The growing hostility toward Russia among some members of America’s political elite is reaching alarming and irrational levels. Indeed, some critics of the Trump administration’s Russia policy insist that U.S. leaders should not be talking to the Kremlin at all. The latest person to voice that opinion is Representative Eric Swalwell (D-CA), a member of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020.
When Trump spoke by telephone with Vladimir Putin, primarily to see if they could reach some common ground regarding Venezuela and North Korea, Swalwell denounced that call. Repeating an accusation that he had made several times previously that Russia’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. elections constituted an act of war against the United States, Swalwell erupted: “Remember that time Pearl Harbor was bombed and FDR called the Emperor of Japan? Or the time the Twin Towers were stuck and Bush ringed Osama Bin Laden? No? I don’t either.” He then asked rhetorically why Trump called Putin after the Mueller Report delineated the extent of Russia’s election interference.
It was an absurd comparison. As Hunter DeRensis, a reporter with the National Interest, noted acidly: “The attacks on Pearl Harbor and on 9/11 killed 2,403 and 2,996 Americans, respectively. There are currently no casualties connected to the leak of the DNC emails.” DeRensis makes a crucial distinction. Moscow’s meddling was an unfriendly act, but it was not even remotely comparable to an act of war. Indeed, most of it was basic espionage and propaganda. Espionage in the twenty-first century consists primarily of electronic surveillance and the hacking of computer systems. The days in which spies purloined printed documents and taped them to the bottom of park benches to be retrieved later by other agents are long gone.
Although Russia’s propaganda and other intrusive initiatives were more extensive than those of other countries, they were not dramatically different in kind. The United States certainly has engaged in similar surveillance, eavesdropping not only on Russia’s ambassador to the United States but on numerous allied leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Nor is Russia alone in trying to manipulate the outcome of elections in foreign countries. The United States itself has a record of such behavior going back decades. And evidence has emerged that Ukraine meddled in the 2016 election with the hope that Hillary Clinton would emerge victorious. Yet one does not hear calls from Swalwell and his ideological allies to cut-off communications or even scale-back relations with Kiev.
Unfortunately, Swalwell is not the only prominent political figure to exaggerate Russia’s offenses and to argue that pursuing a constructive dialogue with the Putin government constitutes suspicious conduct bordering on treason. Indeed, an especially tenacious myth is that Trump has pursued an excessively soft policy toward Moscow, despite ample evidence (ranging from weapons sales to Ukraine, to continuing NATO expansion, to U.S. efforts to oust Russian client regimes in Syria and Venezuela) that all point to the opposite conclusion.
Arguing that U.S. leaders should not even talk to their Russian counterparts is especially reckless. Even during the dark days of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, the United States never severed communications. Negotiations on various issues continued, and at least in a few cases produced important, beneficial results. The treaty banning atmospheric nuclear tests, the establishment of a telephone “hot line” between Moscow and Washington to reduce the danger of false alarms that might trigger a catastrophic nuclear exchange, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty all emerged because the parties continued to communicate and negotiate.
If the United States was willing to adopt such stance toward a totalitarian superpower enemy, it makes no sense to take a harder line toward a conventional, noncommunist regional power. Putin’s government is a corrupt, authoritarian regime, but no sensible person can argue that it is worse than the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin and his successors. Swalwell and like-minded individuals do a disservice both to America’s security and basic logic when they imply that even talking to Russia constitutes disloyalty.