Is Russia the ‘Adversary’ of the United States?
Moscow based journalist Jeffrey Tayler and Paul Jay challenge the underlying assumption of the furor in Washington, that Russia is the enemy of the American people
Paul Jay: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. We’re going to continue our analysis, coverage of the Comey affair, the Russia affair and so on. All the furor has one underlying theme to it, which is Russia is America’s adversary. We hear the word ‘adversary’ over and over and over again. It’s as if everyone in every pendant that’s on television has gotten a playbook on how to describe Russia and the word is ‘adversary.’ We’re told Russia is the adversary of America more or less for two reasons. One, because domestically, he’s a tyrant. Putin is authoritarian and so on. Then internationally, he supports Assad in Syria, who is the Bashar al-Assad. He’s our adversary geopolitically in Ukraine and so on.
We want to dig into this issue of just why is Russia an adversary and what is the meaning of it all? Now joining us from Moscow to discuss this is Jeffrey Tayler. Jeffrey is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and the author of seven books. He’s lived in Moscow since 1993. Recently outlined his proposal for a new [inaudible 00:01:20] between the U.S. and Russia on Quillette called The Deal Trump Should Strike with Putin. Thanks for joining us, Jeffrey.
Jeffrey Tayler: Thank you, Paul.
Paul Jay: Let’s start with the first bucket of reasons. Why is Russia an adversary? Let me contextualize this a bit. Assuming Putin is everything he’s accused of being by the Americans … Authoritarian, doesn’t allow free elections, suppresses journalists. He’s been accused of being involved in killing journalists. He’s been accused of and I think there’s pretty good evidence that he has committed some terrible acts, perhaps even war crimes, in Chechnya. All that being said, if all of that’s true … Perhaps not all of it is true. That has never stopped the United States from calling someone like that an ally and a friend, starting with the Saudis and any number of Latin American dictatorships and so on and so on, who frankly as far as I can tell have committed far worse human rights violations in their countries than what has gone on in Russia.
All that being said, let’s just dig into that a bit first and then we’ll deal with some of the other aspects of this whole issue. Tell us just what is the state of human rights in Russia? What is Putin’s role in all this? We talk a lot about Russian oligarchs. On The Real News at least, we also talk about American oligarchs, but there is a Russian oligarchy. There is a Russian state that’s very powerful and Putin is very powerful. What is the character of all that?
Jeffrey Tayler: Well I think that part of the characterization of the situation here has to do with this unfortunate innate Russian tendency to yearn for autocracy in some way or another. They generally respect a strong ruler. That has its manifestations in their history with Tsar and with the Soviet rulers afterwards. Nowadays if we call Putin a tyrant and then the image of Stalin comes to mind, it’s very difficult to speak of Stalin and Putin in one breath. It’s impossible, really. The easy way to put it would be there are restrictions here, that there is a general sense that … Enforced by law enforcement agencies that Putin is the supreme figure for now. He hasn’t announced whether he’s going to run next year, but it appears that he will run in the presidential elections.
There is fairly free speech on the internet. Less free speech on the radio, but basically there isn’t much of any public criticism of Putin on the airways. That aside, his popularity rating has stayed unusually high, over 80%, for I think it must be about a decade now after it dipped during the protest-
Paul Jay: Are these reliable polls?
Jeffrey Tayler: Well they seem to be as reliable as they come. The main polling agency with the Levada Center … There’s another one called [inaudible 00:04:32] Both of their poll results seem to track with public sentiment as best as I can feel it. I generally see Putin as being as popular as he was. There are aspects of the system that are objective to, as you just saw with the corruption anti-corruption protests a few weeks ago. There are a few other issues of that sort, but the general sense is that Putin, especially since the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis and the takeover of Crimea from Ukraine has been extremely popular. That sent him through the roofs in terms of popularity because it put Putin as the defender of … In this case of Russian interests in the Black Sea by taking over a historically Russian piece of territory, at least from 1783 until 1954, when [inaudible 00:05:29] handed it over to Ukraine. Kept NATO out of the region. With the expansion of NATO on Russia’s borders and the sense of encirclement, that has been something that has driven Putin’s popularity rating, especially since 2014.
