International relations between the United States and Russia have come a long way since the days of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when threats of full retaliatory responses were being thrown out on national television. These relations have even come a long way since the days of former U.S. President George W. Bush, when he hosted the Russian President at his family home in Maine for a weekend of talking and fishing.
Having spent the past few years studying Russian at PSU, the tension between America and Russia has always loomed over my studies. It has shaped how I approach conflicts and international crises. Maybe it’s due to a large self-deceiving confirmation bias brought upon by piroshki, kvass, and my own romantic sentiments towards the country, but lately I find myself in the position of a Russian apologist, trying to dismantle negative conceptions about the Russian people and Russia’s role in the world.
I must admit I am not a student of international relations, global politics or economics; everything I know about Eastern Europe has been diffused through the study of language, culture and first-hand experience in the country. With that said, I can’t help but scoff when I see headlines and reports acting as though Russia is the monster under every liberal democracy’s bed.
Just recently, the United States Intelligence Agencies began an investigation of Russian intervention in European politics. Russia is being accused of clandestine funding of certain political parties in order to undermine European unity and NATO, as well as to discourage closer ties with Ukraine. Apparently Russian influence has been felt in countless countries such as Austria, the Netherlands, Hungary, the Czech Republic, France and even Britain.
While a part of me doesn’t doubt such accusations, I’m particularly turned off by the apparent insistence that this is a black and white issue, one in which the United States and its Western allies are depicted as a knight in shining armor against the wild Russian bear. No international conflict is that simple and such an approach is naïve.
In fact, it fails to recognize that, despite America’s insistence, its war hawk policies help promote justice and equality. According to international polls, the United States is seen as the biggest threat to world peace.
Which quite frankly, is not surprising considering the United States has almost 800 military bases in over 70 foreign countries and spends more money on defense than China, Russia, the UK, France, Japan, India, Saudi Arabia, Germany, Brazil, Italy, South Korea, Australia and Canada combined. All in all, it seems this would make any country nervous, especially one such as Russia who has been gridlocked in various forms of international competition for the last 80 years.
On Feb. 12, during the Munich Security conference, the Russian Prime Minister, Dmitry Medvedev, claimed that NATO, not Russia, is at fault for creating a “new cold war” through military maneuvers and deployments to countries surrounding Russia. Medvedev also said that NATO policies are “unfriendly and opaque” and only lead to increased tension.
Following this, U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, said that the United States will continue to “stand up to Russia’s aggression.” It’s rhetoric like this that makes me worried. Even the NATO Secretary-General, Jens Stoltenberg, claimed they had no choice but to aggravate tensions, as though Russia forced their hand.
For me, such a simple excuse fails to recognize the fact that the United States acts according to its own interests and often presents them like some sort of mission for justice and egalitarianism. One has to wonder why Russia and Iran are such evil places while countries like China and Saudi Arabia are just peachy.
Vladimir Putin, during a speech last summer, insisted that the United States doesn’t want Europe to have good relations with Russia because they need to have an “external threat.” Putin also went on to say only an insane person would think Russia would attack NATO and that Western powers are taking advantage of people’s fears regarding Russia.
Whether or not this was simply a masterfully prepared political statement, Putin does make a point. Increased tensions are a two way street and Western powers have not shown much grace.
As the American presidential election approaches, I’ve been careful to watch what candidates say about Russia and not surprisingly, regardless of political party, every candidate embodies the same trope about standing up to Putin and supporting European allies against Russian aggression. Interestingly enough, Hillary Clinton seemed to have the most intense policy claiming she’ll go “toe to toe with Putin.”
As long as this rhetoric continues, I can’t imagine tensions will get any better, which is disappointing. Is it absolutely crazy to imagine that Russia has been provoked slightly? Maybe this is just a classic case of being attracted to the bad boy, but really, it’s time to stop acting like Russia is a threat.