now, and the Soviet Union, then, is not and has never been an existential threat to the United States. Just as the USSR responded to the overt U.S. nuclear aggression at the start of the Cold War, Putin has responded to the U.S. economic and military aggression it has applied since the Cold War's end. The central dynamic of their relationship since 1945 has featured the oft-repeated cycle of American aggression toward the Soviet/Russian state followed by the predictable Soviet/Russian response, itself then decried by the U.S. as proof of Soviet/Russian aggression. With each cycle, the stakes increase.
And then, like a spanner in the works, there is Orange Thing. He wants to make America great again, just as Putin seeks to restore Russia's former glory. Its complicated, though, because Orange Thing also wants good relations with Russia. Setting MAGA and MRGA aside for the moment, his enlightened position on Russia does not reflect a revolutionary change in U.S. foreign policy, but a rather simple, self-serving concern for the Trump family brand. Orange Thing would thus do the right thing for the wrong reasons - to protect his finances and family name from the truth of his sordid history with Russian oligarchs and mafia thugs, the real source of his wealth and renown business acumen. Special Council Robert Mueller's investigations have already snared Paul Manafort, Richard Gates, and George Papandopolous, recently Michael Flynn (to spare the loudmouth son), and others even nearer and dearer to His Orangeness. Whether the campaign did or did not explicitly collude with Russia during the election, it is a near certainty the Russians have dirt on OT - both personal and financial - some of which is now trickling into public view. The unfolding disgrace of this president - as delicious a public tragicomedy as could befall the f'n moron (Tillerson's descriptor) - does, however, present a real danger to the rest of us.
That danger lies in the continuing disconnect over Russia between Orange Thing and the U.S foreign policy establishment. In his comments at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in November, the moron once again contradicted the overwhelming consensus among current and former U.S. security officials that Russia sought to manipulate the 2016 election. The foreign policy establishment was swift in its condemnation:
"The worst part of this is not that Trump takes Putin's word over the evidence-based analysis of his own intelligence agencies. It is not even that he plays the role of a useful idiot as he kowtows to Putin yet again. The worst part, by far, is that a hostile power is engaged in an ongoing attack on America's political system and Trump is deliberately stripping the nation's defenses bare and leaving us exposed to future assaults. It is unilateral disarmament plain and simple,” said Thomas Wright, Director of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution and an expert in national security. "We have never seen this type of weakness in a U.S. president before."
His Orangeness will continue to use the presidency to cloak himself and his family from his sordid past through his white-knuckle embrace of Russia, while the foreign policy elite will continue to advance its interests through an increasingly strident demonization of Russia (reread Paul Jay's comments at the top of this page). This image of the two dominant American power-centres at odds over a defiant Russia is surreal in the extreme. Which view will prevail? In answering the question, the danger becomes clear - the dotard-in-chief is a transient figure, but the foreign policy elite is (sadly) forever. With Russia now encircled by NATO and U.S. military bases, with the elites' growing anger at OT's deference to Putin, and with the Special Councel's increasing focus on the moron's inner circle, the New Cold War may suddenly turn hot should the American security-military-industrial complex decide it is time to take matters fully into it's own hands.
Russia, Trump, and a New Detente
written by Robert David English...
In his first press conference as president of the United States, Donald Trump said no fewer than seven times that it would be “positive,” “good,” even “great” if “we could get along with Russia.” In fact, for all the confusion of his policies toward China, Europe, and the Middle East, Trump has enunciated a clear three-part position on Russia, which contrasts strongly with that of most of the U.S. political elite. First, Trump seeks Moscow’s cooperation on global issues; second, he believes that Washington shares the blame for soured relations; and third, he acknowledges “the right of all nations to put their own interests first,” adding that the United States does “not seek to impose our way of life on anyone.”
Washington has pursued policies that have ignored Russian interests in order to encircle Moscow with military alliances and trade blocs conducive to U.S. interests.
The last of these is an essentially realist position, and if coherently implemented could prove a tonic. For 25 years, Republicans and Democrats have acted in ways that look much the same to Moscow. Washington has pursued policies that have ignored Russian interests (and sometimes international law as well) in order to encircle Moscow with military alliances and trade blocs conducive to U.S. interests. It is no wonder that Russia pushes back. The wonder is that the U.S. policy elite doesn’t get this, even as foreign-affairs neophyte Trump apparently does.
Memory Loss Most Americans appreciate the weight of past grievances upon present-day politics, including that of the United States’ own interference in Iran in the 1950s, or in Latin America repeatedly from the 1960s through the 1980s. Yet there is a blind spot when it comes to U.S. interference in Russian politics in the 1990s. Many Americans remember former President Bill Clinton as a great benefactor to Russia as the country attempted to build a market democracy under then-President Boris Yeltsin. But most Russians see the United States as having abetted a decade of degradation under Yeltsin’s scandal-ridden bumbling. Washington, they believe, not only took advantage of Moscow’s weakness for geopolitical gain but also repeatedly interfered in Russia’s domestic politics to back the person - Yeltsin - who best suited U.S. interests. Americans’ ignorance of this perception creates a highly distorted picture of Russia’s first postcommunist decade.
Russia’s misery during the 1990s is difficult for outsiders to comprehend. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia’s economy entered a sharp slide that would continue for over eight years. Although this decline is rarely referred to as a depression in Western media, in fact it was much worse than the Great Depression in the United States - between 1929 and 1932, U.S. GDP fell by some 25 percent, whereas Russia’s fell by over 40 percent between 1990 and 1998. Compared with the Great Depression, Russia’s collapse of the 1990s was nearly twice as sharp, lasted three times as long, and caused far more severe health and mortality crises. The public health disaster reflected Russia’s prolonged agony: stress-aggravated pathologies (suicide, disease caused by increased alcohol and tobacco use) and economically induced woes (poor nutrition, violent crime, a crumbling public health system) combined to cause at least three million “excess deaths” in the 1990s.
Faith in free markets, and admiration for the United States, fell sharply in Russia in the 1990s. The failures of “shock therapy,” or the rapid transition to a market economy, made such alienation inevitable, as the rush toward privatization and slashing of the state led not to self-regulating growth and broad prosperity but to a pillaging of national wealth by rapacious oligarchs, who flourished under Yeltsin. Worse, American talk of a Marshall Plan for Russia proved empty, and U.S. aid - particularly in the critical first years of transition - was a paltry $ 7 billion. Much of that was in the form of credits that came attached with strings requiring the purchase of U.S. goods or the hiring of U.S. consultants. Also hurting America’s image were much-publicized cases of corruption on the part of some Americans, involving insider trading, money laundering, and similar scandals.
In 1993, hyperinflation and poverty led to protests, and the Russian parliament passed legislation attempting to block Yeltsin’s reforms. Yeltsin responded by deciding to close the legislature and redesign the political system to concentrate power in his hands. This, however, was blatantly unconstitutional, and many deputies refused to disband. Some turned to violent resistance and were crushed by the army. The Clinton administration regretted the bloodshed but blamed it on the opposition, while ignoring the illegality of Yeltsin’s power grab. And the United States supported Yeltsin again two months later, when a referendum on a “super-presidential” constitution passed in a rigged vote.
"We have largely lost the admiration and respect of the Russian people."