Paul Jay: Ordinary Russians aren’t benefiting from the Crimea annexation. Why do they care? Why does that make Putin more popular?
Jeffrey Tayler: Well the average Russian is something of a geopolitical analyst in a way that Americans generally are not. They take a lot of pride in their history. You know, the stories about the Soviet defeat of Hitler in World War II. The repeated invasions that have come from the west and that Russia has fought off. This idea of Russia as a country is something that … This idea of spreading across 11 timezones is actually fairly strong. It’s a central uniting element in Russia, a central uniting political element. It always has focused on one person. Even Yeltsin, when he had his brief stint as a president with the vice president, Alexander Rutskoy in the early 90s, found he had to basically accede to the Russian … There was anarchy when there was a vice president and a president. Both wanted to be centers of power. Yeltsin ended up having to bomb his own parliament to squelch that threat in 1993. Significantly, he did not kill his opponent, who is alive and well today.
The elimination of killing as a means of dealing with political opponents that began with Khrushchev in 1954, when Khrushchev began his term as general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party continues. There was a suppressed political dialogue here. As you know, now probably the most potent defender of opposition figure to Putin would be [inaudible 00:07:39] It appears he’s not going to be able to run next year, although there is still no formal announcement from anybody on who is going to be a candidate for the presidency.
Paul Jay: Those Yeltsin years of such chaos and when the oligarchs ran the state, if I understand it correctly now, Putin … The state more runs the country than directly run by the oligarchs. That must have been a great national embarrassment, I guess you could say, after decades … As much as many people didn’t like the Soviet rule, though it’s underestimated I think how many actually did like it or later under Yeltsin became nostalgic for the Soviet Union, it must have been tremendously embarrassing to national psychology, national dignity, to be seen as an American colony practically and in disarray.
Jeffrey Tayler: Yeah. That was when the expansion of NATO began under Clinton, although George W. Bush had James Baker promise to [inaudible 00:08:39] that he wouldn’t expand NATO when Germany was reuniting at the end of the 1980s. That is the national wound of the Yeltsin years or the national wound in effect that allowed Putin to rise and people still, some people at least, still remember the chaos of those years. They were years of hunger, of mass demonstrations, of a freedom that Russians had not known before. Living standards fell extremely after the fall of the Soviet Union. Under Putin for the first eight or nine years or so, very quickly and high with the high price of oil. People associate the stability still with Putin and generally hope the stability continues, which is one reason why Putin remains as popular as he does.
Paul Jay: Now deal with the issue of human rights, free and fair elections and all of this. I have to say in the United States, it’s rather rich in hypocrisy for the United States to be critiquing anybody’s elections or interfering in their elections, given how the United States interferes in everybody’s elections and how the elections at home have this … Often a real veneer of democracy, given how the American oligarch can still control the outcome of American elections simply because they have so much money to throw at it. That being said, there’s less veneer of democracy in the Russian elections, if I have it correctly. Is that true?
Jeffrey Tayler: Yeah. People understand that. What the Russian approach has generally been in limiting the candidate, when the candidates go out on the trail. There will be four or five of them probably this coming round. They will be ones who are essentially state-approved. The years of the 1996 election, when Yeltsin’s popularity was down to something like I think it was five percent, yet he still won. That has not been repeated. Putin won in 2000. He was appointed prime minister in 1999 and ran for election in 2000 I think with 52% of the vote. Something like that. I think it was a legitimate vote in favor of him, who was a sober young man after the Yeltsin years. Then Putin has maintained himself one way or another all the way until now without really skipping a beat, except during the run up to the 2012 presidential elections, when the protest broke out over … Not over presidential elections at the time, but over the Duma election, the parliament elections of December 2011. The results were contested.
Paul Jay: Right.
Jeffrey Tayler: The results stood, despite all the protests that lasted up through his presidency.
