Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two part series on Russia foreign policy by contributor Wyatt Bertsch. The second piece will be published on Friday.
On a Monday in March of 2014, future President Donald Trump called into “Fox & Friends” for a midday interview after the Russian invasion of Crimea. Trump said that Russia is laughing at the United States, calling his soon-to-be predecessor Obama “a joke”, adding; “Obviously, if Russia respected us they wouldn’t be doing what they’re doing.”
The criticism is notable for two reasons. For one, it’s true. President Obama’s inability to stand up to Putin left a space for the Russian President to fill. Putin invaded Ukraine because he knew no one would stop him, and to date no one has. Two, Trump’s remark gave the first of many impressions that the future President would give of Russia, effectively firing the starting gun toward a topic of controversy that still follows all involved.
In fact, over the past two years, Russia has come back to the forefront in Republican politics in a very new and unique way. Whereas every GOP Presidential candidate approached the 2016 race with a distinctly anti-Putin message, Trump alone had tweeted his query; “Will (Putin) become my new best friend?”
In all, the prevailing Republican view of Russia has transformed completely. The 2012 GOP nominee, Mitt Romney, infamously called Russia the United States’ top geopolitical foe. “I’m certainly not going to say I’ll give (Putin) more flexibility after the election,” Romney quipped to President Obama at the final 2012 Presidential debate, “After the election, (Putin) will get more backbone.” Of course, Romney lost and we never got the opportunity to see backbone to Putin in the White House.
But Romney’s successor to the nomination held much different views. And despite the muckraking that has happened in the press, despite the vitriol from the left, and despite the distortions from all sides, Republicans need to hold strong to their wariness of Putin’s Russia.
Trump said in a 2015 interview that while he wanted to attack ISIS at every possible turn, he preached caution against antagonizing Putin’s political allies, like Bashar al-Assad in Syria. He described the U.S.-backed, anti-Assad rebels in Syria as “(potentially) worse than you have now.” In September 2015, Trump articulated his view on Syrian fighting, saying he believed Russia, in concert with Assad’s regime in Syria, should bear the brunt of the campaign against ISIS. “Let (Russia) get rid of ISIS,” Trump said, “What the hell do we care?”
That view seems warranted at first glance; why get involved in a fight that doesn’t immediately involve us? But as Putin has proven, in the absence of order is chaos. And chaos leads to vacuums of power that will be filled by the first man or ideology strong enough to take control. No western political order can be created in the chaos that Syria now faces, and this gives the U.S. the moral imperative to get involved. Now, involvement doesn’t have to mean a fleet of F-22s or a giant battalion of American boots on the ground. It simply means that the United States and western countries need to tip the scales early.
WikiLeaks, a political publication operated by the Kremlin-aligned Julian Assange, released hacked campaign emails from staffers of Hillary Clinton in the weeks leading up to the election. All the hacked emails were designed to paint Clinton in a negative light. WikiLeaks claim they only release, not hack, leading to the question of who hacked Clinton’s emails. The FBI, along with many other intelligence agencies, believe Russia hacked the Clinton campaign’s emails.
In other words, a foreign entity deliberately meddled in the U.S. Presidential election to sway the outcome in what they believed to be their favor. An open question is whether this action decided the result. The honest answer, however, is probably not. WikiLeaks or Russia had nothing to do with Clinton’s stated apathy toward the working class voter. But Republicans need to take umbrage in the fact that those foreign entities saw fit to meddle at all. Putin stepped into the 2016 vacuum just the same as he has stepped into any other vacuum; he knows no one will stop him.
The second piece of a two part series on Russia foreign policy by contributor Wyatt Bertsch will be published on Friday.