What’s Left: Not The “Evil Empire”
It should come as no surprise that Netflix’s House of Cards – a politically-current show – has Russia as the main foreign policy obstacle to the United States in its third season. Of course, the show’s writers are very astute; today, across the world from North Korea to Iran to Ukraine, American foreign policy is intricately connected to the actions of the Russian state. Naturally, the Republicans deride President Obama for his foreign policy with Russia, deeming it inconsistent and weak. This is not a fair assessment. Indeed, it has not been particularly consistent, but instead has adapted to change as needed when dealing with the unpredictable Russian state and the shifting concerns of the United States and its allies.
President Obama and Frank Underwood understand one thing very clearly: the Russian government is an important partner when it comes to foreign policy dealings across the world, especially with countries that the United States deems antagonistic, like Iran and North Korea. In fact, Russia continues to play a key role in the P5+1 negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program. Russia’s continued cooperation in the negotiations is imperative for a successful nuclear disarmament in the Middle East. The abrasive policy measures that Republican policy makers suggest will only serve to antagonize Russia, thereby removing any possibility of success. These negotiations are also vitally important when it comes to Russian participation regarding the crises in Syria and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. All of this is to say that an effective American policy in the Middle East is contingent on good faith and participation by the Russian government. President Obama – with his reset in 2009 and reluctance to antagonize President Putin – has a deep understanding of these complexities.
At this point, every Republican is thinking of one word: Ukraine. Of course the Ukrainian crisis is a real issue that deserves attention, and Russia’s role in destabilizing the country deserves more than just derision and condemnation. It would, however, be very unwise to look at the Ukraine crisis outside of the broader global dynamic. Ukraine is now almost a metonymy for Russia’s regional ambitions, yet there are players in the Ukraine crisis that prevent the United States from taking rash actions, namely its NATO Allies.
Many of the western European nations are dependent on Russia for energy; furthermore, Russia constitutes one of the largest markets for exports outside of the European Union. For countries with economies still struggling from the economic crisis of 2008, it would be extremely unwise to antagonize a major trading partner and energy provider. Rather than taking brash actions, President Obama understands the needs of America’s allies, which is why you see the more involved players, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande, taking leading roles in negotiations. It shows President Obama’s high capacity to treat Russia as it ought to be treated: as a state with varied and dynamic interests that have a lot of intersections with the United States’.
So while Republicans continue to deride President Obama and his administration for their handling of Russia, they fail to grasp the political realities. They are stuck in a 1980s mindset, believing that Russia is the “evil empire” of Reagan’s day. Russia today is a vast and complicated nation, much like the Soviet Union was, that has shifting interests. As of now, the strategic interests of the United States dictate that it is best to work with Russia in some areas while refusing to indulge them in expansionist fancies. While this policy may be deemed “inconsistent,” it is what serves the best interests of the United States. And for that, we should be thankful that President Obama is no Putin or Frank Underwood.
Being Right: A Familiar Story
On February 27, Russian activist Boris Nemtsov was murdered. Boris was an outspoken critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin and one of Russia’s strongest advocates for democracy. Coincidentally, his murder falls two days before a rally he was planning against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This could be a coincidence but in a country where Putin’s enemies consistently find themselves dead or imprisoned, it seems unlikely. Ironically, Mr. Nemtsov told a Russian blog two weeks earlier that “I’m afraid Putin will kill me.”
The shooting took place right outside the Kremlin, one of the most secure and videotaped areas in all of Moscow. Pretty much any other place in Moscow would have been a safer place to kill someone. Not to mention that opposition leaders are constantly under surveillance by Russian intelligence agencies. But these highly trained intelligence operatives somehow failed to notice that someone else was following him. The shooters were sending a message to other opposition leaders. They are sending them a message that any opposition leader can be killed anywhere, and there will be no consequences.
There is no need for concern; Putin has generously agreed to take charge of the investigation himself and to personally determine whether or not he or his government killed Nemtsov. The initial findings have already begun to shed light on the case. Putin has determined that he definitely is not responsible – deeming the murder a “contract killing.” But the question of whether or not Putin actually gave the order is irrelevant. He has started a massive propaganda campaign, branding anyone who disagrees with him as fifth columnists – national traitors who are working to undermine Russia from within. Putin has created a culture of fear and death inside Russia in which the most bellicose and bloodthirsty elements of the government have been pushed to prominence. Last week the chief prosecutor in Russia declared that the Russian constitution was “standing in the way of protecting the state’s interests.” Chilling words from a man tasked with carrying out the law of the land.
Unfortunately, this story has become a familiar one. All around the world governments are acting in a more authoritative manner by shutting down opposition voices. Putin’s government has just been a shining star in that regard. He has repeatedly tested the West’s commitment to freedom and a liberal rule of law and found it lacking. Even in the United States, the government has been seizing more power and restricting freedoms. New York Times reporter James Risen has named President Obama the greatest enemy of press freedom in a generation. In 2005, Risen tried to publish an article about a failed CIA operation in Iran. The government acted quickly, squashing the article and subpoenaing Risen, demanding he reveal his source. For six years, Risen fought the Justice Department, risking jail time to protect the leaker. The government sentenced former CIA employee Jeffrey Sterling for the leaks and sent him to prison anyway – and this is only one case. By standing by and watching crackdowns happen, enacting them at home, President Obama and the U.S. are telling dictators that it is okay to crack down on journalists and others who question the government. If the U.S. doesn’t take a stand against our own crackdowns on freedom and across the world, dictators will only get more brazen and activists for freedom will keep getting murdered.