The Russians must think the Americans are crazy. The sheer breadth of fictitious allegations about Russian bogeymen is a twisted logic driving events toward war. Wittingly or unwittingly, it’s unclear why the US is doing this. Is war really what it wants?
Three years ago Ukraine exploded into chaos. The legacy of this continues and generally flickers beneath the radar but it’s exceedingly dangerous: Nato is building up forces on Russia’s borders, particularly in the Baltic and Black Sea regions. The US has deployed its most advanced F-35A stealth fighters to Estonia, among a serious amount of other impressive military materiel.
Then there is “Kremlingate” in which Russia is said to have infected the 2016 US elections and continues to "puppet" US President Donald Trump. Russia is also blamed for boosting France’s Marine Le Pen candidacy over the pro-American Emmanuel Macron. The latest story emerges from a briefing by a US general that Russia is apparently colluding with the Taliban in Afghanistan.
In hearings last month, US officials implied Russia breached the Democratic National Convention’s emails, gave the contents to Wikileaks, which then released the emails to damage Hillary Clinton’s campaign and put Mr Trump in the White House. Washington says this constitutes an act of war, skyrocketing the whole debacle to an existential level. This is madness.
Despite media reports to the contrary, not a single piece of evidence has been released showing Russia had anything to do with affecting the US election. That two of the three largest US intelligence agencies (CIA and FBI) are “highly confident” is simply bogus. The one agency that could conceivably have done a forensic examination is the National Security Agency (NSA) and it says it was only “moderately confident.”
Think about that. You don’t marry someone based on “moderate confidence,” you definitely don’t go to war with Russia on “moderate confidence” and no one should be staging ridiculous theatre to destroy the presidency on “moderate confidence.” Besides, if I were American, I would find claims that Russia used propaganda to help elect Mr Trump deeply insulting. It is saying US citizens are mindless zombies ready to go anywhere Mr Putin leads them.
It might come as a surprise to some but Russia has its own politics. Across the spectrum, they are convinced America is preparing for war. Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev said in April, following a US missile strike on Syria, “we are on the brink of war” and that relations are “absolutely ruined.” Mr Medvedev is considered the most pro-Western of Russia’s leadership.
Also in April, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Russia. He has been categorised by US media as Mr Putin’s friend because when serving as chief executive of ExxonMobil he worked for six years to access vast Russian oil reserves. Mr Putin knows Mr Tillerson well. The Russians would never have made that deal if they didn’t think he was a serious, honourable and reliable man.
Mr Putin wasn’t supposed to be at the meeting because a lot of the political class in Russia didn’t want him to attend. But he turned up anyway and stayed for five hours. I think the conversation would have gone something like this: Rex, what is going on in Washington? What is this about Trump as our puppet? Tell me, who is responsible for making policy toward Russia?
That last question is a dark indicator of how broken the relationship appears. Consider Syria. Mr Putin needed to know if the US still accepts the position that the choice is between the Assad regime or the Islamic State. Russia assumed the regime is the lesser evil.
But after the missile attack, the US seems to be drifting. Whatever Russia’s military posture in Syria, it would be based on Mr Tillerson’s answer. I don’t know what was discussed but it wasn’t good. After the chat, Mr Trump announced relations are at an all-time low and Mr Tillerson solemnly said there was no trust between the two countries.
In all these narratives, Russia is the villain without exclusion. The castigation of Russia’s leader has been going on for nearly 17 years, getting shriller every year. It has re-awakened Russophobia and the blaming of Russia more generally, which in turn is tapping into old Cold War discourse. Every time, Washington decides it needs to further militarise its relations with Russia. This is madness.
The attempt to paint Mr Trump as a Russian puppet is convincing Mr Putin of nefarious intentions. He has publicly said someone is trying to provoke a war between the US and Russia, although he did not say who. He suggests powerful forces in Washington did not like Mr Trump’s policy of detente with Russia and are doing everything they can to scuttle it.
What we do know is that the US intelligence community has been leaking to the Washington Post, New York Times, CNN and other major media in ways that are not only highly detrimental to Mr Trump as a president but to his Russia policy as well. There is an obvious pattern here.
My concern is that Russia will overreact as it is prodded and prodded and prodded. The French have a saying for what's going on here: cet animal est tres mechant; quand on l’attaque, il ce defend. “This animal is very wicked; when you attack it, it defends itself.”
Forget North Korea, this provocation is more dangerous. At the height of the Cuban missile crisis at least satellite photos of Russian missiles were presented. There is zero evidence for Russian hacking today. Apparently, we have to take the intelligence community’s word on it and Iraq in 2003 suggests no one should be comfortable with that.
I’ll take one more turn of the wheel. Mr Trump’s presidency is being crippled by accusations of treason with no evidence. If this had happened to President John F Kennedy during the Cuba crisis, the only way to prove he wasn’t a Soviet agent would have been to launch nuclear weapons. This is madness.
So, when Mr Trump launched missiles at a Syrian military base, it was to show he isn’t a Kremlin puppet. It would be unwise to bash Mr Trump when he gets something right, and crushing the dangerous idea that Russia controls him at the minuscule price of 59 missiles was a good move.
But with all these messages, Mr Putin has no idea who is making policy in Washington. And if Russia’s pro-West faction is concerned, what might the Russian patriot faction be whispering to him? Mr Putin doesn’t want a new Cold War, neither does Mr Trump. But the Russian leader is right: Something is moving in Washington, something with sharp teeth.