Despite a career in the intelligence community, I consider myself a friend of Russia because of the love I developed for the language and culture in St. Louis public schools beginning in 3rd grade. I recently went on a long dive trip with 20 Russians in the Sea of Cortez. I enjoy being with these people, I remembered thinking as we toweled off and headed to our cabins after the last dive. Soon we were within cell phone range, and I scanned the news: the U.S was withdrawing from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. How in the world could this happen?
My colleagues and I spent years at the National Security Agency in the ‘80s supporting this eventual treaty with the former Soviet Union. It was a proud moment, ending the standoff between dangerous Pershing and SS-20 Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles. As a symbol of this historic agreement, an SS-20 still stands in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, but I wonder now if the Russians will want it back. When President Donald Trump ran for office, he raised many issues that, no matter what you think of him, no one else dared discuss. He questioned why we couldn’t have a better relationship with Russia and the future of NATO. These made sense to me — NATO will be 70 years old next year and was created to contain the Soviet Union. Can the role of something that old be reviewed without so much rancor?
Evidently not, and as a result, NATO has become a vacuum cleaner, sucking into its club Eastern European nations that were once under the aegis of the former Soviet Union. I don’t know which came first, the chicken or the egg, just like I don’t know if NATO deployed first to Eastern Europe and Russia responded by creating problems for us around the world or the other way around. But NATO’s presence in former Warsaw Pact countries is arguably the major national security issue for Russia and the stumbling block to a better relationship. As NATO continues on its merry way, Russia will become more threatening. Last summer, thousands of NATO troops participated in an exercise in Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia — Russia’s backyard and places most Americans wouldn’t fight for. Now Russia is giving us a taste of our own medicine: It plans to deploy nuclear-capable TU-160 bombers on a Venezuelan island base less than 1,400 miles from Miami. I’m not pleased. I live in Ft. Lauderdale.
Let’s admit it: this Spy vs. Spy relationship with Russia has plunged us into a new Cold War that feels more threatening and unpredictable than the first. Russian “Bear” nuclear bombers now routinely fly near Alaska; Russia is suspected in attacks on U.S. diplomats in Cuba; Russian submarines and spy ships ply U.S. coastal waters; Russia plans to place its most modern air defense system in Crimea threatening the Black Sea; Russia poisons a former Russian spy in the U.K., and Russia captures Ukrainian ships and sailors after a flareup in the Black Sea.
While this national security threat grows, Washington appears to be in no mood to address it sensibly. Republican acolytes of the late Sen. John McCain still dismissively call Vladimir Putin a “thug.” These same individuals advocate global U.S. power projection at whatever cost and threw a tantrum when President Trump decided to pull just 2,000 troops out of Syria. Democrats have made it impossible for Mr. Trump to have meaningful dialogue with Russia given the collusion investigation. In July, Mr. Trump met Mr. Putin in Germany, and politicians went berserk, to the point where some in Congress wanted to question the interpreters. When Russia engages in bad behavior, the U.S. usually responds with sanctimoniousness and more sanctions. The latter have hurt Russia economically, but they have not stopped them from developing the hypersonic missile Avangard, which Vladimir Putin says can evade any Western air defenses. This weapon and tearing up the INF treaty are destabilizing and should drive us to the negotiating table to update the treaty, taking into account the many technological changes in weaponry that have occurred since 1988, and including a relatively new bully on the block — China.
Moving forward, we need a “demilitarized zone” between Brussels and Moscow. NATO must eliminate or reduce troop levels in the Baltics, while Russia does the same in its neighboring oblast, Pskov. No more exercises in these regions will be permitted. Poland and Eastern Europe must be on the table for base and troop reduction as will be Kaliningrad and eastern Ukraine, where a civil war has raged for nearly six years.
The Russian-held territory of Crimea is something Russia is not going to return to Ukraine. Russia just built a multi-billion dollar, nearly 11-mile bridge to Crimea, and this wasn’t only because it’s a nice place to vacation. Russia has three major naval fleets: one north in Severomorsk, another east in Vladivostok, and one in the south, in Sevastopol, Crimea. Krym nash (Crimea is ours), Russians say. An acknowledgement of this would be a powerful inducement for Russia to ratchet down unacceptable (to us) behavior such as the bomber base in Venezuela and tampering with elections.
But it’s hard to see much changing given the nasty state of politics in D.C. Mr. Trump passed on an opportunity to meet with Mr. Putin at the G20 in Buenos Aires in November because, I think, he felt politically constrained. Perhaps it’s worth remembering how President George H.W. Bush dealt with Mikhail Gorbachev and the Soviet Union upon its demise. He had a relationship with Mr. Gorbachev. They met many times. He didn’t kick the Soviets while they were down. This is what we expect from presidents, not politics which handcuff them from moving forward on national security interests.
Jerome Israel was a technical executive at NSA, and an assistant director at the FBI. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.