Russia vs. USA: Who is the Threat, Who is the Aggressor? (1/2)
GOP and Democratic Party leaders and media pundits like Rachel Maddow are raising their anti-Russian rhetoric to cold-war levels. Jeffrey Tayler, contributing editor to The Atlantic, says they are ignoring the history of broken American promises, NATO expansion and attempts to develop American first strike nuclear capability.
PAUL JAY: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.
In all the controversy surrounding the alleged Russian e-mail release that allegedly affected the American elections. I keep saying “alleged,” because while people in Congress, Senate, and from the Intelligence community are saying they are certain that this e-mail release, the WikiLeaks release, came from the Russians. I don’t think there’s been that much hard evidence, actually any, presented to the public.
All that being said, the underlying idea underneath all of this, and in the language that’s being used, is our adversary. Russia is our adversary. Every time one hears politicians, and many media pundits, talking about why this is such nefarious activity, it’s because Russia is our adversary.
Well, this is a bipartisan affair, whether it’s President Obama, or whether it’s Senator John McCain, or even some others. For example, here’s what President Obama said about Russia, not so long ago.
BARACK OBAMA: This is somebody, the former head of the KGB, who is responsible for crushing democracy in Russia, muzzling the press, throwing political dissidents in jail, countering American efforts to expand freedom at every turn.
PAUL JAY: You also hear similar language from John McCain, on the Republican side.
JOHN MCCAIN: Vladimir knew that there was no moral equivalence between the United States and Putin’s Russia. I repeat. There is no moral equivalent between that butcher, and thug, and KGB Colonel, in the United States of America — the country that Ronald Reagan used to call, “A shining city on a hill”.
PAUL JAY: The shining city on the hill. That’s the fundamental narrative of American exceptional-ism. But it’s not only from the bipartisan Republican and Democratic Party leaderships; you also hear it from some voices that supposedly represent progressive opinion. Here’s Rachel Maddow.
RACHEL MADDOW: Right, if you’re Russia, especially under Vladimir Putin, you have no desire to be part of a Western alliance of free countries. In part, because you don’t think it’s in your interest to be a free country, and frankly, you don’t want to be part of something that is led by someone else.
Once upon a time, around the fall of the Soviet Union, there was a brief hope that Russia might end up being a member of NATO… No. Under Vladimir Putin, instead, Russia has decided not just to continue to define NATO as it’s great enemy in the world, but to set up its own hoop-de knock off version of a competitor to NATO. Which is ridiculous, in terms of being any real competition. But, there, at least, Russia can be in charge.
PAUL JAY: And that’s the basic narrative. It was Putin’s Russia that turned down NATO. It’s Putin that’s being unreasonable. It’s Russia that’s the aggressor, and it’s Russia that made a choice that it needed to be a place where it could make its own decisions. Although that’s a little odd that there’s something negative about a country wanting to make its own decisions.
At any rate, helping us unpack all of this, and then we’re going to talk about, what might a real “detente” look like if, in fact, the Trump administration is interested in really forging better relations with Russia, and reducing tensions. But we’re going to start with who is the enemy here, and why is it so adversarial?
Now, joining us from Moscow, is Jeffrey Tayler. Jeffrey is a contributing editor at the Atlantic, an author of seven books, he’s lived in Moscow since 1993, recently outlined his proposal for a new detente between the U.S. and Russia. He called it the deal Trump should strike with Putin.
Thanks for joining us, Jeffrey.
JEFFREY TAYLER: Thanks for having me on.
PAUL JAY: So, let’s give this a little bit of historical context here. It wasn’t, obviously, that long ago when the Soviet Union and the United States were, in fact, adversaries. And it was certainly, in the beginnings, at least, rooted in the fact there were quite opposing socioeconomic systems.
The Soviet Union pulled a lot of people out of the global marketplace. It certainly did not march to the Western or American drumbeat, but with the fall of the Soviet Union, and you have the rise of a capitalist country, it becomes an oligarchy and such.
Frankly, not so different than the United States, which maybe has a lot more oligarchs, but is another oligarchy, to quote Bernie Sanders. But the adversarial, the antagonism — why does that begin? And why does Russia see the United States as such a threat and vice versa?
JEFFREY TAYLER: Well, it’s hard to imagine the goodwill and trust that was reigning in the last years of the Soviet Union when Gorbechev and Bush, the father, were in power. The United States essentially played a good role in establishing a peaceful relationship with Russia, and this was done under Reagan, in fact, with the detente that he began with Gorbachev.
But the problem quickly went sour following the ironclad guarantees — those were James Baker’s words, to Gorbachev — that NATO would not expand one inch to the East in return for the Soviet acquiescence in East Germany’s re-uniting with West Germany, to become one Germany. Which was a threatening thing at the time, for Russians.
And the problem began really, during the Clinton years that followed, when NATO did, in fact, decide to expand, not only more than one inch to the East, but all the way up to within artillery range of St. Petersburg, in the Baltics.
