Sparks have been flying ever since President Trump, in an interview with FOX News anchor Bill O’Reilly, came to the defense of Russian President Vladimir Putin after O’Reilly called Putin a “killer.” The media was sent into a feeding frenzy when Trump replied, “There are a lot of killers. We’ve got a lot of killers. What do you think? Our country’s so innocent?”
Some decried the president for defending a dictator who kills critics. Others stood by Trump for being open to de-escalating tensions with the only other power in the world. Still others took offense to Trump’s insinuation that Russia is morally superior to our country. But in all of the hubbub over the interview- and Trump’s response- a crucial question was left mostly unasked: What should our relationship with Russia look like? Are they our “number one geopolitical foe” as Mitt Romney claimed? Or is President Trump right that cooperation and partnership with them will yield benefits? The answer lies somewhere in between.
An important thing to note when talking about Russia is that its military capability, and the impressions that Vladimir Putin project, are two different things. Russia is not the global superpower they once were as the Soviet Union. To the contrary, they have diminished to a more regional power than a global one. As the world stands today, the only country able to project military power across multiple theatres in the world is the United States. The Russian Federation only has nine military bases outside its own borders, and most of them are in Eastern Europe, with some in the Middle East used for deployment against ISIS. Their nuclear capability has also been diminished, as evidenced by the slowed production of the Sarmat missile, a MIRV-equipped thermonuclear ICBM that was slated to replace the antiquated Soviet-era SS-18 Satan missiles. That being said, they still have considerable influence over some nations that used to be Soviet-states, such as when they derailed the chances of Ukraine joining NATO in 2010. Russia is a regional power, but a major one, and they deserve to be respected as such.
Ideally, the relationship between us should be recognized as more of a friendly rivalry, rather than a heated adversary or best-friend type of relationship. Russia, despite its regime’s dubious past, remains the second most pre-eminent military power in the world. War with them could prove to be potentially catastrophic for both parties, and we have more to gain by working together than alone. This doesn’t mean that we should let them run roughshod across Eastern Europe and the Middle East; it simply means that we have to be willing to push back when it’s in our interests, and also be willing to help out, again, when it’s in our interests.
Russia’s steadfast opposition to ISIS is an area where there is a chance to build bridges between Washington, D.C. and Moscow. Russia has a definite interest in keeping embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in power, who is currently opposing the Islamic State in his own nation’s civil war; Assad is one of the few Arab leaders still friendly to the Kremlin. Trump has already said he would take action against ISIS, promising to “bomb the hell out of [them],” and has reportedly contacted Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan about potential avenues of cooperation. Our own feelings on Assad’s regime aside, another instance of regime change in the Middle East, like similar instances before it, would prove disastrous for the region, and potentially drag us into another military excursion into the Middle East.
Another avenue of cooperation is in the energy sector, where we have already signed agreements to explore advancements in nuclear energy, including technology, fundamental and applied science, energy, the environment, and most importantly, nonproliferation. Russia has since waved off this due to sanctions placed on them for annexing Crimea, but I personally believe it could be a boon if we dumped some of the more excessive sanctions in exchange for the continuation of those agreements. These agreements, if followed through, could lead to massive advancements in the energy sector, and could also lead to potential growth for the alternative energy market.
This doesn’t mean that we should bow to their every whim. The Russian annexation of the Ukrainian province of Crimea is still in violation of international law. The “referendum” that was given only as a result of the Russian takeover of the Crimean Supreme Council Building was not recognized by the Ukrainian government, and the United States also did not accept its legitimacy. Because of the annexation, sanctions were rightfully levied against the Russian Federation, including a UN Security Council resolution that was shot down after a Chinese abstention and a Russian veto. Some of these sanctions, like a U.S. ban on business transactions being extended from key government officials to two major Russian energy companies, Rosneft and Novatek, as well as two banks were a bit excessive, but the un-amended executive order was serviceable enough. Putin also ramped up military build-up on the Turkish border in an attempt to bully them into joining their sphere of influence, and some precautions should be taken to encourage Russia to de-escalate tensions.
Like it or not, Vladimir Putin’s regime has brought Russia back to relevancy. The country’s increased presence on the world stage has stoked the ire of many foreign policy observers. But opportunities remain to work with them and build alliances. It just revolves around putting America’s interests first.
* Steven Barhorst is a high school student from the southwest suburbs of Chicago. He is a news anchor at his high school’s TV station, and hosts a political talk show.
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