In 1996, there was more U.S.-assisted mischief on the part of Yeltsin. The worst incident was the “loans for shares” scandal, a crooked privatization scheme in which Yeltsin sold Russia’s most valuable natural-resource firms to oligarchs by way of fraudulent auctions - a fraud that was matched by that of the 1996 election, when Yeltsin won his second term. The United States was again tarred by complicity, by winking at such electoral violations as state media working to elect Yeltsin or the gross violations of campaign spending limits, and even by sending U.S. advisers to help Yeltsin’s stumbling campaign.
The Clinton administration tolerated Yeltsin’s regime in part to gain Russia’s compliance on global issues, including NATO expansion. But even this was shortsighted as well as hypocritical. George Kennan, author of the Cold War containment policy, warned that pushing NATO toward Russia’s borders was “a strategic blunder of potentially epic proportions,” which was likely to provoke an anti-Western backlash. Other experts, such as intelligence veteran Fritz Ermarth, issued warnings at the time over the United States’ complicity in Russia’s domestic corruption. “We have largely lost the admiration and respect of the Russian people,” Ermarth wrote. “Think how [U.S. policy] must look to Russians: you support the regime’s corruption of our country on the inside so it supports you in your humiliation of our country on the outside. One could not concoct a better propaganda line for Russia’s extreme nationalists.”
Alternative Reality About Russia Few Russians who endured this corruption and humiliation have much sympathy with U.S. anger over Russian meddling in the 2016 election. And with any perspective on the 1990s, it is hard to fault them. Yet such perspective among Americans is rare, in part because the Western media often adopted the Clinton administration’s cheery narrative, downplaying negative phenomena as bumps in the road toward a democratic Russia. And despite subsequent revelation of so many scandals from the 1990s, Putin’s “autocracy” is still contrasted with Yeltsin’s “golden era of democracy,” ignoring the fact that it was Yeltsin’s team who perfected such tactics as 110 percent turnout in remote precincts, and whose oligarchs used their media empires as lobbying firms while brazenly buying parliamentary votes (to create personal tax loopholes). Many myths about the Yeltsin years persist. A recent National Geographic article by Julia Ioffe, for instance, attributes Russian growth under Putin to “tough economic reforms adopted by Boris Yeltsin” and describes Putin as “coasting on historically high oil prices and economic reforms implemented in the Nineties.”
Under Putin, both male and female life expectancy have made rapid gains, and their combined average recently reached 70 years for the first time in Russian history.
High oil prices, yes. But had Putin merely coasted on the policies of Yeltsin, there would have been little tax collected on the oligarchs’ profits to pay for pensions, rebuild infrastructure, and create reserve funds. And there would have been no agricultural revival, because private land tenure would have remained illegal. In his first few years in office, Putin passed tax and banking reform, bankruptcy laws, and other pro-market policies that Yeltsin hadn’t managed in a decade. Denying Putin credit in this way is typical. Paul Krugman recently argued in The New York Times, for instance, that growth under Putin “can be explained with just one word: oil.” But note that in 2000, when Putin became president, oil stood at $30 per barrel and petroleum accounted for 20 percent of Russia’s GDP. But in 2010, after a decade’s rise pushed oil over $100 per barrel, petroleum had nevertheless fallen to just 11 percent of GDP, according to the World Bank. Thus as oil boomed, Russian agriculture, manufacturing, and services grew even faster.
Krugman’s fellow columnist Thomas Friedman similarly decried Russia’s low life expectancy over a period “that coincides almost exactly with Putin’s leadership of the country … the period of 1990–2013,” while blaming Putin for “slow gains in the life expectancy of an entire nation.” In fact, the first half of this period coincides almost exactly with Yeltsin’s leadership, when male life expectancy fell by over six years—unprecedented for a modern country in peacetime. Under Putin, both male and female life expectancy have made rapid gains, and their combined average recently reached 70 years for the first time in Russian history.
Vladimir the Terrible Distaste for many aspects of Putin’s harsh rule is understandable. But demonization that veers into delusion by denying him credit for major progress (and blaming him for all problems) is foolish. Foolish because it widens the gulf between U.S. and Russian perceptions of what is going on in their country, with Russians rating Putin highly because they value the stability and pride he has revived. Foolish because it encourages the illusion that everything bad in Russia flows from Putin, so that if only Putin were removed then Russians would elect another liberal like Yeltsin. And foolish simply because that is how American leaders look when they mock Russia’s prospects, as former U.S. President Barack Obama did when he said, “Russia doesn’t make anything. Immigrants aren’t rushing to Moscow in search of opportunity. The population is shrinking.”
Clinton compared [Putin] to Hitler - a comparison that would be laughable were it not so offensive to Russians, who lost 26 million countrymen in World War II.
In fact, Russia’s population has been growing since 2010, and the country has one of the higher birth rates in Europe. Russia is the world’s third-largest immigrant destination in the world, behind only the United States and Germany. And Russian products include the rockets that ferry U.S. astronauts into space. Both Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were given to careless quips about Russia. Both mocked Putin, and Clinton compared him to Adolf Hitler - a comparison that would be laughable were they not so offensive to Russians, who lost 26 million countrymen in World War II. It was also reckless, given Putin’s broad popularity in Russia. But when confronted with this popularity, Obama replied, “Saddam Hussein had a 90 percent poll rating.” He explained, “If you control the media and you’ve taken away everybody’s civil liberties, and you jail dissidents, that’s what happens.” This view is deeply mistaken.
There is, of course, much to fault in Putin’s Russia, and both Obama and Clinton were subject to nastiness from Moscow. But it is undignified and unwise for a U.S. president to disparage not just a foreign leader but his entire country in the way that Obama did. The urge to answer taunts in kind cannot overpower regard for Russian public opinion, and so confirm the Russian media’s portrayal of America as ignorant and arrogant. It seemed clever when Hillary Clinton pounced on Trump as “Putin’s puppet.” But apparently it didn’t resonate much with ordinary Americans, who elected Trump, and neither does the pettiness and demonization of Putin resonate with ordinary Russians.
These ordinary Russians are the forgotten people - the hard-working teachers, doctors, and mechanics whose savings, careers, even health were destroyed by the catastrophe of the 1990s. They are the fledgling voters who saw their new democracy bought and sold by Yeltsin and his cronies, and the onetime admirers of the United States who longed for a leader to restore their pride in Russia after a decade of humiliation. Under Clinton, the United States treated Russia like a defeated enemy and capitalized on its weakness to expand NATO. Claims that this was merely a defensive expansion were belied by NATO’s bombing of Serbia, a Russian ally, in 1999. Under President George W. Bush, the United States further intimidated Russia by abrogating the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, imposing punitive tariffs, launching a reckless invasion of Iraq, continuing to expand NATO, and further encircling Russia by cozying up to Georgia and Ukraine.
It is thus unsurprising that in 2008, Russia hit back, answering a Georgian strike in the disputed region of South Ossetia (which killed some Russian peacekeepers) with a crushing counterblow. For finally pushing back, Putin’s approval rating soared to nearly 85 percent - the highest it would reach until Crimea’s annexation in 2014.
