Russia’s leaders are flawed, inclined toward violence, and covetous of power—but this doesn’t make them much different from the leaders of every other nation-state…

Putin mussomeliOn March 10, 2014, American ambassadors from across the globe descended on Washington for our annual conference: a few days to forget about the day-to-day hassles of running embassies and coping with irate host governments, and a chance to share big thoughts and ideas about where we as a country should be going. On the third day, the main speaker began her talk with all the moral indignation and self-righteousness that should have made seasoned diplomats wince. Almost the first words uttered were to characterize the situation in Ukraine as a “classic Manichean struggle between absolute good and absolute evil.” I started to laugh, but a quick look around the room dispelled any thought that others might be sharing in the absurdity of the assertion. Instead, everyone was nodding their heads solicitously, and then shaking them dourly, as the litany of Russian transgressions was chronicled. An image of cattle in a meadow lowing contentedly while chewing their cud came to mind. They understood their marching orders: We were wearing the white hats and those Russians were wearing black hats that matched their twisted, blackened hearts. Only a week later this self-fulfilling prophecy seemed validated as Russia moved to annex Crimea.

We should not expect our political leaders or our media to view foreign policy concerns in too complex or nuanced a manner. Votes and audiences, after all, are generally garnered where simple themes and stark contrasts between us and our adversaries are most pronounced. But from our diplomats we should expect better. It is a sad irony that the hiring process for being selected into America’s diplomatic corps (the Foreign Service) has arguably the most intellectually rigorous standards of any government institution. The vetting process is designed not only to favor those with broad knowledge of current events and history, but also to weed out those who are incapable of complex analysis and whose minds are rigid and inflexible. For example, if a candidate were asked to write an essay on the causes of World War I, she would likely be rejected if her analysis only focused on the hegemonic designs of the German Empire and the “bloodthirstiness” of the Kaiser, and ignored the roles France and Great Britain played in precipitating the war. Yet, once one becomes a diplomat all that natural ability to think deeply and see problems from all perspectives can be a serious impediment to career advancement whenever higher level policymakers have made a decision about who are the “bad guys” in any given international situation. Once battle lines are drawn, the herd instinct is triggered and most of those thoughtful, mentally flexible diplomats reflexively see crises in stark black and white terms. And there is no better example of this distressing phenomenon than the desire to foster a new Cold War with Russia and render the Russian leader as Satan incarnate.

Casting Stones

Across the political spectrum, the vast majority of foreign policy “experts” would take issue with the view that Russia is anything but dangerous and unreliable. Only a naïve fool, they would insist, could see anything but sinister motives in Russian actions over the course of the last decade. Indeed, of all the serious foreign matters with which we must grapple in the coming years, this animosity toward Russia may be the only one on which there exists such a broad consensus of liberal and conservative opinion. Of course, the motives that engender this broad consensus vary among our political elites: Many liberals, still smarting from Clinton’s loss, are hellbent on revenge because of allegations of Russian interference in the November election; many conservatives, still missing the good old days of the Cold War, find it easy to conjure up images of a malevolent and resurgent Russia; many others are understandably concerned about the provocative actions that Russia has taken over the last few years. In all their minds, Mr. Putin has set Russia on a collision course with the “free world” and only courage, tenacity, and spending trillions of more dollars on military hardware can counter his hegemonic designs on Eastern Europe and beyond. Their view, as we have all heard repeatedly since 1945, is that Russia only understands toughness. Whenever the West lets down its guard, that vulgar colossus, that stands “with conquering limbs astride” the Volga, menaces its neighbors. And in fairness, they are right, at least to some degree.

There is a good amount of history that weighs in favor of those who distrust Russian intentions. To suggest that Russia has been saintly would be as absurd as arguing that it is demonic. The point is that this is not a black and white issue and absolute opposites are not the reality we live in, either in our personal lives or among nations. The Russophobes will offer a plausible list of grievances against Mr. Putin—who they never tire of calling a “thug,” as if diplomacy were little more than playground name-calling. The list includes the mass slaughter of Syrian civilians, the brutal repression of Chechen “terrorists,” the possible assassination of political opponents, the annexation of Crimea in violation of the 1994 agreement to safeguard Ukraine’s territorial integrity, the ongoing conflict in the eastern portion of Ukraine, and Russian efforts to influence the 2016 American presidential election. You look at this list and you have the makings of a lucrative Hollywood blockbuster where the bad guys are truly villainous and the good guys are undeniably virtuous.

But this isn’t the whole story. And life is no more a Hollywood set full of comic-book heroes and villains than it is a struggle of absolute good against absolute evil. Russia’s leaders are flawed, inclined toward violence, and covetous of power—but this doesn’t make them much different from the leaders of every other nation-state. Their counter-list of grievances against the U.S. and our allies is quite lengthy: the seeming encirclement of Russia as NATO persists in its enlargement, the creation of Kosovo in probable violation of the post-World War II understanding not to alter and change borders, the unilateral abrogation of the 1972 ABM (Anti-Ballistic Missile) Treaty by the U.S., the installation of missile defense systems in former Warsaw Pact countries, the brutal bombing of Libya… just to name a few.

To the average Russian, Mr. Putin has been extraordinarily accommodating to the West, providing broad and unprecedented access to Russian bases and overflight permission during our attack on Afghanistan, not vetoing the U.N. resolutions on the invasion of Iraq or bombing of Libya, and providing strong diplomatic support in restraining Iran’s nuclear program. And while Russian efforts to influence and even undermine our recent presidential election are worrisome, most Americans remain blissfully unaware of our own efforts to influence the 2011 Russian parliamentary elections when then-Secretary of State Clinton publicly called for an investigation into allegations of electoral fraud, thereby precipitating mass protests against Mr. Putin.