Paul Jay: There is far less democracy in Russia than in the United States, let’s say. On the other hand, if you live in downtown Baltimore, there ain’t much democracy. There’s a lot of façade of democracy in the United States, but set that aside. Assuming he is an autocrat and so on and so on, as I said in the beginning, that has never stopped the United States from making autocrats friends. If they actually care about such things, then Trump wouldn’t visit with his hands open to Saudi Arabia and so on. Any number of regimes. If it isn’t really about that, what is it about? Just why does the American, or at least the majority of the American political military establishment, why do they consider Russia such a rival?
It’s not a geopolitical rival really. They have a lot of nuclear bombs, so yes, there’s a theoretical existential threat there. Yes, there’s a difference of interest in Syria. There’s Ukraine. There’s difference in vying for influence and power in that whole … All the regions bordering Russia. Yes, but this is not a geopolitical rival. Certainly not the level of China where economically, China is a real rival to the United States. Anywhere from India to Brazil. What’s it really about?
Jeffrey Tayler: Well I think the default position for Americans is to look for an enemy in Russia. That’s what the military industrial complex was built to defend against. Eisenhower warned about that as he was leaving office and Kennedy couldn’t get a handle on it. It appears to have grown steadily since then. As you’ve pointed out in other broadcasts, you don’t need aircraft carriers to fight ISIS or any of the other terrorist threats that occasionally pop up in the Middle East in the United States. You do need all of these things to potentially confront Russia. It seems like there are big financial interests and then there are also the oil and gas interests that were in fact the reason that [inaudible 00:13:53] was thrown in prison in 2004. I believe he was talking with Exxon about selling them large shares of Russia’s oil industry at the time. Russia had already been through a chaotic period where Russian oligarchs controlled the oil industry and they weren’t paying taxes during the Yeltsin years. That was causing a lot of delays with salaries and demonstrations and even some riots here in Moscow.
There’s a rivalry over the resources that Russia has, which are obviously tremendous in gas and oil and all kinds of minerals. Russia is a country that doesn’t play all with the United States. Because of its nuclear arsenal, there’s only so far the United States is willing to go. There’s this standoff that’s existed pretty much since Putin began reasserting control over the energy industry and the other resources that Russia has, the United States has interest in and it still does, but not in the commanding way it had in the 90s.
Paul Jay: Maybe I’m naïve, but to think that Russia, for example, is somehow going to what? Take over Europe, replace the American influence in Europe? It seems ridiculous, but there was very interesting WikiLeaks back and forth between … Which I think explains a lot of why there was a war in Libya, which had I believe it was the American ambassador in either [inaudible 00:15:22] or Rome talking about how Gazprom was using the Italian oil company. I believe it was … I have maybe the major oil and gas concession in Libya. The gas problem was going to actually take over that concession, but it would still look like an Italian company. The WikiLeaks cable from the U.S. ambassador says Gazprom is using the Italians as stocking horse to “tighten the energy noose around Europe.”
This is the language of seeing Russia as a really aggressive power. The way I think they mischaracterize the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was never marching into Europe, but they acted that way. It sounds like they really internalized this stuff. It’s not just a convenient argument. They really seem to see Russia as this kind of a rival that could somehow vie for influence in Europe or power in Europe.
Jeffrey Tayler: Well the Soviet Union did occupy … Did set up the people’s republics from Bulgaria through Poland. There was a presence in Europe, but at the time, the pipeline if you remember was being built during the Regan [inaudible 00:16:36] era. Regan was warning the Europeans not to get their energy from Russia because Russia would then theoretically … The Soviet Union would then theoretically be able to blackmail Europe. Russia and the Soviet Union need the revenues from oil and gas. They have a lot of it. They pursue their interests I think as aggressively as anybody. As I remember, when the decision was being made about whether to intervene in Libya, Hillary Clinton recommended to Obama that the United States presented this no fly zone, if you remember that’s what they called it, right after meeting with oil industry executives. It may well be that cable that was not known in 2011 that in fact turned her and made her decide that we had to get in there and disrupt any kind of Russian plans to expand into Libya.