How Not to Promote Democracy This is the Russia - and the Russians - that Obama inherited in 2009: prideful, angry, and in no mood for the sanctimony that came with the new administration’s stress on democracy promotion. They had seen Bill Clinton ally with a corrupt Yeltsin to make a mockery of their new democracy. They had fumed as Vice President Dick Cheney faulted Russian democracy while praising that of Kazakhstan. And they heard their country criticized for interfering in the affairs of weaker neighbors, even as NATO was expanding right up to Russia’s borders, and the United States was launching an invasion of Iraq in the name of democracy promotion that would set the Middle East aflame. Not surprisingly, the Russian media ever more frequently paired the term “double standard” with America.
Thus it may have been unwise for the Obama administration to pursue democracy promotion as brashly as it did, criticizing Russian elections and encouraging Putin’s opposition. This carried a whiff not only of hypocrisy but of danger, too, appearing, as it did to many within Russia, as a threat to destabilize Putin’s rule. Democracy promoters may draw a distinction between policies aimed at advancing NATO and those aimed at advancing political liberalization in Russia and other former Soviet states - emphasizing that Obama enacted the latter but not the former. But Putin’s skepticism was easy to understand given the West’s record of undermining Moscow’s allies, as in Serbia, Georgia, and Ukraine, and then seeking to anchor their new regimes in the Western political and military blocs. As a senator, too, Obama was an early supporter of Ukraine joining NATO, and preparations for Ukraine’s integration with NATO continued throughout his presidency. Hillary Clinton also advocated a NATO "open door" for Ukraine, and then incurred Putin’s wrath by pushing humanitarian intervention (which soon turned into regime change) in Libya. So her demand for “a full investigation of all reports of fraud and intimidation” in Russia’s 2011 elections was most unwelcome. Michael McFaul, an expert on democracy promotion and longtime critic of Putin, was a particularly provocative choice for new Obama’s ambassador to Russia in 2012.
Russians see a double standard in U.S. judgments about their country - a prosecutorial stance that criticizes Russia for behaviors that go unnoticed in other countries.
Neither should righteous indignation at Putin’s post-election crackdown prevent rethinking of the targets as well as the tools of American public diplomacy. Some fault the focus on Russia’s liberal opposition, a small number of Moscow-centered activists who best reflect U.S. values. Many of them are discredited in the eyes of the Russian majority: for their earlier support of Yeltsin’s regime, for their disparaging of the widely admired Putin, and for their reflexive backing of U.S. policies - such as NATO expansion - even when they clash with Russian interests. They appear, in a word, unpatriotic. They are earnest, articulate, and highly admirable. But even if they weren’t stigmatized by Putin - or tarred by identification with the 1990s - they embody liberal-cosmopolitan values alien to most conservative-nationalist Russians. And while this makes them appealing to the West, it also makes them a poor bet as the focus of democracy-promotion.
Consider the case of Pussy Riot, the feminist-protest rock group, some of whose members were convicted of hooliganism in 2012 for staging a protest in Moscow’s Church of Christ the Saviour - profanely mocking not only Putin but also the Russian Orthodox Church and its believers. Both activists and state officials in the United States praised Pussy Riot and demanded their release. Yet basic decency - and regard for the values and traditions of others - would suggest that hailing Pussy Riot as champions of free speech was disrespectful of Russia. It was also insensible if the United States is interested in cultivating sympathy among Russians, some 70 percent of whom identify as Orthodox believers. Russia is a conservative society that viewed the years of Yeltsin’s rule, and its onslaught of pornography and promiscuity, with horror. In polls, only seven percent of Russians said that political protest was permissible in a church, and only five percent agreed that Pussy Riot should be released without serious punishment. Surely the sensibilities of ordinary Russians deserve as much regard as those of a minority of cosmopolitan liberals. And hectoring by the West will hardly ease traditional Russian homophobia. Indeed, the outcry on behalf of Pussy Riot likely strengthened popular support for the notorious 2013 lawagainst “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations.”
Russians see a double standard in U.S. judgments about their country - a prosecutorial stance that criticizes Russia for behaviors that go unnoticed in other countries. For example, The Washington Post has closely covered Russia’s anti-LGBT policies but has paid scant attention to the same in countries such as Lithuania, Georgia, and Ukraine, and when it has it has suggested that Russia is to blame for exporting its anti-gay beliefs. Since 2014, the Western media has similarly reported on Moscow’s alleged propaganda onslaught, while largely ignoring the brazen purchase of positive publicity by countries such as Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine. This is not the usual lobbying or public relations but the funding of ostensibly independent research on a country by that country itself - paying for upbeat election reports and other assessments by such groups as the Parliamentary Association of the Council of Europe.
Americans rarely hear of such activity, even as alarm over Moscow’s subversion nears hysteria. A recent U.S. intelligence report on Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election warned of “a Kremlin-directed campaign to undermine faith in the U.S. government and fuel political protest.” Yet a key culprit is the news channel RT (which has a miniscule share of the U.S. audience), on the grounds that it runs “anti-fracking programming highlighting environmental issues” and “a documentary about the Occupy Wall Street movement [that] described the current U.S. political system as corrupt.” In fact, unlike the 2014 Maidan occupation in Ukraine, which was actively supported by some U.S. and EU officials, Russian diplomats carefully kept their distance from the 2011 Occupy Wall Street protests.
Democracy Promotion Another double standard, ignored by the U.S. media but noted overseas, was Obama’s denunciation in 2014 of the Crimea secession referendum that preceded the peninsula’s annexation by Russia. Rejecting parallels between Crimea’s secession from Ukraine and Kosovo’s 2008 secession from Serbia - which the West supported but Russia, along with Serbia, rejected as illegitimate - Obama said that Kosovo only seceded “after a referendum was organized … in careful cooperation with the United Nations and with Kosovo’s neighbors. None of that even came close to happening in Crimea.” In fact, none of that even came close to happening in Kosovo. There was no referendum at all - just a vote by Kosovo’s Albanian-majority parliament. As for cooperation with the neighbors, Serbia desperately opposed Kosovo secession; Bosnia-Herzegovina, Romania, and Slovakia still have not recognized Kosovo; and others, such as Bulgaria, Croatia, and Hungary, only agreed under Western pressure.
Expansion of the Western bloc is not an organic, democratic process but, rather, one engineered by the United States and its allies, and motivated as much by power as by principle.
Such a factual error - belief in things that never occurred, yet are cited as legal justification to dismember a country - is worrisome regardless. It also highlights an illusion about the free, democratic choice facing countries in central and eastern Europe as they are tugged between Washington and Moscow. In fact, the freedom of their choice belies the powerful political and economic levers employed to pry these countries away from Russia. As noted above in the case of the Kosovo referendum, Kosovo’s neighbors were pressured by the United States and NATO to recognize the region’s secession from Serbia. In fact, carrots and sticks have been continually applied to the countries of eastern Europe to encourage the policies desired in Brussels, Berlin, and Washington, D.C. When eastern Europeans grew concerned about the higher than expected costs of joining the EU - or about the backlash that NATO expansion was provoking in Russia - accession was sweetened for political and business elites while the masses were sometimes sidestepped with popular referenda replaced by simple parliamentary votes. Occasionally Brussels and Washington pulled in opposite directions, as with the International Criminal Court - backed by the EU but opposed by the Administration of George W. Bush. In this, as in other cases, the countries of central Europe exercised their supposedly free choice under enormous political and economic pressure.