And the sense of encroachment, the troop deployments, especially within the last few years, that have taken place in the Baltics and Poland, has been very strong here. The encroachment on their borders, the surrounding sense from the West.
PAUL JAY: And why did Clinton do this?
JEFFREY TAYLER: Well, there are a lot of reasons that seem to come to mind, although no one has researched them thoroughly. You can imagine, first of all, that there was a justifiable historical apprehension on the part of the Eastern European countries, that were afraid of Russia, because they’d just been members of the Warsaw Pact. Since the end of the Second World War, and they had historical domination before that.
But since Russia, at the time, was not a military threat, it was weak; it was under the chaotic rule of Boris Yeltsin. You could almost look and see the relations with the major arms companies — the so-called military industrial complex — that would propel and contribute to campaigns to politicians who wanted to expand the alliance to the East, which they did gradually, starting with Eastern European countries.
PAUL JAY: I suppose there’s always an impetus on the part of big powers to expand. It’s kind of inherent in them, especially when the other side is weak. I was in Georgia a few years ago, not long after the conflict, and tensions with Russia, and there was a very deep-seated antagonism towards Russia, over the years, of when Georgia was part of the Soviet Union. Of course, I met some people there that what they really wanted, was independence from both powers. They wanted Russia now, and the United States, to stop trying to control these countries.
But, in terms of Clinton’s motivation, and the motivation for NATO moving forward, I assume it’s to get these countries within the Western sphere. Both, not just of influence, but in terms of economics and economic control.
JEFFREY TAYLER: Yeah. The EU expanded throughout the region … 28 now I suppose 27 countries, and part of EU membership, essentially is NATO membership. So, the market relations followed. There was a militarily stable zone for investment, and of course, arms contracts. Both to sell the new countries the arms, because a condition for joining NATO is that you abandon your Soviet-era, or Russian arms, and buy Western arms and then the contracts that followed, to service those arms. So, it’s an open-ended deal.
PAUL JAY: And the thing is the expansion could have been economic within the EU, without it being expansion with NATO. The one didn’t necessarily have to lead to the other.
JEFFREY TAYLER: Yeah. And I think it was Russia’s weakness during the ’90s that prompted Western politicians, and business circles to think, “Well, if we can do the economic side, we might as well go all out and do the military side, and lock in this situation of Russians weakness.” Which was done all in the face of stern warnings from the senior diplomat, George Kennan. Who was a hawk, who was the author of the containment policy, who warned very specifically about the consequences.
And there was almost no discussion of this in the United States domestically. No one paid attention to the protestations of the Yeltsin regime, his foreign minister, and others, who were quite angry, and basically just had to suck it up.
PAUL JAY: And the warnings were, expanding NATO will inevitably lead to conflict.
JEFFREY TAYLER: It will first result in a new Cold War. It will kill chances for democracy in Russia, and eventually result in a hot war. Those were George Kennan’s words.
PAUL JAY: And as I say, this has been quite a bipartisan policy. In 2002, George Bush abrogates the anti-ballistic missile treaty of 1972. What was the significance of that, and what did that look like through Russian eyes?
JEFFREY TAYLER: Well, again, it was done at a time when Russia was perceived to be weak. Putin had just come into office at the time. But the fear that was realistic at the time, and it still is, that the United States was moving its military and espionage and intelligence gathering infrastructure right up to the border, with this kind of missile defense system. That they understood, and we understand now, is not capable of knocking down a massive launch of Russian ICBMs.
But, the offensive capability of the weapon comes with the possibility of knocking down the ICBMs launched from Russia, after a United States first strike. There would be few that would survive such a strike, and the few could be possibly shut down before they broke through the earth’s atmosphere.
So, there is a fear that there could be a breakthrough in technology, and they’re countering it. I mean, the Russians said, when the treaty was abrogated, that we will just have to take other measures, and we are starting to see what those other measures may turn out to be, now that they’re taking to evade the missile defense system.
PAUL JAY: And this essentially could have given the United States, may have given the United States, first strike capability, which is a dramatic change in the equation.
JEFFREY TAYLER: Yeah. And there is even more recent news about a super fuse that would allow U.S. nuclear submarines to detonate their weapons over the silos where Russian ICBMs are located. Simultaneously in such a way that it, in effect, may have already given — this is in the last couple of weeks — I’m speaking of a report that came out through the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. It may have already given the United States a first strike capability, and this is very destabilizing.
PAUL JAY: In your recommendations for this Detente 2.0, as you called it in one of your articles, is get rid of the hair trigger on the nuclear weapons, America’s hair trigger. What exactly does that mean, having a hair trigger and why do they have a hair trigger?
JEFFREY TAYLER: It essentially means that missiles are ready to launch on warning. That is, they’re already in the silos, and you have to insert certain keys, and give certain codes, in order to launch them. That’s done very quickly, or can be done very quickly.
