A Grain Of Saul

A Grain Of Saul: When It Comes To Russia, We’ll Have To Swallow Our Pride To Find Solutions

How long until retaliations lead us to the brink?

A Grain of Saul is a weekly column that digs into some of the biggest issues we face as a nation and as an international community in search of reliable data, realistic solutions, and — most importantly — hope.  

Tensions are bubbling.

Sweeping sanctions against Russia have just been signed by President Donald Trump. It's one of the few overwhelmingly bipartisan acts of Congress in recent months, and the legislation comes specifically with language that prevents the president from exercising executive control to reduce those sanctions at a later date.

In return, the Russian government has already begun to retaliate. The Kremlin decided to expel 755 American workers and diplomats from Russia. Russian officials have also threatened to take further action in the near future. Meanwhile, well-known American businessmen such as Bill Browder are testifying in open hearings to Russian corruption and money laundering, and the picture isn't pretty: murder, blackmail, political upheaval and one the richest men in the world at the center of it all: Vladimir Putin.

But as we consider punishing Putin and his government for the election meddling that the FBI, CIA, NSA and director of National Intelligence all agree Russia took part in, we also must consider global security and the millions of lives at stake.

Vilnius, Lithuania - May 21, 2016: Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. presidential hopeful Donald Trump are kissing on the side of a barbecue restaurant in Vilnius, Lithuania.
Vilnius, Lithuania - May 21, 2016: Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. presidential hopeful Donald Trump are kissing on the side of a barbecue restaurant in Vilnius, Lithuania. Shutterstock/ ArtursD

Russia and the United States have had several close calls between air force personnel over Syria, and a newly negotiated ceasefire in the country has brought temporary respite from the greatest humanitarian crisis of our time. Our bombings of the Russia-supported Assad regime were the first open provocation of Russian forces since the Syrian war began. When Russia threatens further retaliation for the new sanctions, it's tough not to wonder whether an escalation in Syria is on officials' minds.

Which means we need to reckon with the biggest potential nightmare of them all: nuclear war.

Russia is one of the few military powers in the world that can compete with the United States, and one of a select few that could destroy a large portion of our country with the push of a few buttons. De-escalation with Russia goes well beyond preserving trade relationships or allowing the economic growth of an adversary. De-escalation with Russia means preserving what's left of the nuclear stalemate that we've all been privileged to experience for the decades since the strongest military countries on earth armed themselves with bombs that could wipe out entire countries.

As has been well-documented, the threat of a nuclear war — even an accidental one — is high, according to some experts. Eric Schlosser, the author of the book Command and Control, put it like this in The New Yorker:

"Many of the nuclear-weapon systems on both sides are aging and obsolete. The personnel who operate those systems often suffer from poor morale and poor training. None of their senior officers has firsthand experience making decisions during an actual nuclear crisis. And today's command-and-control systems must contend with threats that barely existed during the Cold War: malware, spyware, worms, bugs, viruses, corrupted firmware, logic bombs, Trojan horses, and all the other modern tools of cyber warfare."
MOSCOW, RUSSIA - CIRCA JULY, 2016: United States of America US embassy staff entrance.
MOSCOW, RUSSIA - CIRCA JULY, 2016: United States of America US embassy staff entrance. vaalaa

These threats only grow when communications between nuclear nations such as Russia and the United States break down. As former NSA analyst and Russia spy expert John Schindler said in a recent column, Putin's promise to expel U.S. diplomats is far more than an overreaction: it's a declaration of Cold War 2.0. Fewer diplomats in Russia means more limited opportunities for American diplomacy in Russia. And that limited diplomacy means two well-armed and historically trigger-happy nations on the edge of their seats waiting for the other to cross a red line. 

Taking this all into context, here is where we stand: Russia has been punished for their election meddling. In the wake of the election meddling, former President Barack Obama took some much-criticized actions that were deemed too weak and too late by the mainstream political pundits. He expelled 35 diplomats that were reportedly spies and closed Maryland and Long Island compounds used by those Russian diplomats. We now know Putin waited months to retaliate, reportedly due to assurances from the incoming administration that the United States' future policy towards Russia would be more friendly. But with news of a new sanctions bill coming, Russia's overdue retaliation seems inevitable. 

It's not hard to see how continuing this pattern — responses and repercussions and repercussions to repercussions — could lead to full-scale escalation

Yes, Russia meddled in our election. Yes, Russia has a leader alleged to have killed political opponents and critical journalists. And yes, it all could get much worse. We can deal with the first of these issues domestically: shore up our voting systems and find a way to fight fake news and Russian propaganda. In many ways we've already started the process. Casual political observers are much more aware that fake news exists, that certain outlets are Russia-sponsored and that headlines need to be double-checked.

But next up is changing our attitude about the Russian government, and especially the people it governs. We need to realize they are not some simple-minded blob of ideology that wants to deconstruct democratic norms. We need to realize there are complex political views and aspirations within the Russian government, and more importantly, among the Russian people. 

We need to start forging relationships on a person-to-person basis, not government-to-government. 

As U.S. permanent representative to the U.N. Samantha Powers once said after the death of her political rival and Russian U.N. ambassador Vitaly Churkin, "It is imperative that we try to build relationships with individual Russians, who are as complex and contradictory as the rest of us."

Protesters shout slogans at Pushkin Square during mass rally against corruption in Putin's government. Shutterstock / kojoku.
Protesters shout slogans at Pushkin Square during mass rally against corruption in Putin's government. Shutterstock / kojoku.

Finally, we need to pump the breaks and consider the cliff we are quickly approaching. As sanctions mount and the rhetoric heats up, we'd be wise to consider what the endgame is. If America wants global peace and wants to avoid a nuclear catastrophe, there are ways to do it: preserve diplomatic relationships with Russia, find common ground in fighting terrorism, embrace the Russian immigrants we have in our country and tone down the rhetoric that is quickly convincing Americans all Russians are bad.

There is no doubt that the Russian government wronged the American people, and no doubt its officials felt justified in their actions. Whether we believe it was wrong is irrelevant, though. What matters now is whether we'd rather make a bad situation worse or if we'd rather take the first steps towards stopping a dangerous game that might end in a historic tragedy. 

Committing ourselves to the latter won't be easy. In fact, it may require swallowing some pride. But the reward would be well worth it.

UPDATE: The original version of this story noted that a sanctions bill had been sent to President Donald Trump. This story was updated to reflect the fact that Trump signed the sanctions bill on Wednesday morning. 

Cover photo:  Evan El-Amin / Ververidis Vasilis / Shuttterstock.

You can follow Isaac Saul on Twitter at @Ike_Saul.

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