Christmas Day marked the 25th anniversary of the day Mikhail Gorbachev resigned and the Soviet Union ended. Since then, almost an entire generation has lived free of the threat the former Soviet Union posed to their parents’ generation.
Yet, just because Russia was frequently paid little attention by US governments during this period, that does not mean the country was no longer going to pose problems for America. Quite the contrary. In recent years, a quiet storm was brewing. And now, with Russia again in the headlines, one thing should be clear — the power and reach of the Russian government is not something an American President should have ever considered dismissing.
There is, of course, a fine line between respect and admiration; respect and trust; alliances and relationships. All the background noise of the modern world makes it even harder to tell the difference. But walking this line is no more important for American Presidents than with ties with Russia. The truth is that Russian President Vladimir Putin is a reality that the United States will have to deal with – he isn’t going away, and the incoming US administration needs to find a better way of handling this than the outgoing one did.
All of the arguments we are having currently regarding possible hacking, election interference and Russia’s involvement in Syria and alignment with Iran, only confirm how divided Americans remain on key issues. That is why now, more than ever, we should be pursuing a “politics based on realistic, practical, and material factors rather than on theoretical or ethical objectives.”
That’s how Webster defines “realpolitik,” a term dating back to the 19th Century, when Ludwig Von Rochau wrote essays about “realpolitik” in the midst of continental political upheaval among the states of Europe. And it’s an approach that has long been pursued by leaders in Europe and the United States, not least during World War II, when the “Big Three” of US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin worked to defeat the Nazis.
During the Cold War, the United States and Soviet Union competed in a game of strangulation as client states around the world took advantage of their benefactor’s largesse to enhance their regional standing. None were going to be global superpowers, but were very content to dominate their own spheres of influence. The hot wars fought only exacerbated this situation.
President Richard Nixon’s outreach and opening to China is perhaps the clearest post World War II illustration of the realpolitik approach. A political masterstroke at the time, America neutralized a key enemy at the height of the Cold War, leaving the Soviet Union with more than just a migraine.
Fast forward to today, and the United States is faced with a similar situation. Putin is a former KGB spy who has in effect ruled the Russian Federation since 1999. During this period, Russian reach has grown, and the influence of the planet’s largest country by size is felt across the globe.
On top of this, Putin just isn’t a nice guy. He is easy to hate, and is a power-hungry dictator in all but name. His goal appears to be to create a new Russian Empire, making him the perfect enemy for a country tired after 15 years fighting non-state actors in asymmetrical combat.
True, as President George W. Bush famously noted, relations with Putin appeared to have started off on the right foot. But by the time Bush left office, ties with Russia had clearly deteriorated into mutual distrust. The missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, meanwhile, may have been seen by Putin as threats, but perhaps also as a personal affront (both countries are former Warsaw Pact members).
Once Putin had sized up President Barack Obama, the game was on, and Putin ran roughshod with near impunity. We all know the stories:
- Violations of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty
- Military intrusions into Crimea and Georgia
- Use of strategic military assets to probe and poke the US
- New ICBM delivery systems
- Laughed at being kicked out of the G8
- Harboring Edward Snowden
- Ignoring sanctions
- Buzzing US warships
All this has provided plenty of ammunition for Russia hawks in and out of Congress, and on both sides of the aisle — there’s nothing politically incorrect about hating the Russians, and not even a fool should trust Putin.
But while there is a certain comfort level in having a singular state entity as an adversary, we should be wary of following a course just because it feels easy. Putin might not be trustworthy, but Russia’s influence and reach is such that we better respect him. Because realpolitik is alive and well, and reestablishing mutual respect would be highly advantageous for the United States. And the simple truth is, we’ve worked with, and still do work, with far worse