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Why Russia Sanctions Are an Awful Idea

On the hazards of Russian to conclusion

Politics Features Vladimir Putin
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Trump just signed the Russian sanctions. Putin responded. Now we’re waiting for the second act. But this is a time for celebration: after spending eons of time in development hell, it looks like “World War III,” the long-awaited sequel to fan-favorite “World War II,” is on the march. Apparently the cross-media multi-platform event will premiere first in Russia and then in America (this kind of roll-out is normal in today’s bustling entertainment ecosystem).

Some of you now living may remember “World War II,” which barely touched America but had a wide release in Europe and the Pacific. The possibly-upcoming sequel features none of the old actors, but the characters (and roles) are more or less the same. Details on the production are unsurprisingly scarce. Let’s just say it’ll be an extravaganza unlike anything Tinseltown has ever shown us, and should break all records.

Of course, it might not happen. The event may be canceled. We’ve all heard this buzz before, and have been disappointed when the Powers that Be decide to call it off. Rumors, and rumors of rumors, tell me that if “World War III” sees the light of day, it will definitely end the series. No sequels, no relaunches. To quote from the Book of Dre, “This is the millennium of Aftermath, it ain’t gonna be nothing after that.”

THERE’S A FULL MOON OVER RUSSIA

As USA Today reports, the sanctions impose

stiff financial penalties on Russia, Iran and North Korea for acts the U.S. sees as against its national interest and the interests of allies. The sanctions are meant to punish Russia for its alleged campaign of cyberattacks and fake news to influence the 2016 presidential election, and its 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea territory. The sanctions also target North Korea due to its recent missile launch, and Iran’s continued government support of terrorist organizations, among other things.

This is laughable. Forget Iran (with whom we signed a treaty in good faith), and forget North Korea, China’s backwards client state with the GDP of Amarillo. The unbreakable atom of the argument is Russia: Russia did us wrong, and Russia must be punished.

Congress passed the sanctions; it is Congress’ claim that the law will hurt Putin and his circle, and few others: “The sanctions target the country’s oil and mining industry, and seeks to penalize individuals accused of involvement in Russian government hacking activities.”

Riddle me this, reader: who can weather an economic storm? The wealthy and powerful. Their flesh is thicker, and farther from the bone. After these punishments have set awhile, tell me what will happen. Will Putin look leaner? Of course he won’t. Will his cronies no longer pull on the levers of power? They will still have their hands in the till, and everywhere else. These sanctions will harm who they always harm: ordinary people. That is what sanctions do. The folks in power are not wounded by such blockades. It’s everyone else who suffers. Doesn’t matter how restrictive or how precise sanctions get, the end of the tale winds up just the same. How often do you think Saddam went hungry during our sanctions? Did he seem any thinner two years in? Congress just passed the Russia bill with overwhelming fervor. Do they remember Iraq? Do they remember anything, ever?

Congress’ sanctions necessitated a response, so Putin sunk the remaining members of Pussy Riot in a barrel below the ocean. Just kidding. The actual result was to export bureaucrats. The Russian President replied by expelling 755 American diplomats, “and seized recreational property used by embassy personnel.” God only knows how many Playstations and table bongs will never leave the Lubyanka’s basement.

I COME FROM THE LAND OF THE ICE AND SNOW

The Russia sanctions are what we have now, instead of good judgment and appropriate policy. Of course Russia should not be allowed to interfere with our elections. No country should. But hitting the people of Russia and flirting with destruction should not be our go-to move. The embargo comes from our sickness, not from theirs. We live in a country which is deeply confused about what happened last November. Striking out blindly, we have decided to blame the Bear. For everything.

It is a matter of record that Russia meddles where it shouldn’t. There is a long chain of circumstantial evidence which connects America’s government to certain Russian actors. It is also plain fact that our President is a member of the one percent. He belongs to the international business set, so his dealings with shady individuals and gangster states are both unavoidable and unsurprising. However, this does not imply a Russia conspiracy. None of these facts, alone or separate, proves the existence of a hundred-stage plot by the Kremlin to take down the American state.

Conspiracies are hard to organize. What is unbelievable about conspiracies is not the human potential for mischief-making, but the unlikelihood of comprehensive secrecy covering dark designs. Tell me a club of plotters achieved a sinister end, and I will believe you. But if you tell me that a large group of human beings managed to keep a secret, then I have a bridge to sell you. If all the proposed conspiracies in the world actually took place, their very existence would be a greater miracle of organization than the business with the loaves and fishes.

What appears to have happened with Russia and Donald Trump—much as it pains me to say—is within the bounds of the usual plotting and counterplotting that all states engage in.

The shadow the Russia scare throws is more dangerous than any single act of Putin’s. Open any book of 20th-century American history: we have been down the Russia scare path before. We have engaged in some version of this phobia since 1917. Every age needs an official enemy, and Russia has been ours for God knows how long. We almost undid the world in 1961, out of our mutual fear.

As usual, the scaremongering isn’t based in reality. Putin’s federation is a tottering petro-state that can barely execute regional influence. Its GDP is negligible in world affairs. “Threatening leper” would be an apt analogy. Really, Russia is the “we were really drunk, hon” of geopolitics. Like alcohol, it is the ultimate excuse for any action. Usually, American statesmen diverge wildly on their programs and their ends. But Russia is always there, waiting to be appropriated by anyone who needs to score quick points. Not since the phrase “gangster rap” has one idea served so many useful purposes for so many powerful people.

The Russian government is clearly a gangster regime. Nobody can or should dispute this. But hatred of the Kremlin is the ultimate purity politics. It seems that Russia’s calumny must be accepted by everyone—and in this current climate, anyone who does not condemn Moscow is automatically called a pawn or a fool. Russia’s otherness is useful to the conspiracy-minded and delusional. Always has been.

Fantasy prevails when the West looks East. Russia needs to be fixed: politically, socially, economically. But our current fear-hunting will not do. Russia is 4.25 billion acres of history and two syllables, but in Washington, it has been reduced to a shadow, a packhorse. All too often, the appearance of the word “Russia” on cable news marks the exact spot when the speaker has run out of understanding, and it evokes the same response, time after time, even when there’s nothing to see. Pavlov’s work holds, regardless of species.

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