Domestic Politics Distort Relations with Russia

by Robert E. Hunter

Additional sanctions on Russia, followed by Moscow’s drastic cutting of the US government’s presence in the Russian Federation, take the “Russia issue” to a new level of intensity and risk of Cold War II.

Most blame lies with Russian President Vladimir Putin. By seizing Crimea and promoting conflict in other parts of Ukraine, Russia violated agreements signed by the Soviet Union (the 1975 Helsinki Final Act) and by Russia (the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, which guaranteed Ukraine’s frontiers).

But the crisis also has American roots.

As the Soviet Union collapsed, President George H.W. Bush sought to avoid repeating with Russia what had happened with Germany in the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. He proposed a “Europe whole and free and at peace,” including an important Russian role in European security. Both Bush and President Bill Clinton pursued this vision.

Then the U.S. attempt to forestall Russian revanchism went off the rails. The George W. Bush administration unilaterally abrogated the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, one of the few remaining symbols of Russian great-power status. It began installing missile defenses in former Warsaw Pact countries. It pushed NATO enlargement to the Russian frontier, and in 2008 led NATO to declare that “Ukraine and Georgia will become members” of the Alliance. This fed Russian apprehensions—real or just exploited domestically by Putin—that the US was bent on surrounding Russia with Western power. Then in 2014, after the popular “Maidan” revolt in Kiev sent a democratically-elected pro-Russian leader in Ukraine packing, Washington worked to install a U.S.-friendly, anti-Russian government.

Even before Putin’s aggression in Ukraine, America was uneasy about the growth of Russian power, for reasons that include national psychology. For the first time since the United States emerged permanently on to the world stage, it faces challenges from major powers that it cannot either defeat (Germany, Japan) or effectively deter—notably today’s China and, to a lesser degree, Russia. Yet American allegations that Russia is violating a “global order” fail to recognize that that “order” was created solely in the West and was never fully accepted in Moscow—nor, for that matter, in Beijing.

Enter Donald J. Trump. How was he elected President of the United States? For many Democrats and most of the U.S. main stream media, it couldn’t have been Hillary Clinton’s inept campaign. It had to have been Russian interference in the U.S. electoral process and collusion by Trump’s family, other supporters, and perhaps Trump himself. Maybe all this did happen. But while this Russian behavior is unacceptable—although for decades the U.S. has interfered in many other countries’ politics—no one has been able to make a conclusive case that Russia caused Clinton to lose.

Further, opposition to Trump’s legitimacy as president, intensified by his assault on the media’s pride of place in U.S. politics, has settled on the Russia factor as the best cudgel with which to beat him and his presidency. Given what Putin had already done in Ukraine, then in Syria (mainly resulting from the Obama administration’s incompetence), Russia-Trump connections and Moscow’s ham-fisted interference in the U.S. electoral process are made-to-order.

The result is an impregnable domestic political coalition for imposing more sanctions against Russia.

But the fact remains that the United States and its European allies must find means to live with a Russia that is no longer “on the ropes,” and on some issues Russia and the West need to cooperate. Fighting Islamist terrorism is obvious. So too is countering climate change (despite Trump’s obtuseness on this subject). Indeed, US-Russian cooperation in the Arctic as the ice cap melts has continued unabated.

Ironically, Trump’s ambition to account for Russia’s inevitable rise without its posing threats to Western interests makes more sense than policies his two predecessors pursued. It is also true that Putin’s efforts to split the Western alliance can only succeed if the U.S. rejects approaches to Moscow that are supported by all NATO allies save those nearest the Russian frontier.

It’s time for grown-ups to step in. They won’t be found in the U.S. Congress or media, where a potent anti-Russia coalition has been forged primarily out of domestic political factors. President Trump has been paralyzed on this issue, U.S. national security interests be damned.

Maybe sober leaders in Europe can have an impact on Washington’s attitudes and approaches. That is currently doubtful, but it may be the only chance left to avoid a new, dangerous, and quite useless Cold War II.

Robert E. Hunter

Robert E. Hunter served as US ambassador to NATO (1993-98) and on the National Security Council staff throughout the Carter administration, first as Director of West European Affairs and then as Director of Middle East Affairs. In the last-named role, he was the White House representative at the Autonomy Talks for the West Bank and Gaza and developer of the Carter Doctrine for the Persian Gulf. He was Senior Advisor to the RAND Corporation from 1998 to 2011, and Director of the Center for Transatlantic Security Studies at the National Defense University, 2011-2012. He served on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board and is a member of the American Academy of Diplomacy.



  1. I agree that the USA and Russia need better relations, for the sake of us all, but let us be fair.

    “Russian apprehensions—real or just exploited domestically by Putin—that the US was bent on surrounding Russia with Western power. ” Surely you can see that as an obvious threat to Russia – the buildup right to Russia’s borders by hostile forces would naturally be a threat.

    “Most blame lies with Russian President Vladimir Putin. By seizing Crimea and promoting conflict in other parts of Ukraine”

    Putin accepted and worked with the first Western-leaning government in Ukraine (see his clear explanation in the Oliver Stone interviews) and it was the USA which helped overthrow the pro-Russian government which followed. Crimea voted with no bloodshed to REJOIN Russia.

    USA memories are short and selective-remember Kosovo??????

    Look now at Ukraine-a success story for the USA and the “West”??

  2. Robert E Hunter lied- Russia did not take Crimea- the Crimean people VOTED to be part of Russia. The US is not the only democracy on Earth. Many people vote different than what Robert E Hunter wants people to vote.

  3. To rosemerry- President Clinton took sides in Kosovo by sending in US troops which allowed that side to kill thousands on the other side with weapons supplied by President Clinton. Same kind of action by President Clinton in Afghanistan and in Somalia. President Clinton lied to president-elect Bush that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq(an aide heard him say so and told me). Obama/Hillary Clinton supplied arms to muslim militants from Baghdad who then killed 40,000- 50,000 Sunni men and women and children(info from Netanyahu to me directly).

  4. This article presents a hopeless statement. If the only way to sort out this mess in Washington is an appeal to “sober leaders in Europe”, we are really in a stalemate. “Europe” is the EU, which is divided between the contrasting interests of its western and eastern members. For the sake of its unity the EU (and so each of its States) will never do anything to stop the mounting economic and military pressure against Russia. Even in the case of a next WW3. The Cold War 2 is already present since 2014, but it will not last so long as the first one. Because it’s aimed not simply at “containment”, but rather at the unconditional surrender of Putin, the United Russia party and even the Russian Federation itself. Possibly without firing a shot, but, if needed, also with war. You can name it as you will, “force projection”, “operation”‘, “peace enforcing”, “responsibility to defend”; the real meaning would be WW3. Including nuclear weapons. Therefore the rebellion of so many European citizens to the EU and national political establishment in many States: their leaders are so “sober” to do nothing to change this dangerous trend, neither fo the sake of the lives of their fellow citizens.

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