Donald Trump is no peacenik. In the footsteps of Barack Obama, he has worsened the man-made famine in Yemen, now the epicenter of the world’s largest humanitarian crisis since 1945. He has decertified Iranian compliance with the JCPOA, even though the IAEA, U.S. intelligence agencies, and Israeli intelligence agencies all agree that Iran is respecting the agreement. On top of that, he has killed civilians in Iraq, extended the 16-year occupation of Afghanistan, and issued terrifying verbal threats to the North Korean government. But just as a broken clock is right twice a day, an otherwise dependable militarist sometimes falls into a peaceful position. For Trump, who earlier this month seemed to lament that “Russia has been very, very heavily sanctioned,” now might be one of those times.
Criticizing sanctions against Russia, even in the implicit way that Trump does, means questioning the widespread assumption that our government has a moral obligation to punish Russia’s crimes. But this mainstream wisdom, which sometimes construes Russian President Vladimir Putin as an almost uniquely evil and implacable Hitlerian, dangerously misrepresents the nature and context of the Kremlin’s misbehavior. In reality, many of Putin’s battlefield opponents are just as illiberal as he is, and nonviolent engagement with Putin—the sort that Trump pursued earlier this week—is probably adequate to improve Putin’s treatment of the United States. Even if we disregard the general failure of sanctions to achieve their supporters’ stated objectives, then, we have good reason to oppose our government’s provocative, lopsided, and civilian-harming sanctions against Russia.
For a glimpse of the misguided anti-Russia fervor currently motivating U.S. action, consider the sanctions bill that Congress passed in July to punish Putin for supporting nefarious activities in such places as Syria. Proponents of that legislation certainly have great reasons to despise Russia’s allies in the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad, but exactly which of the real-world alternatives to Assad would our pro-sanctions compatriots prefer? Having struck out for Syria’s “moderate” rebels, a good many of whom joined forces with Islamists, the U.S. should realize that Assad is quite possibly the least atrocious figure capable of maintaining some semblance of Syrian stability through these final (or simply newest) stages of the Syrian Civil War. Putin’s aid to Assad is still condemnable, of course, but it does not justify the United States’ sweeping retaliatory sanctions and the resulting deterioration in U.S.-Russian relations.
The same is true of Russia’s interventions in Ukraine, where Putin is not the only criminal and maybe not even the most malevolent one. Although our government endlessly criticizes the Kremlin for annexing the once-Ukrainian Crimea, many Crimeans—probably most—actually prefer Russian rule. Their lives under Moscow are far from perfect, but the majority of them are ethnic Russians who tend to consider Kiev the greater enemy for its attacks on Russian culture. By trying to force a Russian withdrawal, the U.S. is therefore working to undermine many Crimeans’ pursuit of self-determination.
Russian violence in the Donbas does not justify sanctions either. Put simply, the region’s Russian separatists align with Moscow’s villains, while the Ukrainian counterinsurgents align with Kiev’s villains, some of whom are genuine fascists and even more of whom routinely overlook fascist hooliganism in their country. Neither warring party is particularly attractive, in other words, so the U.S. should stay out of the melee and eliminate sanctions that increase hardship in Russia without decreasing it in Ukraine.
As for Putin’s interference in the U.S. presidential election? We still do not know precisely what happened, but it seems likely that any Russian intrusion was largely defensive. Putin was understandably discomfited by the West’s illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the killing of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, the former of which Hilary Clinton endorsed as a voting U.S. senator and the latter of which she helped facilitate as secretary of state. It is no far stretch to suppose that when Clinton then joked about the grisly assassination of Gaddafi, questioned the legitimacy of Russia’s 2011 parliamentary elections, and called Putin’s militarism “reminiscent” of Hitler’s, the Kremlin resolved to prevent this tried-and-true militaristic busybody from antagonizing Russia as the United States’ next president.
We should take comfort in the fact that Russia has not always been this confrontational towards the U.S. Although his authoritarian sympathies and skepticism of the West probably date back to the Cold War, Putin actually managed to maintain an amicable relationship with President George W. Bush before the Bush administration’s headlong march to Baghdad. It was only after more than a decade of Western mischief overseas that Putin may have decided to defend himself by striking back in such a significant way. That being the case, it might not be too late for Trump to reverse our course by talking to Putin, removing sanctions, and promoting a more nuanced understanding of the Kremlin’s foreign policy. If he does not, peace will slip further away.