Go back

Tom Switzer: Russiaphobia and the Perils of a New Cold War

Published 20 Apr 2018
Speech delivered on 10 April at AIIA NSW on “Russiaphobia and the Perils of a New Cold War’.

Thank you Ian Lincoln and to the Australian Institute of International Affairs and to past presidents Colin Chapman and Richard Broinowski.

I appreciate the invitation to address the NSW Branch again … even though I am still wiping the egg off my face after the last time I spoke here about two years ago.

Some of you may recall that in March 2016, I confidently told you that … Donald Trump would not become the next president of the United States of America!

After all, the polls, the press, the political class – why, the very scent in the air – pointed to Hillary Clinton’s landslide election.

From left to right, the consensus among us so-called experts was clear:

Trump would lose, possibly badly. He would be consigned to the ash heap of history.

But we were all wrong.

November 8, 2016, will go down as the most dramatic failure of discernment in the history of punditry.

The episode is a reminder of the folly of the conventional wisdom.

The lesson: the next time the experts are slavishly wedding to a conventional wisdom — the next time the mainstream media tells only one side of a story — take a deep breath and question those unassailable orthodoxies.

As one of America’s great intellectuals and journalists of the 20th century Walter Lippmann warned:

“Where all think alike, no one thinks very much.”

This is especially dangerous when the prevailing dogma is wrong, which I believe is the case with Western attitudes to Russia.



From Washington and Canberra to London and Brussels, western leaders have indulged in the rhetoric of moral indignation, punished Moscow with economic sanctions and treated Vladimir Putin as a pariah in world affairs.

From The Australian, UK Daily Telegraph, The Economist and the Wall Street Journal on the right to the Sydney Morning Herald, The Guardian and the Washington Post and New York Times on the left, the media consensus is also clear: the Bear is on the prowl and Putin is upending what has recently been termed the rules-based liberal international order.

However, contrary to the received wisdom, Putin is not bent on restoring the Soviet empire.

Putin is no Stalin.

For the most part, he is a nationalist and ruler of a proud and powerful nation, who is determined to protect Russia’s legitimate security interests.

In 2000, after the misery and humiliations of the Yeltsin era, Putin came to power in a state that had collapsed twice in the 20th century: 1917 and 1991.

His mission has been to rebuild Russia in a way that was modern so that the state would not collapse again. And he supported engagement with the West.

However, as he made clear at the Munich security conference in 2007, Putin is highly sceptical of the so-called “unipolar world” that has defined US global hegemony since the collapse of Soviet Communism.

I, for one, have some sympathy for his argument, because I have long questioned the notion of assertive global American leadership championed by Democrats and Republicans alike in the post-Cold War era.

But let me also be clear: I’m not suggesting Moscow’s conduct in its near abroad has been legal or moral.

Nor am I endorsing Putin’s style of domestic leadership.

Among other things, Moscow failed to hold to account those Ukrainian separatists, who accidentally shot down Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 in July 2014, killing 298 people, including 38 Australians; and that failure, in my judgement, reflected poorly on both the Kremlin and the Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine.

We should never forget the misery and heartache this tragedy inflicted on the loved ones of the deceased on July 17, 2014.

My point, though, is that, since the collapse of Soviet Communism, the western nations have rubbed Russia’s nose in its Cold War defeat and failed to take into account its strategic sensibilities.

A decade ago, in 2008, Paul Keating warned: “Russia is the only country in the world with the capacity to massively damage the US to the point of seriously maiming it. And ditto for Western Europe.”

The former prime minister asked: “Wouldn’t you think that when the Russians surrendered their empire in 1990, US policy would have been adept enough to find an intelligent place for them in the overall strategic fabric?”

Instead, Washington “ring-fenced Russia, treating it as a virtual enemy, with its western European and central European clients egging it on”.

Keating’s assessments reflected the views of leading US-based foreign-policy realists during the 1990s:

George Kennan (the architect of the US containment doctrine against the Soviet Union in 1947.)

Paul Nitze (the principal author of NSC-68 in 1950 that helped shape Pentagon strategy from Truman to Reagan.)

James Schlesinger (the cabinet secretary who served in the Nixon, Ford and Carter administrations.)

Jack Matlock (the US ambassador to the USSC in the Reagan and Bush years.)

Owen Harries (the leading Australian conservative and founding editor of the Washington-based National Interest magazine.)

These distinguished thinkers had warned about the folly of getting into Russia’s space and getting into Russia’s face.

Indeed, in 1997, Kennan famously warned that the decision to expand NATO eastwards would be “the most fateful error of the post-Cold War era” and a “strategic blunder of potentially epic proportions.”

