With the final stretch of the U.S. presidential elections upon us, Russia’s challenge in Syria has rapidly developed into a centerpiece of the foreign policy debate. The candidates need to formulate a clear vision of how to deal with Moscow.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has played a weak hand impressively. His nation’s economy is just a fraction of the United States’ 2016 gross domestic product of nearly $18 trillion; crucial components of its high-tech military are imported; and Russia has not projected power this far abroad since its withdrawal from Afghanistan, Cuba, and Vietnam at the end of the Cold War. (The Georgia war of 2008 and the Ukraine war of 2014 were within the borders of the former Soviet Union.)
Nevertheless, today Russia is giving the United States a run for its money: alleged cyberattacks against the Democratic National Committee; WikiLeaks interventions in the U.S. election campaign that rival Watergate; and the abrogation of crucial treaties, such as Conventional Forces in Europe.
We are witnessing the dismantling of the very foundations of U.S.-Russia relations that were laid down during the Soviet era, including arms control and nuclear non-proliferation -- the recent plutonium recycling treaty being the latest victim.
Russia's violent return to the Middle East should also be cause for concern. In an unprecedented move, Russia deployed, for a limited time, bombers in Iran, and it has put pressure on Saudi Arabia in hopes that the Kingdom will cap oil production -- to fill Moscow’s coffers.
Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump must understand the challenge facing America. Russia is an imperial people with an elite to match, all of them saddled with an inferiority complex, a long list of bitter yet often imaginary complaints, and a vast nuclear arsenal.
Imperial Phantom Pains
This dangerous condition did not start under the Obama administration. Putin’s 2007 Munich speech succinctly spelled out the beef.
The 2008 Georgian war provided a preview of what was coming: the use of force to stop NATO expansion and punish American allies. Then came the “Medvedev Doctrine”: protection of co-ethnics (Russian speakers) wherever Moscow perceives they may be threatened.
In 2014 that doctrine bore poisoned fruit in Eastern Ukraine when Crimea was occupied and annexed outright. Russia is destroying the security system in Europe that resulted from the American and Soviet victory in World War II and the European borders that were codified in the 1975 Helsinki Accords.
These are no longer sacrosanct. Russia wants to act outside of the accepted international legal framework. Yet, the challenge to the United States is not just geopolitical. It is also ideological.
After communism, the darkest wing of the Russian Orthodox Church gained increasing influence and began to articulate a shrill anti-Catholic and anti-Protestant agenda. Russia is one of the few countries that has refused to welcome the Pope.
Meanwhile, the ghosts of two murderous tyrants, Joseph Stalin and Ivan the Terrible, are being called back in today’s Russia, championed by the ministers of culture and education. Stalin, exposed for his mass murder of more than 20 million people, is now hailed with portraits and monuments. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, formerly denounced by Russia, has now been exonerated.
In a macabre twist, the mass murderer and sadist, Ivan IV, is now being feted with monuments. Ivan, a 16th century vampire of a czar, murdered his son, his wife, and his grandson. He conquered three democratic Russian city-states, and piled bodies high enough to block the river Volkhov. He slaughtered the Tatars in Kazan, their capital.
He later launched a failed war with Poland and Sweden, bankrupting the treasury and depopulating his own realm. The results of his rule were civil war, a Polish invasion, and the end of his dynasty.
Most importantly for Ivan the Terrible’s fans, he pioneered the rule of terror by secret police, the oprichnina, something that Stalin later emulated. The revival of these dictators bodes ill for the Russians, where internal crackdowns always go hand in hand with foreign adventures.
Clinton and Trump need to realize that what we are seeing in Russia now is not just anti-Americanism, but an attempt to turn back 300 years of Westernization, which started under Peter the Great and continued even under communism. To confront a resurgent Russia, the next president needs to prevent Moscow from gaining a victory in Syria. The United States needs to clarify that cooperation in Syria means fighting ISIS and al-Qaeda -- not saving Syrian President Bashar Assad. A long-term Russian presence in Syria will only further enable Iran across the region, and will also destabilize America’s Sunni Arab allies and Israel.
Washington should work with Germany toward expanding sanctions on the Russian military industrial complex, including exports of dual-use Western technologies to Russia. It should likewise push for greater German military expenditures and a more prominent role for Germany in NATO and European security, and lobby Berlin to halt the gas-exporting Nord Stream 2 pipeline project.
The next president should ensure that Russia reverses its global challenge against the United States and the West. Moscow should fully implement the Minsk II agreement on Ukraine, stop its military buildup, and fully cooperate in Syria. Only then can the sanctions on Russia be lifted -- and only then can relations improve, to the benefit of both sides.