This article is © 2016 by Stephen J. Sniegoski. All rights reserved by author.
This version was posted at
The Last Ditch on October 8, 2016 by WTM Enterprises.


Trump, his mainstream critics, and Putin’s Russia


If you find this article of value, please send a donation of at least $4 to The Last Ditch. More information appears below.


In his September 14 article, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius made a revealing comment about Donald Trump, writing: "The problem with Trump isn't (as some critics have argued) that he's a reckless and potentially genocidal aggressor. No, the danger is that he's precisely what he says he is — a dealmaker who thinks he could craft agreements with despots that could bring peace and security." [1] Since Ignatius's specialty is international relations — he is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations — we can assume that he has some understanding of that field; in addition, we may expect him to avoid the contradictions that many Trump critics afflicted by Trump Derangement Syndrome [2] readily engage in, as they attack Trump for being an isolationist who might 1) recklessly start a nuclear war and 2) turn the United States over to Putin.

Indeed, Ignatius has shown considerable knowledge of history, referring in his columns to the Treaty of Versailles, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, and Neville Chamberlain's appeasement policy. Though I don't agree with his interpretations, he is correct on the historical facts — though he often omits ones that don't fit his narrative — which is more than can be said of many Trump critics.

Ignatius even goes so far as to admit that Trump's position on Russia has positive attributes, which would be regarded as outright heresy by most anti-Trumpians. "This idea of reaching agreements with Putin's Russia isn't crazy, any more than was Chamberlain's desire to escape war in 1938," Ignatius writes. "And Trump actually deserves credit for raising this issue early in the Republican primary debates." He adds, however, "that comments about any such negotiation must be done carefully and unsentimentally, without the mutual self-congratulation that has characterized Trump's Putin."

It might be pointed out that this unsentimental approach was not pursued by such much-revered leaders as Franklin Roosevelt, who spent his time during World War II praising his great ally Stalin — affectionately dubbing him "Uncle Joe" — despite the fact that Stalin liquidated millions of people before and during the war, dwarfing the murder toll attributed to Putin.

Ignatius describes Secretary of State John Kerry's efforts to negotiate with Putin as representing the correct approach. "Russia has been pushing the envelope of power at all its seams," the columnist opines. "The United States needs to establish clear limits — by negotiations, where they're possible, and also by showing that it's willing to use military power, if necessary. That's precisely the tightrope that Kerry has been trying to walk — seeking more military leverage against Moscow, even as he negotiates. The test of Kerry's seriousness will be his willingness to walk away from the Syria deal if Russia doesn't deliver."

Those comments underscore Ignatius's flawed conception of negotiation. Note that all the concessions are expected to be made by Russia. In short, there does not seem to be anything to negotiate. Moreover, there is no recognition that the United States has done anything that might have caused Russia to act aggressively. And it appears that there is nothing the United States could do to improve relations outside of sacrificing its own vital interests — the Neville Chamberlain appeasement analogy. In short, going to war with Russia is preferable to doing something that might maintain peace.

The reality is that the United States has done a number of things since the fall of Soviet Communism that have precipitated Russian hostility. As Jack F. Matlock, U.S. ambassador to Russia under the first President Bush, described the situation: "The common assumption that the West forced the collapse of the Soviet Union and thus won the Cold War is wrong. The fact is that the Cold War ended by negotiation to the advantage of both sides." However, Matlock contended that during the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, "the United States insisted on treating Russia as the loser."

The main events marking that approach included bombing Russia's remaining European ally, Serbia, in the war over Kosovo; bringing former Soviet-controlled states into NATO (something that President George H.W. Bush had promised Mikhail Gorbachev the United States would not do); and, as Matlock puts it, "overt participation in the 'color revolutions' in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan; and then, probing some of the firmest red lines any Russian leader would draw, talk of taking Georgia and Ukraine into NATO. Americans, heritors of the Monroe Doctrine, should have understood that Russia would be hypersensitive to foreign-dominated military alliances approaching or touching its borders." [3]

George F. Kennan, the architect of America's Cold War "containment" doctrine against Soviet expansionism, was highly critical of American efforts to take excessive advantage of the collapse of Soviet Communism. In 1997, for example, Kennan vehemently criticized the Clinton administration's plan to expand NATO to the borders of Russia, which he maintained "would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold war era."

