Russia vs. USA: Who is the Threat, Who is the Aggressor? (2/2)

Jeffrey Tayler, Contributing editor to The Atlantic, tells Paul Jay there are steps the Trump administration can take if it is serious about reducing tensions with Russia

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PAUL JAY: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.

We’re continuing our discussion about the Russian and American rivalry. We are told over and over again they are adversaries.

We, in part one, talked a little bit about the history of that relationship, and looked at it to some extent, through the eyes of the Russians and Russian government, and even Russian oligarchs. And why Russia considers itself under threat.

Well, what would a real detente look like? Trump came to power, was elected saying he wanted to reduce tensions with Russia. And it seemed to me of all the things Trump said, that’s about the only thing that sounded actually positive, in my mind. We’ll see if he’s actually serious about that, and if he is, what might he do?

Well, our guest has some very specific proposals of what that might look like. So, joining us again from Moscow is Jeffrey Tayler. He’s a contributing editor at the Atlantic, author of seven books. He’s lived in Moscow since 1993, and he’s recently outlined a proposal for detente between the U.S. and Russia, one of the articles called, “The Detente 2.0: The Deal Trump Should Strike with Putin.”

Thanks for joining us again.

JEFFREY TAYLER: Thank you, Paul.

PAUL JAY: So, Jeffrey lets go through sort of a list. I’ve got some bullet points here. So, for starters you say, start building some trust. So, how do you do that?

JEFFREY TAYLER: Yeah, the first thing that we have to understand is how badly the relationship has decayed, especially since 2014 with the Ukraine crisis. So, essentially the way I see it, the first… in order to make this even remotely possible for the Trump administration, it will probably be Russia that would have to start.

And the first thing that they could do would be pretty small, but symbolically important. There was a program called Future Leaders Exchange, or FLEX, that they terminated a couple of years ago. They could restart that program; it’s basically an exchange program.

In addition, you might remember that in 2012, Russia legally prohibited, or forbid, American couples from adopting Russian children, and they stranded about a thousand children here at the time, who have since languished, waiting. They could lift the ban on Americans adopting children.

PAUL JAY: I was going to say, that before we get further into the list, something I should have probably mentioned in part one.

The Trump administration, it seems to me, has been extraordinarily clumsy and inept, in how they prepared the conditions for this kind of reset, and warming or easing the tensions with Russia. I can’t believe that Flynn, as he talks to the Russian ambassador — Flynn being the former National Security advisor to Trump — how could he not know that he’s being listened to by the NSA.

I’m assuming everything I’m on a phone call with, is being listened to with the NSA, and how could he not know? The whole thing is just so clumsy, and I wonder if they’ve actually spoiled the waters for doing this.

All that being said, let’s say they’re serious and will continue going down a — unless you want to comment a little bit on this. ‘Cause I think it’s just ridiculous how they’ve messed this thing up already.

JEFFREY TAYLER: Yeah. Well, I think it’s caused consternation here. And the spectacle of this meltdown, this protracted meltdown in the White House with Trump, and the chaos, and the unstaffed State Department, is causing consternation here. So, they are aware that they’re dealing with an inept partner, and as a result, they’re taking a standoffish approach. They’re not pushing anything.

You might know that originally, there was talk of Putin and Trump meeting, possibly in July at the G-20 Conference in Europe. The Russians said, “We’re interested in that.” The White House immediately said, “We’re not talking about that because the temperature has turned up so high with this anti-Russia campaign, related to the alleged hacking.”

So, it’s very unlikely at this moment, that Trump could do anything to initiate a detente. But we have to look a little ways down the line, and hope that somehow this calms down.

PETER JAY: Now, Putin is denying that the Russians were involved in this WikiLeaks release that embarrassed Clinton. What’s the Russian press saying though?

In the U.S., generally in the media, even a lot of the supposedly independent and progressive media — not all, but a lot — are taking for granted this was the Russians doing all this. What’s being said about the leaks there?

