In considering the evolution of U.S.-Russian ties it is important to remember that there are advantages to good relations with the bear, a neighbor visible with difficulty from Alaska. It is equally important to realize, as the Trump administration is beginning to understand, that it is not easy to achieve those good relations, given the nature of Russia and whoever governs it, whether Peter the Great or Vladimir Putin.
First, its sizable military capacity almost always exceeds its economic performance. Russian leaders know that, are embarrassed about it, and thus tend to engage in various forms of trickery to make up for it. Their skill is demonstrated by cyberhacking; successful meddling, or the appearance of it, in U.S. politics; and some ability to juggle the United States, Europe, the Mideast and Asia to Russia’s advantage.
To avoid being taken in by the sleight of hand, it is important for Americans to keep their eyes on the facts (not the “alternative facts,” thank you very much).
The new national security adviser, Lt. Gen. William T. Flynn, appears to have played footsie with Russian interlocutors about likely U.S. policy toward Russia before Trump’s inauguration. This practice is unfortunately not new, but it is definitely not useful because — among other reasons — Gen. Flynn would not be alone in setting such policy. What about the secretary of state and the secretary of defense, not to mention the president himself?
Trump in a recent TV interview slid into an odious comparison between Russia and the United States, suggesting some equivalency in discussing which nation was led by “killers.” There is an argument that compares U.S. bombing and drone attacks in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria and Yemen to the slaughter that Russia continues to perpetrate in Syria, but there is quite a difference between the two governments in terms of accountability to the legislature, courts and public opinion.
Putin’s government does not hesitate to dispose of his possible political opponents by hook or by crook, or worse. Some have died untimely deaths. Others — most recently Alexei Navalny — fall victim to politically disabling prosecution by Russia’s neutered judicial system. Trump hasn’t done that yet, although the chant of “lock her up,” directed at Hillary Clinton during the campaign, suggests that weapon may be in the president’s repertory.
So, the trick is, improve relations with Russia but keep the process clear and transparent. Americans don’t want a war with Russia; nor do they want to be mauled by an attack from behind by the bear.