The Russia Syndrome

Click on any article today and you will inevitably see a write up on the Russians and their evil plan to install a puppet in the White House, openly recruit top politicians and military leaders to do their bidding, and take down democracy by releasing embarrassing e-mails that seem to reveal official misconduct. While salivating over the Russians is certainly more entertaining that reading about the ongoing carnage and failed policies in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Syria and Libya, Russia distracts from the most pressing threats to US interests at home and abroad. So why is it so easy to get people riled up about Russia? For one thing, we are hardwired to hate the Reds and for another, the Russians are a manageable enemy. ISIS, al Qaeda, Taliban, they are the Hydra. China, a behemoth competitor with a thirst for influence and flexing its military might regularly. Simply put, they are not easy targets, but Russia is. That coupled with the US-Russia Cold War history makes Russia the perfect whipping boy for US politicians and pundits.

The portrayal of Russia as the number one enemy of the United States has become ingrained into our society. From movies to politics, the United States has made an industry out of hating Russia. In James, Bond movies, Natasha and Boris cartoons, the iconic “Red Dawn”, or The Americans, the Russian’s are the guys we love to hate. The accent, the thirst for world domination, the un-American rejection of kick-ass capitalism, you name it, we hate them for it. So, the idea of the Russian government trying to influence our elections and the undermine democracy can hardly be surprise, it’s practically expected that when you pull the curtain back a Russian baddie will be pulling the levers and shouting death to capitalist pigs.

With that in mind let’s explore these questions: does the US have the moral high ground to cry foul at Russia’s actions, is Russia the most pressing threat to US domestic and international interests, and if not, why are they our nemesis?

Do as I Say, Not as I do

Let’s take a step back and compare the actions of the United States and Russia over the last decade. Russia invaded a portion of Ukraine, a sovereign country in the middle of a tug of war between the West and Russia. Before that, the Democratically elected president of Ukraine was chased out of the capital city by mobs, to the applause of Western nations. Why did the West back this change in power? Simply put, Ukraine decided to favor the Russian over the European Union. Once the Russia-leaning Ukraine president was ousted, a new president was elected, one backed by the West. Russia responded by invading an area of Ukraine they repeatedly laid claim to, Crimea. An area where many of the inhabitant were ethnic Russians, not to mention Russia had an entire fleet of warships sitting in a Crimean harbor that they did not want pushed out by a NATO and EU backed Ukrainian president. Given the lukewarm response to Russia’s earlier incursions into places such as Georgia, their open pushback against NATO eastern expansion, and historic saber rattling over Crimea, no one should have been shocked by Russia’s move. Was it right, not even a little bit. The Russian invaded a sovereign country and continue to sponsor cross-border attacks to harass the Ukraine. Russia is a regional bully. No question about it. But does Russia being wrong make the US right? In a word, NO.

In 2011, the United States embarked upon a bombing campaign in Libya, followed by US and Coalition Special Operation ground operations. A sovereign country, Libya was once labeled a state sponsor of terror, but the US and Libya had been normalizing relations since 2003. When unrest and civil war reared its head in Libya in 2011, the US backed the rebels. This even though Libya and the US were fighting a common enemy, al Qaeda. When the US began its bombing campaign in Libya, the US, CIA, and Libyan intelligence were reported to be working together to find and eliminate AQ and AQIM leaders in North Africa. Yet, despite the fact that the civil disobedience in Libya was not anywhere near the level of civil upheaval in Syria or Yemen, the US decided to bomb the North African natural gas producing country in order to support a rebellion to overthrow the legitimate government. To say that didn’t go well would be an understatement. Currently Libya is a fractured country, beset by unrest and competing factions, overrun by extremists. In short, it’s a destabilized and failing state. The ongoing unrest has cost thousands of lives, destroyed much of the country’s revenue producing infrastructure and provides a safe haven for US enemy #1, ISIS. So, does that make the US a bully? Of course, it does.

Let’s think about this. Russia’s claim that the people of Crimea wanted to break away from Ukraine was soundly rejected by the rest of the world. The argument that Russia was protecting Russian citizens and ethnic Russians was rejected, but the US and the EU have the discretion to take decisive action to overthrow recognized governments for humanitarian purposes, even if it destabilizes a region and results in humanitarian calamity?

Tit for Tat, This for That

In 2011, the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, told the BBC and other news agencies that US was responsible for inciting protests in Moscow prior to Russia’s 2012 election in an attempt to interfere with the election. This claim was reported by The Telegraph, the BBC and the Washington Post. Were Russia’s alleged actions in the US 2016 Presidential election a case of tit for tat? Right now, the claim that the Russian government was responsible for hacking and e-mail leaks has not been confirmed. Even if confirmed, we come back to the harsh reality that the US is reportedly getting hacked by other countries or their proxies on a fairly regular basis and that the US may be engaged in the same behavior. For instance, the US was directly linked to eavesdropping on forgein dignitaries in the US, including Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and members of the Israeli government. The US employed a company to essentially infiltrate social media in Cuba, identifying possible recruits to “spread Democracy”, code for overthrow the government. And you can’t argue that the US actions are justified, because the US routinely supports, installs, or turns a blind eye to political thugs that support US goals.

Public Enemy Number 1

Is Russia our most pressing threat? The US and Russia have opposing ideologies and they are competitors for world influence and resources. A fact that was pointed out in the 2012 elections and met with derision by President Obama. However, the US focus on the world stage right now is not on traditional state actors, it is on the threat from violent extremists, like ISIS, al Qaeda and the Taliban. Russia didn’t mastermind the Khobar Towers attack, the USS Cole attack, the attacks on the US Embassies in Kenya or Tanzania, or the 9/11 attacks. Those attacks were conducted by extremists that hail from some of our closest allies, funded by wealthy patrons sitting comfortably within the borders of our European and Middle Eastern allies.

Nostalgia

Competition is good for business. Russia proved itself an adversary that brought out the best and worst in the United States. Scientists, many of them government contractors, worked around the clock to beat the Soviet Union into space. The US-Russia Space and nuclear arms Race resulted in tremendous advances in technology and grew into a military industrial complex that continues to generate trillions of dollars in revenue. The technology borne from just these two events provided a technological backbone that is still being applied to long distance space travel, jet propulsion, medicine, communication technology and computer technology.

On the US domestic front, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the arms race, saw US citizens and political parties united. Those on opposite sides of the aisle put aside their differences to work in unity to defeat the Red Bear growling at our doorstep. Cold War Russia represented one thing, an adversary that politicians and citizens agreed was worthy of monumental consumption of US taxpayer dollars.

Next Week: So, if Russia is not behind the trillions of dollars spent combatting terrorism overseas and both the US and Russia have engaged in questionable forays in foreign lands, then why are we focusing on Russia? That’s the question we will dive into next week in, “With Friends Like These…”, a look at the part money and influence play in determining where the selective moral outrage of the US is focused.

Brian E. Gould (USA SF, Ret.) served in the U.S Army and U.S. Special Forces for over two (2) decades. During his military career Mr. Gould was engaged in the Eastern European, Middle Eastern, and African theaters as part of U.S. ongoing missions and military operations. Mr. Gould specializes in providing advisory and management services for international reconstruction and development projects, stability operations, and international commercial development.