Nobody argues that joining the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union would benefit most countries more than the EU. (NATO is another matter, as the costs of Russian backlash now rival any security benefits from further expansion.) The point is simply to grasp the legitimacy in Moscow’s perspective - that expansion of the Western bloc is not an organic, democratic process but, rather, one engineered by the United States and its allies, and motivated as much by power as by principle. The West must also see the costs to the countries involved (and to its own alliances) in a payoff-driven, elite-centered process that shortchanges the concerns of majorities and is in key ways undemocratic. Long before the Syrian refugees crisis soured them even further, support for the EU in central Europe had already fallen because the costs were much higher than expected, whereas the benefits seemed mainly to reward a wealthy business elite.
As an example of this dynamic, consider the case of Moldova, where the EU has supported local pro-European parties to help this desperately poor country toward accession. Few in the West read much about the country until a spate of headlines last November, such as the Telegraph’s announcement: “Pro-Russia Candidate Wins Moldova Election.” Spinning this result in terms of geopolitics was misleading. The election had turned largely on domestic issues, such as corruption and the economy. Ordinary Moldovans worried that EU accession would mainly benefit elites, and Moldova’s pro-EU Liberal Democratic Party was reeling from a scandal in which party leaders funneled $1 billion - half the reserves of the Moldovan National Bank - into private bank accounts. But just as in the cases of similar elections in Bulgaria and Montenegro, U.S. media focused on the struggle for influence with Moscow. Indeed, Montenegro casts all of these issues into sharp relief. This is a country whose secession from Serbia the United States encouraged - for geopolitical goals, to weaken the Serbian leader Milosevic - by backing the epically corrupt boss Milo Djukanovic. Now, a decade later, Djukanovic’s Democratic-Socialist party exploits similar geopolitical tensions to engineer Montenegro’s accession to NATO - a step of doubtful benefit to either the alliance or Montenegro, provocative to Russia, and one that buttresses a deeply corrupt, patronage-based regime. This focus on geopolitical threats, however, obscures the bigger socioeconomic one: pluralities or even majorities in many eastern European countries now believe that life was better under communism. Such alienation drives anti-EU sentiment in those countries and empowers demagogues like Hungary’s President Viktor Orban - not some nefarious influence from Vladimir Putin but deep economic inequality and the manifest failings of European integration.
Treating Ukraine as something to be yanked from Russia’s orbit - which raised the specter of NATO again as well as the loss of their centuries-old Crimean naval base - made Putin’s choice to hit back an easy one.
Western understandings of the conflict in Ukraine show a similar bias. Recall that the crisis erupted in 2013 when President Viktor Yanukovych balked at the EU’s harsh accession terms and opted instead to align with Russia. And he was ousted in a revolt that America and the EU openly cheered. No matter how corrupt his rule was, he was elected democratically and had acted constitutionally in making his decision. (In fact, he was elected in 2010 because the previous pro-EU government had proved both corrupt and incompetent.) But in 2014, as the protests in Ukraine grew, the United States decided to abandon a power-transition deal that it had agreed upon with Russia, and instead supported the protests calling for Yanukovych’s ouster, which essentially turned into a coup. But this quickly boomeranged, as the Russians concluded that if the West could support an unconstitutional seizure of power in Kiev, then they could hold an unconstitutional referendum in Crimea or support an unconstitutional seizure of power in Donbas. There was a compromise path, but treating Ukraine as something to be yanked from Russia’s orbit - which raised the specter of NATO again as well as loss of their centuries-old Crimean naval base - made Putin’s choice to hit back an easy one.
Of course this hardly justifies the savagery that Russia has abetted in fighting over the Donbas. But U.S. and EU actions helped spark the conflict by treating Ukraine as a prize to be grabbed, rather than as a linguistically and ethnically divided country in which Russia has legitimate interests. Western policies recklessly ignored these interests and needlessly raised the stakes. As seen, some officials stressed a NATO “open door” for Ukraine while the likelihood of rapid EU accession was exaggerated as well. Before the war, Ukraine had an annual income-per-capita of $4,000, on par with Albania and Kosovo, and in corruption surveys it ranked below Russia and on the same level as Nigeria. Today, after an Association agreement, billions in aid, and three years of EU-mandated reforms, Ukraine is still a corrupt, bankrupt mess - highlighting how unprepared it was for EU accession, how heavily it depended on Russian trade and subsidies that are now lost, and how unwise it was for Western leaders to push an either-or choice on Kiev.
The Art of the Deal? In the latest corruption surveys, Ukraine still ranks below Russia. Scandals erupt daily, with an economic drain greater than the conflict in Donbas. Ukraine’s pro-EU President Petro Poroshenko has a 17 percent approval rating, lower than the pro-Russian Yanukovych’s 28 percent on the eve of his ouster in 2014. Ironically, this means that the pro-Russian Yanukovych was the most popular Ukrainian president of this century. And in the latest poll finding, only 41 percent of Ukrainians still support the EU Association Agreement, the rejection of which sparked the Maidan revolution in the first place. It is trends like these, along with a right-wing turn in Western European states that erodes their patience and generosity with troubled eastern neighbors, that should trouble EU leaders. Instead, across the region, Europeans are on high alert for Russians spreading anti-Western news, supporting anti-Western politicians, and deploying an army of anti-Western internet trolls.
Yet for all the paranoia about Russian subversion, crisis is more likely to come from elsewhere, such as an unraveling of fragile Bosnia leading to a clash between Serbia and NATO. Or it could be Moldova, with the nationalist majority renewing a push to unite with their Romanian kin, thereby reviving conflict with the Russian minority. Hungary could leave the EU, delivering a critical blow to European unity. Or Ukraine could simply collapse of its own corrupt, bankrupt weight.
A diplomatic breakthrough between Russia and the West on Ukraine - or on Syria, or other major issues - will require firm agreement on non-interference in each other’s domestic affairs.
Yet Ukraine could also be where America and Russia begin repairing ties. The Russian economy is weak - incomes are down a third since 2013 - and relief from Western sanctions is sorely needed. Europe, too, cries for the revival of normal trade with Russia. A deal between Russia and the West would build upon the stalled Minsk Accords. Moscow would withdraw from the Donbass and restore Ukraine’s eastern border, and Kiev would grant local self-rule to this Russian-speaking region. Russia would, in turn, get a commitment from NATO not to incorporate Ukraine, and Ukraine would get a treaty guaranteeing its territorial integrity as well as military aid. Kiev would also gain major Western investments, while benefitting enormously from restoration of trade with Russia.
Purists will call such a deal a betrayal, as it would be a de facto recognition of the Russian annexation of Crimea. But the best is the enemy of the good. Moscow will not allow Crimea to be snatched away again, as it was in 1954, after nearly 200 years as part of Russia. And by democratic rights, it shouldn’t - the fact is that a large majority of Crimeans want to remain with Russia. Ukraine, moreover, would benefit from peace and investment, instead of diverting more resources into conflict. Normal political and trade ties with Russia would also benefit Europe as a whole, helping to slow and maybe to reverse the current slide toward dissolution. Continuation of the status quo, by contrast, only exacerbates crisis.
