No, Russia Really Is to Blame for the Poisoned Relationship

E. Wayne Merry, a former diplomat to Russia and a Senior Fellow at the right-leaning American Foreign Policy Council, wrote an interesting piece seeking a middle ground on Russia during this year’s Presidential election. It is a well-considered piece that bears full consideration (really: don’t just rely on the excerpts I discuss here), but there were a few passages that leapt out at me, discussing what he calls the “demonization” of Russia, its hacking efforts against the election, and how the two major party candidates relate to the Kremlin.

In one passage, Merry addresses the issue of hacking:

Whether or not Wikileaks obtained the hacked materials from the Democratic National Committee from Russian sources (something that remains unproven), Moscow certainly was fishing in dangerous waters with its cyber espionage.

With all due respect, there is such a thing as being unreasonably skeptical of overwhelming evidence. Literally every single computer security expert that has examined the email leaks has come to the conclusion that the Russian government is behind it, culminating in the unprecedented formal accusation issued by the Obama White House.

To see this preponderance of evidence ans still declare that the jury it out requires a level of skepticism that is so extreme as to render any subsequent argument meaningless — equivalent to beginning an argument about rising sea levels with an assertion that water is not wet.

Moreover, despite the promised retaliation against Russia, the Obama White House has not only been extremely cautious in accusing Russia of its role in the hacks — it took months of painstaking forensic investigation to generate the necessary intelligence confidence — there’s no reason to assume the White House is attempting to deceive the public. Unlike President George W. Bush’s manipulation of intelligence about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq (a pretty mendacious false equivalency in its own right), President Obama has powerful incentives to not spark a hacking war with Russia, and he isn’t using this attack as a cipher to push any new policies on the country. It is, plainly, an identification of an attack and a promise to respond to it — actions well within the bounds of normal statecraft.

After arguing this, Merry then decides to place the onus for poor US-Russian relations squarely on the back of Hillary Clinton:

The bad blood between the Kremlin and Hillary Clinton must be recognized. It is real and potentially dangerous. In essence, the Russian leadership believes that as Secretary of State she oriented US “democracy promotion” programs in Russia toward the goal of regime change.

Again, as with the line on hacking, there is such a thing as being unreasonably dismissive of the stated intentions behind official statements out of the Russian government on this front. The idea that then-Secretary of State Clinton was antagonistic toward Russia requires a willful misreading of her tenure at the Department of State: as the architect of the Reset policy, Clinton took a significant political risk in an effort to repair the US-Russia relationship. In addition, her efforts during the New START negotiations were not that as an antagonist, but rather as constructive partner.

Merry does not grapple with why Clinton’s efforts to work with Russia as a partner fell apart because it would cut against his thesis — namely, that the Russian government decided, entirely on its own and in isolation from any policy decision by then-Secretary Clinton, to destroy the relationship.

Thus, as president, Hillary Clinton would take on the relationship with Russia from a very unfavorable and even dangerous starting point. This would be true no matter how rational and cautious might be her policy, as she doubtless will receive ample advice that regime change is not a viable goal in dealing with a nuclear-armed great power.  The perception on the Russian side is the problem.

Apart from the bizarre assumption that Clinton is in any way interested in regime change in Russia (this is article of faith on the Realist Right, but it lacks any evidence). There is no question that Russia has chosen to exaggerate Clinton’s criticisms of their policies into an existential threat (all of which seemingly began during Clinton’s pointed criticism of Vladimir Putin’s fraudulent election in 2012), however it is important to not solely allow the paranoid hall of mirrors in Moscow to define the terms of the relationship. Russia has agency in how it chooses to react to normal criticism of its policies, and if it is choosing to use hyperbole as a cynical justification for its own abusive policies, that is Russia’s problem, not any candidate’s. The alternative is to hold U.S. policy to Russia’s delicate feelings on every topic — insanity.

So that brings us to the question Merry raises of how to respond. Here, too, his framing is inadequate:

There is, therefore, a basis in public support in the United States for an initiative after January based on realism and civility.  As I believe Russian policy is much more reactive than not, it is appropriate that the initiative come from the far-stronger power.

Right, so to repeat Hillary Clinton already tried that. By denying Russia any agency in how it relates to the U.S., Merry is applying way too much power to the presidential candidates for what it will take to make any repairs to the relationship. The United States is not being uncivil in how it discusses Russia; Russia, however, routinely decries the United States in the most florid hyperbole (everything from pushing insane CIA conspiracies to racist imagery projected onto the embassy in Moscow). The incivility in the relationship is very one-sided; placing the blame for that only on the United States is not just wrong factually, it is wrong morally as well.

There is a concerted effort by many Russian analysts to not be seen as an antagonist of the Kremlin — for professional and person reasons, many of which I won’t guess at publicly, there is a powerful incentive to not properly identify Vladimir Putin as the primary antagonist in discussing where and how the relationship has gone cold. Missing from these discussions are an acknowledgement of Russia’s full-on broadside propaganda attack against the U.S. and Europe (which I analyze here), which has its roots many years before the current news cycle created ex-post facto justifications for the state-owned channels to trumpet.

Ultimately, it is up to Russia to choose to behave like a responsible power on the world stage: ending its relentless oppression of civil society at home, ending its murder of dissidents and journalists, relenting on the brutal oppression of LGBT people, intentionally destabilizing a European country, the unending cavalcade of mass atrocities in Syria (bombing hospitals, destroying aid convoys, and generally supporting one of the world’s worst human rights abuser in Damascus), and now openly using computer espionage in a concerted effort to undermine and destroy western liberal democracy.

“Demonization and paranoia may be normal in the Russian outlook,” Merry writes,  “But as an American I hope for better from my own country, especially during this important transition between national administrations.”

That may be true, but such descriptions are not demonizations: they are neutral descriptions of Russia’s policies and behaviors. Without starting at Russia’s decision to engage in such behavior, there is nothing the U.S. can do to “repair” a relationship that is simply irredeemable. The cratered relationship between Moscow and Washington has its roots in Moscow; demanding Washington take blame for it and responsibility for fixing it is simply excusing Russia’s extremely malignant behavior the last half-decade..

As for where to go from here, that depends on Moscow. They’ve made their choice in 2016: they want Trump in the White House. They probably won’t get him. How they react to that loss is going to be worth preparing for — whether Putin will try for some sort of provocation or if he’ll begrudgingly work with Clinton is anyone’s guess. But ultimately, this crisis has its origins in Russia: short of abject capitulation to Russia’s policies in the Middle East, Europe, and even in the United States, very little can change without Moscow choosing to change.

joshua.foust
Joshua Foust is a writer and analyst who studies foreign policy.