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 used to be a foreign policy maven. Now he helps organizations communicate strategically and build audiences.