Will the Real Vladimir Putin Please Stand Up? A diplomatic breakthrough between Russia and the West on Ukraine - or on Syria, or other major issues - will also require firm agreement on non-interference in each other’s domestic affairs: no more Russian cyber-intrusion in the politics of America and its allies; no more U.S. backing of domestic protest and rebellion in Russia and her allies. Such diplomacy would test the mettle of the Trump administration’s foreign-affairs neophytes, but the greater unknown is Putin. A majority of the U.S. political elite believes that no deals are possible because Putin is irremediably hostile. Whether they attribute that hostility to ideology (an ingrained KGB worldview) or corruption (an illegitimate regime that needs a foreign enemy to distract its people from domestic woes), many American policymakers believe that Putin simply has no interest in peace with the West. In their view, he is bent on expansion and will gladly endure sanctions as the price of fomenting discord in the West.
For over two decades, whether motivated by residual Cold War mistrust or post–Cold War liberal hegemonism, America has steadily pushed Western military and political-economic power deeper into Russia’s backyard.
Another group of policymakers is also skeptical of Putin, but do not blame him alone for the deterioration of relations. Many of these analysts opposed NATO expansion from the outset, for the same reasons that Kennan did - because it would become a self-fulfilling prophecy. These experts also criticize the United States’ misadventures in Iraq and Libya, failure to respect Russia’s red lines on expansion into Georgia and Ukraine, and petty demonization of Putin. Yet they mainly stand with the first group now in believing that containment, not cooperation, is what the West must practice, because Putin’s recent actions threaten the postwar liberal order. A third group of analysts - the realists, who make up a minority of the foreign-policy establishment - reply that Putin does not threaten the entire postwar liberal order but only challenges the post-Cold War U.S.-dominated order that consistently ignores Russia’s interests. They wonder how some can admit the folly of NATO’s continual expansion and fault the many double standards in U.S. policy but not agree that America must meet Russia halfway. Like realists such as Kennan or Hans Morgenthau, who early warned against the folly of Vietnam, they are sometimes derided as weak (or Putin apologists) for cautioning against inflating foreign threats while ignoring the United States’ domestic weaknesses.
These realists argue that the early Putin prioritized market economic reforms and good relations with the West, yet saw his open hand met by the clenched fist of the George W. Bush–era neoconservatives. And Obama, reset or no, continued efforts to expand the Western economic and military blocs that had started under Clinton in the 1990s. In other words, for over two decades, whether motivated by residual Cold War mistrust or post–Cold War liberal hegemonism, America has steadily pushed Western military and political-economic power deeper into Russia’s backyard. If history teaches anything it is that any great power will, when facing the continued advance of a rival, eventually push back. And much as Obama-Clinton defenders dislike being reminded of it, any chance of America’s post–Cold War power being seen as uniquely benign ended in Serbia, Iraq, and Libya.
It may be that both sides are correct - that two decades of ignoring Russia’s interests have abetted Putin’s embrace of a deep-seated anti-Americanism and that a new détente is impossible. Or it may be that Putin is not innately hostile, but rather a typical strongman: proud and spiteful, but not uniquely corrupt or cruel, and capable of embracing a cooperative position if he finds a partner skilled enough to forge a deal respecting both U.S. and Russian vital interests. The only thing not in doubt is that both America and Russia - indeed, Europe and the wider world - badly need that détente.
By Robert David English, first published in Foreign Policy, March 10, 2017.
Why is the U.S. Media and Establishment Targeting Russia?
Paul Jay: After World War II, its been a strategic objective of U.S. foreign policy that this should be a single superpower world. Ideally, the United States should have utter, full-spectrum domination, from nuclear weapons to cyberspace to media. But with the emergence of the Soviet Union as a rival superpower, it became a fundamental objective to undo that Soviet Union and get back to a single superpower world. Once successfully done, we’re back into a world where the United States is the ultimate power – but not as ultimate as it would like. The United States does not like the rise of regional powers, especially regional powers with a certain amount of global reach. Any regional power – like a Russia or a China or an Iran – that is not under the control of the United States (they don’t mind regional powers like Saudi Arabia that are under the control of the United States) are considered threats. Not just to regional hegemony, but countries like a China or perhaps a Russia can become real global competitors. Russia has become that in Syria.
So what is U.S. foreign policy, and why is it so antagonistic to Russia? The alleged Russian meddling in U.S. elections – to the extent that turns out to be true – certainly is secondary to these bigger strategic reasons. But why are there divisions between the Trump administration – certainly on Russia, at least – and the great preponderance of U.S. foreign policy establishment?
There’s no doubt that the U.S. elites are upset about Russia interfering in the U.S. election. I still don’t know what’s true and what isn’t, but there seems to be some evidence that there were troll farms sending out messages to the U.S. public that could have influenced some of the election. There are also allegations about Wikileaks. But all that being said, it didn’t change the outcome of the election and this seems to be something that’s being used to attack Trump from the Democrats generally, and then from the preponderance of the foreign policy establishment who do not like Trump entertaining the idea that its ok for Russia to have saved the Assad administration in Syria, and its ok to start wheeling-and-dealing and perhaps lifting the embargo on Russia. And that seems to be a serious internal fight among American elites.
Lawrence Wilkerson: There are two really irritating factors out there for the new Rome, that the United States became in 1945. One, is Russia in a military, covert operation, clandestine activities, propaganda vein – Russia’s not really that powerful economically. The other is China. Extremely powerful economically – by purchasing power parity, the number one economy in the world – and by all measurements in another decade the number one economic power in the world. China just scared South Korea significantly with its economic power – and the sanctions they brought to bear on the Republic of Korea – that South Korea is going to nix any more Theatre High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) deployment to the peninsula. That shows you the power China has. So it’s a two-pronged enemy in the vein you just described.
Had I been Putin I’d have done exactly what Putin did in Georgia, in Crimea, in Ukraine.
I can’t see anywhere in our playbook where we have picked the right enemy, at the right time, with the right strategy, and out-maneuvered them. Look at what has happened, given what you’ve described, since H. W. Bush decided that NATO and the collapse of the Soviet Union in the face of NATO would not be exploited. In other words, Bill Clinton and Bob Rubin and Larry Summers and a host of others – and Barack Obama didn’t finish, and W. Bush accelerated – and said ‘We’re going to push this NATO alliance all across the face of the earth.’ Had I been Putin I’d have done exactly what Putin did in Georgia, in Crimea, in Ukraine.
He found out he could be very successful against this superpower. He found out that with very little input, in terms of resources and blood, he could really exacerbate the situation. He may have influenced the Brexit vote in the UK, and therefore begun the first substantial breakup in the European Union. He may have indeed influenced the vote here, I don’t know. But I dare say that since the Soviet Union did that – and he was a very good member of the KGB – that they’re doing that today. And the Russians are far better at it than we are. They’re playing these games with everything from social media to the traditional mechanisms of what we call black propaganda.