"Such a decision," Kennan accurately prophesied, "may be expected to inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western, and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion; to have an adverse effect on the development of Russian democracy; to restore the atmosphere of the cold war to East-West relations, and to impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking." [4] (Generally hailed as America's leading Sovietologist, Kennan eventually became critical of what he regarded as the extreme application of his doctrine to stop Communism everywhere.)

The renowned writer and Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn expressed a similar view in a 2007 interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel: "When I returned to Russia in 1994, the Western world and its states were practically being worshipped." However, "[this] mood started changing with the cruel NATO bombings of Serbia. It's fair to say that all layers of Russian society were deeply and indelibly shocked by those bombings. The situation then became worse when NATO started to spread its influence and draw the ex-Soviet republics into its structure. This was especially painful in the case of Ukraine, a country whose closeness to Russia is defined by literally millions of family ties among our peoples, relatives living on different sides of the national border. At one fell stroke, these families could be torn apart by a new dividing line, the border of a military bloc."

Solzhenitsyn continued: "In this context it was easy to get accustomed to the idea that Russia had become almost a Third World country and would remain so forever. When Russia started to regain some of its strength as an economy and as a state, the West's reaction — perhaps a subconscious one, based on erstwhile fears — was panic." [5]

The NATO bombing of Serbia in the Kosovo war that Solzhenitsyn mentioned played a greater role in turning Russia against the West than is usually realized. As Masha Gessen, a harsh critic of Putin, [6] wrote:

On March 24, 1999, Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov was on his way to Washington when he got word that NATO had begun bombing Kosovo. He ordered his plane turned around. A few hours later, he landed in a Moscow that was reeling from the insult of not being consulted. Russians had only a vague idea of what Kosovo was but a very strong concept of Serbia being a land of fellow Eastern Orthodox Slavs and of Yugoslavia being a rightful part of Moscow's sphere of influence. Not being consulted — or even, apparently, warned — sent the very clear message that the United States had decided it now presided over a unipolar world. There was no longer even the pretense of recognizing Russia's fading-superpower status: President Bill Clinton had chosen not to wait the few hours it would have taken for Primakov to land in Washington, allowing him to save face by at least pretending to have been in on the conversation.

From this point on, Russian President Boris Yeltsin's administration, already weak and embattled, would be unable to justify its friendly, perennially de-escalating posture toward the West. Anti-American feelings ran so high you would have thought the United States were bombing Russia. By turning his plane around, Primakov had endeared himself to the nationalist opposition and turned his back on Yeltsin. The liberals in Moscow were in a panic. The nationalists were mobilizing not only politically but also militarily: Men lined up outside the Yugoslav Embassy in Moscow to sign up to volunteer to defend Serbia. [7]

Despite his pro-American attitude, Yeltsin voiced strong opposition to the NATO bombing of Serbia. "I told NATO, the Americans, the Germans, don't push us towards military action. Otherwise there will be a European war for sure and possibly world war," Yeltsin declared. [8]

Regarding the bombing, Gessen concluded: "It is also impossible to know whether Putin would have happened to Russia if it had not been for the bombing of Yugoslavia. I believe he would not have." [9] She holds that Putin's takeover of Crimea in 2014 was his revenge for the NATO actions that ultimately led to Kosovo's separation from Serbia. As I bring out later in this essay, it seems likely that most leaders of Russia would act in a manner similar to Putin's.

The coup de grâce for anything resembling a cordial Russian relationship with the United States was the Ukrainian crisis in 2014. The immediate background was Washington's open support for anti-government protesters in Ukraine who in February 2014 overthrew pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. He had been democratically elected, though opposed by about half of the country's population, residing largely in western Ukraine, which was the more nationalistic section of the country. What precipitated the violent protests was Yanukovych's refusal to sign a European Union ("EU") Association Agreement in November 2013, as he had earlier promised to do, in order to move closer to Russia, which would involve joining Putin's key project, the Eurasian Customs Union, and obtaining a large Russian loan.

