Friday, April 15, 2016

Russian Lessons for the Next President

"Russia Policy for the Next Administration" panel at CGI
(l-r) Michael Purcell, Andrew Kuchins, Thomas Graham, Nikolai Zlobin

Washington, DC is getting ready for the election of a new President, and so think-tanks are jockeying for position to influence the incoming administration, whether Democrat or Republican. 

In that context, yesterday's Center on Global Interests panel at the City Club of Washington headlined "Russia Policy for the Next Administration" was indeed "of interest." 

An all-star troika of Russia-watchers opined on the past, present, and future of relations between the two nuclear superpowers, and it was a sobering discussion. Basically, the panel argued that American policy towards Russia--whether in the Ukraine, Syria, Europe, the Middle East, the Far East, or in relation to China--has failed. Relations are worse than at any time since the end of the Cold War. While Russia was helpful in negotiations with Iran on nuclear weapons, and Syria on chemical weapons, it has otherwise gone from strategic partner to strategic adversary, complicating American relations with the rest of the world. American "meddling" in Russian internal politics has turned the average Russian citizen, as well as the Russian government, anti-American. Russia is getting stronger, not weaker; sanctions are not stopping military re-armament; and Putin remains both popular and potent, despite American opposition. The next President, therefore, will need to re-think Russia policy in order to avoid establishment of a New World Order in which resurgent Russia and booming China are able to outperform the military and economic power of the United States. NATO expansion, which had been intended to reassure, pacify and economically strengthen Europe, has instead resulted in fear, war, and economic uncertainty. 

The experts who shared these gloomy conclusions spoke from personal experience in the corridors of power.  Harvard Ph.D. Thomas Graham was the National Security Council Russian guru from 2002-2007, and currently works for Kissinger Associates. His outlook was bleak, and offered little cause for optimism to listeners in the room. Russia may be only a regional power, but the regions involved are those which affect American national interests...and our attempted strategic partnership with Russia had failed.

Likewise, Johns Hopkins Ph.D. Andrew Kuchins, who ran the Carnegie Center in Moscow, had little sunshine to offer, other than suggestions that the US President stop insulting Vladimir Putin, and reduce attempts at interference in Russian domestic politics. Russia is no longer weak, is not badly run, and needs to be dealt with on its own terms, rather than on terms of American wishful-thinking, Kuchins seemed to say. Negotiations would have to be conducted on a basis of mutual respect, rather than domination. Russia was just not going to accept American hegemony over the former Soviet space.

The most interesting moments came during the Question and Answer session, when the audience of Washington insiders peppered the experts with tough problems. One retired intelligence analyst shouted that Russia would become a Sunni nation by 2050, that he had seen the demographic projections--both classified and unclassified. Russians were not having children, while Muslims were having large families. Therefore, Islam was the future of Russia, he maintained.

Both Graham and Kuchins seemed skeptical of these claims. Yet to me, this outburst helped to explain what otherwise has seemed a perplexing American policy toward Russia--one which appears to support Chechen terrorists, as well as other Muslim-Brotherhood affiliated groups in the former USSR. Some influential American experts obviously believe that "demography is destiny," and since Muslims have higher birthrates, pursuing a form of identity politics similar to American "diversity" program would lead to an increase in American influence. Thus, American indulgence towards those whom the Russians see as  bloodthirsty terrorists resulted in horrible public blowback when the US-supported Tsarnaev Brothers, a family brought to the United States by the CIA, blew up the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013. 

Moderator Nikolai Zlobin, himself a historian, responded quickly to the analyst, that the former Soviet Union had a larger Muslim population than post-Soviet Russia. That fact, which some in the audience did not seem to understand, spoke volumes. Russia has been dealing with Islam for hundreds of years, it is nothing new, it is an essential element of Russian history. Islam is one of the four official national religions recognized by the Russian state (the others are Judaism, Buddhism, and Russian Orthodoxy). The attempt to use Islam against Russia had been tried by the Ottoman Empire, the Germans in World War I and World War II, and the United States in the Cold War. It has failed every time, because, in the words of the famous cliche, when you scratch a Russian, you find a Tatar. Russian ideology--whether today's nationalism or yesterday's Soviet approach--was historically concerned with what Stalin called "the nationalities issue." Russification of Sunni Muslims in the Russian Empire, Soviet Union, or "near abroad" has been a consistent pattern. The Hammer and Sickle resembled an Islamic Crescent and Orthodox Cross. That American experts continue to believe in the "weaponization" of Islam against Russia--at a time when the United States and Western Europe are subjected to increasingly violent attacks in the aftermath of the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2015, struck this listener as dangerous and suicidal.

Demography is not destiny; and the trajectory of history is unknown. It may very well be that the intelligence expert is on the wrong side of history; that his demographic data will not track with ideological or national self-identification; and that Vladimir Putin has a better sense of Russia's national interest than the Islamist apologists in America's Intelligence Community--who have lost Russia, may lose Europe, and could possibly lose America if they are permitted to remain in power much longer.

Another questioner, from TANAM, a company affiliated with RUSATOM, pointed out that sanctions on Russia were hurting the American nuclear power industry, which depends on cheap, high-quality Russian nuclear fuel to run American reactors and provide cheap electricity. Panelists offered him little hope of a speedy resolution. But the point was clear: American sanctions on Russia are hurting Americans, too.

After listening to the panel presentation and audience discussion, it became clear that a Hillary Clinton Presidency could only offer more failed policies, such as the so-called "Reset," that led to the current stalemate with Russia. 

On the other hand, both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders would seem to have a good chance at developing truly new approaches to Russia. Trump, as the author of "The Art of the Deal," would be in a good position to negotiate a "new Yalta" that many Russians had asked for, after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Sanders, as a socialist who spent his honeymoon in Russia and youth on a communist Kibbutz in Israel, would understand the deep-seated motivations and history affecting the former Soviet space, and deal with Russians as equal partners--which is all they are asking, if the panelists are to believed.

The take-away: Big changes could be in store for Russian-American relations if Bernie or Donald are elected in November.