So Putin has been infinitely more successful than the United States has been – either in initiatives or in countering him. Its marvelous to watch what he’s been doing, and to see how little we have in response to it – whether its Syria, the Baltic States, or whether its in the new feelings that the Nordic states have. Everyone’s doing a little bit different dance today because we’ve had a power shift in the world. The United States is probably the only leadership – the leadership in Washington doesn’t recognize it – and that shift is moving faster than even I thought it was going to move. Its changing things. Great powers like us – status quo powers – don’t like that. We’re getting whooped by almost everybody else in the world right now. And I do not see a coherent strategy at all, from this administration, to deal with any of these things, whether they be pin pricks (and pin pricks can bring you down eventually) or whether they be big issues like those with China and, from time to time, with Russia.
Paul Jay: The Syria situation. It was pretty clear the United States, the Saudis, Qatar, Turkey, Israel, all the American allies in the region, wanted the overthrow of Assad.
Lawrence Wilkerson: They started it. The Saudis started it. They began pumping the arms and eventually the foreign fighters in there. They took everybody’s side, they were willing to back anyone who was against Assad. They were the instrument of our getting sucked in there, just as they’re the instrument of our being sucked into Yemen – now in its third year, a brutal, deadly, bloody war we have no business being in. The Saudis are the instrument of our fate in the Middle East – I always thought it would be Israel, and it may indeed ultimately still be Israel, but right now it’s the Saudis.
The balance of power in the Middle East was changed dramatically when the United States changed its policy of over three decades, and took out Saddam Hussein, and destabilized Southwest Asia.
Paul Jay: In 2015, Putin made a speech at the United Nations, and he said if the Assad regime is not protected and defended, its opening the gates of hell of ISIS and other terrorists. And the Russians started bombing and the Russians successfully defended the Assad government and the Assad government is certainly now in a strong position, and there’s no sign of it going anywhere. This really defied U.S. foreign policy objectives, and at least under the Trump administration they’ve now acknowledged that the Russians are essentially going to be the power that’s going to determine the outcome of events in Syria. But the foreign policy establishment does not like anyone other than the United States being in a position to determine the outcome of these kinds of situations. Has the American state – other than the Trump administration – comes to terms with Syria, or is this not over yet for them?
Lawrence Wilkerson: I was convinced toward the end of the Obama second administration that they had reluctantly come to terms with a reduced U.S. role, to include a pushing away from Saudi Arabia. The Trump administration has clearly, incoherently, switched that policy and put us back, ostensibly, for the duration in what is developing to be a gawd-awful mess in the Middle East – one, I might hasten to add, we started with our invasion of Iraq, that we’re still seeing the ramifications of.
The Russians are the legitimate power, having been asked by the legitimate government in Damascus to come and help them against ISIS and other forces that want to unseat that legitimate government.
That said, let me back up a moment and get back to Russia. I marvel at Putin’s capability, like a virtuoso, to play us. He looked at Syria, and he said, ‘this is not like Ukraine, this is not like Crimea, I do not have internal lines – I have better lines than the U.S. but I don’t have interior lines – but they still have longer lines than I do; that is to say, distance to get to the theater of battle, and difficulty in moving assets.’ The Russians do have some interest in Syria. One is staying in the Middle East, and Syria is the only place they can to it. Two is they’re already there, they have some facilities there and they want to protect them. And three, they are worried about terrorists coming up to places like Chechnya. And the biggest reason is they think they can beat the United States at its own game and, in the process, be the legitimate power rather than the illegitimate power, which is what the United States has never been all along. We have never had a government in Syria, recognized by the United Nations and a majority of countries in the world, invite us into Syria – we just went, like we went into Iraq. The Russians are the legitimate power, having been asked by the legitimate government in Damascus to come and help them against ISIS and other forces that want to unseat that legitimate government. Putin is a virtuoso! Up against idiots, as far as I can see, in the U.S. administration. Go back all the way back to Catherine the Great! The Russians have always been better at this than we have.
The balance of power in the Middle East was changed dramatically when the United States changed its policy of over three decades and took out Saddam Hussein, and destabilized Southwest Asia. The balance has not been restored by anyone since – Russia’s been playing with it, Iran’s been playing with it, Saudi Arabia and the GCC, we’ve been playing with it from time to time. Until that balance is restored – and it will take a recognition of the principle balancer (because of demographics, history, cohesive society) which is Iran – until we recognize that it is going to stay out of balance and we’ll have a mess. And now Putin has recognized that, and Putin has stepped in and has put Russia’s foot on the scale, with ground power, air power, naval power to match that foot. And while he can’t match us globally, he can certainly match us regionally, in this spot on the map. Further, he’s got Iran and Syria itself and the armed forces thereof on his side. So, if the for the moment, that balance is tentatively restored, its because of that new coalition between Moscow, Tehran and Damascus.
Paul Jay: How serious is that coalition? The real agenda of the Trump administration has been to strengthen the American position in Iraq, regain what was lost (the Iraqi oil fields), and destabilized and undermine the Iranian regime with an overtly articulated hope for regime change. Can the Russians actually obstruct this, or is this part of the Trump deal with Putin?
Lawrence Wilkerson: You’re assuming there’s some sort of collusion between Moscow and Washington, and that collusion is based expressly on the two characters. I’ve seen no hard evidence of it, I’ve had a lot of people who know the situation much better than I dissuade me of it, and it doesn’t comport with my idea of how things work – its too clean, its too easy.
And these conspiratorial talks that are being pitched by the Democrats were in fact not that much different from what Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon did with regard to the first European intermediaries – and then the Pakistani intermediaries – with China. In other words, Trump and his team – such as it was – saw that Russia-U.S. relations were seriously deteriorating and they wanted to rescue them – for whatever reasons: could have been private reasons [for Trump] like money, heavy debt. It doesn’t matter. Geo-strategically that’s not a bad proposition. What they were doing in these initial meetings was what Henry and Dick did, they just weren’t in office yet. They were trying to establish contact outside the regular channels because they knew the regular channels were corrupt has hell, which is exactly what Dick and Henry did, they cut the State Department completely out of the rapproachment with China.
Did Putin suddenly decide that he was dealing with idiots and so he violated the deal, or did he just decide to violate the deal because he likes Assad? Or he found himself on more propitious grounds than he anticipated? Don’t know, but its always dangerous when you make these kinds of bargains with people who are slippery, and shrewd, and play chess to your checkers!
Paul Jay: Anything that lowers tensions between the major powers is a good thing. But, in terms of targeting Iran – which this administration has not given up on – the Saudis are as aggressive as anyone. In fact, this purge of various princes by the new Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia seems to be of princes who were opposed to an anti-Iranian policy.
Lawrence Wilkerson: Who were also opposed to the split with Qatar, which in my view was utterly stupid, strategically inept, breaking up the GCC that way. I’m not sure Russia will be willing to step into tensions with Iran, because I think it would be propitious for Putin to stand on the sidelines and watch the United States – mainly because of its commitment to Israel, and partly because of its commitment to Saudi Arabia – get sucked into it. And that’s exactly my expectation, that we are going to be the Saudi’s proxy. And the Saudis are going to fight Tehran to the last dead American, and the Israelis of course will fight Hezbollah to the last dead American. The Israelis will do a better job of fighting – the Saudis are utterly incompetent at military operations. You’re seeing that in Yemen; their pilots are dropping bombs from such high altitudes because their pilots are scared to death of getting hit by anti-aircraft fire that the bombs go everywhere – schools, hospitals, churches. It is going to be, if it is going to be, an extremely brutal war.