JEFFREY TAYLER: Well, there isn’t so much being said. One thing that’s been quite perplexing, and even pleasing to Russians, is this notion that Russia could have, in some way, influenced the election. Because they think, well, you’re the United States, you have the longest established democracy, or the most powerful country, and here you’re saying we basically determined the outcome of your election. It’s flattering in an absurd sort of way.

But the Kremlin has denied it, of course, and the average person, really; I think this is flying a little bit above the radar of most people who might not quite understand all the dynamics here. So, I wouldn’t say that that’s really huge issue here.

PAUL JAY: Okay. Other than the fact that this whole thing’s poisoned the waters for doing any of what we’re about to say. Let’s go through what sort of measures you think the United States should take, and Russia, to try to make this thing less tense.

I should say that the doomsday clock from the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved it up to 11:58:30. There’s a lot of talk that we’re closer to potential nuclear war than we’ve been since the Cuban Missile Crisis. I mean, do you think that’s true, or just a little exaggerated?

JEFFREY TAYLER: No, I actually think that they’re factoring in, if you read their statement on why they moved the clock, they’re factoring in, first of all the amount of tension. Second, the proximity of Russian and NATO forces in the Baltics. But, also U.S.-Russian forces in Syria. And then they cite specifically Donald Trump’s words about casual use of nuclear weapons, and his seeming desire to use them. Which is unprecedented.

So, I think the justifiable fear here, is that a crisis will erupt, and Trump will make some massive mistake, and misjudge something, and set off a crisis where a normal president would be able to talk it through. Or, at least not act too hastily. And then the fact that Trump seems to be sidelining the intelligent people in his administration, Tillerson and Mattis, augers ill for the future.

PAUL JAY: Right. Okay, number two on your list — cancel the Obama sanctions.

JEFFREY TAYLER: Yeah, I mean the United States would have to give up something. So, after Russia allows the adoptions to proceed and restarts the FLEX program, the United Sates should cancel the last sanctions. Which weren’t very… the ones Obama put in place in December, which weren’t very significant. And this will be a prelude that Russia could also restart the agreement it has with the United States, for the disposal of Russian weapons grade plutonium, which is something Putin cancelled a couple of months ago.

And also, Russia would have to repeal a law that it passed, that set conditions for the restarting of this program, which is beneficial to the United States and to Russia.

So, those would be the basic things to get done to begin starting. But the first major step would be that the United States would have to take its nuclear arsenal off hair trigger alert. And Russia too, if they have their arsenals set that way. It’s not clear.

PAUL JAY: The Americans have had it on hair trigger alert ever since the Soviet Union acquired nuclear weapons.

JEFFREY TAYLER: Yeah. Yeah. And they mutually de-targeted their arsenals in 1994, so the targeting can be done pretty quickly. So, the next step is to take the weapons off hair trigger alert, which would eliminate the risk of, say, something happening in the 15 minutes that Russia would have to respond, if they got signals through their radars that there were incoming missiles, which in the past, as recently as ’95, turned out to be erroneous signals.

This would just take the extreme tension, especially given the time zone differences; we’re talking eight hours time difference. Finding the right person on the phone in 15 minutes in the middle of the night may not be possible, so this would help reduce that risk.

PAUL JAY: Okay, you have the NATO Russia Council…

JEFFREY TAYLER: Yeah. In 2014, with the Ukraine crisis breaking out, and with the Russian annexation of Crimea, the NATO Council suspended its operations with Russia. It’s the U.S.-Russia NATO Council, which has been functioning since the year 2000 or so, to coordinate. And it was a good move that they established the council, because NATO forces were moving up to the borders of Russia, and they wanted to establish good contacts that would be effective in case there was some kind of misunderstanding.

And also, there are other military to military contacts that were suspended in 2014 that also should be restarted. To some extent, we’re seeing that now in Syria, with the Russian and U.S. forces who are engaged in de-conflicting. But they need to restart the Council.

