Even before their current standoff over Syria, tensions between the United States and Russia were already at their highest point in years. Now an alleged chemical weapons attack in a country where both are militarily involved has raised the prospect of a “ direct confrontation” between the world’s two biggest nuclear powers.
President Trump’s personal temperament is undoubtedly compounding the current moment’s dangers. On Wednesday, the president threatened Russia that “nice and new and ‘smart!’” missiles would be coming to Syria.
Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and “smart!” You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!
—Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 11, 2018
The prevailing mindset of his Democratic opposition and liberal-media critics, however, has also not helped. In the Obama era, Democrats spoke of a “reset” with Russia and even mocked Republicans for espousing Cold War views. That stance has been abandoned in the Trump era. It is now standard for Democratic leaders to clamor for the White House to “start toughening up our policies towards Russia and Putin” (Chuck Schumer), and “fight back…to defend against Russian subversion,” so long as “Washington demonstrates the political will to confront the threat” (Joe Biden). According to the New York Times editorial board, the United States’ recent closure of a Russian consulate and expulsion of 60 Russian officials “offers some hope that Trump may finally be forced to deal with the threat that Putin poses to the United States and its Western allies,” though, to be sure, “Mr. Trump will have to go even further to push back effectively against Mr. Putin’s mischief.”
This neoconservative-aligned posture leaves Democrats and other influential liberal voices ill-equipped to oppose the confrontation with Russia that they have otherwise encouraged. And that is all the more ominous now that arch-neoconservative John Bolton has begun his tenure as Trump’s national-security adviser. While his warmongering toward Iran and North Korea has sparked widespread angst, Bolton is in lockstep with Russia hawks when it comes to their top foreign foe. Bolton “is Russia’s worst nightmare,” observes Harry Kazianis of the Center for the National Interest. “He has been a Russia hawk for all of his career.”
That includes the weeks before Bolton’s appointment to Trump’s cabinet. In a February speech, Bolton proclaimed that Russia’s alleged election meddling is “an attack really on the United States Constitution.” Urging aggressive action against Russia in “cyberspace and elsewhere,” Bolton advised, “I don’t think the response should be proportionate, I think it should be very disproportionate.” Or, put more simply, as he told Fox News in 2016: “You make the Russians feel pain.”
That Putin denied Russian meddling in a meeting with Trump, Bolton deduced last year, “should be a fire-bell-in-the-night warning about the value Moscow places on honesty, whether regarding election interference, nuclear proliferation, arms control or the Middle East: negotiate with today’s Russia at your peril.”
But Bolton’s own record of shunning negotiations with Russia has arguably increased the threat of nuclear peril. As undersecretary for arms control, Bolton oversaw the Bush administration’s 2002 withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABMT), signed between the United States and Soviet Union 30 years earlier. By capping strategic defenses, the ABMT de-incentivized the development of offensive nuclear weapons and laid the groundwork for ensuing arms-control agreements. In a recent speech, Putin unveiled a new nuclear arsenal that he called a result of the United States’ abrogation of the ABMT and its repeated dismissals of subsequent Kremlin warnings that it would respond. Putin also called for the two sides to “sit down at the negotiating table and devise together a new and relevant system of international security.” Speaking to Fox News, Bolton dismissed Putin’s grievance as “a propaganda claim,” and “complete nonsense,” musing that the Russians have “hired Kim Jong-un’s publicist.” Putin’s real aim, Bolton concluded, is “trying to make Russia into a great power again…and making Russia a bigger nuclear power again I think is part of his objective.”
Bolton’s stated objective is to further weaken the global arms-control safeguards that he helped dismantle under Bush. “The next step in the bilateral relationship with Russia,” Bolton informed the Conservative Political Action Conference last year, “is for this administration to abrogate the New START Treaty,” the 2010 pact that reduces US and Russian strategic warheads. “That would be a signal to Vladimir Putin.”
Rather than grappling with the implications of Bolton’s outlook on Russia, some liberal outlets so far have mostly focused on his “curious” appearance in a 2013 video for a pro-gun Russian group trying to loosen its country’s firearm laws. One possible reason is that Bolton’s record and expressed views on Russia are less relevant than that video. More likely is adherence to Russiagate practice: cherry-picking developments that fit a narrative of Russian subterfuge and potential Trump entanglement, while ignoring countervailing developments that undermine the narrative.