Iran will probably respond asymmetrically. They will not exchange hardware with Saudi Arabia. They will send the Quds Force, now highly trained and highly capable, into the oil-producing regions of Saudi Arabia, where Shia mostly work, and they will stoke those Shia, and the kingdom, and Mohammad bin Salman, this consolidating of power crown prince will suddenly have a rebellion on his hands. This could really get bad. It can go bad really fast.
We're in a very dangerous situation, and what we have in Washington is a bunch of amateurs with no experience. I include Rex Tillerson in that. That is not what you want on your team when you're in this kind of situation.
Paul Jay: And, a very divided Washington. Apparently there’s a real split between the Pentagon and sections of the CIA, which apparently don't buy this policy of maintenance of the Assad era, or what should I say, accepting Assad is going to stay in power. There's sections of the CIA that are continuing to fund and arm anti-Assad Islamic forces in Syria, and that the Pentagon is seriously at odds with these people in the CIA. Have you heard this?
Lawrence Wilkerson: I haven't. My question there as always, and has been recently, does the president know about this? Does McMaster know about this? Is this happening beneath their watch, as it did with Ronald Reagan with the Contras and Sandinistas in South America, Honduras and Nicaragua? Ronald Reagan did not know everything that Bill Casey and his minions were doing, including Bob Gates. There were things going on between the president's watch, if you will. Who cares what the reason was, dotage, or inattention, or whatever? That happens from time to time with the CIA. When you get these internecine bureaucratic battles beneath it, it gets even worse. I wouldn't be surprised at all, because I have seen it before in the historical record, in the archives, in testimony. It's there.
Paul Jay: Maybe we should welcome it. If everyone in the state, and the deep state, and the Pentagon, and CIA were all monolithic in their view of what to do next, we might be a lot closer to an attack on Iran and Iraq. Maybe this is a good thing. They can't execute much of anything right now.
Lawrence Wilkerson: You've got a point. I've often said, and from time to time Colin Powell and I would joke about that the best thing going for us was incompetence.
I think Putin is doing a real fine job here in terms of Russian interests. He's getting Erdogan to the point where I think Erdogan's going to probably break out of NATO. I'm not totally sure that's going to happen, but it's looking ominous. That would be the largest, most capable land force in NATO outside the U.S., leaving. That would be, in my mind, the beginning of the unraveling of NATO.
He's also making significant progress in a little place called Mitrovica, the northern province of Kosovo, where UN and U.S. forces in small numbers are. He's infiltrating the northern part of that province, Mitrovica, which is the northern part of Kosovo. We've all forgotten about Kosovo since Bill Clinton bombed it for 180 or so days and Milosevic went to the International Criminal Court, and died in the process, but it's still there, and the Serbs still very much want it back. As Putin is wont to do, and he's crafty at this, he's moving his pawns, and he's moving his knights, and he's moving his bishops on multiple chessboards. One of the things he's doing in Kosovo is threatening to take it back over for the Serbs and the Albanians. We're talking about all manner of things going on right now. I wonder if they're even on the agenda of the National Security Council.
Paul Jay: What does Putin and Russia get out of this? I would have thought that Putin's primary objective should actually be to try to ease the tensions with the U.S. in order to get the embargo lifted and get these big energy plays going on that Tillerson, Exxon, and others want to do. Why poke the American eye here?
Lawrence Wilkerson: Two reasons, I think. One, he discovered this early on and he's maximized it, it is what Russians want. Not every one of them, but a majority of them, and so he's staying very high in the polls, and he's staying very politically successful with the Russian electorate because of what he's doing. That's probably his primary reason.
His secondary reason is he's having fun. I mean that. I think he's actually having fun poking his fingers in the eyes of the superpower, and doing it where he can do it and when he can do it, and not risking anything really on his own behalf. He can pull back almost anywhere where he is if he has to. The only place where he's really exerted himself in a way that sort of exposed some flanks was Syria, and yet even there, he had Damascus on his side, he had Tehran on his side, and I think ultimately he had Turkey on his side. He's about to strip Turkey away from NATO. He's already seen the United Kingdom stripped away from the Union. I'd be chalking up my blackboard. I'd be going, "That's another one. That's another one. That's another one." You say, "Why is he doing this?" None of this threatens a global conflagration. What it does is threaten the hegemony of the United States, and particularly where it makes Russia vulnerable. He's doing it the same place the Soviets did it, on the plains of Europe. That's where I'd be doing it if I were he. I wouldn't be in Vladivostok. I wouldn't be looking for the Japanese or the northern territories or whatever. Maybe I would eventually, but those things are probably unmanageable, undoable. Besides, the Chinese are taking over the far east of Russia, if you've looked lately.
He's got European Russia. He's got NATO as his enemy. All the exercises the Russian military has conducted since 2012, 2013, 2014, the scenario they conduct those exercises is an invasion by NATO. That's what Putin uses to mobilize, raise the morale of, conduct the training of, and write the doctrine of his armed forces, a NATO invasion. We say, "NATO's not going to invade Russia." That's not what Putin and his generals think, and if you were in their shoes, you probably would guard against it, too. That's what their doctrine, their exercises, and everything reflects. You've got to put yourself in the other person's shoes, and I think too, as I've said, you've got to understand how shrewd Putin is.
Paul Jay: Do you see any moves to further draw eastern European countries into the Russia-U.S. conflict, such as Moldova, and do you expect sudden changes of governments there?
Lawrence Wilkerson: In a certainly way I do, but I think it's probably going to happen, what we're calling in the academic community, in a democratic way, but that democracy's going to be illiberal, not liberal. That is to say, they're going to use elections, more or less, to bring in more or less right-wing types. We've already seen that in some of the countries. We've seen Germany's AfD, for example, increase its membership in the German legislature. I think that's the shrewd way it's going to happen.
I think we're going to see ... Because of this social media, and because of other means of communications now, this is something that probably has never happened before, not in the modern world anyway. We actually have Nazis in Europe communicating with Nazis in America. We have alt right in Europe communicating and planning in some cases with alt right in the United States. This is a global movement of fascist-like, Nazi-like tendencies, and Putin is going to play that. I'm not saying he's that kind of person. He could be, I think, but there are plenty like that. Ukraine is full of them. Ukraine has got people who would love to go back and put the swastika back up.
Paul Jay: Just had an essentially pro-fascist protest or rally there of about 60,000 people a few weeks ago.
Lawrence Wilkerson: Yeah. Of course, sometime ago, our CIA was supporting some of those groups because they opposed the Russians. This is a new phenomenon, I think, to have this kind of global communication and global propaganda amongst people from Charlottesville, Virginia, and people from Kiev, Ukraine.
Paul Jay: Why did the United States so enthusiastically support the Yeltsin administration during the worst of what he calls its atrocities?
Lawrence Wilkerson: When Yeltsin literally emulated Lenin and stood on or in front of that tank, and we made a decision not to join the generals, not to overthrow him, but to back him and to make sure everyone knew that, including those generals, and Yeltsin then put down the coup attempt and then became at least the titular at that time if not eventually the leader of a newly collapsed Soviet empire, now Russia, losing everything as fast as it could, I'll never forget how fast the Warsaw Pact fell apart, that we didn't have a whole lot of choice, except as George H.W. Bush spoke it at the time. Jim Baker carried this out to a letter.
