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Demonizing Russia is as hypocritical as it is unwise

On Wednesday, President Trump reluctantly signed a veto-proof bill imposing new sanctions on Russia in retaliation for its alleged efforts to interfere with last year's presidential election. 

Another president might have been able to talk Congress out of what Mr. Trump rightly called "seriously flawed" legislation, but the continuing investigation into alleged collusion between the Russians and the Trump campaign made that pretty much a non-starter.

Anticipating that, and registering his own understandable annoyance with what he considers U.S. highhandedness, on Sunday Russian President Vladimir Putin expelled 755 U.S. embassy personnel, capping the remaining contingent at 455, the same as the number of Russian diplomatic and technical staff in this country.

Russia also announced the closure of two U.S. embassy properties in Moscow, in delayed retaliation for the similar closure by the Obama administration last year of two Russian embassy properties in New York and Maryland.

 All of this comes in the context of mounting US-Russian tension in Eastern Europe. On Monday, a Washington Post article headlined "Russia's Military Drills Near NATO Border Raise Fears of Aggression" reported scheduled Russian military maneuvers in western Russia including Baltic exclave Kaliningrad, and on the territory of Russia's ally Belarus.

 Just why those exercises, largely on Russian soil, should be seen to threaten aggression, but not our own similar exercises last month in Romania, Hungary and Bulgaria, the Post somehow neglected to explain.

All in all, as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson rightly acknowledged not long ago, "The current state of U.S.-Russia relations is at a low point. There is a low level of trust between our two countries." He added that "The world's two foremost nuclear powers cannot have this kind of relationship."

Of course we can. We have before. But that was what the end of the Cold War was supposed to change. Instead, relations with Russia seem to be picking up right where relations with the Soviet Union left off.

The real question is why. We know the answer offered by neoconservative and liberal interventionists, along with Congress's perennial Russophobes.

Vladimir Putin is a crook and KGB thug, the elected but authoritarian leader of an anti-democratic kleptocracy, with designs on Russia's former satellites with a view to restoring Soviet glories. Inexplicably objecting to NATO's clearly benign expansion eastward to Russia's borders, he has supported resistance to an entirely legitimate coup d'etat in neighboring Ukraine and seized (historically Russian) Crimea. And he has supported Syria's Bashar al-Assad despite the latter's unconscionable war against rebels seeking to overthrow his government, never mind their Islamist proclivities.

That's one view. What does the situation look like from the other side of the negotiating table? For that, we're fortunate to have a recent appraisal of Russian motives by none other than our very own Defense Intelligence Agency. In its annual report on Russian military power, released last month, DIA had this to say about Russia's strategic aims: 

"Since returning to power in 2012, Russian President Putin has sought to reassert Russia as a great power on the global stage and to restructure an international order that the Kremlin believes is tilted too heavily in favor of the United States at Russia's expense. Moscow seeks to promote a multi-polar world predicated on the principles of respect for state sovereignty and non-interference in other states' internal affairs, the primacy of the United Nations, and a careful balance of power preventing one state or group of states from dominating the international order." [italics added]

If that last part sounds familiar, it's because it's virtually the way we expressed our own strategic aims during World War II and throughout the Cold War.

Then we got ambitious. A multi-polar world wasn't nearly as compelling as neoconservative pundit Charles Krauthammer's "Unipolar Moment," nor respect for state sovereignty and non-interference in other states' internal affairs as attractive as "Responsibility to Protect" and the right to impose democracy by force.

The primacy of the UN (largely our own creation, some might recall)? Utter nonsense. As for endorsing a balance of power preventing any state or group of states from dominating the international order, the title "world's sole superpower" was much more alluring.

There's a point at which national hypocrisy ceases to be just an embarrassment and becomes an outright hazard to all the other nations compelled to deal with it. Whatever one thinks of him, the president is right to deplore the increasing demonization of a Russia that by rights should be an ally, not an adversary, at a time of growing global challenges to Russia and the U.S. alike.

The unhappy truth is, it isn't Putin's Russia that has behaved like an international loose cannon for the past twenty-five years or so. No, that would be us.

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