Skip to main content

How Progressives Should Think About Russia

America’s security depends on defeating oligarchy abroad and at home.

printer friendly  
A portrait of Vladimir Putin., Reuters / Eduard Korniyenko

What is the left’s foreign-policy approach to Russia?

Since long before Donald Trump’s presidency, progressives have been vocal critics of US actions overseas. Yet much less thought has been given to what foreign policy should actually look like in the plausible event that a left-leaning Democrat wins control of the White House in 2020.

Whoever the next president will be, one immediate problem facing him or her will be how to deal with Russia, which most Democrats, including Bernie Sanders, hold responsible for interfering in the 2016 election to help Trump. Even apart from this apparent meddling, managing relations with Russia will be at the top of any new administration’s priorities. The next president will face immediate pressure from the permanent Washington national-security establishment to implement a tougher approach to Russia in Trump’s wake. This could include new and rigorously enforced sanctions, increased arms sales to Ukraine, a renewed push for NATO expansion, more pressure on Syria’s Assad regime, a new cyber offensive against Russia in retaliation for 2016, and covert support for opposition movements in Russia and its former satellites.

This agenda is unlikely to make America or the world more secure, and instead likely to further escalate tensions with Russia and increase the risk of future attacks on US institutions. So what should the next president do instead?

Take on Russia’s Oligarchs, by Taking on America’s

Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s alleged collusion with Russia has been opaque, but from the indictments issued so far, as well as the recent subpoena of the Trump Organization’s records, it is clear that a central issue is money laundering. Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort and his deputy Rick Gates are accused of violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) by effectively working as unlicensed lobbyists, laundering millions of dollars, tax evasion, and bank fraud. What many in Washington have portrayed as a new Cold War looks a lot like something else: large-scale white-collar crime.

It should not have taken an international political scandal to hold the perpetrators accountable. Unfortunately, much of what Manafort and Gates were allegedly engaged in is common in Washington and New York, where foreign governments, both allies and adversaries, routinely funnel money in order to promote their interests. Consider the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who is under scrutinyfrom Mueller not only for his contacts with Russia but also because officials in the United Arab Emirates, China, Israel, and Mexico sought to influence him. This is the context in which Russian interference should be understood: not as an unprecedented attack on US institutions, but as an especially dramatic example of how US institutions have been made vulnerable to manipulation by foreign governments and financial interests.

Most Democrats and Republicans in Congress are committed to punishing Vladimir Putin and the network of oligarchs surrounding him for election meddling by expanding the sanctions regime first imposed by the Obama administration following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Congress has attempted to tie Trump’s hands by imposing new sanctions in retaliation for election interference, but the Trump administration has been lax in enforcing them. However, even properly enforced sanctions will never solve the underlying problem: Russia is functionally a kleptocracy, and the United States bears some responsibility for making it that way.

In the 1990s, Washington encouraged the rapid and blatantly rigged privatization of Russia’s economy, resulting in skyrocketing inequality, the impoverishment of millions, and the elevation of a tiny billionaire elite. While Putin has claimed credit for a revival of stability and a measure of prosperity in the 2000s, driven to a large extent by high energy prices, over time he has consolidated power at the top of a fundamentally corrupt system. The United States has emerged as a leading destination for Russia’s elite to park their fortunes, often at the expense of middle-class Americans in major real-estate markets like New York, and with the help of banks and law firms happy to turn a blind eye to corruption overseas. Russian money-laundering through high-end real estate is also a major issue in London, where British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has proposed tackling it in response to the recent attempted poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter. Going after the money is far more likely to produce meaningful results than expelling diplomats, the strategy the United States and its European allies have so far pursued.

The United States has little standing to condemn Russia’s oligarchs while the Trump administration openly loots the public with a tax-reform bill designed to benefit the wealthiest Americans and with taxpayer dollars constantly funneled through Trump Organization properties. The next administration should make the case that the transnational oligarchy spanning from New York to London to Moscow isn’t merely greedy but also poses a threat to national security by undermining the integrity of the political process. It should expand FARA and end foreign lobbying, both legal and illegal, on K Street. It should crack down on money laundering through banks and real estate, as well as offshore tax havens.

Contrary to what some writers on the left have argued, the American public is legitimately interested in the Trump-Russia scandal and isn’t going to stop paying attention. But rather than singling out Russia, the next president should pledge to take on kleptocrats everywhere, using Trump’s outrageous corruption (including but certainly not limited to his Russia ties) to make the case for a more just economic order.

In addition, the next president should place a champion of global environmental justice in charge of the State Department, rather than the CEO of ExxonMobil or an outspoken Islamophobe and climate-change skeptic, to make clear that the oil-and-gas sector is not in charge of US foreign policy. Exxon, like other energy companies, has lobbied for normalized US-Russia relations so that it can exploit Russia’s vast natural resources at whatever cost to the climate, and has even been fined by the Treasury Department for violating sanctions by signing an agreement with the Russian oil giant Rosneft under Rex Tillerson’s management. Reducing tensions with Russia should not mean deepening ties between the energy barons in both countries.