Russian President Vladimir Putin knows the United States is the chief obstacle to consummating his implacable ambition to reverse the outcome of the Cold War. So he will do anything he can get away with to weaken American interests. That explains why Russia would meddle in the 2016 election. Putin aimed above all to delegitimize whoever won, not elect Donald Trump per se. And he has succeeded beyond even his diabolical expectations. Americans have turned on one another just as Putin intended.
Start with the rank hypocrisy of the liberal democrats who now radiate a belated born-again hawkishness towards Russia.
Their recent accusations that Russian hacking constitutes an act of war ring hollow after eight years of unbridled support for President Barack Obama’s feckless reset with Putin — a reset that dangerously eroded the material basis of American power, our moral sanity and our strategic clarity. Democrats hailed Obama for treating Putin as a partner for peace and for mocking then-Republican nominee Mitt Romney when the former Massachusetts governor had the gumption to call Russia our number-one geopolitical foe during the second 2012 presidential debate. Democrats supported unanimously President Obama’s nuclear-arms treaty with Russia (START), which forced the United States to slash its nuclear arsenal and allowed the Russians to increase their own, all the while curtailing U.S. research, development, and deployment of effective strategic defense.
Democrats never challenged President Obama’s relentless efforts to shrink the American military. Democrats backed the President’s perilous decision to cancel the deployment of missile defense in Eastern Europe in a vain effort to placate Putin. Democrats commended Obama for making a bad situation in Syria worse, imploring Putin to bail him out after Assad defied his red line against the use of chemical weapons. Democrats — including Hillary Clinton — lavished Obama with praise for his craven and unwise passivity towards Russia’s subversion of Ukraine’s independence. Democrats endorsed Obama’s indefensible unwillingness to provide Ukraine the means to defend itself from Russian aggression.
During the election of 2016, President Obama and his fellow liberals took a relaxed view toward Russian interference in the American election. Their indignation erupted only after Trump’s victory confounded their smug expectations that Hillary Clinton’s victory was inevitable. Yet the Democrats’ utter lack of credibility when it comes to Russia does not erase the seriousness of concerns about Trump’s views toward Moscow or the actions of some of his associates.
President Trump did not steal the election, as many liberal democrat have fraudulently charged. What should trouble us most is the possibility of Trump’s pursuing some version of Obama’s reset towards Russia and retrenching globally. That would embolden Putin and other rogue regimes to the grave detriment of our ideals and self-interest. On the campaign trail, Trump frequently denigrated the value of NATO while praising Putin. That disturbing propensity has persisted during the early months of his presidency. Some of his principle advisors appear to consider Russia a strategic partner not only in Europe, but against Islamic radicalism in the Middle East, even though Russia staunchly supports a militant, virulently anti-American Iran bent on crossing the nuclear threshold — the paramount geopolitical threat in the region.
President Trump’s credibility at home and abroad would benefit mightily by adopting a harder line toward an increasingly authoritarian, expansionist, and belligerent Russia in accordance with the advice of stalwart Republican hawks. Although an illiberal, powerful, and expansionist China looms as our number-one geopolitical foe, Russia and Iran rank second and third in our pantheon of dangerous enemies. President Trump could dispel any legitimate concern about his ties with Russia by restoring a massive preponderance of power in favor of America and its democratic allies, one that Obama’s dangerous doctrine has eroded. That entails the following:
- Recognize that we have a huge stake in Ukraine’s heroic battle for freedom.
- Impose biting sanctions on Russia’s banking system and energy sector to raise the price for Russian aggression.
- Arm Ukraine.
- Augment America’s NATO combat presence in Eastern Europe.
- Reverse President Obama’s imprudent decision to cancel the deployment of missile defense in Poland and the Czech Republic.
- Cease treating America’s democratic allies as a greater burden than a blessing.
- Underscore in word and deed the importance of NATO for keeping Americans in Europe, Russians out of Europe, and a decent democratic Germany anchored in the West.
- Never waver on his pledge to increase defense spending substantially.
- Draw clear distinctions between decent democracies and rogue regimes hostile to the United States, including those of Russia, China and Iran.
America alone has a staggering advantage in resources over Russia that the addition of NATO on our side of the equation would double. Putin is playing a weak hand deftly, exploiting the free world’s confusion and delusion.
A more muscular American deterrent would not only protect our vital interests at the lowest possible cost and risk, but also generate the pressure necessary to induce Putin’s corrupt, stagnant, repressive regime to reform or implode the way the way the Reagan military buildup did with the Soviet Union during the 1980s.
President Trump can stop Putin in his tracks, de-fang the controversy over Russian meddling, and prove his critics wrong by taking a chapter from Ronald Reagan successful grand strategy. Trouble lies ahead if not.
Robert G. Kaufman is a professor at the Pepperdine University School of Public Policy and author of “Dangerous Doctrine: How Obama’s Grand Strategy Weakened America.”