Once upon a time CIA Stations overseas received what was referred to as an “Operating Directive” which prioritized intelligence targets for the upcoming year based on their importance vis-à-vis national security. Prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, penetrating Moscow and preventing the KGB’s repaying the favor in kind loomed large as Russia and its allies represented the only genuine threat that could in fact destroy much of the United States. Today’s Russia retains much of that military capability but somehow the perception that you have to deal with what is important first has been lost on our policymakers, possibly due to a false impression inside the beltway that Moscow no longer matters.
A working relationship with Moscow that seeks to mitigate potential areas of conflict is not just important, it is essential. Russian willingness to cooperate with the west in key areas to include the Middle East is highly desirable in and of itself but the bottom line continues to be Moscow’s capability to go nuclear against Washington if it is backed into a corner. Unfortunately, U.S. administrations since Bill Clinton have done their best to do just that, placing Russia on the defensive by encroaching on its legitimate sphere of influence through the expansion of NATO. Washington’s meddling has also led to interfering in Russia’s domestic politics as part of a misguided policy of “democracy building” as well as second guessing its judiciary and imposing sanctions through the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012. The damage to relations has been aggravated by the ill-advised commentary from American politicians on the make, including Senator John McCain’s dismissal of Russia as “a gas station masquerading as a country.”
One should legitimately be concerned over Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inflicting damage on his country’s fledgling democracy through fraud, corruption, media clampdowns and exploitation of a malleable legal system. One might also object to exactly how Russia asserted its interests using force against neighboring states Georgia and Ukraine. But that does not change the bottom line, which continues to be that functional relations between Moscow and Washington are a sine qua non. Russia’s domestic politics are none of our business and the alleged grievances of Georgia and Ukraine are undeniably a lot less purely attributable to Russian actions than the White House and Congress would have us believe, with U.S. interference in both countries clearly a major contributing factor to the resulting instability.
Assuming that one accepts that lessening bilateral tension over the Ukraine is a desirable objective, the White House might soon have a good opportunity to demonstrate that it is willing to deal fairly with the Russian leadership in Moscow. The Dutch Government’s Safety Board will in October make public its long awaited report detailing its assessment of last year’s downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH-17 over Ukraine. The investigation was conducted with the cooperation of the Ukrainian and Malaysian authorities, but did not include a thorough survey of the crash site, which was and still is considered too dangerous. According to leaks of its conclusions, the report will admit that there is no conclusive evidence regarding who is responsible for the shoot down but it will nevertheless make a circumstantial case that the pro-Russian separatists are the most likely suspects in spite of the fact that there is no hard technical or intelligence related evidence supporting that judgment. Blaming the separatists will, by implication, also blame Moscow.
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