On Russia

Reminder: The World Affairs Council hosts a town hall meeting on Tuesday, January 17th with Dr. Mark Katz of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute to discuss “US-Russian Relations: From Obama to Trump.” Join us for this timely and insightful conversation, moderated by The Tennessean’s David Plazas.

Details/RSVP Here

TODAY we are pleased to share an op-ed written by World Affairs Council President Patrick W. Ryan providing background and context for understanding the current challenges facing the US in its relationship with Russia and setting the scene for our town hall brief Tuesday with Dr. Katz. The World Affairs Council thanks The Tennessean for sharing the op-ed, a shorter version of which appeared today and is online at: LINK


On Russia
by Patrick W. Ryan

As the United States sought to come to terms with its ally the Soviet Union in the aftermath of World War II, America’s senior diplomat in Moscow, George Kennan, published the famous “long telegram” in the journal “Foreign Affairs.” He argued the “policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of a long-term patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies,” a policy that was adopted and served the West until the USSR melted down 25 years ago.

In the intervening years America and its allies fought a political, ideological, economic and military competition with the Soviet Union and its obedient satellite countries, a Cold War that occasionally turned hot – directly and through proxies – in places like Berlin, the Korean Peninsula, Cuba, Southeast Asia, Afghanistan and Central America. The persistent threat of invasion and conflict in Western Europe and global nuclear war consumed strategic thinking, economic resources and national resolve. In the end Kennan’s theory of “containment” wore down Soviet communism, a system that had rotted from the inside out.

Near the Cold War’s end a colonel in the Soviet Intelligence Service, the KGB, finished his posting in East Germany and was off to a Leningrad university to teach international relations. Vladimir Putin would later say, in a 2005 state of the nation address when he was President of the Russian Federation, “We should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century.” He said, “Tens of millions of our co-citizens and co-patriots found themselves outside Russian territory … the epidemic of disintegration infected Russia itself.”

The buffer between Mother Russia and European powers, a source of existential threats to the Empire over the centuries was gone. Former Warsaw Pact central Europe countries slipped from the Soviet yoke and fled, figuratively, to prospects of prosperity in the European Union and security in the NATO alliance. Former Soviet Republics cast off to find their own identities.

The West was the Cold War victor but chose not to gloat. Instead wise leaders worked to integrate Moscow into global international financial bodies, welcomed officials and technocrats into opportunities on how to build a free enterprise system and hosted young students from Russia and other former republics at Western universities to build bridges and educate a new generation. States like Kazakhstan were denuclearized and nuclear materials were cleaned up in joint US-Russian projects. The new partners moved forward on a broad network of cooperative arrangements, not least of them the International Space Station, agreement at the UN to reverse Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and work together to end war in the Balkans. President George H.W. Bush had called the post-Cold War great power cooperation a “new world order.”

Meanwhile domestic developments in the Russian Federation were anything but smooth as a centralized state economy was broken up and abruptly cast into the maelstrom of the market. Privatization of state industries and properties led to the rise of powerful, suddenly wealthy obligarchs accompanied by a rise of nationalism. Resentment in some quarters over humiliation by the West – products of the USSR breakup, resistance to integration in the Euro-Atlantic system, Eastern Europe expansion of NATO and the EU – and the rise of Putin, the former KGB colonel, became the roots of friction.

More recently Russia under Putin’s leadership has experienced economic troubles, in no small part due to the precipitous decline in global energy supplies – oil and gas exports being Russia’s principal external revenue stream. Russian foreign policy turned its focus on the “near abroad,” its neighbors that served as security buffers and economic appendages. It found the internal conflict in Ukraine irresistible and its involvement eventually led to annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region and support of militias in the country’s east. Western sanctions already in place over human rights issues like the US Magnitsky Act were significantly strengthen by the Washington and joined by the EU in reaction to Moscow’s Ukraine aggression.

So, are we in a new Cold War? That question was put to Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak when he spoke to a Tennessee World Affairs Council town hall at Belmont University early last year. He answered, “With full conviction, no, we are not” and offered, “There is no basis for a Cold War,” saying the past was dominated by ideological differences which no longer exist. As 2016 wore on however, sentiments and assessments were evolving. By October a former Russian defense official and think tank head, Lt Gen Evgeny Buzhinsky, told Britain’s The Telegraph, “If we talk about the last Cold War, we are currently somewhere between the erection of the Berlin Wall and the Cuban Missile crisis,” adding, “In other words, teetering on the brink of war, but without the mechanisms to manage the confrontation.”

Talk of military confrontation with arguably the only power whose nuclear arsenal holds the American homeland at existential risk may come as a surprise. The slippery slope from cooperation to confrontation with Russia has come amid numerous distractions for the public, especially in this presidential election year. When attention was to be paid to Washington-Moscow relations it was on the topic of cyber warfare and disinformation campaigns. However, in reality the confrontation is broader and, without downplaying the outrageousness of election interference, more serious than hacked emails or “fake news.” On top of earlier irritants: Russian nuclear capable ballistic missiles have been deployed to the Kaliningrad enclave between the Baltic states and Poland, NATO forces including 4,000 American troops are moving into Eastern Europe to deter Russian aggression, Moscow has gained firm ground in the Middle East through its new Syrian/Iranian axis and there’s no signs of a change of course in the Ukraine meddling.

Fast forward to November 9th and the man who wasn’t to be the winner, if you trusted the polls. President-elect Donald Trump not only surprised the odds-makers but also astonished the American national security elites, especially in his own party with his approach to Moscow. He has forcefully championed a closer relationship with President Putin than would seem appropriate at this juncture in the American-Russian relationship. The curious connections [Trump praising Putin’s smarts?], sometimes called a “bromance,” between Trump and Putin may open a new chapter in the great power balance despite the facts on the ground.

Any change in the state of play faces obstacles says Dr. Mark Katz who notes that deal making for Trump is not a unilateral affair. Katz, of the Wilson Center Kennan Institute said Trump must bring along Western allies and the American Congress and public. Recently writing in LobeLog he said of these obstacles, they “constrain Trump from conceding too much and to point out any instance when they see him allowing Putin to concede too little.” He said, “In short: Russian interference in the recent presidential elections, and Trump’s effort to dismiss concerns about it, will only serve to increase the already considerable obstacles to improving Russian-American relations.”

The questions that Dr. Katz poses and the questions we all have about the future of this critical global-strategic relationship will be addressed when he speaks to Nashvillians on Tuesday, January 17, at a World Affairs Council town hall hosted at Belmont University. [Details at TNWAC.org]


Patrick W. Ryan served as a submariner and intelligence officer during a U.S. Navy career at the height of the “Cold War.” He is founding President of the Tennessee World Affairs Council.

The Tennessee World Affairs Council is a nonprofit (501c3), nonpartisan educational charity based in Nashville that works to build understanding of global issues in our communities. Learn more about the Council and find how you can join, donate and volunteer at: www.TNWAC.org  — Join / Donate / Volunteer

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