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Venezuela Presents an Opportunity for Peace With Russia

It's time for Trump to ignore the critics, sit down with Putin, and talk turkey

For a moment, at least, the latest crisis is in Latin America, not the Middle East. The Trump administration is hoping to overthrow the disastrous Maduro government, which is busily destroying Venezuela. Although the issue would appear to be of little concern to Russia, its government is actively opposing U.S. efforts.

Washington should insist that Moscow stay out—remember the long ago Monroe Doctrine? But how could anyone, and especially Russian President Vladimir Putin, take such a claim seriously? America incessantly meddles along Russia’s border, up to which it wants to expand NATO, just a couple hundred miles from the Russian capital. Washington’s intentions don’t matter; it’s effectively invited Moscow to return the favor. Thus is Russian involvement also growing in Cuba, another revolutionary failure.

U.S. policy towards Russia has become a hopeless muddle. Historically, America and Russia were friends. Unlike other leading European countries, it did not lean toward the Confederacy during the Civil War. In what should be a lesson for today, Washington similarly stayed out of European battles with Russia, including the Crimean War and later struggles in the Balkans that ultimately triggered World War I.

The latter conflict spawned the Bolshevik Revolution, along with the Red Terror, Stalinist madness, and the simmering Cold War, during which Moscow and Washington were estranged. But Christmas 1991 presented an opportunity as the Soviet flag was lowered for the last time over the Kremlin. Friendship with Russia seemed possible again. Alas, the West underestimated the difficulty of the transition from totalitarian communism to democratic capitalism. And the U.S. and Europe appeared determined to constantly deepen Moscow’s humiliation, incorporating its former allies and even former Soviet republics into NATO, pushing the alliance ever eastward.

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Putin initially appeared to harbor little animus towards the West. However, he and his people—Putin is far more representative of the Russian public than Americans want to believe—saw Western behavior in the Balkans, Georgia, and Ukraine as hostile. Moscow’s response to the anti-Russian street putsch in Kiev, ostentatiously backed by American and European officials, was brutal but effective. Russia reincorporated Crimea under its control after a six-decade hiatus and enmeshed Ukraine in an ongoing internal conflict, making it ineligible for NATO membership. Sanctimonious complaints about Russian behavior notwithstanding, no U.S. government would have stood idly by had the old Soviet regime staged a coup against a democratically elected, pro-American government in Mexico, and then invited the new regime to join the Warsaw Pact.

The result has been a renewed rivalry highlighted by steadily worsening bilateral relations. Western sanctions have caused pain but had no apparent impact on Moscow’s behavior. Russia played in the U.S. election, countered Washington’s wildly unrealistic objectives in Syria, strengthened North Korea’s position, expanded cooperation with the People’s Republic of China, and reemerged as an inconvenient influence in Latin America. Only the election interference involves a vital U.S. interest—and Washington has meddled far more frequently and effectively in the votes of other nations. The rest are inconvenient but hardly surprising given America’s behavior.

All this suggests it is time to give negotiation a chance. Trump has had the odd impact of bringing together liberal Democrats and neoconservative Republicans to proclaim Russia to be the next Big Threat. That’s nonsense. Russia remains a shell of the Soviet Union. Putin is ruthless and repressive but no Stalin. Moscow has no global appeal, unlike the USSR. The Putin government has rebuilt the Russian military, but still spends less than Saudi Arabia on defense. Putin has governed longer than Adolf Hitler, but his “conquests” so far are only the former Russian territory of Crimea—whose return was almost certainly supported by a large majority of Crimeans at the time—and some measure of influence over the beleaguered, unprofitable territories of the Donbass in Ukraine and Abkhazia and South Ossetia, formerly part of Georgia. Yet we are supposed to believe he is contemplating a blitzkrieg attack on Europe. The European Union enjoys 10 times Russia’s economic strength and three times Russia’s population.

Perhaps most irritating, though not decisive, is Moscow’s global effort to counter U.S. policy. But again, Uncle Sam has only brought this on himself. For instance, by targeting Russia, the Obama administration encouraged Putin to mimic Richard Nixon’s famous turn to China. Increased American economic pressure on North Korea gave Moscow a good opportunity to revive Cold War ties there. Washington’s willingness to aid even an al-Qaeda affiliate against the Syrian government allowed Russia to pose as an enemy of terrorism and a savior of order.

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