The fifth season of “The Americans,” the FX series about two Soviet spies posing as an American couple living near Washington DC in the 1980s, began airing this week. The Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus tweeted:
So excited to be watching The Americans, throwback to a simpler time when everyone considered Russia the enemy. Even the president.
It’s a funny line, but when it comes to U.S.-Russia relations, the 1980s weren’t really a simpler time, and returning to the costly threats and risks of the height of the Cold War are almost certainly not in the interests of the United States.
Yet that’s precisely what the current conspiracy theories swirling around the media-political complex could lead to. At the Center for National Interest on Tuesday, a panel of national security and Russia analysts sounded the alarm about the domestic political situation in the United States leading to a rapid deterioration of the already fragile relationship with Russia. They said the damage caused by hysteria surrounding Russia could harm potential U.S. interests in Syria, Ukraine, arms agreements, and the economy.
“There are consequences if we don’t get the relationship right,” said Paul Saunders, the executive director of CTNI. “Anyone who thinks we’re in a hostile relationship now, I would suggest there are a number of things that could be worse than they are now.”
Russian Hacking Leads to Russia Hysteria
The latest problems with Russia stem from U.S. intelligence agencies’ report, widely accepted by those who have seen the classified intelligence undergirding it, that state-involved hackers successfully spearfished John Podesta, the chairman of Hillary Clinton’s campaign for president, and obtained documents from the Democratic National Committee. The information they gleaned was released publicly via WikiLeaks. The information was deemed “boring,” “honest and boring,” and “a damp squib” by many in the media before the election. After the surprise victory of Trump, the release of information was deemed a national security threat of the highest order.
Various media and political interests (on both sides of the aisle) are pushing for more than the current investigations against Russia. Further, despite no evidence or allegations from named sources to substantiate claims of wrongdoing, various media outlets have been suggesting illegal ties of President Trump’s foreign policy with Russia. This after months of asserting that Russia “hacked” not just Democratic political operatives but the very election itself.
A general air of hysteria has enveloped Washington’s political and media class. CNN.com’s front page on Sunday and Monday featured a large red-washed image of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow’s Red Square. In front of St. Basil’s were a photoshopped Mike Flynn, Donald Trump, Jeff Sessions, Vladimir Putin, and Ambassador Kislyak. Subtle!
The large type at the top of the page read “Russia mystery threatens to consume DC.” Other top headlines included:
- White House can’t seem to shake off the Russian drama
- Trump and Russia: What fallout could be
- Trump’s hidden taxes fuel Russia rumors
- President’s own actions reignite a Russian obsession
- What the massive fallout could be politically and legally
- CNN/ORC poll: Most back special prosecutor to investigate Russia
- Russian glee over Trump’s election gives way to frustration
- Is Trump’s new conspiracy theory a tactic to divert attention from Russia?
Media outlets are now writing up stories about Americans having ever met with Russians. One media outlet reported that while one Russian businessman and Donald Trump didn’t meet in October, their planes did. Yes, their planes did. One policy wonk convinced of nefarious Russian meddling privately said of a particularly stupid Red Scare story, “One of the reasons we will probably never get to the bottom of [meddling] is our media is populated by hyperventilating dimwits.”
When then-Sen. Jeff Sessions was asked, in his confirmation hearing to be attorney general, about investigating claims of Russian attempts to compromise the Trump campaign, he noted that he was considered a Trump surrogate and he hadn’t had such meetings. When it turned out that Sessions had met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in his capacity as a U.S. senator on the Armed Forces Committee, media outlets and Democratic politicians pounced, calling Kislyak a spy and demanding Sessions resign. Really.
We are in the midst of a full-blown Red Scare conspiracy theory. It’s hard to shake the feeling that the real problems caused by Russian hacking and releasing of real emails — sent by Democrats and media figures to each other — are being exacerbated for political reasons. But the consequences are not minor.
The Kislyak Slur
At the Center for the National Interest event, analysts and experts who worked for both Democrats and Republicans, and at think tanks and strategic analysis firms across the spectrum, were upset at the treatment Kislyak has been subjected to.
In a front-page story at CNN.com last week, reporters Evan Perez, Shimon Prokupecz, and Eli Watkins alleged that Kislyak, who has been the ambassador to the United States since 2008, is “one of Russia’s top spies and spy-recruiters in Washington.” The reporters sourced the claim to anonymous “current and former senior US government officials.”
The claim and presentation of Kislyak was at odds with the view of those who knew him and worked with him. CTNI’s president Dimitri Simes discussed the need for a full investigation of Russian meddling as well as the problems with a leak campaign that is undermining diplomacy itself. But he strongly objected to the smears of any and all diplomatic engagement with the Russian ambassador.
“Is this an indication that the U.S. will not be capable of conducting any meaningful diplomacy?” he asked regarding the attacks on Kislyak. “Any attempt to have a meaningful conversation with nuances, if leaked to the press next morning and leaked in a very selective way, it’s very difficult to conduct meaningful diplomacy.” He warned that further demonization of Kislyak could have significant fallout for U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Tefft. Russia could decide to shut down the access Tefft has if the media and political opponents of Trump succeed in making diplomacy with the Russian ambassador impossible.
