By Hank Davis
In a July 26 op-ed piece, “Making Russia Great Again,” Marvin Ott lambasts President Trump for his performance in Helsinki. The criticism exemplifies the anti-Russia hysteria typical of many foreign policy pundits opposed to the Trump presidency. Lost amid his hyperbole is a more balanced picture, acknowledging our role in Russian misbehavior. Consider first the expansion of NATO.
NATO expansion became a concern in early 1990 with the wind-down of the Cold War. During talks over German reunification, the United States left the Russians with the impression that NATO would not expand beyond its then current borders. No extension “one inch to the east,” Secretary of State James Baker told Gorbachev in February 1990. At the very least, it was understood that NATO expansion would antagonize the Russians. The U.S. diplomat George Kennan remarked in 1998: “I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely [to NATO expansion] and it will affect their policies. … “I think it is a tragic mistake.”
Boris Yeltsin told President Clinton in late 1995: “I see nothing but humiliation for Russia if you proceed … It’s a new form of of encirclement … Why do you want to do this? We need a new structure for Pan-European security, not old ones!” Yeltsin goes on: “[F]or me to agree to the borders of NATO expanding towards those of Russia — that would constitute a betrayal on my part of the Russian people.” His appeal fell on deaf ears. Since 1999, thirteen countries have been added to NATO, almost doubling its membership.
Consider, too, the U.S. role in Russia’s 1996 presidential election. It is well known that the United States worked behind the scenes, channeling funds, to ensure that the hugely unpopular but relatively compliant Yeltsin remained in office. Incidentally, a 2016 study out of UCLA finds that the United States has intervened in approximately 80 nation-level elections between the years 1946 and 2000 compared to 36 interventions by Russia.
Consider finally Ukraine. Ott describes Russia “invading and dismembering” that country. His depiction not only exaggerates Russia’s role, it oversimplifies a highly complex (and murky) set of events. He leaves out possible U.S. meddling — manipulations designed to pull Ukraine into our sphere of influence.
Foreign policy experts critical of President Trump single out Russia for its violations of international law. They lament that before Trump became president, U.S. conduct around the globe had been “rules-based.” It is hard to see how this could be. Trump or no Trump, talk of “rules-based” conduct in connection with the United States seems highly questionable.
Recall the U.S. invasion of Iraq, almost certainly illegal under international law. Recall the U.S. bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999, conducted without UN approval. Recall our horrific blockade and bombing of Iraq during the 1990s, a war of attrition that lasted 10 years and that set the stage for 9/11. Recall Operation Olympic Games, a cyber-attack that presidents Bush and Obama unleashed against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. The attack may well comprise the first nation-level use of cyber-warfare. Recall, too, the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, a move not just counterproductive but arguably illegal as well. The Taliban did not attack us on 9/11. War-making by key U.S. allies — Israel on Lebanon and Gaza, Saudi Arabia on Yemen — deserves note as well.
Two final points: First, Russian misbehavior is real and it should not be tolerated. But perspective and context are crucial. Russian misdeeds represent, in part, pushback against U.S. arrogance and lawlessness on the increase since the early 1990s. Second, voter suppression on the part of state governments, Congress and even the Supreme Court may pose a greater threat to our democracy than anything the Russians have in mind.
Hank Davis lives in Brooklin. He has a PhD in philosophy and teaches periodically at the University of Maine at Augusta and other colleges.