Alfonse D'Amato

It’s time to get real about Russia


Given all the controversy about Russia today, maybe it’s time for a reality check.

Russia’s economy is smaller than Italy’s or France’s. It is not in the world’s top 10 economies, as measured by gross domestic product. The country’s main export is energy, and low oil prices have decimated its budget, loading it with debt. Its population is smaller than Pakistan’s, and is projected to shrink over the next several decades.

Russia has never attacked Western Europe or the U.S., and was in fact allied with the U.S. against Nazi Germany in World War II, sustaining the greatest number of casualties of any of our allies. Only during the post-war Communist era was nuclear-armed Russia — through its dominance of the Soviet Union — a serious military threat to the West. Today, Russia’s annual military budget is less than one-tenth the size of the U.S.’s.

Yet after the collapse of the Soviet empire, as it struggled to cast off its communist past, Russia remained a pariah to America and Western Europe, as they continued to press its western flank with the expansion of NATO. A few thoughtful observers decried NATO’s eastward push as an unnecessary provocation of an obviously weakened Russia.

Is it any wonder that Russian nationalists like Vladimir Putin were able to step into the void and stir the passions of ordinary Russians who felt slighted and threatened by the West? Given the turmoil and uncertainty after it lost its vast Soviet empire, is it really surprising that Putin’s Russia turned its attention to advancing its position at the margins of a reduced state by looking to absorb and consolidate Russian populations just across its borders in places like Georgia or Ukraine?

In the case of Ukraine, American subversion against a duly elected pro-Russian president left Russia in the untenable position of potentially losing its major naval port at Sebastopol. What did we expect Russia to do, sit idly by while its power, prestige and national security interests were under siege?

Did Western Europe powers — which have had democratic institutions in their countries only for the last 75 years, since the end of World War II — expect some magical democratic transformation in Russia, which had never known democracy but had a thousand-year history of autocracy and czarist rule? Should we realistically expect Russia today to be any more democratic than it is?

And why the double standard, by which we chide Putin as an autocrat while essentially giving China’s virtual dictator, Xi Jinping, a free pass? Why is there no outrage when Beijing rattles sabers against Taiwan, and even threatens to take it back by force under a “one China” policy to which the U.S. has tacitly capitulated, while Russia is demonized by the U.S. for reaching into Crimea to back Russian separatists there?

Taiwan was part of China until 1949, when Chinese nationalists wrested it away from the Communist mainland, and Ukraine’s Crimea was part of Russia until 1954, when Nikita Khrushchev gave Ukraine its nominal independence. How do we argue that Taiwan is somehow part of China but Crimea is somehow not part of Russia?

It is these inconsistencies and lack of appreciation for Russian history that have significantly contributed to the recent tensions between the U.S. and Russia. This doesn’t excuse Russia’s attempts to undermine its adversaries, but it does help to explain them, including Putin’s ham-handed effort to influence the U.S. electoral system.

The truth is that Russia was in a win-win situation in the last presidential election: It would either get Donald Trump, who openly stated his willingness to work with Russia, or Hillary Clinton, who, while protesting Trump’s outreach to Putin, had no problem approving the sale of a uranium mine to Russia as secretary of state even while the Clinton Foundation was benefiting from the transaction, signaling she could definitely be relied on to do business with Putin.

The obsession with Russia today seems to be more about political expedience than conviction. Too many of yesterday’s often unwitting apologists for Soviet Russia are today’s moralist crusaders against an imperfect but far less virulent Russian state. I would be more accepting of the outrage the American left has expressed against Putin’s Russia if it had been as incensed about the Soviet gulags and communist cruelties.

The U.S. and Russia have some very real common challenges to tackle: fighting Islamic terrorism that threatens us both; tamping down the Syrian civil war and defusing the powder keg that is the Middle East; and dealing with the danger of nuclear proliferation, particularly in North Korea and Iran. These are not imaginary challenges; they are all too real. If Franklin Roosevelt could work with Josef Stalin to defeat Hitler, Trump should be able to work with Putin to advance the cause of peace today.

That is not collusion. It is cooperation. And it is the right thing to do, despite any differences between our two counties.

Al D’Amato, a former U.S. senator from New York, is the founder of Park Strategies LLC, a public policy and business development firm. Comments about this column?