Putin had viewed Ukraine as a necessary member of his customs union, whereas Yanukovych's adversaries were pro-Western and sought Ukraine's membership in the European Union and NATO. The opposition was openly supported in its activities by U.S. government officials, most notably Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, who was the wife of neocon Robert Kagan, co-founder of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC). Nuland had been an advisor to Vice President Cheney. Her actions with respect to Ukraine were not only improper but illegal, since she went so far as to encourage the coup. [10]

The possibility that Ukraine — an integral part of the Russian Empire for hundreds of years, and then of the Soviet Union — would join the West led to Russia's annexation of Crimea and its support for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, a region that had become de facto independent from the Ukrainian government.

Crimea, which had been annexed by Russia in 1783 and was inhabited largely by ethnic Russians, became a part of Ukraine only in 1954, when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev transferred it to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in celebration of the 300th anniversary of Ukraine's inclusion in the Russian Empire. Many in Russia regarded Khrushchev's move as illegitimate, but it was without any great significance as long as both Russia and Ukraine were parts of the Soviet Union.

Crimea is especially important to Russia because of its naval base there. Russia's capacity to reach the sea is limited by geography, especially in regard to the strategically vital Mediterranean. Its Sevastopol base is thus crucial for the projection of its naval power globally. In recent years, the base has been all-important for Russia's support of Syria. [11]

Leading Russian security thinkers feared that a failure to counter what they saw as the West's wresting Ukraine from Russia's sphere of influence would lead to comparable efforts — "color revolutions" — to destabilize Russia itself. In view of U.S. policy toward Ukraine, epitomized by Nuland's activities, the Russians had considerable cause for concern. It motivated Moscow's belligerent external actions as well as its crackdown on internal dissent. [12]

President Obama no doubt underrated Russia's power and ambitions when, in early 2014, he described it as only a "regional power," but Russia is far less powerful than the old Soviet Union, which was considerably larger and had strong supporters around the globe in the various Communist parties linked to Moscow. It is apparent, however, that Putin does seek to make Russia a principal player in the world arena and oppose what he views as American global hegemony, in order to bring about a multi-polar world.

That stance is not peculiar to Putin; it would likely not be significantly different if someone else were running the Russian government. As national-security analyst Graham Allison and Sovietologist Dimitri Simes have pointed out:

Russia's political environment, at both the elite and public levels, encourages Putin to escalate demands rather than make concessions. At the elite level, Russia's establishment falls into two camps: a pragmatic camp, which is currently dominant thanks principally to Putin's support, and a hard-line camp. The Russian public largely supports the hard-line camp, whom one Putin adviser called the "hotheads." Given Russian politics today, Putin is personally responsible for the fact that Russia's revanchist policies are not more aggressive. Put bluntly, Putin is not the hardest of the hard-liners in Russia. [13]
In essence, for the United States the problem is not Putin; instead, Washington has threatened what the Russian leaders and people have generally considered to be their country's vital interests. Immediately after the fall of Soviet Communism, Russia was unsettled and weak. It could not resist the United States. Since that time, Russia's power has been restored to some extent, and it is now able to assert itself. As Allison and Simes point out, if Putin were not around, the Russian position would likely be more hostile to the United States.

Furthermore, this concern about the United States being the sole superpower was hardly unique to Russia. It emerged among many nations after the fall of Soviet Communism when it appeared that Washington was striving for global dominance. The American occupation of Iraq, especially, galvanized other countries' fears that a too-powerful United States, in practicing regime change, would threaten their own interests with respect to the regimes being overthrown.

The uniting of other states against a hegemonic power seems to approximate a law of international relations, being commonplace even at the time of the Peloponnesian War in the 5th century B.C. when, after the Greeks' victories in the Persian Wars, Athens began to exert hegemony over the other Greek city-states. As Thucydides wrote in his classic history of the Peloponnesian War: "What made the war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused Sparta." That lengthy war ultimately ended with the defeat of Athens.

