WASHINGTON, May 16, 2016 — Donald Trump thinks that NATO may be irrelevant, costing U.S. taxpayers too much money. Perhaps he should take a careful look at developments in Russia.
Russia has taken an increasingly aggressive military posture. Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea was a clear act of aggression, to which we and our NATO allies objected but appear to have acquiesced. On May 9, Russian President Vladimir Putin presided over a military parade through Red Square; men, tanks, missiles, and warplanes filed past. The occasion was the celebration of the Soviet triumph over Nazi Germany more than 70 years ago.
In a speech that indirectly referenced worsening relations with the West, Putin described the Soviet Union’s military triumph as a “stern warning to those who might want to test our strength.” He said that the Soviet Union brought freedom to the people of Eastern Europe and hinted that Russia’s resurgent military might once again allows Moscow to project power beyond its borders.
A parallel Victory Day parade, complete with advanced military hardware, was staged in the Crimean port of Sevastopol. A Russian submarine was docked nearby, and Russian ships lined up in Sevastopol Bay to mark the event.
The Moscow parade featured the public debut of the National Guard, an elite security force whose creation was announced by Putin in April. While the 400,000-strong National Guard is officially tasked with combating terrorism and organized crime, critics say it will also guarantee Putin’s personal safety in the event of anti-Kremlin protests or a coup attempt.
Life in Russia today is bleak. In an important new book, “The Less You Know, The Better You Sleep: Russia’s Road To Dictatorship Under Yeltsin and Putin,” David Satter writes:
“To grasp the reality of Russia, it is necessary to accept that Russian leaders really are capable of blowing up hundreds of their own people in order to preserve their hold on power. When one accepts that the impossible is actually possible, the degradation of the Yeltsin years and Vladimir Putin’s rise to power make perfect sense.”
Satter has covered Russia as a journalist since 1976, beginning with the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal. Moscow expelled him in 2013. He now paints a picture of a regime moving toward tyranny.
This is a government that blows up apartment buildings, killing hundreds of its own citizens to place the blame on rebels from Chechnya: terrorists, to be sure, but convenient scapegoats for a regime that wants to stir support for war.
The privatization of state-owned industries, Satter reports, involved turning them over to cronies of the ruling cliques, “the largest peaceful transfer of property in history without benefit of law.” This group proceeded to “create the conditions for the criminalization of the entire country.”
At the same time, Putin created a bureaucracy “that answered only to the country’s leader.” The highest positions went to people who worked with Putin in the St. Petersburg government or the Leningrad KGB. Satter notes that, “the top ministers, half of the Security Council and 70 per cent of the senior regional officials in Russia came from the security services.”
Under Putin, the free press has come to an end. In congressional testimony in 2009, Andrei Illarionov, formerly Putin’s top economic adviser, revealed that Putin’s government methodically seized control of the three major TV networks, the primary source of information for most Russians.
The NTV network did major investigations into the bombing of Moscow apartment buildings, pointing an accusing finger at security officers. Now, under government control, NTV features foreign soap operas and a program called “Fear Factor” on which contestants are rewarded for “climbing high buildings, sitting in cells underwater or eating worms or cockroaches.”
Personal corruption plays a major role in Putin’s pursuit of total power. Putin benefits personally from his policies; Satter quotes a member of the Russian hierarchy who estimates that, “Putin’s secret assets were worth $40 billion, which would make him the richest man in Europe.”
Holdings in oil and other mineral companies are said to be concealed through companies in Zug, Switzerland and Lichtenstein.
There is fear that the invasion of Crimea indicates a desire by Moscow to re-assert control over the areas it lost when the USSR collapsed. In May, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter accused Putin of “nuclear saber-rattling,” as tensions between Washington and Moscow have been exacerbated by a series of close military encounters in the Baltic Sea. In April, Washington accused a Russian jet fighter of performing “erratic and aggressive maneuvers” to intercept a U.S. Air Force reconnaissance plane over the Baltic Sea.
U.S. European Command spokesman Danny Hernandez said the Russian plane’s actions had the potential to “unnecessarily escalate tensions” between Moscow and Washington. Two days earlier, two Russian jets repeatedly buzzed the USS Donald Cook, a U.S. guided missile destroyer in the Baltic. U.S. Navy officials described the maneuvers as “a simulated attack.”
Russia has criticized U.S. plans to station a third Army combat brigade in Europe in the coming year as part of a $3.4 billion initiative to reassure NATO allies of Washington’s commitment to their security and to act as a deterrent against Russian military aggression. In language which shocked many Russians, the presenter of Russian state TV’s main weekly news program, “Vesti Nedeli,” described NATO-Russian relations as khrenoviy, a curse word that translates roughly as “crappy.”
The world is in a precarious state of affairs, and American leadership is needed as much as ever. Ivo Daalder, U.S. Ambassador to NATO from 2009 to 2013 and now president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and Robert Kagan, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, note that,
“the price of ending our engagement would far outweigh its costs.
“The international order created by the United States faces challenges greater than at any time since the height of the Cold War. Rising authoritarian powers in Asia and Europe threaten to undermine the security structures that have kept the peace since World War II. Russia invaded Ukraine and has seized some of its territory. In East Asia, an increasingly aggressive China seeks to control the sea lanes through which a large share of global commerce flows.
“In the Middle East, Iran pursues hegemony by supporting Hezbollah and Hamas and the bloody tyranny in Syria. The Islamic State controls more territory than any terrorist group in history, brutally imposing its extreme vision of Islam and striking at targets throughout the Middle East, North Africa and Europe.”
In the view of Daalder and Kagan,
“None of these threats will simply go away. Nor will the U.S. be spared if the international order collapses, as it did twice in the 20th century. In the 21st century, oceans provide no security … We need to restore a bipartisan foreign policy consensus around renewing U.S. global leadership … A key task for responsible political leadership will be to show … how trade enhances security, how military power undergirds prosperity and how providing access to American education strengthens the forces dedicated to a more open and freer world. Above all, Americans need to be reminded what is at stake. Many millions around the world have benefited from an international order that has raised standards of living, opened political systems and preserved the general peace. But no nation and no people have benefited more than Americans. And no nation has a greater role to play in preserving this system for future generations.”
We face tough challenges in an increasingly troubled world. Is our political process capable of producing a president to confront such challenges with wisdom and leadership? That remains an open question at the present time.