Three Theories about Russia: Ally, Cold War Adversary, or Enemy #1?

One year ago, as the crisis in the Ukraine was dying down, Russia was barely on the radar screen of U.S. news outlets.

If it appeared prominently in more than one daily news cycle per month, it was unusual.

Moreover, few people understood the country, its domestic politics or its foreign policies.

Fast forward to the present, and look how all that has changed! Russia now dominates the U.S. news cycle.

On an average evening, for example, CNN dedicates up to one-half of its broadcast to the Russia collusion investigations, their targets and related “breaking news.”

In this past Friday’s New York Times, two Russia-related stories dominated the front page, “President’s Fury Erodes Rapport with Early Ally,” and “Wary of Mueller, Trump’s Team is Investigating His Investigators.”

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New York Times front page, Friday, July 21.

A search for the word “Russia” on the Times website turns up 46 articles and opinion pieces this month alone. They’re replete with incendiary headlines, such as “The Hijacked American Presidency,” “Did Putin Have Trump for Lunch,” “Trump Misleads on Russian Meddling,” “Scions and Scoundrels,” plus many more.

But still, few people understand the country, its politics or its policies.

My grandparents were born in Russia. I’ve studied the history of U.S.-Russian relations since I was in high school. I’ve learned to speak the language. I’ve traveled to remote corners of the country. And we plan to go back again with friends in September to stay at a Russian health spa in Caucasus Mountains.

No, I’m not a career expert on Russia. But to get a stronger handle on this slippery issue, I can lay out — objectively and factually — three different theories on Russia’s relationship with the United States …

Theory #1
Russia as an American Ally for Four Centuries

The United States and Russia have never been direct enemies in war, and they’ve often been allies.

Start with the 18th Century — during the American Revolutionary War.

The Russian Empire under Catherine the Great refused to cut off trade with the American colonies, deliberately violating Britain’s Navigation Acts. Instead, Catherine insisted on trading directly with the colonies, providing goods, funds and supplies needed for their survival during America’s war for independence.

In the next century, after the Crimean War of 1853-1856, Russia feared that the British would seize Russian America (Alaska). To help avoid this outcome, Russia offered to sell the entire territory to the United States. President Andrew Johnson gladly obliged in 1867. And both nations took away critical strategic benefits from the deal.

A few years earlier, during the American Civil War, Russia was alone among European powers to offer direct support for the Union. The Imperial Russian Navy sent two fleets to the U.S. Although the primary intent was to find a safe haven from a possible war between France and Britain, the fleets stayed in American waters for seven months, providing implicit support for Lincoln and the North.

World War II brought the biggest U.S.-Russian alliance in history: The United States provided the Soviet Union with massive amounts of weapons, ships, aircraft, food and other strategic materials under the U.S. Lend-Lease program, formally known as the “Act to Promote the Defense of the United States,” enacted March 11, 1941. Russian forces, in turn, were critical in the defeat of German forces in the final stages of the war.

In the 21st Century, Russia has helped U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan with logistic support and by allowing Allied forces to pass through its territory. The two countries have supported each other in combating piracy in the waters off the coast of Somalia. They are now cooperating to enforce a cease-fire in Syria negotiated by Trump and Putin on July 7. And the Trump White House has just announced that it has opened up new avenues for cooperation in Syria by ending the covert CIA program to arm anti-Assad rebels. (The U.S. will continue to pursue its far larger and more successful support of mostly Kurdish forces in northern Syria.)

Meanwhile, the U.S. and Russia have signed a critical deal to avoid air incidents over Syria. And whether you like it or hate it, the U.S. and Russia — along with the U.K., France, China, Germany and the EU — are co-signers in the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” to regulate Iran’s nuclear program.

For the most part, the White House and the Kremlin see eye to eye regarding nuclear disarmament on the Korean Peninsula, nuclear nonproliferation globally, and the global War on Terror.

Theory #2
Russia as a Cold War Adversary

I need not detail the long history of post-World War II geopolitical tensions between Eastern and Western bloc countries called the “Cold” War.

But let’s not forget that, more often than not, it entangled both sides in a long series of deadly proxy wars that were anything but cold: The Chinese Communist Revolution (1945-’49), the Greek Civil War (1946-’49), the Korean War (1950-’53), the Hungarian Revolution (1956), the Suez Crisis (1956), the Berlin Crisis (1961), the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962), the Prague Spring (1968), the Vietnam War (1955-’75), and the Soviet-Afghan War (1979) — not to mention scores of revolutions and civil wars in Latin America, Africa and Asia, in which the U.S. and Soviet Union almost invariably supported opposing sides.