PAUL JAY: Withdraw Ukraine and Georgia from the NATO waiting list. When I was is in Georgia, you know, six, seven years ago now, eight years ago, I actually heard quite a few people who were very much against this NATO expansion. They thought it was unnecessary provocation. It was using Georgia as a provocation. What is the feeling in Ukraine and Georgia about this?

JEFFREY TAYLER: Well, it’s split, and I think that now, in Ukraine there may be slightly more people interested in joining NATO than before. President Poroshenko of Ukraine, has said that he would like to hold a referendum. But the problem with Ukraine is that it’s really split in three, in any case. It’s split into the ethnically Russian East, the Ukrainian Centre, and then a very Westernized part in the far west of the country. And so the divisions are really strong.

One reason why NATO, even now, you know, the U.S. is careful about sharing intelligence with Ukraine, because the Russians built the Ukrainian Intelligence Services, and military, and have essentially infiltrated it at all levels. It would be extremely risky to begin sharing intelligence with the Ukrainians.

So, it’s problematic from the start, it almost seems impossible that it could happen, but we’ve seen stranger things. At the moment, there’s a territorial conflict going on in eastern Ukraine, and the Crimea, there are flashpoints. It doesn’t seem likely that NATO would vote to induct Ukraine.

But, what the United States could do, would be to renounce the declaration made in Bucharest in 2008, which said Ukraine and Georgia will be members of NATO. Because they didn’t offer them at the time — a membership action plan — which would have started the process. But this is what, in effect, provoked the Russians to respond very aggressively when Saakashvili began firing into a breakaway region at Russian peacekeepers there. Part of his country was there… Georgia’s also split into several ethnic areas. And the Russians invaded when Saakashvili really started firing, and of course they withdrew very quickly.

But they were in effect saying, this is what happens, they locked in a frozen conflict in Georgia, and now there’s the conflict in Ukraine. So that Russians have affectively stymied — the United States may think that it can one day persuade Europe to agree to invite Georgia and Ukraine, but it’s clear that the Europeans would be extremely skittish about doing this. And before all this mattered, that is in 2008, it was possible to make these declarations. There was no overt conflict.

Now there’s a real conflict. But a key element of this detente would be for the United States to formally state — perhaps in return for Russia also formally stating that it won’t invade, or support separatists on the territories of these two countries — that the United States will not invite Ukraine and Georgia to join NATO.

PAUL JAY: Okay, and on your list you have, end provocative military exercises at the border. I guess this goes for Russia and NATO.

JEFFREY TAYLER: Yeah. Ever since the conflict with Ukraine has broken out, both sides have conducted military exercises, mostly in the Baltics and western Russia, and these are serious. It’s not necessarily clear what is an exercise, and what is not. So, we see troops being deployed and paratroopers dropping out of planes and whatnot.

And this is the kind of thing that could conceivably lead to a mistake, and accidental shoot down; those operations would have to cease. At the moment they’re not going on, but they have been, and Russia is conducting periodically massive military exercises that are done, that have been in response to this NATO expansion.

PAUL JAY: And then, I guess, to me this is sort of a no-brainer that this isn’t being talked about, or talked about more. But that Crimea, a U.N. run referendum in Crimea, probably a referendum in Ukraine and Georgia. I mean, and all these peoples decide what they want to be part of and what they don’t. But I don’t know if the Americans or the Russians really want this.

JEFFREY TAYLER: Well, the Russians have passed a law making it illegal to call for the separation of Crimea from Russia, after the annexation in 2014. But there has been polling done, including with the participation with Americans. That shows that a majority of Crimean’s of ethnic Russian and ethnic Ukrainian background, want to remain in the Russian federation.

There’s no realistic way that Russia would give up the Crimea at this point. As you know, as you’ve seen from the amount of patriotism that gets expressed here, when Crimea comes into the picture. It was Russian from 1783 until 1954, when Khrushchev reassigned it to the Ukraine, and the Soviet Socialist Republic.

PAUL JAY: I guess that’s a whole story onto itself. I don’t know, is there a quick answer? Why did Khrushchev do it?

