Hope is hard to see in current U.S.-Russia relations. Talk abounds of a second Cold War. The phrase, however, misunderstands history. The way forward with Russia is complex, but worth the effort. Peace may emerge from shades of gray.
First, get facts right. Soviet Communism — systematic, ideologically-driven cruelty and denial of human liberty — tragically robbed the Russian people of freedom and self-determination from 1917 until 1991.
Human history has seldom witnessed such extended, institutionalized ruthlessness. Robert Conquest, in his epic volume “The Great Terror,” attributed “at least 15 million” dead to Soviet Communism.
But the Cold War and Soviet Union are dead. That ideological battle ended decisively, facilitated by Ronald Reagan’s unblinking resolve and Communism’s moral bankruptcy.
Today, we live in different times, dangerous but not afflicted by Soviet Communism. Instead, we have another phenomenon — a holdover communist and Soviet apologist, autocrat and egotist, Vladimir Putin.
Mr. Putin has proven at ease with evil, supporting Bashar Assad’s brutality in Syria, advancing Iran’s ignominious goals and nuclear program. He invaded neighbors Georgia and Ukraine, perverted democracy at home and tried to abroad. He used chemical weapons on foreign soil.
What Mr. Putin has done diminishes a proud people. Russia is a nation of 100 million Christians, contributors to civilization culturally and scientifically, from music and letters to mathematics and space exploration. Most of all, average Russians share with Americans a longing for freedom.
Mr. Putin’s leadership is hardly that of a Great Power or a member of the United Nations Security Council. Nevertheless, Russia has enduring importance, culturally, economically, militarily.
So, how should President Trump protect America, acknowledge the long-suffering Russian people and confront Mr. Putin’s evil?
The following steps offer a way forward on America’s relations with Russia, at a pivot point:
• Mr. Trump should forget this loony-tune “Russia collusion” investigation. It is taking on cartoon qualities. Everyone sees that, so let it collapse under its own weight. Tweet it no more.
• Draw the right historical lessons, not wrong ones. Mr. Trump cannot play Mr. Reagan to Mr. Putin’s Gorbachev. Mr. Trump is not Mr. Reagan, Mr. Putin not Mr. Gorbachev, any more than Mr. Gorbachev was Mr. Brezhnev. The Cold War is over. This is a whole new challenge.
• Be distrustful and skeptical, but encourage and remain open to change. Perfect balance. The goal should be penalizing Mr. Putin’s immoral isolationism and deterring bad acts, while seeking to draw Mr. Putin back toward more civilized behavior. Without illusions, create opportunities.
• Go full-throttle on superior ballistic defense capabilities, including strategic nuclear defenses, building out protection for all Americans — and our allies. Russia’s hypersonic missile is partly puff, but we must be secure against intercontinental threats. The omnibus spending bill bumped missile defense up by 40 percent, to a record 11.5 billion in Fiscal Year 19. That is a start.
• Keep modernizing American offensive weapons, to credibly deter aggression and preserve “peace through strength.” Mr. Reagan knew the score, coined the phrase. Mr. Trump embraces the principle: The best defense is a good offense.
• Leverage America’s moral standing and history for good ends. America saved Europe twice, in World War I and again in World War II. That is no joke. Fundamentally, America’s Bill of Rights and Constitution model rule of law. The president should keep speaking forcefully and consistently on moral leadership, as he persuasively did in Saudi Arabia and Poland. Those speeches were gold; they resonated. They drew a clear contrast with Mr. Putin — and thus put pressure on him.
• Enormous hope resides in truth. Candor among leaders gets at truth. Russians and Americans have a great deal in common, even if Americans have little in common with Mr. Putin.
The two peoples share religious tenets, cultural celebrations and highlights, historical affinities and longings, from music and literature to freedom to space. These are not small things. Mr. Reagan knew that, and used those common bonds to turn the screws on Soviet leadership.
Something like that could happen again. Finding common points with the Russian people, Mr. Trump could delegitimize Mr. Putin’s corruption of their historic greatness. From Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” to Mussorgsky, Prokofiev and Shostakovich; from Tolstoy and Chekhov to Gogol and Pushkin, Americans appreciate Russian culture, and vice versa — just not Mr. Putin.
International leadership comes down to enforcing accountability without overlooking opportunity. Mr. Trump should stay his course, recognizing that Mr. Putin is not Mr. Gorbachev, and today’s Russia not the Soviet Union.
This is not the Cold War; this is a new challenge. Russia is complex, its people not enemies, even if Mr. Putin is the unrepentant pugilist. Peace will depend on unpacking Russia’s mysterious nesting dolls, getting at the truth in an age of deception, denial and misremembered lessons.
But it can be done. Mr. Reagan turned a bigger ship — and now it is Mr. Trump’s turn. The way forward with Russia is bound to be complex, but worth the effort. Peace may emerge from shades of gray.
• Robert B. Charles served as assistant secretary of State under George W. Bush, and served in the White Houses of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
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