WYNEN: Seeing through yellow journalism is critical


Opinions Column: Reality Check


Depending on who you ask, the Russians are either directly interfering in national U.S. elections, attempting to rebuild the Soviet Empire, deliberately subverting “democracy” in Syria (who really knows what’s going on there, to begin with) or all the above. If you listen to career Russia hawks Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) or Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), you would think any sort of overture to the Russians would put the United States in mortal danger. Thus, I think it is important to put Russia's perceived aggression in Europe and the Middle East in proper context.

When discussing geopolitics or international relations, especially when dealing with potential or concrete adversaries, there is very little media coverage or government focus on viewing the issue from the other side’s perspective. In practice, this makes for a poorly informed populace and poorly informed governmental policy. As Sun Tzu said, Know your enemy and know yourself, find naught in fear for 100 battles.” American policymakers, especially hawkish members of Congress and lobbyists from the military-industrial complex, would have you believe that Russia’s aggression occurred in a vacuum, and it is our duty as the world’s sole superpower, the guarantor of freedom and democracy to respond in kind to whatever evil scheme Putin concocts in the Kremlin.

There is, however, a history behind Russia’s actions. The first polity that could claim to be ancestors of today’s Russian Federation was the Grand Duchy of Muscovy. This pre-modern civilization was centered on the city of Moscow and its immediate surroundings. Surrounded by easily accessible land and lacking natural geographical defenses, Muscovy was easily overrun and dominated by the Mongols, and barbarian tribes from the West. After throwing off the Mongol yoke by 1480, the Muscovites began a series of expansions that were necessary to ensure the survival of the state. More modern incarnations of Muscovy — the Russian Empire under the Czars and the Soviet Union under the Communist Party — were still invaded by numerous foes, famous among them being Sweden, France, and Germany. It is abundantly clear, through rudimentary research, that Russia has had its fair share of national security threats that it had to contend with throughout its history.

Contemporary Russia is in arguably a more perilous position than the Soviets or the Czars. Losing much of its western buffer after 1991, along with its Central Asian hinterland, Russian foreign and defense policy has been focused on reclaiming lost territory, not for the sake of conquest, but for the sake of their own survival. It must be pointed out that Moscow is only 250 miles from independent Belarus, which has been working with NATO since 1997. A short 30 years ago, Russia had easy access to the North European Plain. Today, Russian sovereignty ends roughly 100 miles from St. Petersburg. If this drastic territorial reduction happened to any country, one would reasonably surmise that they would be actively looking for ways to shore up their territorial losses by reacquiring them in whatever means possible.

There are also indications that, despite the Russian scramble to secure its western flank (military interventions in Crimea and Georgia) in the last decade, Russia is not looking to upend the United States from its position as the sole superpower. Indeed, Putin himself has claimed that Russians respect and acknowledge the U.S. as such. According to Miles Maochun Yu, an East Asian military history and strategic specialist at the Hoover Institution out of Stanford University, Putin desires a duopoly with the United States and views the European Union and China as the two biggest threats to his goal. Despite his rhetoric, Putin knows that the Russian Federation cannot compete with the United States militarily or economically, but it can make progress on competing with the E.U. and China. In fact, Russia intervened in Crimea because the Ukrainian government began to bend toward being pro-E.U. Putin’s more aggressive measures have not been directed at the United States, but at China hosting a lauded summit of Southeast Asian nations, selling nuclear submarines to Vietnam, and warming diplomatic relations with Japan and South Korea have been the focus of Putin. It is hoped that this will fend off challengers to his desired global position: No. 2 after the United States.

I think it wise that going forward, you, my dear reader, keep this information in mind the next time you see Fox News or CNN blasting the next aggressive step Russia takes in an attempt to shore up its own security. Armed with this background knowledge, you should be able to discern what is a direct threat to the United States and what is not. Remember that the United States is not the only actor in the international arena who has stakes in securing itself against threats. Do this, and you will be able to cut through the yellow journalism and be a free-thinking individual. What a concept!

Steven Wynen is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in history and political science with a minor in economics. His column, “Reality Check,” runs on alternate Wednesdays.


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Steven Wynen

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