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Debasing US policy discourse about Russia

Is Putin really a ‘pariah’ and Russia ‘isolated from the international community?’

USA Politics

Putin attends a 2018 FIFA World Cup trophy tour at the Luzhniki Stadium, September 2017. Photo from Flickr.

Baseless and reckless tropes about Russia, Cohen points out, have proliferated in the US political-media establishment during the new Cold War, and even more since Russiagate allegations began to circulate widely two years ago, in mid-2016. The worst of these tropes—in effect an incitement to war—is that “Russia attacked America during the 2016 presidential election.” But there are others equally unfounded and almost as detrimental to Washington policy-making. Among them, as The Economist and The New York Times recently asserted, are that on today’s “world stage” Russian President Vladimir Putin is a “pariah” and his country “isolated from the international community.” Indeed, the Times insisted, quoting a British intelligence chief, that Russia is “becoming a ‘more isolated pariah.’”

These assertions are so detached from geopolitical realities they may be expressions of some Putin-Russia Derangement Syndrome, as others have suggested. Consider only last week’s St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, an annual event conceived by the Kremlin as a kind of Russian Davos. By most media accounts, including non-Russian ones, it was the best attended and most successful since 2014, when the West began imposing escalating economic sanctions on the country. Leaders of France, Japan, China, India, Saudi Arabia, and scores of less consequential states were there, along with innumerable international corporate executives, the director of the International Monetary Fund, and the president of Boeing, who declared that Russia “is a place for long-term partnership.” Judging by press reports, television footage, and transcripts of meetings, virtually all of them were eager for close encounters with the “pariah” Putin. Indeed, just prior to the event, Chancellor Angela Merkel and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi traveled to Sochi to meet separately with Putin. Again, all this against the backdrop of new financial and diplomatic sanctions rained on Russia by London and Washington and very perfunctory, if at all, implemented by their European “allies.”

In reality, it is impossible to isolate Russia, the planet’s largest territorial and most natural-resource rich nation. There is no “global politics,” no “world order,” without Russia. Its natural gas and oil resources, carried west and east through its far-flung networks of pipelines—both existing ones and those under construction—make such an effort an epic geopolitical folly. So too does Moscow’s political-diplomatic influence in vital regions, from Europe, China, and Afghanistan to the Middle East (consider its crucial role, for example, in any crisis-resolution involving Iran or North Korea). Much of this is due not primarily to Moscow’s modernized conventional and nuclear weapons but to its foreign policy philosophy under Putin. Simply put but often elaborated: In accord with national sovereignty, we are ready for good relations with any government that seeks good relations with us. Contrast this with Washington’s longstanding ideological, highly militarized, and often hegemony-aspiring foreign policy tenets.

As a result, unlike the Soviet Union, post-Soviet Russia has few, if any, unwilling allies, semi-allies, or partners in international affairs. China and Iran are big and important allies. Semi-allies and occasional partners include India and, of course, the other BRICs nations; Saudi Arabia, with whom Russia has cooperated in order to raise international oil prices; and Israel, whose prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was an honored guest in Moscow for Russia’s most sacred memorial holiday, Victory Day, on May 9. America’s European NATO allies may seem united in “isolating” Russia, but not the leaders of Hungary, the Czech Republic, or the president of France. Indeed, Emmanuel Macron, again accompanied by his wife, did a mini-version of his effervescent socializing with President Trump in Washington with Putin in St. Petersburg, while also signing a major energy deal with Russia and hoping that France will become “Russia’s largest investor.” Another test of Europe’s fidelity to the US (and its devout UK partner) will come in July, when EU sanctions on Russia must be continued or terminated. A single “no” vote will end them. Until now, Europe has been swayed—or coerced—by Washington. But can the new government now being formed in Italy be made to conform, or other governments now rebelling against Trump’s renewed sanctions on Iran, with which not a few European companies have highly profitable business relations? But can the new government now being formed in Italy be made to conform? And what of the other governments now rebelling against Trump’s renewed sanctions on Iran, a nation with which not a few European companies have highly profitable business relations? Is, as an official Russian news agency hopes, an “anti-sanctions coalition” forming against the United States? If so, who would be isolated?

Where did the foolish notion of “isolating Russia” originate? This, at least, cannot be attributed to President Trump, but to President Obama. In April 2014, he made known, as reported by the Times, that henceforth his policy would focus on “isolating … Russia by cutting off its economic and political ties to the outside world … effectively making it a pariah state.” This was extremist folly, not, as the Times correspondent thought, “an updated version of the Cold War strategy of containment.” Containment was intended not to isolate the Soviet Union but to keep it from spreading its military and political influence beyond its own existing “bloc” of allies.

Washington and its allies have certainly tried to isolate “Putin’s Russia.” Hence the multi-year cascade of tantrum-like, pointless, mostly ineffective, even counter-productive sanctions. In addition, whether by chance or intent, political campaigns have erupted on the eve of Putin and Russia emerging on “the world state” in ways that demonstrate their central role in international affairs. Thus the media campaign to frighten away visitors to the 2014 Sochi Olympics with reports that terrorist and homophobic attacks were certain to happen along with life-threatening mishaps due to “corrupt” construction (none did). Now, on the eve of the World Cup championship in Russia, there is perhaps a predictable new series of US media reports suggesting that Russia should be treated as a pariah nation: accounts of an attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal in the UK, an official story that has almost completely fallen apart, but not before having major diplomatic consequences; a revived report that Moscow was behind the shoot-down of a Malaysian passenger jetliner over Ukraine in 2014, but without any new actual evidence; a revival of the malicious allegation that Putin and Russia itself are “fascist,” without a word, of course, about an epidemic of anti-Semitic episodes and armed neo-Nazis in US-backed Ukraine; and a prominent Times opinion article warning that “L.G.T.B. people” may be in danger during the World Cup games.

An argument about the extent to which Russia is or is not isolated in the world today may seem marginal given the looming dangers inherent in the new Cold War. But even leaving aside the obscurant conceit that Washington and London are “the international community,” it is indicative of the general degradation of American thinking and discourse about geopolitics and US foreign policy generally in mainstream media and politics. (There are, of course, many exceptions outside the mainstream, especially in scholarly publications.) Henry Kissinger once said, “The demonization of Vladimir Putin is not a policy. It is an alibi for not having one.” The “isolated pariah” trope is part of that demonizing. But Kissinger was partially wrong: Washington has had Russia policies in the Putin era—exceedingly ill-informed, unwise, and failed ones.

Stephen F. Cohen is a professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at New York University and Princeton University and a contributing editor of The Nation.

This article originally appeared in The Nation.


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