After Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 election, one of the few potentially good outcomes was better relations with Russia. Relations had been souring for years, especially after Russia’s takeover of Crimea in 2014. Hysteria about Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, became absurd: A writer for Forbes asked if Putin was “another Adolf Hitler,” and Republicans in Congress introduced a Russian Aggression Prevention Act.
Now, however, it is mostly Democrats leading the anti-Russian charge, with potentially devastating consequences. Putin is no doubt an authoritarian leader, and Russia has numerous human rights problems, but increasing the animosity between the world’s two leading nuclear powers is stupid.
But Democrats are eager to paint Trump as a Russian puppet in an attempt to undermine his legitimacy as president and obfuscate the real reasons they lost the 2016 election. (Namely, they knowingly nominated a candidate disliked by a majority of the population and actively worked to undermine her primary opponent, who would have been more likely to win a general election against Trump. In addition, during the Obama years, the Democratic Party lost control of both houses of Congress, the majority of state legislatures, and the majority of governorships. Clearly, the Democratic Party’s problems cannot be traced back to Trump and Russia alone.)
With Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 election, relations between the United States and Russia are now at their worst since the end of the Cold War. For his part, Trump may favor closer relations with Russia because of some vague admiration for Putin’s authoritarianism, or maybe business dealings — no one really knows for sure. (No one really knows what’s going on inside Trump’s mind.) Whatever his reasons, better relations with Russia would be a good thing for the world.
Much of the political and foreign policy establishment want to undermine that goal, and a lot of the hysteria about Russia takes the country and its motives out of context. Russian foreign policy is in significant ways a reaction to U.S. foreign policy. And whatever Moscow’s crimes and contributions to global instability, they don’t compare to Washington’s.
It’s time to chill about Russia. Here are three reasons why.
1. Russia Is a Relatively Weak World Power
At $69 billion, Russia’s military expenditures are the third largest in the world. That’s a lot. But it’s a fraction of what the United States spends ($611 billion) and trails behind China ($215 billion). And that’s after years of Putin expanding Russia’s military. In addition, any kind of military confrontation between the United States and Russia would involve NATO, whose members spend a combined total of $918 billion. Members of the European Union spend a combined total of about $238 billion, as well.
Russian military spending is expected to fall substantially in 2017, to about $49 billion. (Earlier this year, President Trump proposed a $54 billion increase in U.S. military spending. In other words, just the increase Trump wants in U.S. military spending would be more than the entire Russian military budget.)
Russia’s economy is weak. Its GDP is worth $1.3 trillion (equivalent to just 7 percent of the U.S. GDP of $18.6 trillion), and it’s ranked below geographically much smaller countries like Italy and South Korea. Its economy contracted sharply after the decline in oil prices, since Russia relies on oil and natural gas for most of its export revenue, and is expected to grow only 1.4 percent this year.
Russia is furthermore plagued with the problem of a declining population. In 2016, the number of deaths exceeded the number of births. At best, Russia can expect to maintain its current population of 146 million by 2050, but that number is more likely to decline and could decrease to fewer than 100 million. As Russia’s population declines, so too will its role on the world stage.
2. The Russian Hacking Story Has Been Blown Out of Proportion (and Ignores Important Context)
It’s beyond the scope of this article to review all the evidence pertaining to Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 election. Suffice it to say, Russia likely did interfere in several ways to help Trump get elected, but there is no evidence that the integrity of the actual vote was interfered with. Like it or not, nearly 63 million U.S. citizens voted for Donald Trump, and he won a majority of electors in the Electoral College, making him a legitimately elected president.
However, the media’s endless barrage of information regarding the Russia story has led many to believe that, essentially, Vladimir Putin personally installed Trump as president. A YouGov poll taken in May 2017 found that 37 percent of U.S. citizens believe that it is “definitely” or “probably” true that “Russia tampered with vote tallies in order to get Donald Trump elected President,” including 59 percent of Democrats.
Similar to the Iraq WMD story, in which the media irresponsibly parroted whatever U.S. officials were telling them (leading to a disastrous war), the media is now sensationalizing the Russia story, leading many to believe that Putin is some kind of evil mastermind intent on destroying the United States.
As usual, the context of foreign actors is ignored. Putting aside the truth of however much Russia “hacked” the election, a key question is almost never asked: Why would Putin want to do this?
If Putin favored Trump, it probably has less to do with what he represented and more to do with what Hillary Clinton represented: a continuation, if not escalation, of hostile policy toward Russia. The recent history of U.S. and Russian relations is what we should examine if we are to have a more productive policy toward Russia. Of course, none of this justifies any Russian interference in the election — but if we can at least understand Russia’s motives and the context for its actions, we can adjust policy accordingly. (It also leaves aside blatant hypocrisy on the part of the United States, which has routinely interfered in the elections of other countries, including the 1996 Russian election.)
