CAVAN HOGUE. Should we Jump with Trump on Russia?

Feb 3, 2017

Australia has followed the hardline advocates in the US in attributing evil actions now and in the future to Russia and Putin in particular. How accurate is this view? One of the few sensible things Trump is doing is advocating better relations with Russia which can only contribute to a reduction in international tension – however much we may dislike his regime and and whatever Trump’s motives. Do we now follow Trump or his opponents on this? Australia is not a player despite being a camp follower of NATO so perhaps the less we say the better. So far Mr Turnbull has kept quiet and hopefully will continue to do so.  

In his excellent account of how the US got involved in Vietnam via France, the historian Fredrik Logevall (Embers of War, 2012, p.182) shows how the Truman Doctrine led to a misreading of the relationship between Stalin and other Communist movements. He writes “” the United States was launched on the construction of an international economic and defensive network to protect American prosperity and security and to advance U.S. Hegemony”. He quotes Walter Lippman and other critics who said the policy would bankrupt the Treasury and that it marked a misreading of both Soviet capabilities and intentions”. Of course the USSR did share with the USA a desire to promote its ideology throughout the cold war in a way that contemporary Russia does not but I read this passage with a certain sense of deja vue.

Politicians and most mainstream media have no doubt that Vladimir Putin is a reincarnation of Stalin and everything he does or says is to be condemned. Everyone except Donald Trump who is accused of heresy for wanting to do a deal. There are various claims and theories about why this is so. It seems highly likely that Russia was involved in leaking documents which put Hilary Clinton in a bad light and that Russia wanted Trump to win. Since Clinton’s antipathy to Russia was well known and Trump was conciliatory this is not surprising. The US is hardly in a position to cast the first stone when it comes to subverting governments that don’t suit its perceived interests. There are also suggestions that the Russians have something on Trump which they use to blackmail and that this explains why he is tough on China and not on Russia. Again, this is possible but unproven. People tend not to mention the fact that what Russia hacked and released was only damaging to Clinton because it put her in a bad light. In other words, if she had nothing damaging to hide it would not be possible for anyone to hurt her by hacking.

Be that as it may, there is a widespread demonisation of Russia and Putin in particular in the US. Much of this is rather like the situation described above by Logevall and predates the rise of Trump. Trump is said to be a threat to democracy which he wants to overthrow throughout the world as well as to the US.

Now Putin is no saint and runs a rather nasty domestic government but there is no evidence to suggest he is about to attack his neighbours. Crimea was a special case yet it is cited as an invasion of Ukraine. Russia’s support for Russian speaking rebels in Eastern Ukraine is also described as an invasion whereas it is what the US has done countless times in Latin American and the Caribbean. Russia is supporting the side in a civil war that favours Russian interests. The civil war is about whether Ukraine should be a multicultural country or a monolithic one. While we may criticise both countries for their records, what Russia is doing in Ukraine tells us nothing one way or the other about what Russia wants to do elsewhere.

Russia wants two things. It wants secure borders and friendly or at least neutral states around it. The encroachment of NATO forces right up to its borders is seen by Russians as a threat in the same way as Americans saw Russia’s attempt to put missiles in Cuba was. In other words, it is essentially a defensive approach. It is understandable that a number of European countries fear Russia because of its past aggression just as Russia fears them because of their past aggression against Russia. Both need to understand the others’ concerns. NATO is not necessarily a positive influence and Australia should not tag along.

The second thing Russia wants is to be respected a Great Power and to have a voice in world councils. This does not mean it wants to export its domestic model but that it wants other to recognise its right to decide its domestic model and not insist that it follow Western ways of doing things. It does not have a universal ideology like the USSR but a nationalist one like in the days of the Tsars. It wants respect internationally on its own terms but not to force that on others.

It is sometimes forgotten outside Russia that when he came to power Vladimir Putin made strenuous efforts to get on with the West and it was George W Bush who began the rot by unilaterally abrogated the SALT Treaty which Putin wanted to strengthen. Putin saw this as a betrayal and things went downhill from then on. Russians may be hypersensitive but the collapse of the Soviet Union as a super power and the failure of capitalism and democracy under Yeltsin have left their emotional mark.

Therefore, whatever the murky reasons and whatever else we may think of the mercurial Donald Trump, doing a deal with Russia is in the interests of world peace. We should not be looking to WW2 with Putin as Hitler but to WW1 when the powers talked themselves into war. Don’t think of Putin’s Russia as the USSR but as Tsarist Russia.

Australia is not a player in all this and we should stop aping the US neocons in their naive claims which assume that American hegemony is good for everyone else. The Government has been quiet on this subject and, given what has been said in the past and current Australian media attitudes, it will have some difficulty in deciding what to do. Does it jump with Trump or stick to the old line? Hopefully we will keep quiet.

Cavan Hogue was formerly a senior Australian diploma, and Australian Ambassador to USSR and Russia.  

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