Every once in a while Donald Trump says something that makes sense. For example, he has just asserted, “I want to solve North Korea Syria, Ukraine, terrorism, and Russia can greatly help!” It is indeed true that a more harmonious relationship with Russia would help our country deal with a number of critical foreign policy problems. Unfortunately, Trump’s desire for a better relationship with Russia comes with a willingness—nay, an eagerness—to believe Putin’s repeated assurances of non-interference in the US 2016 elections. Trump feels practically obliged to believe his Russian counterpart–poor Putin feels insulted that we keep raising the issue! Of course, Trump’s credulity is self-interested—he is unwilling to concede that his glorious election victory was tainted. But of course, there is no serious doubt that Russia did do its part to help Trump reach the White House. Trump’s self-interested credulity prevents him from recognizing that while we do indeed need to cooperate with Russia, one barrier to cooperation is Russian interference in US—and, more broadly, Western—democracy. This barrier needs to be negotiated, not pretended away.
But Trump’s willful ignorance of Russian offense has a counterpart in the willful ignorance of many of his liberal critics. In their righteous anger over the Russo-Trumpian threat to American democracy, liberals have shown little willingness to acknowledge that there is another side to the story of US-Russian relations: that Russia has legitimate grievances against the US and the West which need to be put on the negotiating table alongside the question of Russian meddling in our internal politics. I’ve discussed some of these—most notably, the continual eastward expansion of NATO, which Russia reasonably regarded as hostile encirclement, and US and Western encouragement of the coup that displaced the legally elected pro-Russian Ukrainian president in 2014. Another fit subject for discussion would be the activities of the National Endowment for Democracy, a US government-funded NGO that has been promoting “pro-democracy” Russian and Ukrainian organizations that Putin reasonably regarded as hostile to his autocratic rule and to his Ukrainian allies. Democracy promotion is in principle a laudable activity, but democracy promotion in Russia by outside forces is…well, outside interference. Much of Putin’s behavior over the last few years—including his takeover of Crimea and intervention in eastern Ukraine–is essentially retaliatory in nature. That doesn’t mean Putin’s behavior is morally justified; nor is it to deny that Putin is a brutal, autocratic thug. It’s just a recognition of realities.
So, there is a lot for the US and Russia to negotiate. The core of any agreement is going to have to be: stop interfering in our democracy and we’ll stop interfering in your autocracy. This simple formula eludes both Trump and his liberal critics, for different reasons.