As international-relations theorist Christopher Layne has observed: "The historical record shows that in the real world, hegemony never has been a winning grand strategy. The reason is simple: The primary aim of states in international politics is to survive and maintain their sovereignty. And when one state becomes too powerful — becomes a hegemon — the imbalance of power in its favor is a menace to the security of all other states. So throughout modern international political history, the rise of a would-be hegemon always has triggered the formation of counter-hegemonic alliances by other states." [14]

Thus Russia and China, joined by a number of lesser powers, are acting to frustrate American global policies, though they have yet to develop a truly coordinated effort — in part because of their various divergent interests.

The United States has put itself in a position with Russia that makes war far from inconceivable. And the war could involve nuclear weapons. That risk currently exists with respect to both Syria and Eastern Europe, particularly the Baltic states. In regard to Syria, there is considerable talk of the United States enacting a no-fly zone especially to stop the bombing of Aleppo, which is being described as genocide. In September, Marine General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that war with Russia and Syria would result if the United States established a nationwide no-fly zone. [15]

Regarding Eastern Europe, Loren B. Thompson, an international security expert, writes:

The possibility of nuclear war between America and Russia not only still exists, but is probably growing. And the place where it is most likely to begin is in a future military confrontation over three small Baltic states — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Since those nations and several other Eastern European states joined NATO in 2004, the United States has been committed to defending their freedom and territorial integrity under Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty.

Because NATO from its inception was aimed at containing the expansion of a nuclear country — Russia — a vital part of the U.S. security commitment to Europe consists of Washington's willingness to use its nuclear arsenal in defense of allies. The formal name for that strategy is "extended deterrence," and since 2004 it has included the Baltic states. Simply stated, the United States seeks to deter aggression or blackmail against NATO allies from a nuclear-armed Russia by threatening to use atomic weapons. [16]

Thompson points out the obvious fact that there are not enough NATO troops in the Baltic states to stop a successful Russian invasion. They would simply serve as a "tripwire" to "trigger a bigger alliance response." And should NATO somehow launch a successful counterattack with conventional forces, which the Russians would reasonably view as a threat to their homeland since the fighting would be on their borders, Russia might opt to use nuclear weapons.

"The bottom line," Thompson writes, "is that all the ingredients are present in the eastern Baltic area for an East-West conflict escalating to nuclear weapons use. Neither side understands what actions might provoke nuclear use by the other, and once war began both sides would likely have a tenuous grasp of what was happening." [17] He concludes: "This situation calls for a reassessment by Washington. While losing the Baltic states would undoubtedly be a blow to NATO, their location makes them of far greater importance to Russia than America. It simply makes no sense to tie America's security to countries of such modest importance that are situated in such unpromising tactical circumstances. If the Obama Administration took the threat of nuclear war more seriously, it would find a way of loosening the commitments it has made." [18]

Longtime foreign service officer Joseph A. Mussomeli, who has served as U.S. ambassador to Cambodia and Slovenia, has commented appropriately on Trump's alleged crazy foreign-policy positions, which, especially in regard to Russia, seem more in line with those of American foreign-policy thinkers of the recent past than those of today, many of whom seem to have been neoconized without realizing it. Mussomeli writes:

During an ambassadorial conference in 2014, a former colleague breathlessly characterized the Ukraine crisis in neocon terms as a Manichean struggle between good and evil. Such comic-book notions now dominate our political discourse, distorting reality and making it nearly impossible to objectively assess complex issues. Trump, for all his bizarre commentary on domestic issues, better grasps the subtleties of global politics and the dangers of thinking ourselves infallible and invincible.

It's quite an irony: The ostensibly more reckless, infantile, inexperienced, and bombastic candidate may actually be more mature, level-headed, and reasonable on foreign policy than his critics, who, against all the good advice our parents gave us as children, pout and refuse to talk to those they don't like, escalate arguments to violence when they are upset, lack any remorse for the harm caused by their past opinions and actions, and fail repeatedly to see that there might be two sides to any disagreement. [19]

Trump carries considerable negative baggage so is hardly a good messenger, but he has the correct message regarding negotiations with Russia. America rejects it at its peril. [20] Ω

October 8, 2016

Published in 2016 by WTM Enterprises.
© 2016 by Stephen J. Sniegoski. All rights reserved by author.

