A Russian Under Every Bed

President Donald Trump and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin during the G20 leaders summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina, November 30, 2018. (Marcos Brindicci/Reuters)

After Trump’s election, his opponents took a sudden dislike to the Russians they once saw as peace partners

The three-year-long effort to abort the Trump presidency — now culminating with a manipulated impeachment effort — has warped U.S. foreign policy toward Russia.

From 2009 to 2014, the Obama administration’s official policy (“reset”) was appeasement of Vladimir Putin’s autocratic Russia. Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton fashioned a “reset button” outreach to Russia, framed as an antidote to the allegedly unnecessarily punitive policy toward Russia initiated by George W. Bush after the 2008 Russian war with Georgia over the fate of Ossetia. In those ancient days, progressives thought Putin had been treated poorly by the warmongering Bush, and were determined to blame Bush, not Putin, for deteriorating relations.

Incoherent “Experts”
One of the strangest sights of Adam Schiff’s recent impeachment-inquiry hearings conducted under the auspices of the House Intelligence Committee was an array of witnesses who lambasted Trump’s current Ukrainian policy — especially his brief delay in sending lethal aid.

Yet many of those who testified from the State Department or the National Security Council — Fiona Hill, George Kent, William Taylor, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, and Marie Yovanovitch, in addition to the reports of anguish from the “whistleblower” — were in some capacity serving in government during the prior Obama administration when it denied all lethal aid in general, and in particular anti-tank Javelin missiles, to the Ukrainians.

As Ukrainian experts, they all knew that the Burisma hierarchy was corrupt, that Hunter Biden had no qualifications to serve on its board, that his position was predicated on leveraging his father’s vice presidency, and that Joe Biden, as point man on Ukraine, had interfered in Ukrainian politics and fired a key prosecutor, who at least claimed he was looking into Hunter Biden and Burisma.

So why did none of them complain then about Obama’s timidity and the damage it caused the Ukrainians when deprived of American weaponry, or at least go to the inspector general and report Biden’s quid pro quo pressure? After all, it was the Obama administration that empowered Putin and denied Ukraine weapons.

All of the above in some way had input in just that policy. Did not more Ukrainians die in active fighting because of Obama’s refusal from 2014 to 2017 to send them any weapons than perished in 2019 from a few weeks’ delay in some lethal aid on a more or less static front?

Reset Nonsense
Reset, remember, was a ridiculous assumption, beginning with its symbolic origins in Geneva with a pilfered red hotel Jacuzzi button emblazoned with the wrong Russian word, “overcharge.” American magnanimity supposedly would be appreciated by a liberalizing Russia. Putin’s hierarchy would reciprocate with domestic reforms, thus lessening tensions between Moscow and Washington. No doubt the more Putin saw the munificence of Western liberality, the more he too would adopt progressive policies.

In truth, as is the way of all appeasement, it was a one-way street in which generosity was seen as weakness to be exploited. Obama lifted prior sanctions. He refused to send lethal aid to Ukraine. He abandoned missile-defense efforts in Eastern Europe on promises that Putin would not discredit his controversial reset policy during Obama’s 2012 reelection. Both sides kept their quid pro quo promises. Under today’s new Democratic House standards, Obama would have been impeached in 2012 for that quid pro quo by the Republican-controlled Congress.

Obama ignored various Russian cyberattacks on the U.S. and its allies, and its interference in U.S. elections. The nadir of reset came with Moscow’s promise to help out in Syria if Secretary of State John Kerry would invite it into the Middle East to enforce U.N. efforts to stop Bashar Assad’s use of weapons of mass destruction.

The results were disastrous. A resuscitated Assad liquidated his opposition while his partner Hezbollah was given free rein in large swaths of Syria.

Putin interpreted such appeasement as a green light to crack down on Russian dissidents. The weaker the concrete American response and the louder the abstract American human-rights lectures to Putin, the more Russia developed utter contempt for the United States. By February 2014 Putin had annexed Crimea. And by autumn Russia had invaded and de facto reincorporated eastern Ukraine. The Baltic states, in terror, looked for renewed NATO reassurances.

The Wages of Appeasement
As the Obama administration ended, Russia was discussing lucrative energy deals with NATO member Germany and was the de facto Syria-Lebanon czar. A Russia energy company had acquired sizable sources of North American uranium and had utter disdain for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Obama administration, both of which had approved the sale after large Russian-related donations to the Clinton Foundation and a nice $500,000 honorarium for a characteristic Bill Clinton puff talk in Moscow.

When Russian-related hackers began interfering in U.S. politics, Obama told Putin to “cut it out” and gave lectures to certain-sore-loser candidate Donald Trump to stop his whining about the fairness of the U.S. election process, which was assured to be immune from foreign tampering. The subtext was that Hillary would soon win in a landslide and an embittered Donald Trump should not blame his loss on her use of a British ex-spy and his phony dossier’s Russian bought sources.

The Origins of “Collusion”
Then the unexpected, or rather the surreal, happened: Donald Trump got elected president, despite the best efforts of the hierarchies of the DOJ, CIA, and FBI to prevent that nightmare. How to explain that sure winner Hillary — with nearly triple the campaign funds, with all the expert pollsters, with the best and brightest techies, and with a toadyish media — blew a once gargantuan lead?

