The U.S. needs Russia. This may sound peculiar coming from a person who spent 25 years at the NSA, almost half of those fighting communism. But our approach to Russia since the end of the Cold War has been unimaginative and aggressive. Politicians in Washington put on their Cold-War glasses any time Russia makes noise. It's time to archive those in the Smithsonian.
Many notable academics agree that our policies toward Russia are flawed, but my conclusion — that we need Russia — is derived from the kind of work we mastered at NSA: carefully listening to and analyzing communications, in this case what Russians have said openly on social networks and in private conversations with me during a recent trip to Russia.
Unfortunately, for Americans schooled in "exceptionalism," what they say is hard to accept. Many don't like us. They despise our government, our swagger and how we have bullied our way across the globe since the end of the Cold War. Russians were humiliated then; it's no wonder that I saw a Russian youth with his fist held high under a gargantuan Soviet-era monument: the Worker and Collective Farm Girl. Russians opine about the respect, power and authority they once enjoyed.
Russians resent how NATO has brought Poland, the Baltics and other Eastern European countries under its wing. Rightly or wrongly, they continue to believe that at the end of the Cold War, then-Secretary of State James Baker promised Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that the U.S. would not expand NATO "one inch to the east." To put this in more comprehensible terms, recall that less than 20 years ago this country was outraged by the prospect of China potentially operating the Panama Canal. Imagine China having a military toe-hold in Mexico.
So, it's no surprise that roughly a quarter century after the end of the Cold War, Russians began to feel boxed in. Our on-again, off-again policy of deploying anti-ballistic missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic only heightened tensions. With NATO's expansion, the U.S. lost an opportunity to grow closer to Russia. The sad part about our feckless policy is that the chances of the American public supporting a war with Russia over Romania, Poland or the Baltics are slim to none.
Ordinary Russians worry about Vladimir Putin, but will stand up for him when he is constantly labeled a "KGB thug." They detest State Department spokesperson Jennifer Psaki, but since she has become a favorite topic of humor, they were relieved when she returned from a recent week-long absence. What Russians seek from the U.S. is respect and problem-solving on a peer-to-peer level.
The situation in Ukraine is a brutal regional conflict, which Russians and Ukrainians must work out for themselves. Eventually they will tire of civil war, given their deep cultural ties. Antagonizing Russia by trying to peel off Ukraine for the West is foolish given the larger strategic problems confronting the U.S. We need to reverse NATO expansion and put a new governing framework in place. We need Russia's expertise and influence in the Middle East. Mr. Putin helped us avoid a military commitment in Syria. And, have we forgotten that his government tried to warn us about the Boston bombers, the Tsarnaev brothers?
Short of a policy change, Russia will continue to thwart us, undermine our currency and heighten tensions, creating a new Cold War that neither can afford. Oddly, the Russian people adore our music, movies, and even our fast food restaurants, and a large number speak English to varying degrees. One Russian friend cynically commented that all large empires need enemies. But is this the kind of enemy we want — especially now?
Jerome Israel is a former senior executive at NSA and the FBI. His email is email@example.com.