If you found this article to be interesting, please donate at least $4 to our cause. If you'd like to donate electronically, here's some information on how to do that. Otherwise, you should make your check or money order payable in U.S. dollars to WTM Enterprises and send it to:

WTM Enterprises
P.O. Box 224
Roanoke, IN 46783

Thanks for helping to assure a future for TLD!

Notice to visitors who came straight to this article from off site: You are deep in The Last Ditch. Please check out our home page and table of contents.





1. David Ignatius, "The danger of Trump the dealmaker," Washington Post, September 13, 2016. This article appeared in the September 14 print edition of the Washington Post.

[Back to the text.]






2. "Trump Derangement Syndrome: A mental dysfunction causing those detractors with hateful thoughts and feelings about Donald Trump to go unhinged," Urban Dictionary.

[Back to the text.]






3. Jack F. Matlock Jr., "The U.S. has treated Russia like a loser since the end of the Cold War," Washington Post, March 14, 2014.

[Back to the text.]






4. Tim Weiner and Barbara Crossette, "George F. Kennan Dies at 101; Leading Strategist of Cold War," New York Times, March 18, 2005.

[Back to the text.]






5. "Spiegel Interview with Alexander Solzhenitsyn: 'I Am Not Afraid of Death,'" Spiegel Online International, August 30, 2007.

[Back to the text.]






6. Gessen, a lesbian who has adopted children, is especially critical of Putin's rejection of the equality of homosexuality and heterosexuality and his support of laws in Russia that would prevent, or make it difficult, for homosexuals to adopt children.

[Back to the text.]






7. Masha Gessen, "Crimea Is Putin's Revenge," Slate, March 21, 2014.

[Back to the text.]






8. L. Todd Wood, "Russia still angry about Serbia," Washington Times, May 22, 2015.

[Back to the text.]






9. Masha Gessen, "Crimea Is Putin's Revenge," Slate, March 21, 2014.

[Back to the text.]






10. Daniel McAdams, "Victoria Nuland's 'Ukraine-gate' Deceptions," Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity, February 9, 2014.

[Back to the text.]






11. Alan Yuhas and Raya Jalabi, "Ukraine crisis: why Russia sees Crimea as its naval stronghold," Guardian, March 7, 2014; Edward Delman, "The Link Between Putin's Military Campaigns in Syria and Ukraine," The Atlantic, October 2, 2015; and Matthew Bodner, "Why Russia Is Expanding Its Naval Base in Syria," Moscow Times, September 21, 2016.

[Back to the text.]






12. Anthony H. Cordesman, "Russia and the 'Color Revolution,'" Center for Strategic & International Studies, May 23, 2014.

[Back to the text.]






13. Graham Allison and Dimitri K. Simes, "Russia and America: Stumbling to War," US-Russia.Org, April 21, 2015.

[Back to the text.]






14. Christopher Layne, "The Power Paradox," Los Angeles Times, October 6, 2002.

[Back to the text.]






15. "No-fly zone would 'require war with Syria and Russia' — top US general," YouTube, September 23, 2016.

[Back to the text.]






16. Loren B. Thompson, "Why The Baltic States Are Where Nuclear War Is Most Likely To Begin," The National Interest, July 20, 2016.

[Back to the text.]






17. Loren B. Thompson, "Why The Baltic States Are Where Nuclear War Is Most Likely To Begin," The National Interest, July 20, 2016.

[Back to the text.]






18. Loren B. Thompson, "Why The Baltic States Are Where Nuclear War Is Most Likely To Begin," The National Interest, July 20, 2016.

[Back to the text.]






19. Joseph A. Mussomeli, "Here's why Trump's foreign policy terrifies neocons," Washington Post, June 9, 2016. For similar views, see Robert W. Merry, "When the Donald is the dove," Washington Times, September 27, 2016; and Adam Wal, "I Was RFK's Speechwriter. Now I'm Voting for Trump. Here's Why," Politico Magazine, September 21, 2016.

[Back to the text.]






20. Philip Giraldi, "Is Nuclear War Becoming Thinkable?," The American Conservative, October 5, 2016.

[Back to the text.]