Trump and Putin are about to summit, causing much angst. The angst is misplaced. Trump has it wrong, but so do his detractors.
We first need to note how times have changed. The left side of the political spectrum currently sees Russia/Putin in the darkest possible terms, mostly because they think Russia cost Hillary the election. That may be an accurate judgment. The emails that the Russian spies hacked and released were not flattering to Hillary or her party. Of course, nobody has claimed that the material wasn’t authentic.
For many years, some on the left took a much more benign view of Russia and its predecessor, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. In the 20s and 30s , it was regarded as the wave of the future. The show trials, purges and gulags were rationalized away. During WW II, Uncle Joe was our partner in the crusade against Hitler, and FDR really thought he could charm Joe into forgoing his plan to brutally colonize Eastern Europe. In the 50s and 60s, militant anti-communists were the deplorables (some of them were). Romney was widely mocked for pointing out in a presidential debate that Russia was a dangerous enemy. Hillary was the one who pushed the RESET button. President Obama was the one caught on an open mic promising Putin’s puppet that he could be more flexible after he was reelected. Ain’t it amazing what a few hacked emails can do?
The second salient point is that the world takes Russia too seriously as a world power. It is a third world country with a bomb. The population is shrinking and ageing. Most of its geography is unproductive and almost uninhabitable. The rate of alcoholism is stunningly high and nothing is being done to address the problem. Its only exportable assets are hydrocarbons, one tourist trap (St. Petersburg) and a robust/revitalized military (which it uses to invade its neighbors and destabilize the Middle East). The only thing we should take seriously is that we allow Russia to punch above its weight because we are not responding appropriately to mafia-like behavior. Putin plays a weak hand very well by bluffing successfully.
The most important thing to keep in mind is the continuing core of the Russian polity — the KGB. It’s had a lot of names, but it has endured. The first thing Lenin did when he seized the reins of power was to create the Cheka. Aside from a short period when it kept its head down in the early 90s, the Cheka and its successors have been THE force in Russian society since 1917. When Yeltsin passed out, they put their own guy in to run the above ground political establishment. Negotiating with Putin is a waste of time. Mafia dons don’t negotiate, they enforce. The mistake we made in Vietnam (Westmoreland’s fault) was to wage a conventional war against a guerrilla enemy. The mistake we make in dealing with Putin is to try to engage in diplomatic exchanges with him instead of exchanging hostages.
What should we be doing?
First, we should be on a crash course, with help from Israel, to develop technology to shoot down, short, medium and long range missiles. Russia (DPRK and Iran) are much less able to punch above their weight without a credible threat of mass destruction.
Second, we should be on an “all of the above” drive to lower the cost of energy. Russia (Iran and Venezuela) can’t survive without high oil prices. The problem is particularly acute for Russia. As their old wells run dry, they have to drill in progressively more hostile and costly locations. Putin desperately needs oil above $80/bbl to keep his regime running. If we embraced nuclear and hydro electric power (carbon free sources that don’t depend on the daily weather); if we made it VERY expensive for Russia to obtain the expertise and gear necessary to drill in the Arctic; if we get fracking technology to the point that $40 oil is profitable; if we had a robust LNG export sector to give Europe an alternative to Russian natural gas; and if we made a deal with the Saudis to open the taps, we could bankrupt Russia.
Third, we should develop offensive cyber weapons. When we are attacked, we should selectively disable some aspect of Russia’s economy with a little note saying more to come if you want to screw with us. Indicting their Cheka hackers, who will never be extradited, is not a credible hostage.
Finally, we might consider telling the world’s cruise ship operators that they need to suspend operations into St. Petersburg for one year if they want to do business in the United States. Demonstrating possession of a hostage is always a good ploy when dealing with a gangster.
Trump probably doesn’t have enough sense to consider any of these recommendations. Hopefully, some other part of the political spectrum will come around to this way of thinking. Hillary, are you listening? Time for a different kind of reset.