JEFFREY TAYLER: I think it was part of an internal party power struggle in the Communist party of the Soviet Union.

PAUL JAY: Okay. Well, a subject for another day, ’cause it’s probably rather complex to get into.

So, there was a referendum in the Crimea. A lot of people suggest it wasn’t that fair. I don’t know. But Crimea did vote in favor in that referendum to join the Russian Federation. But if they won it once, why couldn’t they win it again? Why not settle this whole issue with another referendum?

JEFFRETY TAYLER: Yeah, I think it would make sense. I’ve been travelling in Crimea since the year 2000, and in fact, I was gathering material for a story on the separatists, the autonomy movement at the time.

And there’s a very strong pro-Russian sentiment there, partly because they are a lot of former KGB officers who were given retirement homes there. People were speaking Russian. Russian was the language of the zone. So, I think that if they did hold a referendum, it would come out in favor of remaining in the Russian Federation.

PAUL JAY: So, all of this goes back to that, in fact, on both sides, there’s an actual interest for such a new detente. Do you think there really is?

JEFFREY TAYLER: Yeah, on the side of Russia, yes. I wouldn’t say they would call it a detente; maybe that word isn’t being used. But they’re looking for a sort of grand deal, a grand bargain, that would essentially take the pressure of NATO off of Ukraine and Georgia, and possibly remove the missile defense systems from Eastern Europe that are in place now.

There is a desire to have sanctions relief. But the sanctions have not so damaged the Russian economy that they threaten to undo the Putin government.

PAUL JAY: And on the American side?

JEFFREY TAYLER: Well, we all saw Trump saying that he wanted to be friends with Putin, and he wanted to get along with Russia. That’s wonderful, but he never enunciated vision, or an understanding, and nor has anybody around him of what that means. I’ve never heard them talk about NATO. Except that Trump, at one point did seem to understand that Crimea played into that. He really was never able to do more than express this admiration for Putin, which is just not enough.

If he stumbles into this relationship without a plan, without understanding of what Russia’s interests are, without listening to Russia, he could badly damage things, and set off a new confrontation, even worse than the one we’re in now.

PAUL JAY: Yeah, and he’s also so compromised by his big mouth, and I don’t know whether it’s the Russians or not, but if it is, the WikiLeaks leak, it’s given all the fodder to the forces in the United States, political and defense, that love having Russia as a major rival and/or believe it is. They have such fodder now that it would be hard for him to do much of anything on this front for quite a long time.

Just finally, when you look at the Russian desire for a grand bargain, the real deal foreign policy priority for the Trump administration he claimed was ISIS, but when you read the people around him, what they really think the foreign policy priority is, it’s to re-establish sanctions on Iran, and perhaps target Iran.

And I don’t know how far they really would want to go militarily. But do you think, in part of a grand bargain, that the Trump people were thinking of, and would Putin go along with this, that the Russians wouldn’t resist all that much when the Americans went after Iran again?

JEFFREY TAYLER: Well, no. In fact, Russia considers Iran a strategic ally. They’ve had their historical troubles; they still have a bit of a turbulent present. But Russia has strong interests in Iran. It’s a huge powerful Muslim country, almost on its borders. I don’t believe they’re going to acquiesce to have any U.S. invasion or attacks, Russia was very important, as you know–

PAUL JAY: Well, I wouldn’t think it would be invasion or attacks, but it could well be trying to do the snap, come up with some evidence, supposedly, that Iran’s violating the agreement, and put back the sanctions in force.

JEFFREY TAYLER: Well, I think they would resist it. And especially now, there’s no reason to think that, given the hostility that developed between Russia in the last years of the Obama administration, there’l

And they were extremely important in concluding this deal, which they were proud of. Which Trump has been saying since the beginning that he wants to abolish.

PAUL JAY: All right, thanks very much for joining us, Jeffrey.

JEFFREY TAYLER: Thank you, Paul.

PAUL JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.