The political showdown in Washington over the potential impeachment of President Trump has both domestic and foreign drivers. Many observers acknowledge that deepening polarization in American politics can lead to abuses of power. Less understood is how the current crisis has been fueled by a failed Russia policy spanning several administrations.
Since the disintegration of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, a series of U.S. presidents were misled by wishful thinking and strategic naiveté about the long-term ambitions of Russian leaders, who now threaten the American homeland. Three fallacies stand out.
First, the death of Soviet communism was not synonymous with the end of Russian imperialism. Leninism was simply the 20th century veneer for Russia’s expansionism. In previous centuries, Russia’s rulers had deployed Christian Orthodoxy and pan-Slavdom to conquer their neighbors and claim a global role, and they would invent new justifications in the 21st century.
Second, the surrender of Moscow’s colonies, such as Ukraine and Georgia, happened at a time of weakness from which the Kremlin would sooner or later recover. Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinHillicon Valley — Facebook 'too late' curbing climate falsities France pulls ambassadors to US, Australia in protest of submarine deal Apple, Google remove Navalny app as Russian elections begin MORE became the embodiment of a resurgent Russia determined to regain its global stature and lost territories.
And third, an imperialist Russian government cannot be a genuine partner for Washington; rather, it is a constant adversary intent on weakening America’s international influence. According to Russia’s military doctrine, NATO led by the U.S. remains Russia’s main enemy on the global stage.
The George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations were fortunate to deal with a Russia preoccupied with internal crises during the 1990s. Even the George W. Bush administration pushed forward with NATO enlargement without significant resistance from Moscow. But the shortcomings of U.S. policy were most clearly displayed during the Obama and Trump terms.
Under President Obama, the notion prevailed that Russia could become a genuine partner in resolving regional crises and nuclear proliferation. Moscow’s former dominions in Central-Eastern Europe looked on in dismay as the Obama-Hilary Clinton “reset” was supposed to place relations on an even keel. For the Kremlin, the “reset” signaled a green light to restore its empire, especially as Washington was ready to overlook that just a year before, in August 2008, Russian forces had invaded and carved up a pro-Western Georgia.
As a result of the “reset,” Obama surrendered the initiative to Putin by cancelling the missile defense system that was supposed to defend NATO’s new allies in Central Europe and halting further NATO enlargement — the one sure protection against Kremlin revisionism. When Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, it became clear that the Obama administration had gravely miscalculated Kremlin intentions and strategies. Although some analysts posited that Moscow had invented some new form of “hybrid warfare,” in reality the use of disinformation, proxies and fraudulent elections to seize territory had been standard operational practice in the Soviet arsenal for decades.
The Obama response to the invasion of Ukraine was ineffective in rolling back Russia’s gains, even denying Kyiv the most vital weapons for self–defense. And many policy makers still failed to grasp that it was precisely the weak political and military reaction to Russia’s partition of Georgia that encouraged attacks on other neighbors.
While Republicans claim that they are tougher toward Russia, Putin calculated that a Trump presidency would be even more beneficial. And Washington’s response to Moscow’s campaign to destabilize Western democracies has been inadequate. Instead of stifling the assault by turning the tables on Russia in the cyber, informational, economic, financial, and domestic domains, Putin’s multi-pronged attacks have actually intensified since Trump took office.
The mixed messages by the White House toward Russia has enticed Moscow into probing for further weaknesses and divisions among U.S. policymakers. While the Pentagon and Congress have been consistently supportive of Ukraine in its self-defense against Russia’s invasion, as U.S. elections approach the White House may increasingly favor a revision of history that whitewashes Russia and pushes Kyiv to surrender territory in order to achieve a “peace settlement.”
The Kremlin will exploit political vendettas in Washington and will feed the revisionist notion that it was Ukraine and not Russia that interfered in the 2016 U.S. elections to assist a favored candidate. Indeed, some gullible voters may even believe that Russian forces tried to help America by attacking Ukraine in order to find Clinton’s Emails.
Until now, Trump’s national security team has supported the victims of Moscow’s aggression and has delivered effective military equipment to Kyiv. But if Congress proves that the White House was willing to deprive Ukrainians of weapons over a domestic political struggle, the lesson for Moscow will be obvious. By assisting selected presidential candidates and feeding disinformation to the American public, the Kremlin can not only exacerbate the political conflicts in Washington but also manipulate U.S. policy to weaken Ukraine and other targeted states.
Janusz Bugajski is a senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) in Washington, D.C. His recent book, co-authored with Margarita Assenova, is "Eurasian Disunion: Russia’s Vulnerable Flanks," (Jamestown, 2016).