Today, the chickens are coming home to roost.

And the voices of Kennan et al are very much missing.

Not that everyone in the western world subscribes to the anti-Russia narrative – and I am delighted to see here some skeptics of that stifling orthodoxy: from former diplomats Dick Woolcott, Alison Broinowski and Tony Kevin to journalists Monica Attard and Brian Toohey to former federal Liberal minister Ross Cameron and my long-time mate John Ruddick.

However, we are marginalised voices in a debate that is dominated by people, who have become emotionally hostile toward Russia.

The western critics of Russia come in different shapes and sizes:

Some are unreconstructed Cold Warriors; some are liberal interventionists or Wilsonian idealists; while others are motivated by a hatred of Donald Trump, who once sought to promote a rapprochement with Moscow.

Whatever their motivations, there is clear evidence of anti-Russian hysteria or Russiaphobia in the West.

So much so that whenever anything bad happens we blame it on the Russians… whether there is any evidence or not.



The critics make several arguments about the Russian menace. Here are four of them:


1 Ukraine

When Russia seized Crimea in 2014, the incursion was widely denounced as naked aggression akin to Nazi Germany’s expansionism in the mid-to-late 1930s.

According to the likes of Hillary Clinton and John McCain, Putin was the new Hitler.

Never mind that Crimea is the home of the Russian Black Sea fleet and had been part of Russia from Catherine the Great to Khrushchev.

Never mind that Ukraine is a conduit for gas exports to Western markets.

Never mind that ethnic Russians comprise about 60 per cent of Crimea’s citizens and that a large percentage of the Crimean population supported the referendum to leave Ukraine for Russia.

Never mind that Putin’s intervention in Crimea in early March 2014 was a reaction to the western-backed coup to bring down the democratically elected, pro-Russian regime in Kiev in February 21-22, 2014.

Never mind that the brutal Ukrainian military assault on those ethnic Russian breakaway regions Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine in April 2014 that sparked a refugee crisis and the deaths of about ten thousand civilians.

Putin’s rational calculations are based on an age-old truth of geopolitics: that a great power doggedly protects its vital national interests in its near abroad.

Indeed, a sphere of influence is a key characteristic of any great power, authoritarian or democratic.

Many Americans, guided by a sense of exceptionalism, think they are immune to the historic tendencies of power politics.

But when liberals and neo-conservatives slam Russia’s behaviour, they should recall the many US military interventions in the Caribbean and Central America since the Monroe Doctrine in the 19th century.

None of this is extraordinary; it is the way the world works, and always has.

Would China allow Taiwan or Tibet to become independent?

Would Washington allow the Kremlin to sign up Cuba in a military alliance and try to plant missiles pointing north?

Why, then, would Moscow allow the West to peel Ukraine away from its strategic orbit?

It is, as the distinguished political science professor John Mearsheimer notes, a vast stretch of land that Napoleonic France and the Germans had crossed to attack Russia.

Although the Kremlin won’t tolerate a situation where Ukraine is a Western bulwark on its border, its actions have been more restrained than the West recognises.

Has Putin allowed the rebels in eastern Ukraine to grab larger parts of Russian-speaking eastern and southern Ukraine?

Has he marched into Kiev, as the conventional wisdom predicted four years ago?

Bear this in mind when you hear the Russiaphobes denounce the Crimean annexation as the precursor to relentless expansion across Europe.


2 Syria

Russia’s intervention in the civil war in September 2015 was widely denounced at the time.

But Moscow was merely rescuing its Shiite-aligned client in Damascus from Sunni insurgents.

Nothing odd about that: a year earlier the US rescued its Shiite client in Baghdad from Sunni insurgents.

Putin feared that if Bashar al-Assad’s regime fell, Russia’s presence in western Syria and its strategic military bases on the Mediterranean would be gone.

That is why he sent tanks, warships, fighter jets and troops to bolster the Assad regime, which had faced a troop shortage and loss of towns as it sought to maintain Alawite rule over an overwhelming Sunni majority.

And by reaching an understanding with Syria as well as Iraq and Iran to share intelligence about the Islamic State jihadists, Putin was positioning Russia again as a key player in the Middle East, and one that is more willing than the West to defeat Sunni jihadists.

In the process, he exposed the shortcomings of the Obama administration’s policy towards Syria.

True, Russia’s many air strike campaigns have led to senseless deaths of many innocent Syrians. The footage is indeed horrific.