As for Ukraine and the Crimea, we are too quick to get teary-eyed over the “people’s uprising” against a legitimate and democratically-elected Ukrainian president, who happened to want warmer ties with Russia. Certainly, Russia’s violation of the 1994 accord guaranteeing Ukraine’s territorial integrity is disturbing, but hardly a case of black versus white.  When any country deems it in its own best self-interest to do so, treaties are abrogated, just as the U.S. abrogated the ABM Treaty not so long ago. American policy-makers also prefer to ignore the long-term consequences of our Kosovo policy. The creation of a separate Kosovo state, however morally justifiable, broke with seventy years of precedent and offered a legal and moral argument for Crimea’s annexation. The population of Crimea has a Russian majority that some insist had been discriminated against by Ukraine, and Crimea had been part of Russia for nearly 200 years before Khrushchev gifted it to Ukraine in 1954. Many would legitimately argue that Kosovo and Crimea are not the same and that the horrors perpetrated on Kosovo justified creating a new state. But regardless the moral justifications, the result—violating the principle of preserving the territorial integrity of all European states—served as a potent catalyst to Crimea’s annexation.

Those of a Manichean bent will dismiss Russian complaints as contrived and exaggerated: a figment not just of Russian imagination, but of Russian paranoia. “The Cold War is over” is the tiresome refrain from NATO each time it adds a new member closer and closer to the Russian border. Yet in 1998, the year before the onslaught of new members had begun, our foremost Russian expert, George Kennan, warned that NATO enlargement would inevitably trigger a new Cold War given justifiable Russian concerns for its own security. Even a superficial understanding of Russian history—devastating invasions by Mongols, Napoleon and Hitler—should have given NATO greater pause. But new NATO aspirants, themselves having suffered at the hands of Russian armies, prevailed and the vacuum left by the collapse of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact was recklessly filled by an ever-expanding NATO.

This same argument—that the Cold War is over—was used to dismiss Russian fears about installing missile defense systems in Eastern Europe: Talking points went out to all U.S. embassies explaining that the Russians have nothing to fear and that these systems were not directed against them. And to be frank, Russian concerns about these missile defense systems did seem overblown and absurd. At least Russia’s fears seemed baseless until the 2016 presidential campaign when almost every Republican candidate urged accelerating those very same missile defense systems—that we had been saying for years had nothing to do with Russia—in order to send Russia a tough message.

To think in Manichean terms is not just bad theology; it is also dangerous diplomacy. The appeal of dualism has always been that it offers a clear, simplistic explanation for good and evil, and allows us to entertain the false notion that the “children of light” are without blemish. When this religious sentiment infects the political arena, the damage done to relations between states can be profound. Dualism always seduces by providing easy answers to hard, complex questions. It protects us from too much introspection.

That Other “Heresy…”

The Manichean mindset also has appeal because so many of those who reject the absurdity of absolute good against absolute evil fall prey to that other absurd absolute: That everyone and every country is equally guilty.  This “moral equivalence” argument is as mindless and dangerous as its Manichean counterpoint. In any argument, whether between individuals or countries, while neither side is ever completely to blame, both sides are never absolutely equally to blame. Russia, under Mr. Putin, has become increasingly provocative in its actions and it owns much of the blame for heightened tensions with the West. Americans don’t have to forsake their sense of moral superiority to embrace a keener understanding of their own transgressions and mistakes in dealing with Russia and other countries.

Of all the childish things we should put away as responsible adults, this penchant for demonizing the other and always making excuses for ourselves should be high on the list. The crucial question to always ask is one we were all taught in kindergarten: Would I have done anything differently if I were in that person’s situation? This is a skill every diplomat and political leader should cultivate: what would I do if I were the leader of this other country? If our leaders were courageous enough to really ponder this question they would be surprised and humbled. While many of us would never countenance the brutality of some of Mr. Putin’s action, it is unlikely that any of us would have supinely tolerated the continued encroachment of NATO or the persistent demands of the West for U.N. resolutions to legitimate attacking this or that country.  Indeed, we might even conclude that for Russian leaders to have acted in any other way toward the West than they have would be a dereliction of duty.

Mr. Putin once famously remarked that the dissolution of the Soviet Union was the greatest peaceful geopolitical disaster of the twentieth century. No sane person would concur. But perhaps the greatest geopolitical disaster of the last century is that we failed to have the vision and grace to offer Russia a clear path into a larger European security framework after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It may well be too late now. The chance for creating a new framework that could include Russia would have been far easier during the nineties, but there is no reason not to try. Some will argue that former President Obama already tried with his “reset,” but that effort was doomed from the start because he entrusted the reset to certain individuals, many of whom had deep misgivings about Russia and Mr. Putin and who were never fully committed to the process. It is as hard to give up an old enemy as it is to give up an old lover.

While the chances of success now are far less than before, a fruitful and open relationship with Russia would be so advantageous to America that it is worth the tremendous effort and dire risk of failure. Russia was extraordinarily helpful during the Afghanistan campaign and in forging an agreement with Iran; it could be far more helpful in combatting ISIS and in countering the spread of Islamic extremism. But perhaps most importantly, a Russia that was a full partner in ensuring the security of Europe would usher in a new era of genuine peace and prosperity that would benefit the entire world.

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