Why It’s Time for a Real Reset With Russia

This article originally appeared in the 2019 MAPA Summer newsletter

Nato soldiers in the woods
The Fog of War: Military exercises by NATO troops in Lithuania

In April, the long awaited report by Special Counsel Robert Mueller on alleged Russian interference in the US presidential election was released. The report repeated earlier accusations that Russians had hacked into and released emails of the Democratic National Committee in 2016 and had used Facebook posts to try to influence the election. It also issued a finding that there was no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.

The release of the report followed two years of political and media frenzy, during which cable news spent endless hours, and leading newspapers spent endless copy, obsessively speculating on the subject. Many leading Democrats seemed determined to use the ongoing investigation to hammer Trump and, in the process, whip up sentiment against Russia as our “adversary.” Whether one believes all the accusations or not (US intelligence reports have led us far astray and involved us in wars in the past), it is also true that the US engages in this kind of behavior all over the world and is doing so right now in Venezuela. Yet we are shocked, simply shocked, that Russians might try to influence our elections. This frenzy is an elaborate distraction, while far greater perils are on the rise.

Picture of TIME magazine cover of Yeltsin
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A dangerous new Cold War is developing between Russia and the US. The treaty system that has surrounded and somewhat restrained the nuclear arms race is unraveling. Each of the two countries has thousands of nuclear warheads capable of obliterating all of the metropolitan areas and defense facilities of the other. Any sizable exchange would cast the entire world into the darkness of a nuclear winter from which human civilization and possibly our species might never recover.

US / Russian relations have been deteriorating for a number of years, after a brief period of professed closeness which followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. (During this period, ironically enough, the US blatantly manipulated the newly established Russian presidential elections to ensure the victory of a corrupt, pliable, pro-American politician who went on to oversee the rise of the oligarchs.)

NATO Expansion

Map of history of NATO membership in Europe
NATO marches eastward. (NATO countries shown in blue.)

After promising not to do so, the US has expanded the NATO military alliance eastward, step-by-step, toward the European border of Russia.

In his keynote speech to the 2019 Mass. Peace Action Annual Meeting, US Army Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, addressed the role that US-led NATO actions have played in increasing tensions between the two nuclear powers.

He noted that James Baker, when Secretary of State, had promised the Soviet foreign minister that NATO “would not move one inch further east” if the Soviets agreed to the reunification of Germany and its retention in NATO. “And what did Bill Clinton do?” Wilkerson asked. “He took us to Georgia. Look at the map. That’s a little further than an inch.”

Wilkerson said President Clinton’s insistence on selling F-16s to Poland “to keep Lockheed Martin viable and making obscene profits” was “why we have Putin in Ukraine and Putin in Georgia and Putin in Crimea…If I were Putin, I would have done exactly the same thing.”

Trump, accused of being a pawn or an agent of the threatening Russian menace, has lost few opportunities to demonstrate hostility to that country, even though he had professed hopes of a better relationship during the campaign. His national security apparatus identified Russia and China as the new major threats to the US and inaugurated a huge new shopping spree from the military industrial complex. Trump has pulled the US out of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which reduced the danger of a short-range nuclear exchange in Europe, and has threatened not to renew the START treatywhen it expires in 2021. He withdrew the US from the Iran nuclear deal, in which Russia, Europe and China were partners, and he now threatens war with Iran.

This year, the president attempted to overthrow Venezuela’s elected government and he has also threatened Cuba and Nicaragua. Russia has close financial relations with Venezuela and Cuba and has assisted these countries while they are under economic attack from US sanctions. Trump’s administration overruled Obama-era restrictions on the sale of deadly weapons to the anti-Russian government of the Ukraine. Trump also stepped up US ground forces in Syria, where Russia had frustrated US plans for regime change. Finally, Trump is directly attacking vital Russian trade arrangements by threatening sanctions if Russia continues to pursue the Nord Stream 2 pipeline which is scheduled to be completed this year to bring natural gas from Russia to Germany. He has also threatened sanctions if Russia completes deals for the sale of some of its military technology to Turkey and India. In both of these cases, the U.S. is the main potential economic competitor to Russia and its corporate interests stand to profit if Turkey or India yields to the sanctions.

Soon after the release of the Mueller report, Mass. Peace Action and other local peace groups hosted Boris Kargilitsky and Oleg Bodrov, two movement activists from Russia, at educational events in Boston. They underscored the importance of pushing from below in both Russia and the US to encourage both governments to work together for peace. This is advice we need to take. As a next step, we should be pushing for a meeting between Trump and Putin at the G-20 Summit in Osaka at the end of June.

Historic Allies

The legacy of the first Cold War makes it easy to forget that the United States and the Soviet Union were, for a few years, close allies in a life-and-death struggle against the dark power of Nazi Germany. More than 400,000 Americans and 20 million Russians lost their lives in World War II defeating the fascists.

Picture of march of the Immortals in Moscow
700,000 Russians joined the March of the Immortals in Moscow on May 9th to honor the 20 million Soviets killed in World War II.

On May 9, huge celebrations and parades in Russia marked the 74 th anniversary of the surrender of Nazi Germany. The most impressive event of the day was the March of the Immortal Regiment. More than 700,000 people walked through the streets of Moscow and into Red Square, carrying pictures, flags, and memorabilia to commemorate their relatives—brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, grandparents and great-grand parents—who were killed in the war. The march honored the sacrifice of the 20 million ordinary Soviet men and women and their families who had made victory possible. At the same time, it was an evocative plea that such sacrifice never be called for again.

When Russia and the US joined in common cause, they were able to confront and defeat a darkness that threatened to smother the world. Today new perils darken the horizon of our future, such as human-caused, species-threatening climate change. Fascist forces are on the rise in many countries. Most of all, the threat of nuclear annihilation, which we have faced together and have almost miraculously avoided, still seems to many the most likely way in which our songs will end. Only by working together will Russia and the US be able to prevent that unimaginable catastrophe.

Russian and Indian peace activists met with Massachusetts state legislators May 8th to discuss the importance of nuclear disarmament.
Russian and Indian peace activists met with Massachusetts state legislators May 8th to discuss the importance of nuclear disarmament. The event was organized by Mass. Peace Action and other groups. From left: Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, Rep. Nika Elugardo, Boris Kargarlitsky, Oleg Bodrov, Achin Vanaik, Sen. James Eldridge, and Rep. Jonathan Hecht. Photo by Michelle Cunha.

—John Ratliff is a Board member of Mass. Peace Action.