Russian president Vladimir Putin’s spokesman seemed to put it to rest the supposed love affair with President Trump with one remark.  Dimitri Peskov told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that relations between the United States and Russia are “maybe even worse” than during the Cold War.  This is not evidence of “Russian collusion.”

The problem with Russia hysteria of the last 9 months, besides no evidence, is that the scrutiny was beginning to draw too much attention to more tangible allegations of Russian collusion.  Hillary Clinton, as Secretary of State, used her office and her foundation to sell favors and influence to Russia in its quest to acquire uranium mines in the United States. It is within this context that we ponder the future of U.S., Russia relations. By future I don’t mean the next election, I mean the next generation.

National security policy is supposed to consider the state of the world in as clear-headed and sober a manner as possible. Being humans, we can’t be completely objective, but the U.S. can’t afford to act out of weakness or fear. It seems that many in the professional foreign policy establishment and pundit class can’t get past the Cold War era they imbibed in their formative years.  I’m old enough to remember living under the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction. 

We can argue until the end of time why the two super powers avoided direct conflict.  The Soviet Union and the U.S. fought each other indirectly for decades, but in 1989 the Berlin Wall and the whole Soviet edifice crumbled. The existential threat of an aggressive, nuclear-armed Communist regime evaporated seemingly overnight.  But the end of history was not to be and the Russian Bear still lurks at the edge of Europe.

More than 25 years after most of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics became the Russian Federation, Putin has gone about reclaiming bits of its crumbled empire namely Georgia’s South Ossetia, the Crimea, and a stretch of eastern Ukraine. Dissidents and businessmen have been murdered or jailed. Europe is threatened with the shutoff of much its energy supply.

This is Putin’s Bear, irritable and hungry. The Russian Federation has had only three presidents and two of them are Putin. Medvedev’s term was only a placeholder until Putin could resume power. Let’s stipulate from the start that Putin is a killer and a thug. Now what? This description unfortunately describes far too many of the world’s leaders, including China’s Xi Jinping.

Chinese security is aided by Google in tracking down free speech dissidents and then harvests their organs for sale on the international market.  It’s well past time to stop pretending China is anything other than a red fascist state with which we’ve chosen to have strong commercial ties. The George H.W. Bush administration argued that economic engagement would open China up and introduce a new era of political and personal freedom to the Middle Kingdom.  In the quarter of a century that has elapsed, it hasn’t happened. 

Anything you can say about Putin’s Russia you can say about Xi’s China — and often much worse, reportedly harvesting the organs of political prisoners for sale on the global black market.  The regime has also coopted Silicon Valley to help track down dissidents on the Internet.  (Under Xi, China continues to use North Korea as its junkyard dog to tie up the U.S. as it builds a string of military outposts in disputed waters in the South China Sea and gains a foothold in the Horn of Africa.

The biggest threat the U.S. is likely to face in the medium and long term is a China increasingly willing to assert its growing military power.  It’s important to note that this could happen because of China’s soft economy that can’t continue to grow as it did over last decade.  China’s young men will need an outlet that their economy and their society, because of a shortage of young women, won’t be able to provide. Picking fights with Taiwan, the Philippines, Japan and the U.S. will be preferable to confronting a restless population at home.

Although Putin has pursued stronger ties with China with some success, this doesn’t mean there are not policies the U.S. can pursue to complicate and degrade their relationship.  Sino-Russian relations have historically been poor, and the U.S. should work to convince Russia that China would not be a reliable partner going forward.  Putin only has to look at the duplicitous way China has treated the U.S. even though the countries have strong economic ties. Russia can’t expect better from China given the historical tensions and the close proximity of the two nations.  Russia could be a helpful bulwark against an expansionist China.

U.S. foreign policy makers cannot afford to be bogged down by an obsession with Putin, elevating him to a bogeyman, hiding under our beds.  The hyperventilating from some in the establishment about the threat Russia poses has a bit of a Cold War hysteria quality to it that does not bear close examination.  It is particularly strange, since as recently as the end of 2016 President Obama himself publicly dismissed Russia’s ability to alter or even influence a U.S. election. His State Department under Hillary Clinton pushed the farcical “reset” with Putin and signed off on Russian control of some U.S. uranium mines and acquiesced to Russia’s aggression toward its neighbors.  The Obama administration’s hands-off, leading from behind approach to the Global War on Terror invited Putin’s strategic move into Syria to prop up the Assad regime in the face of a devastating civil war.

The promise of President Trump’s foreign policy is the opportunity to cajole, convince, scold and seduce Putin to behave more responsibly in general, and to behave in a way that benefits the U.S. and Russia in relation to China in particular. This would take a certain amount of dexterity because while the U.S. should pursue better relations with Russia, Putin as dictator for life, is not in the U.S. interest. The groundwork needs to be laid now to encourage his exit from the world stage sooner rather than later.  Russia can never become a true republic instead of a dictatorship if Putin is allowed to keep power just because he wants to.

Despite Putin’s bare-chested swagger, Russia is vulnerable, perhaps even fatally so. Its declining population, limited economy, dependence on oil and gas in the era of fracking-driven price declines, and oppressive government represent challenges Russia is ill-equipped to resolve.  While Putin and perhaps Russia itself will never be a close ally of the U.S., it should be possible to craft a course that allows for the two countries to be strategic partners when possible and strategic competitors only when necessary.

