Yesterday The New York Times published an article about how Russia has now deployed a cruise missile which the Pentagon believes violates the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), a key agreement which was part of the winding down of the Cold War. After the article about the newly deployed missile there were further stories about a Russian spy vessel lurking off the East Coast in international waters. This is an example of the perilous position the country is now in, but not necessarily for the reasons you might think.
The Trump administration is either excessively friendly or compromised by Russia. We know that story. Meanwhile, the rest of his party is made up of Russia hawks who would like a more confrontational stance toward Russia. Some of that hawkishness is within the bounds of reasonable policy making, much of it is crankish and politicized. The trajectory of the on-going story of President Trump’s ties to Russia, meanwhile, have tended to make Democrats more hawkish toward Russia themselves.
As I’ve mentioned a number of times, you can be extremely concerned about Russia’s tampering in the 2016 election, its aggression in Ukraine and President Trump’s relationship with the Kremlin while also recognizing that Russia is in many ways, perhaps the most important ways, a weak and declining power. What makes it a permanent focus of US foreign policy is that it has one of the world’s two major nuclear arsenals. These are all true. There’s no contradiction.
Given the timing and the unprecedented tumult in Washington in recent days it is impossible to know whether reports about missiles and spy ships represent a newly confrontational posture from Russia or whether they are being leaked to the press now because of the unfolding situation in the White House. Whatever the reality, dealing with Russia takes careful thought and some degree of national unity about what American interests are vis a vis Russia.
At present, we have a President who at least lacks credibility in his dealings with Russia. If he gets into more trouble, will he take some dramatic action to prove his nationalist bona fides toward Russia? Will Russia hawks in his own party use this moment of crisis to push for a more confrontational stance on NATO’s frontiers in Eastern Europe? Will confrontational postures toward Russia become a proxy for opposition to Trump?
If the President is compromised by Russia in some way or is simply coopted via some sense of naiveté that is a highly disturbing and dangerous situation. But I believe the greater danger is the possibility of an unstable balance between extreme accommodation (or worse) on the one hand and extreme confrontation on the other. Nor is this just a problem on the US side. It raises the chance of some dangerous miscalculation on the Russian side.
This problem is exacerbated by the chaos and vacuum in the Trump White House. Trump has no National Security Advisor. His existing NSC is stocked with cranks brought in by Bannon and Flynn. Lots of positions are unfilled and the President is addled and unstable. None of this is good for America.
One of the positive lessons I take from the more searching research into the origins of World War I and even (much more ambiguously) the Cuban Missile Crisis is that states that don’t want to go to war usually find ways not to. So the idea that the US and Russia will get into an actual military military conflict is I think remote. But the stakes, obviously, are quite high. Managing our relationship with Russia requires sobriety and a steady hand. Everything in our government at the moment is pushing in the opposite direction.