Real enemies are a threat to any country, but imagined enemies can be even more dangerous. They sap resources, provoke needless conflicts, and divert attention from true challenges. The United States has constructed such a fantasy by turning Russia into an enemy.
Our current campaign against Russia was set off by what some in Washington call its “aggression” against neighboring Ukraine. Russia’s decision to aid the Assad regime in Syria has also angered us. The true reasons for anti-Russia sentiment, though, lie deeper.
Most leading figures in the American political and security establishments grew up during the Cold War. They spent much of their lives believing that the Antichrist lived in Moscow. Today they speak as if the Cold War never ended.
For a brief period in the 1990s, it appeared that Russia had lost control over its own security. Stunned into paralysis by the collapse of the Soviet Union, and without any power to resist, Russians had to watch helplessly as NATO, their longtime enemy, established bases directly on their borders. Many in Washington believed that the United States had permanently broken Russian power. In their jubilation, they imagined that we would be able to keep our foot on Russia’s neck forever.
That was highly unrealistic. By pressing our advantage too strongly in the years after the Cold War, we guaranteed a nationalist reaction. President Vladimir Putin embodies it. He is popular in Russia because his people believe he is trying to claw back some of Russia’s lost power. For the same reason, he is demonized in Washington.
Having Russia as an enemy is strangely comforting to Americans. It reassures us that the world has not really changed. That means we do not have to change our policies. Our back-to-the-future hostility toward Russia allows us to pull out our dusty Cold War playbook. We have resurrected not just that era’s anti-Moscow policies but also the hostile rhetoric that accompanied them.
This summer’s most extreme exaggeration of Russia’s power came not from an inveterate Cold Warrior like John McCain or Hillary Clinton, but from the new chairman of our Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford. At his Senate confirmation hearing in July, Dunford said Russia “could pose an existential threat to the United States.” He suggested that, to defend ourselves, we should send aid to Ukrainians who want to fight Russia.
Statements like these are bizarre on several levels. First, Russia is a fundamentally weak country with a tottering economy. It is far from being able to compete with the United States, much less threaten it. Second, Russia is surrounded by American military bases, hears threats from the West every day, faces NATO guns on its borders, and therefore has reason to fear for its security. Third, by pushing Russia away, we are driving it toward China, thereby encouraging a partnership that could develop into a true threat to American power.
The most important reason it is folly to turn Russia into an enemy is more far-reaching than any of these. Europe remains stable only when all of its major countries are included in the process of governing, and each one’s security concerns are taken seriously.
The visionary Prince Metternich grasped this truth 200 years ago. Metternich was foreign minister of the Austrian Empire and mastermind of the Congress of Vienna, which was charged with reconstructing Europe after nearly a quarter-century of war. France was the villain. French armies under Napoleon had ravaged much of Europe. Anti-French sentiment was widespread and virulent. Delegates to the Congress of Vienna demanded harsh punishment for the troublemaker. Metternich resisted their pressure. He persuaded other leaders that in the interest of future stability, they must invite the miscreant back into the family. That kept Europe at peace for generations.
Emotion argues that Russia is a troublemaker because it refuses to play by our rules, and must be confronted and punished. Reason should reply that Russia is a legitimate power, cannot be expected to take orders from the West, and will not stand quietly while the United States promotes anti-Russia movements on its borders.
In our current standoff, Russia has at least one advantage: Its leaders are not foolish enough to consider the United States an existential threat. We would benefit from a bit of their realism.
Stephen Kinzer is a visiting fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.