It felt like I had stumbled into some weird kind of time warp yesterday morning as I was making coffee and listening to NPR’s “Morning Edition.” There was Cokie Roberts being interviewed about the current mass media obsession — the alleged hacking of the Democratic National Committee server by Russia, and President-elect Donald Trump’s refusal to accept the evidence-free claims of the Democratic political appointees heading the nation’s intel agencies that the the hack “definitely” happened.
Cokie bemoaned Trump’s dissing of the intel agencies and also his stated desire to develop friendly relations with Russia, saying, “This country has had a consistent policy for 70 years towards the Soviet Union and Russia, and Trump is trying to undo that.”
Think about that for a moment. On one level, the long-time NPR commentator is right: US policy towards the government in Moscow has been remarkably consistent — and hostile — for 70 years, albeit with a few brief periods of at least relative friendliness, as during the early and mid 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But that gets to the other point: There was, recall, a fundamental change that happened in 1989-90, when the Communist state founded in the Russian Revolution of 1917 collapsed, and the Soviet Union splintered into Russia and a bunch of smaller countries — former Soviets in the old empire — including Byelorussia, Ukraine, Georgia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and a bunch of stans in Central Asia.
The real question is, once the USSR ceased to exist and Russia, a rump country that, while geographically the largest in the world, is less than half the size of the US in population, found itself struggling to restructure it’s centralized state-owned economy into a modern capitalist one, shouldn’t the US have changed it’s “consistent policy” of hostility towards what remained of the old Soviet Union — particularly as Russia was no longer communist?
Instead of actively helping Russia recover, the US urged on President Boris Yeltsin a destructive “economic shock therapy” program of balanced budgets, open borders for imports and investment and, most importantly, a sell-off of state assets that quickly enabled corrupt former commissars to transform themselves into insanely wealthy new capitalist oligarchs.
While Russians struggled to survive through a period of rampant inflation, economic collapse and epic corruption, the US, instead of lending a helping hand as it had to the collapsed countries of Europe and after World War II (including our former bitter enemies, Germany and also Japan in Asia,), Washington under the Clinton administration began a program of aggressively and threateningly expanding the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (a Cold War relic of an outdated containment policy which should have, like the Warsaw Pact, been mercifully disbanded), forcing an economically strapped Russia to respond by still spending precious resources on restoring its hollowed out military.
Yes, there has been a 70-year consistent policy of hostility towards Russia, not to mention unremitting anti-Russian propaganda in the US, as Roberts says, but that’s because foreign policy in the US has been in the grip of a Republican-Democrat bi-partisan consensus that argues that the US must work to maintain absolute military superiority over all real and potential rivals, forever. And that consensus views Russia as a major potential threat to that superiority.
That’s why we have a military budget of $600 billion, nearly three times as much China ($215 billion, much of that for domestic control purposes), another country that poses no threat to the US, and as all the rest of the world spends, while Russia’s budget is just 11 percent of that amount at $66 billion, ranking it behind third-ranked Saudi Arabia ($87 billion).
While Obama Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and others in the Washington elite maintain that Russia poses an “existential threat” to the US, presumably because of the number of nuclear missiles it maintains, it’s important to note that Russia has those missiles because the US has a similar number, most of them pointed at Russia–the main difference being that the US has many of its nuclear-tipped missiles located just minutes away from Russia at sites in Eastern Europe, while Russia’s nukes are all on its own territory, thousands of miles and at least a half-hour’s flight away from the US mainland — a difference that means one country, the US, has the ability to launch a first strike and take out the other country’s ability to respond to an attack, while the other has no ability to make such a first-strike threat.
This is all by way of getting to a larger point. The hysteria about Russian hacking of the US election — an action which while it might have happened, is by no means proven — is a meaningless diversion, because there is no evidence at all that Russia is an aggressive nation. While the US is moving Abrams battle tanks and nuclear-capable mobil artillery up close to the Russian border in the waning days of the Obama administration, forcing Russia to respond by beefing up its own national border defenses, no one could argue seriously that Russia and its leader Vladimir Putin, have any interest whatsoever in invading any country of Europe, however small and weak.
What possible advantage could come to Russia from such an action? Even if Russia could succeed in invading Poland and grabbing a piece of that country, or invading one of the Baltic countries that were former Soviets, such an action would make developing trade relations with the rest of Europe impossible, and would force Russia to engage in a costly occupation which it can ill afford.
Why, one has to ask, would Russia be building, with up to $100 billion in Chinese financing, a bunch of super high-speed rail lines from eastern China and eastern Siberia all the way to rail hubs in Germany and other European countries, to facilitate vastly expanded trade overland, if it were also secretly planning to conquer and occupy parts of Europe again, as it did in the pre-1990 era?
A cynic — or realist — might suspect that it is precisely this goal of economic integration of Europe and Asia, with Russia at the center, which lies at the root of US antipathy and hostility towards both Russia and China. If the US continues to cling to the insane, megalomaniacal idea of maintaining strategic dominance — military and economic — at all costs over all current and potential rivals around the globe, there is a certain logic to trying to ruin this grand plan for economic convergence on the Eurasian continent.