The original idea was that, in the dark days of the Cold War, that the Soviet Union might launch a first strike, and the United States would have to launch a strike based on its satellite imagery of the incoming missiles, before its own missiles were destroyed. So, the idea is that it would occur in that sort of situation, when it was either use them or lose them, in the Cold War days.
And the problem is, with keeping missiles on that sort of alert, now it’s not clear that the Russians don’t have the satellite capability to check, or to verify a launch anywhere in the world. They would basically have much less time than we would. They would have basically 15 minutes, before the missiles entered their radar screens, to decide what to do decide what to do.
To decide whether, in fact, if they were missiles or a missile, and how to get in touch with the American leadership at the time, in the event of such a hypothetical crisis.
PAUL JAY: Why doesn’t the U.S., the West, use a, “soft power approach” to Russia? I understand during most of the years of the Soviet Union, or all of them, you couldn’t just simply integrate the Soviet economy into the West, but why not now?
The oligarchs in Russia are not that much different from the oligarchs in Europe, and the oligarchs in the United States. And why can’t they just integrate them, assimilate them into Western capitalism? In many ways they are. It’s not like the Russian oligarchs are not making investments in the West. They come to the West.
There’s some evidence, Trump himself has an investment history of sorts, with some of the oligarchs. Certainly the Secretary of State, Tillerson, is doing oil deals, and got some friendship award from Putin. But as a whole, not just this Trump group — did the Obama, the Bush administration — why do they all have this, such an antagonistic view? And why not assimilate?
JEFFREY TAYLER: Well, the real starting point would be the relationship between the U.S. President and President Putin, which had started off as a very good relationship, if you remember. Especially after September the 11th, when Putin was the first one to go on air, and express condolences and express his offer of full support to the United States, in whatever needed to do, after the attacks.
But especially with President Obama. President Obama showed an astonishing lack of civility; in the way he expressed himself about Putin. He expressly called Putin, said he looks like a bored school boy sitting in the back of a classroom, who leads a regional country that doesn’t produce anything anybody would want, and so on.
And the relationship was clearly very hostile, and Russians took that very personally. It was a deliberate dissing of their leader, and Russians tend to have a default position in favor always of a strong leader. Their leader being kicked around, or being perceived as being insulted on the world stage by Obama, went down very poorly here.
But the hostility in the relationship really does go back into specific actions that started with the Clinton administration expanding NATO, before Putin became president. But, you could also point to the 2011 intervention in Libya, in which the United States promised to Russia that it wasn’t after regime change, that it was just going to going to establish a no-fly zone over Libya. And Gaddafi ended up brutally murdered.
PAUL JAY: But you look at McCain’s language, like, Putin is a butcher, Putin has done this and that. For the sake of argument let’s say everything he says is true, that Putin has done all these horrible things. McCain loves horrible dictators all over the world. Start with the Saudis, and you can go on from there. There’s certainly nothing in American history that makes it difficult for them to work with people who are “butchers”.
So, it’s interesting, I think, Rachel Maddow, I think, twice in the clip we played, talks about how Putin wants to make his own decisions. Putin wants to be a leader. I mean, is this just not wanting to recognize or accept, that Russia actually is a serious regional power, which counts for something? And that they don’t like an entity, maybe ’cause it has nuclear weapons, maybe ’cause it has enough oil, that just doesn’t march to the American drum beat?
JEFFREY TAYLER: Yeah, I think that’s the case. The NATO alliance, that I think Rachel Maddow said in your clip there, that Russia doesn’t want to be a member of NATO because it can’t call the shots.
Well, in fact, when Putin became president, shortly after the year 2000 or so, he talked about potentially becoming a member of NATO. And he talked about getting closer to Europe, but nothing of the sort was in the plans, for obvious reasons, that Russia would be an uncontrollably large and well-armed neighbor, member of NATO, that the U.S. wouldn’t be able to boss around.
And Russia has its own landmass that’s historically impossible to invade and occupy successfully. There’s really no way that the United States would be able to exert the kind of control over Russia that would be necessary, in the same way it gives a security, or a nuclear umbrella, for instance, to Western Europe.
PAUL JAY: Maybe a big capitalist rival in Europe was actually more threatening than a contained quasi socialist one.
JEFFREY TAYLER: Yeah, possibly. But, definitely the relationship has spoiled for Russians, with the very deliberate dissing of President Putin. When, as you say, everybody understands that the United States has allies like Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf States, that violate human rights all the time, behead more people than the Islamic state, and yet there’s not a word about that, and Rachel Maddow isn’t going on and on about them.
PAUL JAY: Okay. In part two of our interview, we’re going to talk about what would Detente 2.0 look like. If in fact, the Trump administration is serious about this easing of tensions, what are some of the specifics of that. So, please join us for the next segment of our interview with Jeffrey Tayler, on The Real News Network.