I am a Russian-born U.S. citizen. Since my old country is all in the news now, unsurprisingly, several people have asked me about the latest spat between the two countries. I have rounded up a few frequently asked questions (FAQ) in no particular order, and here they are.
Question: Is Russia our foe or ally?
Answer: Neither. Lord Palmerston famously quipped, “Great Britain has no friends, only interests,” and the same applies to other countries. The United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) were geopolitical adversaries during the Cold War. Prior to that, they were allies in World War II when both faced an existential threat from Nazi Germany and Japan. Now both Russia and the United States are facing a threat of radical Islam, which may bring the two countries together again.
Q: But can we cooperate with the Russians after they captured large chunks of Ukraine and Georgia?
A: Well, the Soviet Union captured Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia in 1939, yet Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill cooperated with Joseph Stalin and actively supported his war efforts. The West never recognized the annexation of the Baltic republics; it just put that matter on the back burner for the sake of a more urgent goal. Henry Kissinger calls this realpolitik.
Q: Donald Trump has picked Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of Exxon Mobile, as his secretary of State. Tillerson has warm relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin. How do we know which side Tillerson is on?
A: Let me cite a historical precedent. Another famous American oil executive was friendly with Soviet leaders. His name was Armand Hammer. He had numerous personal and business ties with the USSR, starting in the 1920s. In 1957, Hammer became president and CEO of Occidental Petroleum. He used his connections to end the Cold War between the two countries. According to his biographer, Hammer was “a go-between for five Soviet General Secretaries and seven U.S. Presidents.” Paradoxically, Hammer’s efforts on behalf of the USSR made him a darling of the American Left, even though he supported the Republican Party.
Q: Has Putin ordered the murder of Russian journalists and other political opponents?
A: That has not been proven conclusively, but is plausible. Regardless of whether that is the case, it should not determine American foreign policy. That was clear to FDR and Churchill, who were well aware of Stalin’s atrocities.
Q: Did Russia side with Trump in the 2016 U.S. presidential race?
A: Of course, it did. Nations do take sides and interfere in other nations’ internal affairs all the time. For example, the United States actively encouraged the Arab Spring in several countries and even supported Syrian and Libyan “moderate” rebels. It was the job of the sitting U.S. president to prevent any Russian interference in U.S. elections.
Q: Is Russian spying on U.S. institutions a new phenomenon?
A: Absolutely not! However, things change. Between the 1940s and the 1960s, it was the conservative Right that was alarmed by Russian spying and Communist infiltration of the federal government. The Left dismissed that concern, mocking it as looking for “reds under the beds.” Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were convicted of spying for Russia and executed, became martyrs of the Left. Even in the 1970s when I arrived in the United States, the Left’s favorite motto was “it’s better be red than dead.” Things really changed in the 1980s.
Q: What happened in the 1980s?
A: When Ronald Reagan became president, he faced fierce opposition from the Left. The media elite ridiculed him as an unsophisticated cowboy and right-wing warmonger for calling the USSR an evil empire. The opposition became violent when Reagan proposed an anti-missile defense system, which the media dismissed as a “star wars” program. However, when an opportunity came up, Reagan held productive summits with former Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev. These summits eventually led to the end of the Cold War.
Q: Is Putin a reincarnation of Stalin?
A: The two leaders represent two different generations separated by a period of 70 years. During those 70 years, the world has changed, and so has Russia. Stalin ruled Russia with an iron fist, while today’s Russians enjoy a degree of freedom. Putin is more pragmatic than Stalin. Yet contemporary Russian society is still quite different from its Western European counterparts, which is perhaps just fine, given that the latter are in a deep crisis now.
Q: Can the United States rely on Russia in the war on radical Islamic terrorism?
A: If it were a matter of life or death, I would always choose to have Russia on my side, rather than a Western ally, such as France. When Russians wage a war, they do it to win, not to satisfy lawyers by following every rule specifying acceptable ways of killing the enemy.
Here is an example. Somalian pirates threatened international shipping in the Indian Ocean between 2005 and 2013 by taking hostages. The American, French, Italian, and other navies rescued many hostages, caught pirates, and sent them to their countries. The arrests, trials, appeals, and imprisonment cost hundreds of millions of dollars. According to a Guardian report, there was a fear that “trials in European courts would encourage, rather than deter, pirates from committing crimes of piracy.”
In contrast, when a Russian destroyer rescued a Russian tanker with its crew from pirates in 2010, they did not arrest the pirates. They disarmed the pirates and set them adrift in an inflatable boat. The released pirates did not reach the coast. Rumor has it that the rescuers made a hole in the boat before releasing it.