As discussed above, Russia is a weak power compared to the United States. Despite this, the United States has been surrounding Russia with more and more military might since the end of the Cold War, causing Russia to act in antagonistic ways. A report from the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) explains Russia’s ambitions:
Putin has sought to reassert Russia as a great power on the global stage and to restructure an international order that the Kremlin believes is tilted too heavily in favor of the United States at Russia’s expense. Moscow seeks to promote a multi-polar world predicated on the principles of respect for state sovereignty and non-interference in other states’ internal affairs, the primacy of the United Nations, and a careful balance of power preventing one state or group of states from dominating the international order.
In other words, Russia does not seek to dominate the United States, but merely wants more equality in the international order. The report goes on to note that Moscow “views the United States and its NATO partners as the principle threat to Russian security” and “the Kremlin’s continued hold on power.” The DIA report explains that Russia views “the buildup of NATO military capabilities closer to the Russian border, the deployment of U.S. missile defense capabilities in Europe, and the ongoing U.S. pursuit of strategic non-nuclear precision weapon systems as a serious threat to Russian security.”
Supposedly, NATO was founded as a form of collective defense with the goal of defending its members from a Soviet attack. Unlike the Warsaw Pact, however, NATO was not disbanded after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Instead, it has expanded and now includes countries on Russia’s border — a development Russia rightfully views as threatening. (Imagine if the Warsaw Pact still existed and Russia were actively trying to add countries bordering the United States to its membership.)
NATO’s expansion to eastern Europe goes against promises the United States made to Mikhail Gorbachev during negotiations over Germany’s reunification. In return for the Soviet Union allowing a unified Germany to be part of a western alliance, policymakers in the George H.W. Bush administration told Gorbachev that NATO would not move “one inch eastward.” The broken promise has caused substantial mistrust and bitterness on Russia’s part ever since. Russian policies toward its neighbors, including Ukraine and Georgia, are in large part based on preventing NATO’s further expansion.
In Ukraine, for example, Russia considers its actions there as defensive. As international relations specialist Stephen M. Walt explains:
The Ukraine crisis did not begin with a bold Russian move or even a series of illegitimate Russian demands; it began when the United States and European Union tried to move Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit and into the West’s sphere of influence. That objective may be desirable in the abstract, but Moscow made it abundantly clear it would fight this process tooth and nail. U.S. leaders blithely ignored these warnings — which clearly stemmed from Russian insecurity rather than territorial greed — and not surprisingly they have been blindsided by Moscow’s reaction.
As Walt notes, the “solution to this crisis is for the United States and its allies to abandon the dangerous and unnecessary goal of endless NATO expansion and do whatever it takes to convince Russia that we want Ukraine to be a neutral buffer state in perpetuity.”
3. Hysteria Over Russia Increases the Risk of Nuclear War
As I have written elsewhere, the threat of nuclear war is increasing. The United States maintains an arsenal of 6,800 nuclear warheads, while Russia has an arsenal of 7,000. The two countries account for 90 percent of the world’s total stockpile of nuclear weapons. Any increase in the animosity between the United States and Russia inevitably increases the chance of armed conflict, including nuclear war. A nuclear war could begin not necessarily because any single side wants one, but because of mistakes or accidental misreading of an opponent’s intentions.
Rather than recognizing Russia’s limited security interests, many U.S. policymakers would increase the threat of nuclear war by pushing for further NATO expansion and escalating militarization in eastern Europe. The U.S. policy of “missile defense” especially exacerbates tensions.
An effective missile defense system would allow a country to shield itself from any incoming missiles. Critics claim that a working missile defense system is a pipe dream, but the real problem with missile defense is the possibility that it would work. This is because it would undermine an opposing country’s deterrent, giving the other country first-strike capability. For example, if the United States ever had a 100 percent effective missile defense system, it would have no reason to fear nuclear retaliation from Russia, giving the United States an upper hand in all circumstances.
While this may sound ideal in the abstract to some, developing and deploying current missile defense systems in eastern Europe causes Russia to take countermeasures to prevent the United States from attaining first-strike capability, worsening tensions. Thus, missile defense systems actually bring insecurity, not security. For example, after construction began on a missile defense site in Poland, Russia moved nuclear capable missiles into Kaliningrad (the small part of Russia on the Baltic Sea).
As Joe Cirincione and Tytti Erästö of the Ploughshares Fund write, “Moscow has long called for legal guarantees that the system not be directed against Russia, to no avail.” They explain that “there is no security rationale behind NATO’s current missile defense policy” and, ultimately, “missile defenses provide a false sense of security, as they invite more tensions with Russia.”
The Sane Alternative
By almost every metric, the United States is the far superior actor to Russia. When examined rationally, it is obvious that Russia is operating out of weakness, not strength. Whatever objectionable actions Moscow has taken have come from a place of insecurity. Thus, the solution is to recognize Russia’s security interests and deescalate the threat of armed conflict.
More sanctions, the continued buildup of missile defense systems, and the expansion of NATO will only back Moscow further into a corner and cause it to take countermeasures, increasing the threat of conflict. It’s time to chill about Russia.