Russian president Vladimir Putin’s spokesman seemed to put it to rest the supposed love affair with President Trump with one remark.  Dimitri Peskov told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that relations between the United States and Russia are “maybe even worse” than during the Cold War.  This is not evidence of “Russian collusion.”

The problem with Russia hysteria of the last 9 months, besides no evidence, is that the scrutiny was beginning to draw too much attention to more tangible allegations of Russian collusion.  Hillary Clinton, as Secretary of State, used her office and her foundation to sell favors and influence to Russia in its quest to acquire uranium mines in the United States. It is within this context that we ponder the future of U.S., Russia relations. By future I don’t mean the next election, I mean the next generation.

National security policy is supposed to consider the state of the world in as clear-headed and sober a manner as possible. Being humans, we can’t be completely objective, but the U.S. can’t afford to act out of weakness or fear. It seems that many in the professional foreign policy establishment and pundit class can’t get past the Cold War era they imbibed in their formative years.  I’m old enough to remember living under the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction. 

We can argue until the end of time why the two super powers avoided direct conflict.  The Soviet Union and the U.S. fought each other indirectly for decades, but in 1989 the Berlin Wall and the whole Soviet edifice crumbled. The existential threat of an aggressive, nuclear-armed Communist regime evaporated seemingly overnight.  But the end of history was not to be and the Russian Bear still lurks at the edge of Europe.

More than 25 years after most of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics became the Russian Federation, Putin has gone about reclaiming bits of its crumbled empire namely Georgia’s South Ossetia, the Crimea, and a stretch of eastern Ukraine. Dissidents and businessmen have been murdered or jailed. Europe is threatened with the shutoff of much its energy supply.

This is Putin’s Bear, irritable and hungry. The Russian Federation has had only three presidents and two of them are Putin. Medvedev’s term was only a placeholder until Putin could resume power. Let’s stipulate from the start that Putin is a killer and a thug. Now what? This description unfortunately describes far too many of the world’s leaders, including China’s Xi Jinping.

Chinese security is aided by Google in tracking down free speech dissidents and then harvests their organs for sale on the international market.  It’s well past time to stop pretending China is anything other than a red fascist state with which we’ve chosen to have strong commercial ties. The George H.W. Bush administration argued that economic engagement would open China up and introduce a new era of political and personal freedom to the Middle Kingdom.  In the quarter of a century that has elapsed, it hasn’t happened. 

Anything you can say about Putin’s Russia you can say about Xi’s China — and often much worse, reportedly harvesting the organs of political prisoners for sale on the global black market.  The regime has also coopted Silicon Valley to help track down dissidents on the Internet.  (Under Xi, China continues to use North Korea as its junkyard dog to tie up the U.S. as it builds a string of military outposts in disputed waters in the South China Sea and gains a foothold in the Horn of Africa.

The biggest threat the U.S. is likely to face in the medium and long term is a China increasingly willing to assert its growing military power.  It’s important to note that this could happen because of China’s soft economy that can’t continue to grow as it did over last decade.  China’s young men will need an outlet that their economy and their society, because of a shortage of young women, won’t be able to provide. Picking fights with Taiwan, the Philippines, Japan and the U.S. will be preferable to confronting a restless population at home.

Although Putin has pursued stronger ties with China with some success, this doesn’t mean there are not policies the U.S. can pursue to complicate and degrade their relationship.  Sino-Russian relations have historically been poor, and the U.S. should work to convince Russia that China would not be a reliable partner going forward.  Putin only has to look at the duplicitous way China has treated the U.S. even though the countries have strong economic ties. Russia can’t expect better from China given the historical tensions and the close proximity of the two nations.  Russia could be a helpful bulwark against an expansionist China.

U.S. foreign policy makers cannot afford to be bogged down by an obsession with Putin, elevating him to a bogeyman, hiding under our beds.  The hyperventilating from some in the establishment about the threat Russia poses has a bit of a Cold War hysteria quality to it that does not bear close examination.  It is particularly strange, since as recently as the end of 2016 President Obama himself publicly dismissed Russia’s ability to alter or even influence a U.S. election. His State Department under Hillary Clinton pushed the farcical “reset” with Putin and signed off on Russian control of some U.S. uranium mines and acquiesced to Russia’s aggression toward its neighbors.  The Obama administration’s hands-off, leading from behind approach to the Global War on Terror invited Putin’s strategic move into Syria to prop up the Assad regime in the face of a devastating civil war.

The promise of President Trump’s foreign policy is the opportunity to cajole, convince, scold and seduce Putin to behave more responsibly in general, and to behave in a way that benefits the U.S. and Russia in relation to China in particular. This would take a certain amount of dexterity because while the U.S. should pursue better relations with Russia, Putin as dictator for life, is not in the U.S. interest. The groundwork needs to be laid now to encourage his exit from the world stage sooner rather than later.  Russia can never become a true republic instead of a dictatorship if Putin is allowed to keep power just because he wants to.

Despite Putin’s bare-chested swagger, Russia is vulnerable, perhaps even fatally so. Its declining population, limited economy, dependence on oil and gas in the era of fracking-driven price declines, and oppressive government represent challenges Russia is ill-equipped to resolve.  While Putin and perhaps Russia itself will never be a close ally of the U.S., it should be possible to craft a course that allows for the two countries to be strategic partners when possible and strategic competitors only when necessary.



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