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Is Past Prologue for Russia, U.S.?

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Political Scientists Shared Their Thoughts At A Recent Forum At San Diego State University And Their Opinions Point To A New Abnormal Relationship That Is Akin To The Cold War

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By Karen Weil
Modern Times Magazine

Aug. 7, 2018 — When he was stationed in Dresden, East Germany in December 1989, then-KGB agent Vladimir Putin left his headquarters to face an angry crowd outside.

He warned the demonstrators that armed guards would shoot if they tried to storm the building, but appealed to Moscow for back-up. The response “Moscow is silent” shocked him, according to a 2015 BBC report.

During the 1990s, Putin lamented Russia’s decline as a world power. Nearly 20 years after being named the country’s leader, Putin has made Russia a player again, thanks in large part to oil revenues. Since that time, he has been accused of ordering the murder of numerous political opponents and journalists. After a highly successful Winter Olympics in 2014, Putin approved the annexation of Crimea, an autonomous republic in Ukraine, an action that caused worldwide outrage.

Critics contend his behavior towards the United States at times seem at best disrespectful and at worst malicious. Investigations continue into exactly how much Russia interfered in the 2016 election (via hacking) and if it’s using the same tactics for this November.

And with an American president who seems highly sympathetic to Putin’s desires — based on Donald Trump’s words and actions since taking office in 2017, including a poorly received performance at the recent Helsinki meeting —  many are wondering if we are now in a new phase of the Cold War.

During a recent forum held on the San Diego State University campus, three political science instructors offered theories, along with historical perspective, on the highly complex U.S.-Russia relationship.

Russia Is An Authoritarian State
Mikhail Alexseev, a SDSU professor, said Putin supports an authoritarian state.

The Russian leader’s perfect world, Alexseev said, would be a Europe with far less Western influence. In Putin’s mind, “the [European Union] would be better off dead,” he added.

Further, Putin would be fine with the United States split up into various regions, Alexseev maintains. Four years after their country annexed Crimea, Russians became less supportive of the United States because Putin has portrayed America as a threat, Alexseev said.

Erik Gartzke of the University of California San Diego, said intelligence agencies have determined while Russians did not directly affect the U.S. electoral process in 2016, they did affect public opinion.

While it’s not prudent to ignore Russian interference in the U.S. electoral process, “a lot of this was done to us by us,” said Gartzke, who also directs UC San Diego’s Center for Peace and Security Studies. Numerous factors were involved in Trump’s 2016 Electoral College win, including hacking efforts such as Fancy Bear and voters’ fears about terrorist attacks on American soil.

“Trump fits a pattern of rising populism on the Right in the U.S. that goes back decades,”  Gartzke added.

Gartzke told the audience that when it comes to spying on Americans, social media companies like Facebook are guilty.

UC San Diego’s Philip G. Roeder said it may be too optimistic to describe the current situation as a “new cold war.” From 1962 until the Cold War ended in the early 1990s, both the U.S. and Russia had, for the most part, a peaceful coexistence. Before that, the situation was much more dangerous, and our current relationship mirrors it.

In the early 1990s, various agencies did what they could to encourage democracy in Russia, including an International Monetary Fund loan, but Western-oriented liberal parties the U.S. back in political races “did miserably,” Roeder said.

Another misstep, Alexseev said, was during the 1993 standoff between former President Boris Yeltsin and parliament members, when the United States backed Yeltsin. Two years later, the American government “did nothing” [about the Russian conflict in] Chechnya, creating the perception that “we don’t mean what we say,” Alexseev added.

While the U.S. must step back and understand Russia’s geopolitical goals, “that does not mean granting them legitimacy,” Roeder said.

Avoiding War Without Granting Legitimacy
The U.S. “must step back” and understand Russia’s goals – but “that doesn’t mean granting them legitimacy,” Roeder said. Instead, a basic understanding can help maintain agreements. To Roeder, the current U.S. political debate over Russia has “weaponized” relations between the two countries.

Instead, both nations need to work together to minimize conflict in the Third World and ensure that nations such as Estonia, Georgia and Ukraine he added.

Further, Roeder stressed both nations “need to dial back involvement in [the other’s] domestic affairs.”

Gartzke echoed Roeder’s concerns about understanding Russian perspectives, including its view that the “last 20 years have been a disaster,” including the expansion of North Atlantic Treaty Organization into the former Soviet bloc.

Gartzke said the United States in “overwhelmingly powerful” in conventional military terms, while Russia is a “sheikdom with bad weather and worse demographics.”

After the Soviet Union officially ended in 1991, the country squandered its human capital and relied mostly on natural resources, Gartzke added.

Alexseev said the U.S. must send a message about Crimea by raising sanctions “a little,” as a way to remind Ukrainians that the West cares about them. He also challenged the idea that Trump actually wants this nation and Russia to have better relations.

Russia, he added, “is not going to cooperate with us to make us stronger. Putin supports Trump because he will make America weaker.”
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