Last Friday, President Trump’s Asia trip took him to Vietnam for a meeting with regional leaders. None other than Russia’s head of state Vladimir Putin was in Vietnam, too. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the president thought it would be a good idea to talk with Putin.
This makes sense, especially on the topic of North Korea. The United States, Russia, and China share the same interest of a non-nuclear Korean Peninsula. But North Korea is stalling on diplomacy until it has the bargaining power of a warhead that can hit America. Before this happens, the Trump administration needs Russia and China to apply enough pressure on North Korea, at least by not providing the Kim regime an escape route, so North Korea comes to the diplomatic table.
In the words of Stephen Hadley, a former national security advisor to George W. Bush, “The more China squeezes North Korea, the more potential there is that the North Koreans turn toward Russia… I don’t think [Russia and the Trump administration] are on the same page at this point, and that is why I think it is important for Trump to see both [Chinese President] Xi and Putin.”
Anonymous Trump administration officials, however, found it distasteful that President Trump would meet with Putin. This faction, which includes interventionists in both parties, seems to view Putin in moralistic terms. And President Trump has come under “fierce scrutiny” for daring to meet with Russia’s president earlier this year. Possibly bowing to pressure, Trump and Tillerson backed down from a formal meeting. Trump and Putin did chat informally, but the two leaders failed to sit down and hammer out the big issues due to “scheduling conflicts.”
This is a terrible mistake. Russia isn’t the Soviet Union, and Putin is no Stalin. Either way, we talked to both the Soviet Union and the murderous Stalin. There is nothing wrong with talking to Russia—unless, of course, you think Trump is involved in a conspiracy with the Kremlin.
Making It Impossible to Talk to Russia
True to form, most of the American media’s questions directed at President Trump after his Vietnam summit involved the moments he was seen chatting with Putin. When asked what the two leaders discussed, Trump relayed that Putin said Russia didn’t “meddle” in the 2016 election, and that Trump thought Putin was being honest when he said this.
Journalistic horror ensued. The president was trusting a KGB man and doubting the “high confidence” assessment of his intelligence agencies (all but the National Security Agency) that Russia had intervened in our election with the goal of electing Trump over Hillary Clinton. Trump later reaffirmed that he agrees with the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment, but met blistering criticism nonetheless from the likes of former CIA director John Brennan, former director of national intelligence James Clapper, and several Republican senators.
The failure to formally meet, and the sharp criticism for President Trump’s proclivity to want to be on better terms with Russia—no matter the veracity of Trump’s doubting of America’s intelligence bureaucracies—fits with a recurring pattern. Former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn was fired for lying to the vice president, but many treated his illegally leaked conversation discussing the sanctions slapped on Russia by President Obama, days before shuffling out of the Oval Office, as Flynn’s real offense.
As a U.S. senator, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has met with the Russian ambassador, including bumping into said ambassador at a DC event full of ambassadors. These interactions have been heavily scrutinized. Many of these meetings were set up by the Obama administration, simply because talking to Russia is good for our national security.
Jared Kushner found himself in hot water for wanting to set up a private line of communication with Russia after the election—just like many administrations have sought private channels of communication with foreign adversaries during times of tension, because these communications help keep the peace. Most recently, reports detail Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’s stake in a shipping firm that has a Russian customer. Such loose business ties with Russia are hardly illegal, totally expected for a person of Ross’s wealth, and were encouraged by the U.S. government for many years.
It is as if many are treating any and all ties with Russians as suspect, maybe illegal, and possibly even treasonous. This is contributing to the worst relations America has had with Russia in decades. Coming from self-styled defense hawks, this is rich. Talking to Russia is highly important for maintaining a stable globe, and not talking to Russia is terrible for American national security.
Our Current Behavior Towards Russia Isn’t Working
We must ask ourselves: What is our ultimate goal with Russia? In the immediate, it is obviously to get Russia on board with placing pressure on the Kim regime in North Korea. In the long run, we seek to spur Russia to be a responsible global actor, and some may even hope for democracy to take hold in Russia.
On all accounts, our current approach is counterproductive. The latest sanctions bill Congress passed several months ago provides a good example. According to the bill, only Congress can roll back sanctions, not the executive branch. Yet sanctions are rarely effective at changing the targeted country’s behavior, and only as useful as the relief valve is attractive to the targeted party. Where Congress holds the key to the relief valve, sanctions always incentivize bad behavior, because even if the foreign actor “plays nice,” a majority of 269 members of Congress often won’t agree to roll back sanctions in response (and Russia has experienced this firsthand in the past).
Why would Russia help us with North Korea, or end its aggression in Ukraine, if it will receive little in return? Even for those hoping that democracy will eventually take root in Russia, our current policy may be counterproductive. A declining Russia and a dismal and corrupted economy can be explained away and distracted from by enmity from America.
But despite the apparent problems, many politicians and bureaucrats in Washington are dead-set on continuing the current approach. Didn’t Russia “hack our election?” We should investigate claims of Russian election-interference, but let’s guard ourselves against hysteria. For the latest example, assuming reports linking social media accounts to the Russian government are correct, $50,000 spent on Google ads, $100,000 on Facebook ads (most of which ran in 2015), and 40 pro-Trump Twitter accounts hardly qualifies as a massive interference campaign. And remember the story of Russia hacking state election systems that you stopped hearing about? That’s because the story fell apart.
Is Russia a military threat to America? Russia has one aircraft carrier that is barely seaworthy. If anything, we should feel sorry for the 2,000 sailors on board, as the ship has only 25 toilets. In a year, Russia spends about $70 billion on its military. We spend about $700 billion on ours. And Russia’s economy is about the size of Spain’s economy, and completely dependent on the global price of minerals and hydrocarbons that it toils to extract from the earth. Russia does have a massive nuclear arsenal as a vestige of the Cold War, comparable only to our own. But that’s a reason to talk to Russia, not a reason to up the ante with them.
Yes, Russia is not our friend, and our interests don’t often align, but there are areas where our interests can and do align––such as on the Korean Peninsula, or even over the ambitions of China. Why then would a large group of politicians and bureaucrats in Washington want to treat Russia as a mortal enemy?
We can’t reshape the world in America’s image through military force or coercion, and trying to do so often backfires. Of course we should talk to Russia and Putin, especially when treating Putin as something he is not may even prolong his autocratic reign. We have been warned by statesmen of old to not obsess over unrealistic threats from over the ocean. These statesmen loathed foreign tyrants, but they knew that an America true to her principles would always win the long game. It’s time to take those warnings to heart.