USA Foreign Policy

In supporting retaliation against Russia, Kissinger offers perspective on Putin

While the former secretary of State said Sunday he hopes the US is hacking Russia, he has also spoken in the recent past of the two countries' need to better understand each others' world views better in order to move forward. 

Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger speaks at the Nobel Peace Prize Forum in Oslo, Norway December 11, 2016. Kissinger said in an interview that aired on CBS Sunday that he hopes the US is hacking Russia.
NTB SCANPIX via Reuters | Caption

Henry Kissinger has been cautious about publicly advising presidents since he served Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford more than four decades ago. But the former secretary of State left little doubt Sunday as to how he would counsel President Obama to respond to reports that Russian President Vladimir Putin gave direct approval to hack emails to interfere with the US election.

“I don’t doubt the Russians are hacking us,” Mr. Kissinger told CBS’ “Face the Nation” in an interview that aired Sunday. “And I hope we’re doing some hacking there.”

Kissinger is one of a number of voices to weigh in on whether the US should retaliate against the Kremlin. Mr. Obama vowed in a news conference Friday to “send a clear message to Russia” as a punishment and deterrent. The Trump administration indicated Sunday it would consider accepting the intelligence report, after the president-elect had previously dismissed allegations against Mr. Putin. A new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll also found nearly half of Americans are bothered a “great deal” about Russian interference in the presidential elections.

But context is everything.

Since the Soviet Union fell, Kissinger, now 93, has advocated bridge building between Washington and Moscow, a shift away from the adversarial attitude he admitted he had towards the Kremlin when he was secretary of State. Kissinger’s interview Sunday is another attempt on his part to promote understanding of Putin, with whom he has spoken at length, and Russia in the midst of an emerging tit-for-tat cyber-conflict.

“[Putin] is a cold calculator of the Russian national interest, as he conceives it, and which he believes, probably correctly, has some very unique features,” said Kissinger.  “For him, the question of Russian identity is very crucial. Because as a result of the collapse of communism, Russia has lost about 300 years of its history. And so that the question of ‘What is Russia?’ looms very large in their mind. And that’s a problem we have never had.”

The interview comes days after Obama vowed to retaliate against Russia for the stolen emails. US intelligence officials told NBC News they believe with “a high level of confidence” that the hacked emails were a Russian effort to interfere in the presidential election.

“Our goal,” said Obama in the news conference Friday, “continues to be to send a clear message to Russia or others not to do this to us because we can do stuff to you. But it is also important to us to do that in a thoughtful, methodical way. Some of it, we will do publicly. Some of it we will do in a way that they know, but not everybody will.”

Over the last four months, Obama has weighed different retaliatory options, according to The New York Times. They included exposing Putin’s financial ties to Russian oligarchs and manipulating the computer code that Russia uses in designing its cyber weapons, reported the Times’s David Sanger.

Some of the options presented to the president, wrote Mr. Sanger, were rejected as ineffective; others were considered too risky. Now, Obama has only 32 days to carry out a response before he turns the Oval Office over to President-elect Donald Trump.

And it’s unclear if Mr. Trump will take up his predecessor’s vow, as the president-elect and some of his advisers have had a good relationship with Russia in the past, as John Pomfret, a former China correspondent for The Washington Post, recently noted. Trump had kind words for Putin while the real-estate mogul was on the campaign trail. The president-elect’s nominee for secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, has also had a long relationship with Putin negotiating the oil interests of ExxonMobil, of which Mr. Tillerson is the chief executive. Trump’s national security adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, is also believed to have ties to Russia.

It’s been speculated that these relationships could translate, under the Trump administration, into a reversal of a decades-long United States policy of  favoring China over Russia, as Mr. Pomfret wrote last week. Ironically, the Nixon administration, which Kissinger served, started that favoritism, reversing the Eisenhower administration’s preference for the Soviet Union over Mao Zedong’s China.

Kissinger has admitted that when he was secretary of State, he considered relations between the US and Soviet Union to be adversarial. He wrote as much in The National Interest in February. But the former secretary of State has spent the latter part of his life trying to foster better relations between the two powers. From 2007 to 2009, for instance, he and Yevgeny Primakov, the former prime minister of Russia, led a group of retired senior ministers, high officials, and military leaders from the two countries to “ease the adversarial aspects” between them, wrote Kissinger in The National Interest.

In 2014, Kissinger argued in an op-ed in The Washington Post that the Crimean conflict should function as a bridge between the US and Russia, pinpointing the problem he sees between the two countries in the process.

“Understanding US values and psychology are not [Putin’s] strong suits,” wrote Kissinger. “Nor has understanding Russian history and psychology been a strong point of US policymakers,” referring to Russia’s complex history with Ukraine.

He reiterated this misunderstanding in The National Interest.

Perhaps most important has been a fundamental gap in historical conception. For the United States, the end of the Cold War seemed like a vindication of its traditional faith in inevitable democratic revolution. It visualized the expansion of an international system governed by essentially legal rules. But Russia’s historical experience is more complicated. To a country across which foreign armies have marched for centuries from both East and West, security will always need to have a geopolitical, as well as a legal, foundation.

"Any effort to improve relations must include a dialogue about the emerging world order,” continues Kissinger. “What are the trends that are eroding the old order and shaping the new one? What challenges do the changes pose to both Russian and American national interests?”