Realism on Russia

Realism on Russia

We must investigate claims of Russian interference in the election, while also de-escalating a dangerous crisis.


The revelation that Donald Trump Jr. met with a Russian lawyer promising derogatory information on Hillary Clinton reaffirms the need for a full accounting of how our democracy may have been subverted in the 2016 election. Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the claims of Russian interference in the election, of collusion with the Trump campaign, and the possibility of criminal malfeasance by President Trump or his associates is essential, and it must be allowed to reach its own conclusions without interference from the White House. Beyond protecting this existing investigation, Democrats should seek an independent commission to lay out steps for protecting the integrity of future elections.

None of this should be controversial. At the same time, there is another set of facts that needs to be reckoned with in this precarious moment—facts concerning the abject failure of US policies toward Russia and the dangerous path down which our two countries are currently headed. These facts also concern real and present threats and cannot be ignored. Indeed, the crisis we are now facing makes clear that it’s time to fundamentally rethink how we approach our relationship with Russia.

As US-Russian relations have deteriorated, the risk of a nuclear catastrophe—including the danger posed by a nuclear-armed North Korea—has risen to its highest level since the end of the Cold War. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists now rates the danger higher than when the Soviet Union tested its first nuclear device, in 1949. The new Cold War is punctuated by perilous military face-offs in three arenas: in Syria, in the skies over the Baltic Sea; on Russia’s western border, with 300,000 NATO troops on high alert and both Russia and NATO ramping up deployments and exercises; and in Ukraine. Between them, the United States and Russia possess nearly 14,000 nuclear weapons—more than 90 percent of the world’s nuclear arsenal—and keep almost 2,000 of them on hair-trigger alert. So the extreme danger of nuclear war can only be reduced through cooperation between our two countries.

At the same time, the era of cyberwarfare has arrived without any of the agreed-upon rules that govern traditional war or, for that matter, nuclear deterrence. There is now a rising threat of hackers breaching not only e-mails and elections but also power grids, strategic warning systems, and command-and-control centers. For years, there has been discussion of the need to establish clear rules of the road for cyberwarfare. Now, reports of escalating interference make it imperative that cyberweapons, like conventional, chemical, and nuclear arms, ought to be controlled by means of a binding, verifiable treaty. Again, however, this cannot happen without a more constructive US-Russia relationship.

Given these significant threats, the escalation of tensions with Russia serves neither the national interest nor our national security. Expanding sanctions will only drive a wedge between the United States and the European Union, spur Russia to take retaliatory measures, and make it more difficult to negotiate. This moment calls for diplomacy and dialogue, not moral posturing and triumphalism.

Needless to say, rebuilding a working détente with Russia won’t be easy. It will take skill and persistence. Russian President Vladimir Putin heads an authoritarian government that tramples on basic rights. Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 was a violation of international law, and Putin has responded to US and NATO deployments on Russia’s borders by reinforcing his country’s own forces, including more nuclear-capable missiles, thereby increasing the risk of accident, miscalculation, and escalation. Meanwhile, President Trump has demonstrated that he has neither the temperament nor the advisers to sustain a coherent policy initiative. It is hard to see how we get from here to there, but we come to negotiations with the governments we have, not the ones we wish we had. There is simply no other choice.

For Democrats whose understandable desire to resist Trump has helped fuel the anti-Russia fixation, there is also another reality to consider. Focusing on Trump’s ties to Russia alone will not win the crucial 2018 midterm elections, nor will it win meaningful victories on issues like health care, climate change, and inequality that affect all of our lives. Moreover, cold wars are lousy for progressivism: They strengthen war parties, fatten defense budgets, and deplete funds that could be put to better use rebuilding infrastructure and expanding social programs. They empower the worst forces in politics and close off space for dissent. This is as true in the United States as it is in Russia. In its 152 years, The Nation has witnessed how war fever is used to trample rights here at home. And, having worked with Russian dissidents, journalists, and feminist NGOs for three decades, I have seen personally how a cold war can be used to suppress independent voices in that country.

The bottom line is that opposition to Trump cannot become the same as opposition to common sense. Common sense dictates that we protect our own democracy by strengthening our election systems to counter outside interference. It dictates an independent investigation into claims of Russian meddling in the presidential campaign. But it also tells us that we cannot address many of our most urgent challenges—from Syria, to climate change, to nuclear proliferation and cyberwar—without the United States and Russia finding ways to work together when it serves our mutual interests. We do not have to embrace the Russian government to work on vital interests with it. And we cannot afford a revival of Cold War passions that would discredit those seeking to de-escalate tensions. Efforts to curtail debate could be a disservice to our country’s security.

As editor of The Nation, a magazine with a long history of adopting alternative views and unpopular stances, especially on matters of war and peace, I believe it’s important to challenge the conventional wisdom; to foster, not police, debate; and to oppose the forces that vilify those advocating and pursuing better relations. Also, while it may not be popular to insist that both the United States and Russia have serious interests in maintaining a working relationship, it also isn’t radical. It is simply sober realism.

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