Still, the consequences of removing Assad — an outcome that president Barack Obama, secretary of state Hillary Clinton and British prime minister David Cameron had enthusiastically encouraged — would have been even worse.

The regime would have collapsed and its Alawite army would have crumbled.

Sunni jihadists such as Islamic State and al-Qa’ida’s Syrian affiliate al-Nusra Front would have exploited the security vacuum and dominated all of Syria.

The ethnic minorities — the Alawites, Shi’ites and Syrian Christians — would have been massacred.

And there would be the flight of millions more refugees into Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.

As I talk, calls are growing for President Trump to authorise more military strikes on the Assad regime in the wake of the latest chemical weapons attack that killed dozens of people outside Damascus at the weekend.

It’s regrettable that chemical weapons have been used.

Whether they have been used by the Assad regime remains a legitimate question.

But just say for argument’s sake, the Assad regime is responsible.

I suspect that most of the 400-500,000 people who have been killed in Syria’s seven-year civil war have been killed by conventional weapons.

What’s the difference between killing somebody with shrapnel or bullets vs. killing them with chemical weapons?

If the world is so concerned about the fact that people have been killed, the US would have intervened a long time ago in Syria.

The idea that chemical weapons have suddenly changed the nature of the game (again) and therefore justifies US intervention (again) is a specious argument.

The cold hard reality is that America’s core strategic interests are not at stake in Syria.

There is no compelling moral case for intervening in Syria.

And it’s not clear that using military force will do any good.

As the Iraq, Afghanistan and Libyan missions show, the US interventions in this part of the world all too often make a bad situation worse.

If Trump authorises another air strike on Assad’s regime in the next 24 hours, then the prospect of a clash between Russia and the US in Syria increases.

If so, we would be “one step away from a Cuban missile crisis of the 21st century,” as the distinguished historian of Russian studies Stephen Cohen warns.


3 Russian meddling in the US election

It is true several Russian actors in cyberspace peddled fake news on the Internet.

Yet there is no evidence whatsoever these meddlers had anything to do with the Russian government.

As it happens, many reputable journalists have raised serious questions about whether Moscow hacked the Democrats’ emails, which — by the way — show that the Democratic National Committee establishment had colluded with Hillary Clinton against her rival Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primaries.

There is still no public evidence that Putin’s regime gave emails from the DNC and Clinton’s campaign chairman to WikiLeaks in the lead-up to the 2016 election.

Meanwhile, the FBI concedes it has failed to examine the DNC computers and servers that the Russians supposedly hacked.

Masha Gessen is a relentlessly anti-Putin, anti-Trump critic, whom I debated at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas several years ago, and even she concedes the US intelligence community has risibly failed to prove the Russians helped defeat Clinton.

Even if the allegations of Russian meddling are true, it is worth remembering that Washington has interfered in the domestic affairs of other nations on a more or less regular basis — and not just dictatorships and Third World countries, but democratic allies as well as Russia itself.

From 1946 to 2000, according to Carnegie Mellon University’s Dov Levin, the US interfered in foreign elections 81 times compared with 36 by the Russians.

In 2013 President Obama’s National Security Agency hacked Angela Merkel’s mobile.

Several years earlier, the German government of Gerhard Schroeder requested the withdrawal of several CIA agents stationed in Germany because of their alleged activities in industrial espionage.

In any case, a special prosecutor Robert Mueller is leading an investigation into Russia’s role in the US election, including claims that Moscow was in cahoots with the Trump campaign.

The key question at the heart of this investigation is not whether the Russians had dirt on Clinton, including damaging emails.

The issue is whether the Trump campaign was working with Russian officials to acquire and disseminate information about her that could be used to tilt the 2016 election.

At this stage, there is no evidence of collusion.


None of the Mueller’s investigation’s charges or indictments has had anything to do with any Russian-Trump collusion.

None of this denies the fact that the Trump White House is its own worst enemy — as its failure to disclose every detail that might be relevant to the Russian investigations demonstrates.

It is also possible that Trump may be brought down on charges that have nothing to do with the Trump-Russia collusion narrative.

However, there is reason to believe that those who are desperate to upend Trump are using Russiagate to wage war with him.

News has emerged that Clinton campaign contributors and Trump haters, including a senior FBI official, were hired to help conduct the Independent Counsel’s investigation into any collusion.

As troubling, the Clinton campaign helped fund a dodgy intelligence dossier – the so-called Christopher Steele dossier — that reported either unverifiable or false claims about Trump during the 2016 campaign that led some people to believe the Kremlin could blackmail the Republican presidential candidate.