That was essentially, "We are not going to exploit this. We're not going to take advantage of it. We're not going to do anything to stick our fingers in Soviet Russian eyes. We're going to do as much as we can to support the leadership, although we know it drinks a bottle of vodka about every hour. We're going to do everything we can to take this situation turn out peacefully," to include inviting Russia to be an observer of NATO, with every expectation it would eventually probably be asked to be a member of NATO, including when we reunified Germany and kept it in NATO, the most incredible diplomatic achievement of the latter 20th century, saying to Moscow, "If you accept this, we'll not move NATO one inch further east." Then along came Bill Clinton, of course, and moved it all the way to Georgia or almost. Those were troubled times, but I think H.W. Bush handled it extremely well, and Jim Baker, and all the rest of that administration. I think they handled it extremely well. Brent Scowcroft was right there in the middle of it.
Then along came Bill Clinton and a very inexperienced team. I was there. I was still working for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs in the first year of Clinton. The most inexperienced team I've ever seen. Couldn't find their ass in a windstorm that first year, indeed for the first 18 months. Everything went to heck, as we enlarged NATO, largely to sell F-16s and other arms to more and more countries, and make Lockheed and Boeing and everybody else much richer, and largely to, in very apoplectic terms, stick our fingers in Moscow's eyes. We did it in the Balkans. We embarrassed Boris Yeltsin majorly in the Balkans. We had Major General Sir Michael Jackson I think it was Pristina in Kosovo, being ordered by Wes Clark to stop the Russian paratroopers. Jackson had the good sense to say back, "I'm not about to start World War Three, general."
These were troubled times with inexperienced people dealing with them. We made a mess of things, and we've been making a mess of things ever since.
Paul Jay: We were talking a little earlier about Putin's motivation in Kosovo and otherwise. Is it true for Russia, and for the United States, that to a large extent this is all about domestic politics? Maybe that's true with most foreign policy. It starts with domestic politics. Certainly in the United States, this seems to be more about domestic politics than any real concern about what Russia's doing in various places.
Lawrence Wilkerson: I think the Russian foreign minister, when Trump failed to certify to the U.S. Congress that Iran was still in compliance with the nuclear agreement, the German foreign minister said, "This is all domestic politics. It's become a plaything of domestic politics." I think he used the word I think, or it is apparently, or something like that, but he summed it up. You're right. One of the elements of my framework of analysis for my students in determining why certain national security decisions were made is domestic politics. I will tell you that we look at both the United States and whomever it happens to be, Chile in 1968, Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1954, and so forth, we look at them too from the point of view of politics. I can say with some accuracy, I think, that domestic politics drives democracies nuts far more than it does totalitarian states. In the case of the United States of America, with our rather unwieldy democracy, it really does impact foreign and security policy, sometimes in very, very injurious ways.
Paul Jay: What do you make of the Afghan situation, and particularly the U.S.-Russia rivalry as it expresses itself in Afghanistan?
Lawrence Wilkerson: I think there's legitimate intelligence that reflects Russian and Iranian support for some elements of those forces we're ostensibly fighting in Afghanistan. It probably has different reasons than we might think, might even have something to do with Russia's efforts to infiltrate those organizations and ensure they don't come north.
Let me tell you about Afghanistan. Afghanistan is no longer about the Taliban. It's not even about the stability of Afghanistan, except as it serves the larger purpose. That larger purpose is now twofold. One is to keep hard military force in Afghanistan for the next 50 years if necessary, in order to have hard military force somewhere close to China's one belt, one road across the land. The second reason is so that we don't have to come back a vast distance and establish a military force in the area in order to take care of Pakistan's nuclear weapons, should that country suddenly destabilize. That's why we're in Afghanistan, not to fight the Taliban, Al Qaeda, ISIS, or anybody else, and we will be there for another half-century.
Paul Jay: Who are, in your opinion, the real enemies, and why define them as enemies?
Lawrence Wilkerson: There's one big one. There's one humongous one, and I wouldn't describe it as an enemy. I would say, "Mr. President, do you know about the Thucydides trap, the thing Graham Allison talks about all the time? Do you know about how rising powers and great powers are inevitably going to fight one another? We need to stop that from happening." I'm not telling you we're going to stop China from ultimately replacing us as the number one economic power, but I'm going to acquaint you a little bit with Chinese ideology.
I'm just as frightened of the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the potential use of nuclear weapons that leads to an escalation of that use as I am of climate change, and on a shorter-term basis.
I'm going to acquaint you with a little bit of what the Chinese believe and what was just exemplified by the 19th Party Congress, with President Xi Jinping. The Chinese believe that you go through these cycles. You come to an apogee of power, and wealth, and influence, and then you collapse, and then you rise slowly back up again, and you do the same thing again. Xi Jinping knows that China is coming to that apogee. It's not imminent, but it's going to happen in the next 20 to 25 years. In other words, China's going to replace the United States in almost every parameter of state power, if global climate change doesn't kill us all first.
Xi Jinping is going to be very careful about how he approaches that apogee, that zenith. The Chinese are going to be very careful. They're going to deal with that in economic and financial terms, and they are going to rue dealing with it in hard military power terms. The United States needs to be smart, and to take advantage of that, amplify that, help China do that. At the same time, we step down from some of our global responsibilities and convince the Chinese that they ought to help us manage them so it's a little more equitable situation in terms of power. We bring other countries who are what I would call peer powers, and I would include Brazil, and India, and Russia, and Japan, and maybe a unified Korea even, because I have a plan for that too, into this game.
We have a responsibility to our grandchildren, their grandchildren, and it's going to come to haunt us in a year or two, if not sooner in some respects.
We'd all be managing power in the world a little bit better, a multi-power world if you will, and we'd all be focusing on what we've all got to focus on. Are we even going to be here? That's global climate change, which by the end of this century or earlier, and the things I'm hearing right now from scientists scare me to death that it's going to be much earlier. It's going to be in my grandkids' and my kids' lifetime. We're going to see sea rise. We're going to see hurricanes. We're going to see earthquakes. We're going to see all manner of things, flood out of proportion to anything we've ever seen before, that are going to tackle all our resources, all our talents, all our competencies, in a way that will put us to shame if we're engaged in these otherwise internecine wars and battles and so forth, because we're going to lose this Earth. We're going to lose this planet.
By the way, the planet isn't going to give a damn. The planet threw the dinosaurs off without any concern whatsoever. The planet will throw the human race off without any concerns whatsoever. We have a responsibility to our grandchildren, their grandchildren, and so forth to do a better job of that, and it's going to come to haunt us in a year or two, if not sooner in some respects.
Paul Jay: It seems to me that 2020 elections are rather critical. I don't think you get a rational foreign policy ... By rational, I mean rational in the interest of the majority of people, not rational in the interest of the people who make money out of this. Whether it's a question of war and peace, or whether it's a question of the climate change, if we don't undermine, break up, take out the political and economic power of arms and fossil fuel, you can't get to those kind of policies.
Lawrence Wilkerson: No, I agree with you. I'm just as frightened of the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the potential use of nuclear weapons that leads to an escalation of that use as I am of climate change, and on a shorter-term basis.