The appointment of a career-long Russia hawk to the country’s top national-security post is only the latest development for Russiagate exponents to ignore (for earlier examples, see my previous Nation article here). On top of expelling a record number of Russian diplomats, sparking a reciprocal Kremlin response, other recent US actions include imposing sanctions on prominent Russians (including Putin’s son-in-law) and 13 companies, a move that made Russia’s stock market plunge; and the rare deployment of two warships to the Black Sea “as part of a bid to counter Russia’s increased presence there,” CNN reports. One US official explained: “You get ships up in the Black Sea, that makes them feel more threatened.”
A look at a map may lead one to ask why the United States feels compelled to counter the Russians’ “increased presence” and to “make them feel more threatened” in a sea along their own territory. We might also simply ask if expelling Russian diplomats and imposing new sanctions is a sound course of action to take. But the attachment to a narrative that Trump is beholden to Russia makes it even more difficult for such questions to be raised.
Overlooking Trump’s hawkish actions towards Russia also means overlooking the dangers that they fuel. Comparing the current moment “to what we lived during the Cold War,” UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has urged the two sides to restore “the mechanisms of communication and control to avoid the escalation of incidents, to make sure that things would not get out of control.” The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists recently warned that nuclear threats “have been compounded by US-Russia relations that now feature more conflict than cooperation,” with coordination “all but dead” and “no US-Russian nuclear arms control negotiations…under way.”
A major obstacle to diplomacy is a climate in which differences with Russia spark reflexive demands for aggressive action, rather than sober demands for evidence and deliberation. The rush to judgment has escalated the crisis over the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in the British town of Salisbury. British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson initially claimed that British scientists at the military laboratory Porton Down were “absolutely categorical” that there was “no doubt” the nerve agent used in the attack was produced in Russia. But Porton Down’s laboratory chief executive has since contradicted him, saying that while creating the agent was “probably only in the capabilities of a state actor,” it has in fact “not identified the precise source.” The admission came after Johnson played a key role in convincing more than 25 countries to force out some 150 Russian diplomats, the largest such expulsion ever.
At the outset, British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn denounced the nerv-agent attack as “barbaric and beyond reckless” and stressed that the accused Russian authorities should “be held to account on the basis of the evidence.” As a part of the evidentiary process, Corbyn has urged the Conservative government to “make full use of existing international treaties and procedures” and share chemical samples with Russia under the auspices of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. For this approach, Corbyn has been smeared as a Russian dupe by his political rivals and the British media.
The Salisbury case shares with Russiagate the widespread indictment of the Russian government despite the absence of public evidence and the demonizing of the Kremlin and escalation of tensions with it as a result. But, unlike with the Salisbury incident, there is no prominent US politician insisting on evidence and a measured response as Corbyn has. With their ceaseless fixation on Russia, Democrats and liberal pundits have encouraged Trump to ramp up confrontation.
The danger of this approach is now most pronounced in Syria, where Trump has called out “Putin, Russia, and Iran,” for “backing Animal Assad,” and warned that Putin could be among those who will “pay a price.” In the United States, Democratic Senator Chris Murphy has been one of the few influential voices to point out the illegality of a potential US military strike. Even fewer have also highlighted that “the US government [has] not yet conclusively determined whether the attack was carried out by President Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian government forces,” as Reuters reports. Additionally, it is difficult to challenge US military action in Syria when it is inexorably identified with a “tough” stance on Russia. When Trump recently floated a US military withdrawal there (which he seems to have backed away from since), hawks and liberal pundits lamented his words as a victory for the Kremlin.
The threat of military escalation in Syria in Bolton’s first week on the job might occasion a rethink of this path. In a February op-ed, Bolton argued that the Mueller investigation offers “Trump a not-to-be-missed opportunity to pivot from worrying about unfair efforts to tar his campaign with the ‘collusion’ allegation, toward the broader growing danger of Russian subversion.” Bolton’s “broader” focus, he explained, is based on the premise that “Putin’s global aspirations are not friendly to America, and the sooner he knows we know it, the better.” It is naive to think that mere “criminal charges against Russians,” or applying “economic sanctions,” are “anywhere near sufficient to prove our displeasure,” as are making “solemn pronouncements,” Bolton argued:
Let Putin instead hear the rumble of artillery and NATO tank tracks conducting more joint field exercises with Ukraine’s military. That, and much more, will get his attention. An analogous response is warranted in the Middle East, where the White House is already laying a foundation for more robust responses to Russia’s probes. At rare moments in politics, unexpected events produce opportunities which must be seized before they disappear.
Top Democrats and liberal opinion leaders are among those whom Bolton can credit for producing the opportunities that he now wants to seize. In this perilous moment of US-Russia relations, those who have laid the groundwork for him may wish to stop.