After 18 months of investigations, there is no email or document or witness testimony that proves Russia-Trump collusion.

In short, there is still no smoking gun.

There are other problems with the media’s collusion narrative.

For one thing, if Trump is a puppet, someone other than Putin pulls the strings.

And he’s not Russian.

In the past year, Washington has expanded NATO once again, strengthened sanctions on Moscow, supplied the Ukrainian military with lethal weapons, boosted aid to the Baltic countries and launched missiles against Syria’s Assad regime.

These decisions outrage the Kremlin and will only increase East-West tensions.

True, Trump and Putin have a good personal rapport.

But after more than a year with Trump in power, Russians are entitled to think that with friends like him, the Kremlin doesn’t need enemies.

Perhaps evidence will emerge that Trump and the Russians have been in cahoots and that the President and his associates really are engaged in the most elaborate cover-up of all time.

However, at this stage, it is fair to say that the effort to delegitimise Trump is only going to further poison American politics, hurt the US national interest and damage the West’s dealings with Russia.


4 The Skripal affair

In the past fortnight, Australia, the US, and several EU nations have joined forces with Britain to expel Russian diplomats from their nations.

The decision is based on the widespread view that the Russian regime of Vladimir Putin is responsible for the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter in England a month or so ago.

At this stage, however, there is still no evidence – none – about the identity of the culprit.

And Skripal and his daughter appear to be recovering well. So the nerve agent is unlikely to be military grade. Otherwise, it would have killed them and others within minutes.

As the British conservative columnist Rachel Johnson (Foreign Minister Boris’s sister) have argued, it is better to take our time to get the bottom of this crime so that we can punish the perpetrators, whomever they may be.

This is especially true when you realise Putin had no reason to poison the spy and his daughter and good reasons not to do it.

Remember, Moscow did not kill Sergei Skripal after he was arrested and jailed in 2004.

Nor was he denied a spy swap deal with Britain in 2010.

Why would Putin exacerbate his already strained relations with the West now by trying to assassinate the former double agent… on the eve of the Soccer World Cup and at a time when Putin is desperately keen to ease western sanctions on Russia?

It just doesn’t make sense.

All we know, as Stephen Cohen has documented, is that Novichok was developed in the Soviet Union in the early 1970s.

One of the architects of the project moved to America, published a book and revealed the formula for this nerve agent.

If true, a high school chemistry kid could come up with Novochek.

Who precisely has proved the hit on Skripal came from the Kremlin?

When a chemical weapon is suspected of having been used, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is supposed to determine the sample. That has not happened. Nor has the Russian government been given access to the sample.

Meanwhile, the UK’s Porton Down military research centre says it could not verify that the nerve agent used in the attack came from Russia.

That does not clear Moscow, but neither does it reaffirm British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s claim that the Kremlin is responsible for the hit.

So we have no evidence, but there are enormous and negative consequences from the May Government’s decision to escalate tensions with Moscow.

To ask again: what is so wrong with establishing proof before the West escalates a very dangerous international situation?

As the Chilcot Inquiry into Britain’s role in the Iraq war recommends, governments should always make evidence-based pronouncements rather than relying on assertion and bombast, which is what has happened in the Skripal case.



There is no question that Russiaphobia is on the rise across the West, especially Washington, and it shapes our thinking about the Kremlin.

What’s missing here is some perspective.

Malcolm Fraser, the prime minister of Australia from 1975-83, and I developed a close relationship during the last year of his life – from the Crimean incursion in March 2014 till his sudden passing in March 2015.

Malcolm often told me something that I’ve never forgotten: that sometimes it makes sense to put yourself in your adversary’s shoes and see the world from that perspective.

Other international statesmen, such as Henry Kissinger, James Baker and Lee Kuan Yew had made similar remarks.

Just think of NATO, which many ordinary Russians believe is a four-letter word.

Why, for instance, does the Atlantic Alliance even exist nearly three decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall?

As the leading British conservative columnist Peter Hitchens (Christopher’s brother) has asked: “We don’t keep up a huge alliance to protect us from the Austro-Hungarian empire, the Ottomans, or any other powers that have disappeared. So why this one?”

When the Kremlin pulled the Red Army out of Europe, closed its bases in Cuba, dissolved the empire, let the USSR disintegrate into 15 states and sought friendship with the Americans, what did Washington do?

According to the prominent US conservative pundit Pat Buchanan: “American carpetbaggers colluded with Muscovite Scalawags to loot the Russian nation.”

