4. 4. 2022
8 minute reading time
- Naivety is never a good way to meet foreign policy challenges. However, any new US administration assumes that the inability to deal effectively with Russia is the fault of a former resident of the West Wing of the White House, written by John Sipher and Steven L. Hall.
Each president believes that he himself has the power to solve problems that none of his predecessors could solve. Likewise, critics in Congress think there must be something the US and Russia can work on together. However, until there is a fundamental change in the Kremlin, these efforts will continue to be undermined by the fact that Russia’s main interests are fundamentally different from ours.
This trend is not limited to presidents. The day after 9/11, senior CIA counterterrorism officials briefed President Bush at the White House. He was assured that the world had changed and that the Russians would be key allies in the fight against al-Qaeda. The next day, CIA Director George Tenet came to those of us who ran the CIA’s Russian program, asking for more material to provide the White House with the help we could expect from the Russians.
We didn’t know that the subject of Russia had come up at the White House, we were speechless with astonishment. Those of us who have worked on Russian issues for years knew that it was impossible for the Russians to become true allies. Indeed, Putin quickly took advantage of this to justify his internal repression against Islamists in Russia. We quickly contrasted President Bush’s “Global War on Terror” against Putin’s version of what we called the Chechen Global War on Terror. They even cynically added the names of CIA officers, Russian dissidents and other enemies of Putin’s regime to “they shared with their partners around the world.
So, while it’s fair to call the Obama administration’s policy toward Russia a failure, it’s hard to see how it could have been otherwise. Bush’s policy has also failed, and it is hard to imagine that a president will be more likely to pursue a policy largely dependent on reorganization into a friendly and cooperative regime while Putin is in power. Putin’s core interests are directly opposed to ours, and he has identified himself as the leader of the global anti-American. movement. Without a shift in our values and a surrender to Putin’s worldview, no US administration is likely to significantly change Russian behavior.
Syria is a prime example of Putin pursuing his goals on the world stage at the expense of the United States. Russia’s main interest in Syria is to show the world that Russia is a superpower. Putin is keen to point out that where the United States has failed, Russia is doing well. Although it could be argued that Russia is acting in Syria to maintain a hot sea base in the port of Tartous, this is a trifle for Putin. Instead, his real goal is to invade the United States whenever possible. Unfortunately, the Obama administration has become active when it has not played an active role in Syria, leaving Putin with a tactical opportunity to take advantage of it. President Obama’s belief that Putin will stumble in Syria may still be fulfilled, but in the meantime Russia appears authoritative and strong on the world stage. It’s a victory for Putin. And while Russia’s indiscriminate bombing and destruction of hospitals creates a humanitarian crisis, the Kremlin cynically responds by saying it is killing “terrorists”.
While Putin and Trump share a zero-sum chauvinist worldview and show an interest in working together, a better personal relationship will not last. Former KGB officer Putin tried to use Trump’s ego to manipulate him, as he had with previous presidents. He must keep the United States as an enemy of his own people. If they stop blaming the United States for all their ills, they might start blaming Putin himself instead. Similarly, Russia has long tended to treat its neighbors as enemies or vassals. The Kremlin sees the United States as an existential threat and believes that American support for democratic principles is in fact a covert attempt to change the regime in Moscow.
It is also almost inevitable that Russia will once again show its true colors and destroy any goodwill engendered by the new White House. The institutionalized use of lies and deception will make it nearly impossible for any US president to build a healthy and functioning relationship with Putin’s regime. Recent reports have highlighted Russian efforts to wreak havoc in Europe through a relentless campaign of disinformation, the direct takeover of Crimea and eastern Ukraine, the bombing of hospitals and civilians in Syria, the murders of journalists and opposition figures, constant espionage and cyber theft, state-sponsored Olympic doping and civilian air. Even Russian Paralympians were barred from competing due to systematic state-sponsored cheating.
It’s hard for Americans to accept the fact that we can’t just change things for the better. There are elements of an American nature that have helped us gain popularity around the world, but that make it difficult to maintain a consistent foreign policy approach to states like Russia.
American innocence was born of living in a country protected by two oceans and friendly neighbors. Most Americans don’t care much about other countries. We have a happy naivety and a sense of optimism that we can solve any problem if we pay attention. We tend to think the best of others and believe things will work out. One of the successes of Russian foreign policy is the Kremlin’s ability to cynically take advantage of this American optimism, often pretending initially to support American initiatives, only to eventually twist circumstances in favor of its goals, leaving the United States seemingly defeated.
We also personalize foreign policy. No matter how bad things get, every new president tends to think that lingering problems are their predecessor’s fault and that their unique blend of skills and personality can turn things around for the better. Of course, this is not just about presidents. At the CIA, we called it the “didn’t see me” syndrome. Each new director seemed convinced that their unique abilities and winning personality could fix a difficult relationship with Pakistan. Every director tried and they all failed. It’s the same with Russia. People in many executive agencies and throughout Congress inevitably say something like, “There’s definitely something we can work more closely with the Russians.” In return, the Kremlin regularly uses this curious viewpoint and consistently pursues a zero-sum policy toward the United States. Anything bad for America is good for Russia.
If possible, the president should try to avoid the mistakes of his predecessors. Experience has taught us that Russia does not share Western and internationalist values and that Putin’s interests will not change just because there is a new tenant in the White House. Also, the new president should not fall victim to the idea that Russia is a country on the rise and that the United States must adapt to the new reality. Russia has a weak economy, few friends and little positive to offer the world. The West still holds most of the cards, although Putin has gained short-term tactical advantages from the maneuverability of a one-man state. A consistent US policy of supporting our allies and defending our values is something that Russia cannot overcome in the long term. How in New York Times said former US diplomat and Russian expert Stephen Sestanovich, “The key to earning Mr. Putin’s respect – and ensuring his restraint – is to leave no doubt about the military, economic and diplomatic might of the United States.”
Full text in English: HERE