Thus was born “Russian collusion,” the slur that Trump had colluded with Putin to harm Hillary Clinton’s campaign in exchange for a Russian free hand.

Remember, had Clinton only won, the facts would have remained the same, but there would have been no slurs of “Russian collusion” — only a quick cleanup by an obsequious Comey, Brennan, and Clapper of any embarrassing vestigial smears still floating around DOJ, the FBI, or the CIA, or among the media in general.

Such a conspiracy theory was improbable and ironic, given that Hillary herself, through the use of at least three firewalls (the Democratic National Committee, the Perkins Coie legal firm, and Fusion GPS), had hired a British subject named Christopher Steele to compile dirt on Donald Trump through the use of bought bogus Russian sources. Russia apparently wanted to cause chaos in 360-degree fashion in the hopes of seeding the sort of internal civil discord that we have suffered from the last three years. Trump himself during the campaign had pushed back against the passive-aggressive Obama Russian policy, which had gyrated from partnership with an angelic Putin to hatred of a satanic Putin.

The Russians soon became for progressives the exegesis of why Hillary lost, rather than her anemic campaign or near-toxic persona. The consequences of prior progressive appeasement were forgotten. Suddenly the Left saw a Russian under every American bed.

Hammering Russia
But if reset friendship and alliance with Putin had utterly failed and only empowered him, the other extreme, of demonization, was just as dangerous. Russia still possessed over 6,500 deliverable nuclear weapons, the world’s largest nuclear stockpile, and had once been a traditional triangulation foil to Chinese expansionism.

Such a Kissingerian policy of balancing China and Russia to our advantage was now lost. So chances were diminished of any common and opportunistic concern between the West and Orthodox Russia against Islamic terrorism. For Trump, to meet Putin was proof to the Resistance that he was, as James Clapper ridiculously put it, a “Russian asset.” To demonstrate Trump’s anti-Russian fides, to correct for reset appeasement, and to reestablish deterrence given Obama-era Russian brinksmanship, Trump soon embraced the most anti-Russian policies in memory.

Sanctions under Trump were amplified. Russian diplomats were expelled. Consulates were shut down. U.S. oil and gas production was greenlighted, diminishing Russian export income as world prices fell. The U.S. nullified prior asymmetrical anti-missile treaties with Moscow. It provocatively trained and then armed Ukrainians with the latest American anti-tank missiles — in a rebuke of past Obama timidity. American warships entered the Black Sea for maneuvers.

America radically increased its defense capabilities and leveraged NATO to begin to do the same. Trump jawboned Europe to back off from Russian energy deals as he accelerated American natural-gas exports. Trump reassured Eastern Europeans of U.S. commitments to NATO’s eastern flank. In the Middle East, Trump allowed U.S. forces to wipe out attacking Russian mercenaries. America enabled Israel to systematically diminish the armed forces of Russian allies such as Hezbollah inside Syria.

In sum, the United States and Russia, the world’s two largest nuclear powers, were now all but enemies. The left-wing narrative that somehow Trump was a Russian “patsy,” “asset,” or even “traitor” proved an absurd calumny. But it constantly served to force Trump to become ever more anti-Russian to refute lies spread by the likes of John Brennan and James Clapper, who both had preemptive reasons to slander Trump on Russia, given their own culpability in the unfolding “Russian collusion”-hoax scandal.

Again, any chance of seeking common ground in checking Chinese expansionism was lost. Both India and Russia had natural reasons to align with the U.S. in containing China. Turkey and Russia historically have been estranged; it makes no sense to drive the two together in shared U.S. animus. Russian policy in the Middle East, especially in reference to theocratic Iran, is to be against anything the U.S. is for, even when a nuclear Iran is not exactly in Russian interests. Russia’s neighborhood is populated by volatile nuclear states — India, Pakistan, China, North Korea, perhaps soon Iran — and U.S. bases abroad with nuclear weapons. Adding more nuclear states in its vicinity is not necessarily in either Moscow’s or the U.S.’s interests.

In the Cold War, American forged détente with a murderous Communist Soviet Union — the direct inheritor of Stalin’s genocide of 20 million — fortified with a huge transcontinental nation of 300 million, with a Warsaw Pact buffer of Eastern European nations, blustered by a military of 4 million, a blue-water navy, and thousands of intercontinental missiles actively targeting San Francisco, New York, London, and Paris. Today we are told that a hollowed-out Russia of 145 million, with a decrepit military and an anemic economy, poses an existential threat requiring Trump to prove daily that the U.S. is the mortal enemy of such a global monster.

How strange that liberals, who once claimed to be targets of McCarthyite paranoia for their efforts to live and let live with a genocidal Soviet Union, now in full McCarthyite mode call traitors and Russian assets all those who seek a realist accommodation with its post-Soviet shell — and all because blame-game Hillary Clinton blew a supposedly sure election.

The result is not just incoherent but becoming outright dangerous for U.S. security.

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Case for Trump.

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