Examining Russia’s Role

by Karl Qualls, professor of history

Karl Qualls

From hacking allegations, to political and economic ties between the Trump campaign and Russian elites, to Hillary Clinton’s failed “reset” as Secretary of State, Russia has become a major talking point in election 2016. As a Russian historian, I love these moments because I can share with students how an understanding of Russia, its past and its relations with the U.S. is so useful during this election season.

Exploring these issues also helps explain why our policymakers continue to respond poorly to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Most of Russia’s geopolitical maneuvering in the last several years—from Georgia in 2008 to Crimea and Ukraine in 2014, to Syria today—runs afoul of U.S. national interests and expectations about international relations. But, if we look at the issues from Russia’s perspective, Putin’s maneuvering makes sense. He is responding to Russia being cut out of international power after the Cold War. He fears American unilateralism, “regime change” and the instability it has caused in north Africa and the Middle East. Putin’s annexation of Crimea, support of separatists in eastern Ukraine and support of embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are all designed to force Western powers to the negotiating table where Russia can again project its importance (Putin feels Russia is owed respect as a nuclear power, large country and victor in World War II).

Our next president must understand Russian history, which conditions many of Putin’s responses. We isolate Russia at our peril, but we do a disservice to democracy by not engaging with Putin and protecting our allies in the region.