Over the past few months, public tension has escalated over whether and how the US should respond to reports of Russian cyber-attacks yielding politically damaging information. For his part, President-elect Donald Trump has been coy yet optimistic towards Putin and on Twitter questioned the US intelligence community’s findings regarding Russia’s role. This comes after some influential Senate Republicans have supported President Obama’s decision to expel thirty-five Russian diplomats and impose sanctions on Russian intelligence agencies, all in retaliation for Russian hacking efforts during the 2016 election. When Senate Foreign Relations Committee members weigh whether to ultimately support Trump’s Secretary of State Nominee, former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson, (and examining his past association with Russian President Vladimir Putin) they have an opportunity to remind the public that Putin glorifies the same Soviet era government that Ronald Reagan described as an “evil empire.”
The public debate over where the US government stands toward Russia generally has been laced with hypocrisy. Some Congressional Democrats are experiencing selective amnesia. Putin has consistently sought to undermine US interests abroad and reclaim geostrategic assets that he believes Russia tragically lost during the Soviet Union’s dissolution. During his first term, President Obama and then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton naively pursued a “Reset” of relations with Russia. While they appear oblivious to it, many members of the alt-right movement are now echoing Obama’s early rhetoric. Their perspective contains its own glaring contradictions. It holds that Putin is a good Christian, even as his government suppresses basic religious liberty. They deem him a valuable ally battling global Jihadism, despite Russia’s enabling of Iran’s nuclear program and support for governments that harbor terrorists.
Conservatives should not kid ourselves pretending Russia will depart from its past practices of exploiting US diplomatic openings and acting in bad-faith when dealing with the West. Putin has not changed. Domestically, he remains the same authoritarian ruler whose lead political opponent was assassinated when the man was walking with his wife outside the Kremlin and whose chief critics among the Russian press have a habit of dying suspicious deaths. He has over the past decade taken personal control of companies throughout major industries, including oil and gas, broadcasting, and journalism. In the process, he both appropriated their wealth for his geopolitical ambitions and secured his personal political power. Experts estimate that Putin’s personal and political friends serve as board chairmen of companies that represent as much as 80 percent of Russia’s economy, now aptly categorized as a “corporatist state.”
An appeasement posture towards Russia was folly under the Obama administration and will remain monumentally misguided in a Trump administration if it continues down a similar path. The first “Reset” included a nuclear disarmament treaty under which Russia has ironically increased its strategic nuclear arsenal. The US reneged on our commitment to install a missile defense shield in Czech Republic and Poland, forfeiting an added safeguard against potential Russian incursions into Eastern Europe. If Putin actually desired to avoid further confrontation with the US, then he would have ceased Russia’s hostile posture after these concessions. Apparently unwilling to acknowledge this miscalculation during the 2012 campaign, President Obama doubled down on bad policy. He mocked Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney for asserting that Russia was a top conventional geopolitical foe of the US, labeling him a neocon trapped in a Cold War mentality. He still ridiculed Romney as Putin invaded Ukraine and systematically annexed Crimea, employing tactics straight out of a Cold War playbook. Russia’s invasions of Georgia and Ukraine are clearly not the end game. Further, Putin has used ISIS’s threat as a pretense to bolster Russia’s proxy dictator Assad (an ally of terrorist entity Hezbollah) with roughly 90 percent of military strikes in the “ISIS campaign” aimed at non-ISIS targets and culminating in genocide at the Syrian city of Aleppo. Isolationist sentiment prevailed as some in both parties bought into the false narrative that standing up to Russian proxies inevitably leads to World War III. If that trend continues, it will take a substantial toll on US moral standing.
Proponents of having nuanced policy towards Russia frequently cite Sun Tzu’s lesson to “keep your friends close but your enemies closer.” But this lesson applies when it actually increases one’s ability to control events. The same leader also taught to know your enemy for what he is, not as what you want him to be. Although facing demographic challenges at home (population decline which can be offset by claiming new territory in former Soviet Republics), Putin is the one in control and expanding his country’s sphere of influence internationally. His territorial gains emboldened the world’s most repressive regimes and weakened US relationships with our allies. The onus falls on fellow Republicans especially to deter any effort by Trump to repeat the Obama administration’s foreign policy mistakes and instead prompt a course correction. Congressional Republicans face more political costs by rubber-stamping Trump’s actions than by applying rigorous scrutiny to his dubious instincts on Putin. They should keep the promise they made to voters to fulfill their Constitutional role as a check on the executive branch, regardless of political party. It took decades to free Eastern Europe. Losses in the region cannot be made-up overnight and have serious long-term consequences. Trump and his supporters should heed this warning. Otherwise, they too will risk discovering Putin’s true nature the hard way.
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