The Americans, crucially, also broke an implicit deal with Gorbachev in the early 1990s: that in exchange for the reunification of Germany, the West would not go East: that NATO would not exploit Russia’s security by expanding into the former Warsaw Pact states.

President George H. W. Bush himself was magnanimous in 1989-91 when he refused to, as he put it, “dance on the [Berlin] wall” and “gloat” over the collapse of the Soviet empire.

Alas, his successors — intoxicated by the belief that the US was the “indispensable nation,” as Bill Clinton’s secretary of state Madeleine Albright put it, or a “benign global hegemon,” as neoconservatives William Kristol and Robert Kagan put it – ignored Bush Sr’s restraint and realism and moved NATO into Eastern Europe, then onto Russia’s doorstep.

Indeed, the expansion of NATO as well as the EU into Russia’s traditional sphere of influence, not to mention the deployment of US missiles into Eastern Europe and the promotion of western NGOs in the internal affairs of Russia’s strategic orbit, consistently annoyed the Russian people throughout much of the post-Cold War era.

Today NATO artillery — just not just bombers and missiles — can hit St Petersburg.

Wasn’t it inevitable that Moscow would push back eventually?

Put it this way:

How would Washington respond if the Kremlin signed up Latin American states in a military alliance and then planted missiles in the Western Hemisphere pointing to the US or helped topple a democratically elected, pro-American government in Mexico?

What if Moscow joined with Beijing to build pipelines to transfer Mexican and Venezuelan oil to Pacific ports for trade with Asia – and cut the US out?

How would Washington respond?

One further point about perspective:

Before 2014, Russia was widely viewed as being so weak relative to the US-EU-NATO alliance that its interests could be safely ignored, even when Washington and Brussels sought to peel Ukraine away from Moscow’s strategic orbit.

Yet just four years later, we’re told Russia has become such a pervasive menace that it’s considered powerful enough to install its own candidate in the White House and break up the European Union.

How can the purveyors of the prevailing wisdom make such contradictory positions?

Perhaps they meet F. Scott Fitzgerald’s definition of intelligence.

In The Crack-up, the legendary American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” ]

The case for détente

The reality is that Russia is a declining power, it is ageing fast, its economy is hitched to commodities and its military is clearly not well placed for costly occupations abroad.

But if humiliated further and made desperate, Russia could be dangerous in the way a cornered, wounded animal is dangerous.

And remember, it still has a vast arsenal of nuclear weapons.

In these circumstances, why wage hot wars along Russia’s borders (the Baltics, Ukraine)?

Why attack a Russian client state in Damascus that is fighting the very enemies we are fighting in Syria?

Why further isolate the Kremlin, impose sanctions on Moscow and expel hundreds of Russian diplomats for unproven crimes?

Why provide real extremists and hyper-nationalists in Russia with a cause to exploit?

Why make threats and commitments to Russia and the Baltics respectively when Western governments are unable or unwilling to honour them?

Why place so much importance on a region where no US army has ever fought and where Russia has a huge tactical advantage in both conventional and short-range nuclear forces and where the balance of resolve favours Russia, because it cares much more about Ukraine’s future than the West?

Alas, among the political elite and media class, to ask these questions invites scorn and derision.

I’ve lost count of the many times I have been denounced as a Putin apologist or a Kremlin stooge.

I am nothing of the kind.

I would describe myself as a political conservative and a foreign-policy realist.

I head a classical liberal think tank that promotes free markets and education reform.

I was born in Texas, I remain a die-hard Dallas Cowboys fan and I strongly support our security alliance with the US, which has been, is and will be for the foreseeable future the bedrock of Australian national security.

Although I studied Tsarist and Soviet history at both high school and university, I have never even been to Russia; and the only Russians I know are the two Russian women in this audience, Jana and Olga, whom I met a year ago!

My position on Russia reflects a political tradition with roots in the American past.

It was those Cold Warriors Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, remember, who embraced detente with the Soviet communists.

A time when a far more vibrant debate about Russia took place.

In the West today, supporting engagement with Moscow cannot be discussed openly without inspiring immediate hysteria.

But we should try to understand the historical background to the tensions between Russia and the West before they spiral out of control.

And we should ask why we in the West can’t work with the Kremlin when interests overlap, as they do in defeating Sunni extremists and keeping in check a rising China.

Once we do that — and start treating Russia with the respect and dignity it deserves — we may reach a real peace that we have failed to achieve since the end of the first Cold War.

However, if we fail to do so, there is a real danger that we could make a bad situation worse.

If so, the outlook for the world is grim.


Tom Switzer is executive director of the Centre for Independent Studies and a presenter on the ABC’s Radio National.