Nor need I go into great depth about the worsening stand-off between Russia and the West since Putin’s rise to power:

Sergei Magnitsky before his capture in 2008

In 2008, Sergei Magnitsky, an outspoken critic of Putin, was arrested and imprisoned in Moscow. He died in prison the following year for an illness that was allegedly neglected by prison authorities.

In 2012, President Obama signed the Magnitsky Act, imposing travel and financial restrictions on human rights abusers in Russia. And just 14 days later, Putin retaliated with the Dima Yakovlev Act, banning U.S. citizens from adopting Russian children. To this day, Putin seems infuriated and obsessed with the matter.

In 2013, just hours before Obama’s State of the Union address, two Russian strategic bombers, reportedly equipped with nuclear-tipped cruise missiles, circled the U.S. territory of Guam, as U.S. Air Force F-15s scrambled to intercept them.

In 2014, Russia invaded and annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea. This upended decades of East-West relations, set off a series of sanctions and counter-sanctions, and opened a new chapter of conflict with NATO.

Then, in 2015, Russia dove headlong into the Syrian war. Putin ordered Russian aircraft to launch a series of airstrikes against militant groups opposed to the Syrian regime, including some supported by the United States. Soon thereafter, Russian forces established a permanent active presence in Syria, including air, sea and ground forces. It is the first major proxy war between Washington and Moscow since Vietnam.

Overall, from the perspective of this theory, Moscow and Washington are adversaries in a century-old battle for global influence and control.

Theory #3
Russia as America’s Enemy #1

Largely discredited in recent years, this view has suddenly resurfaced since the 2016 presidential election. As I explained here last week in “Russia Phobia: Big dangers and big opportunities,” it’s often driven by Washington paranoia about Russia that’s off the charts. But it still merits careful consideration, especially given Putin’s latest incursions.

Last year, Senator John McCain, who chairs the Armed Services Committee, said, “We should place as much faith in [Putin’s] statements as any other made by a former KGB agent who has plunged his country into tyranny, murdered his political opponents, invaded his neighbors, threatened America’s allies, and attempted to undermine America’s elections.” And on Friday, while recovering from surgery, he criticized President Trump “for playing right into the hands” of Putin by ending the CIA’s covert program to aid Syrian rebels.

Before he left office, Obama also warned against appeasing Putin with “realpolitik,” short-sighted deals that overlook long-standing American foreign policy and core values. So have German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other European allies.

In this context, some analysts are drawing parallels with the Allies’ appeasement of Adolf Hitler before World War II:

European allies appease Hitler with Munich Agreement.

In October 1938, Hitler unilaterally incorporated Austria into Germany and annexed Sudetenland in Western Czechoslovakia. So you’d think the United Kingdom and France would look for a way to castigate him. Instead, at a subsequent peace conference in Munich, they signed an agreement that effectively blessed the Sudetenland annexation.

Meanwhile, in Évian, France, the U.S. and the U.K. announced they could not accept any more Jewish refugees, hoping the rising tide of antisemitism in Germany would subside. Four months later came Kristallnacht, the infamous pogrom that smashed Jewish shops, burned synagogues and destroyed properties throughout the country.

Many historians attribute Hitler’s boldness to the Allies’ weakness. In early 1939 Hitler ordered Plan Z, a five-year naval expansion designed to defeat the British Royal Navy. He engineered the creation of a pro-German Slovak Republic, triggering the dissolution of Czechoslovakia.
He occupied the Czech side in a direct violation of the Munich Agreement. He demanded that Lithuania cede its Klaipėda Region and that Poland return the Free City of Danzig to Germany. To thwart German ambitions, the United Kingdom and France offered to guarantee independence for Poland, but it was a futile gesture. On Sept. 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland, starting World War II in Europe.

This theory places Trump’s recent dealings with Putin in a similar context and holds that they could lead to equally (or more) dangerous outcomes.

Which Russia theory do you subscribe to?

Use our comment section below to give me your response. Then, I will follow up with mine, along with specific recommendations on how to protect yourself and even profit.

Good luck and God bless!

Martin