The Guardian

Hawks Say Sanders Will Be Weak on Russia. But Putin Should Fear a President Bernie

Former Research Fellow
Bernie Sanders
Bernie Sanders

He may not be running, but Vladimir Putin is already a formidable presence in the 2020 US presidential campaign. From concerns about Russian aggression abroad to anxieties about electoral interference at home, Putin has become a question to which all presidential candidates are expected to have a strongly worded answer – particularly in the wake of Donald Trump’s failed impeachment, in which the Democratic party sought to make the case that “ all roads lead to Putin ”.

The conventional wisdom in US foreign policy is that military competition is necessary to contain Putin and circumscribe the Russian sphere of influence. “The United States aids Ukraine and her people so that they can fight Russia over there, and we don’t have to fight Russia over here,” said the Republican adviser Tim Morrison during the impeachment hearings – a quote then repeated by Adam Schiff, chairman of the House intelligence committee, in his opening argument.

It is in this context that the rise of Bernie Sanders is raising fears inside the Democratic party establishment. Sanders has long been a leading advocate of military restraint, and he is campaigning on a platform of “ responsible foreign policy ” that promises to end America’s “endless war”. Despite speech after speech in which the senator decries Putin’s criminal authoritarianism, a narrative is now developing that his presidency would amount to a great gift to the Kremlin. “If I’m Russian, I go with Sanders this time around,” tweeted the former Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein.

But most advocates of military competition fundamentally misunderstand the nature of Kremlin power – a misunderstanding that has led the US to fail, time and again, in its attempt to contain Putin. The promise of Sanders’ foreign policy platform is precisely that it turns the conventional wisdom on its head, showing how the US government can use domestic reform as a strategy to undermine Putin’s authoritarian aggression abroad.

To make sense of this strategy, it is necessary to see the three pillars on which Putin’s regime rests. The first of these pillars is hydrocarbons: the vast reserves of oil and gas in Russia that deliver large revenues and deep political loyalties both within Russia and across Europe. Russian oil and gas output is currently at a record high 11.25m barrels per day, generating $44.4bn each year from countries such as Germany that have become heavily reliant on Russian gas exports.

The second pillar of Putin’s power is corruption. Russia is today a kleptocracy, a political system that runs on kickbacks, bribes and pocketed public money for loyal oligarchs. Their dark money, of course, does not stay in Russia. Instead, it circulates through the vast international system of murky finance – into Deutsche Bank and Danske Bank, into London real estate and US shell companies – buying allegiance to the regime along the way.

And the third pillar is propaganda: Putin and his allies actively seek to stir up conflict abroad in order to strengthen nationalist loyalties at home. From the very beginning of his tenure, Putin has fomented violence and aggression against Russia’s “enemies” – be they Chechen, Ukrainian or American – as a strategy to boost his own popularity.

Far from attacking these pillars of Kremlin power, recent US foreign policy has served to strengthen them. The Barack Obama administration, for example, aggressively pursued a fossil fuels arms race against Russia, further entrenching the global addiction to hydrocarbons. Meanwhile, Obama presided over a flood of Russian oligarchs’ cash into the US, even as his secretary of state, Hillary Cinton, drew comparisons between Putin and Hitler.

Sanders, by contrast, seeks to dismantle each of the three pillars at their base. Rather than deepening US dependence on oil and gas, he is promoting a Green New Deal with major provisions to support a green transition beyond US borders. By driving decarbonisation among US allies in Europe and around the world, Sanders promises to reduce Putin’s geopolitical leverage.

Rather than ignoring the illicit financial system, Sanders is advocating a programme of “ corporate accountability ” to shut down tax havens, eliminate anonymous shell companies and strictly regulate the Wall Street banks that have facilitated the flow of kleptocrats’ cash all around the world.

Finally, Sanders avoids the lazy cold war rhetoric about “the Russians” that helps boost Putin’s legitimacy back at home. Instead, his approach is infrastructural, attacking the nodes of the illicit finance network rather than the individual “bad actors” operating within it.

In short, Sanders is shifting away from the antiquated paradigm of “foreign policy” – with its clear demarcations of home and abroad and its appeals to a unified national interest – and towards “ foreign politics ”. He is targeting the global architecture of kleptocracy in which many US firms and passport holders are complicit, and building ties with social movements around the world that can serve as allies in the fight against state corruption.

Progressives cannot afford to be naive in their approach to Putin. His efforts to consolidate a sphere of influence are unlikely to abate, regardless of the 2020 election outcome. But for all the Democratic party’s legitimate fears about Russian aggression, it cannot retreat to an outdated paradigm that approaches Russia as a question of military security alone.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that those who understand Putin’s kleptocratic system – such the leader of the Russian opposition, Alexei Navalny – are now rooting for Sanders. It is only by undermining that system, not competing with it, that the US can truly weaken Putin’s authoritarian grip, and make way for a new democratic movement to flourish in Russia.

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