“The job of diplomats is to facilitate as many meetings as possible with a wide spectrum of the host country’s domestic political establishment on a wide range of issues,” wrote Nikolas Gvosdev, professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, in his essay “Damage Done: How Russia Hysteria Has Hurt U.S.-Russia Relations.” In fact, while the media frets about Trump officials talking to foreign officials, the bigger problem is not enough such meetings during the transition from the Obama presidency to the early days of the Trump presidency. Foreign ministers and bureaucrats in other countries have been complaining about not knowing who their new contacts are or will be, leading to confusion and delays in productive discussions.”
Michael Haltzel, a senior fellow at at the Center for Transatlantic Relations of Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies and a former aide to Sen. Joe Biden on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, harshly criticized Sessions for his handling of the question about contacts with Russia, but he agreed that attacks on Kislyak were unfortunate.
Wayne Merry, a veteran of the Foreign Service who was stationed in Moscow in 1993, said “ I have known Sergei Kislyak, I totally agree that what he has been exposed to is demonization. It’s total garbage. He’s a first-class professional. He’s being treated very shabbily.”
Even John Beyrle and the excitable Michael McFaul, former U.S. ambassadors to Russia during Obama’s time in office, have warned that “America’s long-term interests are not served by attempting to suggest that contacts between American officials and Russian diplomats constitutes a treasonous or criminal act.”
I should mention that I also pushed back on the claim in a CNN appearance here. In any case, far from what the anonymous sources allegedly told CNN, Kislyak is widely regarded by those who have dealt with him as a top-notch diplomat who serves his country’s interests well. His post in Washington is expected to be his last, and his treatment in his remaining time here is considered an insult by both Americans and Russians. His rumored successor Anatoly Antonov will be “a force to be reckoned with,” as Matthew Rojansky, director of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute, has put it. Rojansky has also defended Kislyak in the media, and says he has “no indication” that Kislyak is a spy.
To What Effect?
Just as the treatment of Kislyak could result in the U.S. ambassador to Russia’s diminished standing and ability to accomplish his goals in Moscow, the general hysteria surrounding Russia might harm the United State’s serious foreign policy goals.
While part of problem with the U.S.’ Syria policy during the previous administration was an inability to articulate U.S. interest in the region, there is some consensus about destroying ISIS and enabling refugees from the Syrian conflict to return home. Both the United States and Europe have an interest in the successful return of refugees. If the United States therefore wants a say in Syria, it will have to work with Russians to facilitate those objectives. Russia has a strong military presence, has brokered some management in the region, and has a willingness to work with partners. That means the country has to keep lines of communication and room for negotiation open. It also needs to clarify its position on Iran, since Russia views Iran as a key partner.
“If Russia and the U.S. can habituate themselves to cooperation in Syria, that can rebuild habits of cooperation that can spill over into other areas where you could see beneficial results occur,” said Gvosdev. But, he added, “that window is not going to stay open on this forever.” If the United States doesn’t make meaningful moves soon, there may not be many more opportunities before Russia, Turkey, and Iran move forward without the United States.
It’s worth noting that nobody considers Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to be a Russian stooge, yet he is fully embracing dialogue and cooperation with Russians regarding regional disputes, a move that has shown beneficial to both countries.
Russian aggression in Ukraine has unsettled the region for several years, both in the annexation of Crimea and the conflict in the Donbass region. The United States and Europe imposed sanctions on Russia and Russians, but there is no resolution in sight. Russia is willing to keep fighting and has not buckled under the sanctions. Ukraine’s economy is suffering from lack of access to Russian markets. If the United States isn’t interested in brokering a peace, is it willing to arm Ukrainian forces and subsidize the country’s faltering economy? Is there an appetite on either the Left or Right for such intervention?
Not Going To War
The 1980s were fun, as Ruth Marcus noted above, but threat of nuclear annihilation was not so fun. Russia is not a superpower on par with the United States, but it is the only country that can take out the United States in short order. The United States needs to broker arms deals as well as encourage Russia not to get too cozy with China, forming alliances that could put U.S. interests at risk.
Trade is one of the best ways to improve political relationships bilaterally. But not only is trade becoming quite difficult between Russia and the United States, on account of the sanctions, it was never a particularly deep relationship. Now there is a great deal of uncertainty surrounding sanctions and how they will or won’t be enforced, a climate not conducive to business investment. Many people have argued that the “U.S. and Russia need to work on that to provide ballast and strengthen links in that relationship, creating incentives for a relationship that’s more of a practical relationship and less of a highly variable political relationship,” said Saunders, adding that the political climate is not very good for movement in that direction.
The bottom line is that the United States is embroiled in a hysterical reaction to Russian meddling in the Democratic Party that could spill over into far more serious consequences for the United States. Unless politicians and the media want the United States to have little to no leverage against ISIS or on behalf of Syrian refugees, want the United States to provide significant military and economic subsidies for Ukraine to fight Russia, are willing to risk war or proxy war with a nuclear power, and want to avoid peaceful means of improved relationships, they should think about whether pushing conspiracy theories for short-term domestic political gain is such a great idea.