But let’s at least demand honesty about it.
Donald Trump has said, famously, that people who say the US should not be trying to develop friendly relations with Russia are “stupid.” He might not be eloquent, but he is absolutely correct.
Some of my liberal friends, who have drunk the Kool-Aid of anti-Russia hysteria, argue that the US should not even contemplate acting friendly towards Russia and its leader President Putin. As one put it, “We certainly at least must be in agreement that Putin’s cruel kelpto-capitalist-KGB rule has harmed tens of millions of innocents in the former USSR, no?”
Well, actually, no, we are not in agreement. Where do otherwise intelligent liberal-minded people get these tales of Putin evil? Nobody’s saying that he is a Jeffersonian democrat, but let’s at least get the history right. The “harm to tens of millions in the former USSR” and in Russia proper was done not during Putin’s tenure but during the first decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, between 1989 and 1999. That was when the entire Soviet Union was strip-mined by former Communist apparatchiks who enriched themselves by cutting deals to take over former state assets at fire-sale prices, or for nothing, robbing the Russian people, and the workers in those former state enterprises blind. The US encouraged this process, and Boris Yeltsin, a notorious drunk, oversaw it for two terms as Russia’s president. Vladimir Putin began his rise to power in 1999 when Yeltsin made him prime minister before suddenly resigning the presidency on New Year’s Day 1999.
GDP during Boris Yeltsin’s catastrophic first term as head of the new post Soviet Russian state collapsed by 40% between 1991 and 1996 — a worse disaster than the US Great Depression. By 1997, Russia, a huge agricultural producer, was importing one-third of its food. Nothing improved during Yeltsin’s second term, with GDP remaining flat through 1999. Remember, most of the ‘90s was a period of economic boom throughout the rest of the world, meaning that Russia, even standing still, was losing ground to everyone else.
As the British newspaper the Guardian, points out, in a way that you will be hard-pressed to find reported honestly in the US corporate media, Putin, during his decade and a half of running Russia, rebuilt the Russian economy, improved the lives of average Russians immensely, and equally importantly, restored a once great nation from the status of global basket case to a major international power again. Not surprisingly, he is now one of the world’s most popular leaders.
While wild swings in the exchange value of the Russian ruble vs. the US dollar make the figures a little squishy, Russian GDP in 1999, when Putin took over the government, was $196 billion, and rose to over $2 trillion in 2011, hitting a record $2.2 trillion in 2013. With oil and gas exports central to Russian international trade, the crash in oil prices in 2015 knocked Russia’s GDP back down to $1.3 trillion, but it needs to be pointed out that for most Russians, who primarily buy goods from food to clothing to housing on the domestic market, unaffected by exchange rates, this has had little impact on their standard of living, only raising the cost of imported goods. Without question, in the view of most Russians, Putin has done a good job of managing the Russian economy.
That’s not to say he can’t act in an autocratic manner. Laws that make defaming politicians a crime, required registration and adherence to governement regulation for media sites that receive more than 3000 hits a day, prosecution of critics of Russia’s Ukraine policy (for example the banning of reports on Russian casualties, and sometimes violent harassment of critical journalists, show how he has weakened the constitutional protection of freedom of the press, and certainly Putin’s policy on gay rights is troglodyte, but that begs the question: even if he were a true autocrat, when has a country’s being headed by an autocratic leader or even a tyrant deterred the US from having friendly relations with it? There’s no room in this article to run a list, but let’s just mention the Shah of Iran, the Chilean military-dictator Augusto Pinochet, the Brazilian and Argentine juntas in 1964 and 1976, Salazar and Franco in Portugal and Spain, and then the dictatorships in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and other countries of the Middle East. In comparison to these disturbing examples of American “friends,” Putin seems absolutely a paragon of democratic values. (Besides we live in a country here where the government spies on everyone, the CIA maintains “assets” in major US media, the president has the power to arrest, imprison and kill American citizens, without even reporting his actions, on his own authority, and has been locking up whistleblowers for revealing state crimes to the press, all of which would qualify as the actions of a dictator, so where do we really get off criticizing Putin?)
In any event, let’s hope that the mostly liberal Democrats who are being taken in by the media-induced hysteria over an imagined Russian plot to destroy American democracy and to ensconce a Manchurian-candidate Donald Trump in the White House, will come to their senses soon. There are myriad reasons to organize resistance to Donald Trump as we head into a very challenging four years of reactionary Republican control of all the levers of power in Washington, but fear of Russian control over our next president isn’t one of them. In fact, let’s hope that he at least makes good on that one campaign promise to improve US relations with Russia!
Honestly, we just went through eight years of insane non-stop Republican paranoia claiming the Barack Obama was a secret Muslim plant in the White House, or a secret Communist, or, incredibly, both. Some even thought that he was a secret fascist too! We on the left, including liberal Dems, used to laugh at the naive inanity of it all. Yet now, how different are the liberal Democrats who are breathlessly claiming that this new president is a puppet, wittingly or unwittingly, of the evil Russian puppetmaster Vladimir Putin?