Paul Jay: It’s ironic because eventually I think Obama negotiated a deal with the Russians and actually said, “If you help us get rid of Gaddafi, you can keep your deal.” That’s exactly what happened. The Russians actually changed his position and said, “It’s time for Gaddafi to go.” In the end, Gazprom if I understand it correctly kept that deal and did wind up having access to a lot of Libyan oil and gas.
Jeffrey Tayler: Well actually, Putin was pulling the strings at the time, even though [inaudible 00:17:59] was there.
Paul Jay: Yeah, that’s what I assumed. Yeah.
Jeffrey Tayler: Right. Putin did not approve of the overthrow of Gaddafi and was upset at the time with his president. Strange to say. [inaudible 00:18:15] for agreeing to the no fly zone because look what happened to Gaddafi. The implication is clear, that Putin wants to maintain state order with … State leader that he can deal with as he does in Syria with Assad rather than have factions and groups and the chaos that’s in Libya now.
Paul Jay: The real problem for the again majority of the American elites, I think the Trump section of the elites is very based in fossil fuel and it’s in their interest to normalize things with Russia and Putin to really open up access to the fossil fuel, American fossil fuel capital to get out of it, which is why Tillerson is so interested in … Tillerson got this friendship prize from Putin and all this. For the rest of the American elites, other than the narrative that serves the arms producer, which is clearly an important piece of it … They have decades invested in Russiaphobia in order to justify arms manufacturing. It is also that they would like to go back to the good old days. What I mean by that is of Yeltsin, where you have chaos, where you don’t have such a strong central state and where the Western oligarchs have more access to the riches of Russia, especially oil and other things. Not through accommodation, but through destabilizing Russia because they don’t want to deal with a state that can stand up to them.
Jeffrey Tayler: Yeah. I think that’s true. Russia has no need of the U.S. security guarantees in the way that the Saudis and gulf states do. Russia is a rival and it’s a country that won’t buckle under to U.S. pressure. I think that’s what in essence drives so much of the animosity, at least in senior political ranks of the United States. As long as Russia has its nuclear arsenal and control over its territory, there seems to be no way to force it to submit to the kind of deals that the United States would want that were very, very favorable during the Yeltsin years.
Paul Jay: There seems to be enough … Other than normal partisan politics, the fact that Trump wants to do this energy play and come to accommodation with Russia. Perhaps it also fits into his geopolitical strategy, which is global warrior against Islamic terrorism and Bannon’s global warrior against Islamic fascism. If you can at least neutralize or diminish tensions with Russia, if not even engage them in that. Certainly Russia wants to get engaged against ISIS and Syria and other places. In fact, they seem more interested in actually fighting that war than the Americans have been. There’s a lot of convergence of interest here on the Trump side, but on the other side, the deep-seated interest in either keeping the narrative, cold war narrative going or somehow destabilizing Russia seems to be more important to those elites than even the kind of alliance that we needed one would think, at least in Syria.
Jeffrey Tayler: Yeah. I think it’s a mistake for a couple of reasons. The first is that when the United States and Russia were cooperating just after the fall of the Soviet Union, there was a lot of goodwill on the part of Russians here. The expansion of NATO in four major waves through the 90s and the 2000s changed that situation. Now Russians who are not hostile to Americans as people would see the United States as a definite rival. That was obviously the case with Obama and of course with Bush and Cheney in the latter years of the Bush presidency, especially. There’s no reserve of goodwill to draw on. There’s no way to put a new Yeltsin into Russia and let him ransack the country in the way that actually his elite did in the 90s. That just won’t work anymore. Russians are returning to their default position, which is to fall in line behind a strong leader and the dissenting voices are not heard or suppressed.
Paul Jay: All right. Thanks, Jeffrey. We’re carrying on this conversation. I’m sure we’ll do it many times. Thanks for joining us.
Jeffrey Tayler: Thank you, Paul.
Paul Jay: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.