Foreign Policy Blogs

Getting Un-stuck From Red Dawn


Time to stop the shadows of the Cold War from writing the Russian-American relations script

 “The Russians need to take us in one piece, and that’s why they’re here. That’s why they won’t use nukes anymore; and we won’t either, not on our own soil. The whole damn thing’s pretty conventional now. Who knows? Maybe next week will be swords.”  — Colonel Tanner, Red Dawn (1984)

The words Col. Andrew ‘Andy’ Tanner breathlessly spoke in a scene from the landmark Cold War-era film “Red Dawn” paints a partial picture of an American national security calamity that never happened – a Russian invasion of the American homeland. Stars Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen, and Jennifer Grey played a group of American high school kids who resist the Russian occupation by clumsily but effectively engaging in guerrilla warfare to avoid capture. “Red Dawn” not only launched its young protagonists into superstardom, it helped to deepen popular fear of Russian imperialism.

Observing the American politico-media complex’s overreaction to the election-enabled Russian repossession of Crimea two weeks ago compels me to believe that many American’s are still haunted by the tall ghost of the Soviet Bear . So much so  that it has become even more difficult to imagine a relation reminiscent of  the warmth of friendlier times, as when Russia’s Catherine the Great provided commercial and diplomatic cover to the embattled American colonies during the 1780s. The unfolding Russian reaction to the Ukrainian crisis and the West’s reaction to the whole sequence of events makes me feel as if we are watching the shadows of the Cold War write the opening chapter of the 21st century Russian-American story.

Red Dawn helped to remind Americans who the enemy was.

Red Dawn helped to remind Americans who the enemy was.

Like many, I am part of a Western population raised to view the Russians as an alien people with whom the West would be in perpetual conflict. “Red Dawn” was one of many pop culture salvos shot from the cannons of the American anti-Soviet politico-media complex that reinforced Russia’s image as a perpetual foe.  For America’s allies especially, the not-too-kind labels used to describe their former WWII defense partner were well earned. Stalin carved out a security buffer for Mother Russia at the expense of a war-torn Europe, trampling on the rights and futures of many millions of people in the process.  To the Free World, the Soviets were dangerous, imperialistic, irrational actors – a clear and very present threat to Western civilization. Indeed, for the adults and children of the Cold War – to include the folks that now hold the reins of American foreign policy – the menacing caricature of the Russian is seared into consciousness and gives form to American conceptions of geo-political evil. But are we sabotaging peaceful coexistence with an important and still influential nation when we allow the echoes of a bygone era to guide inform U.S. foreign policy?

 Wanting to See Green – Blinded by Red

 U.S. Senator John McCain recently called Vladimir Putin “an unreconstructed Russian imperialist and K.G.B. apparatchik.” McCain’s bombastic nemesis (the two have repeatedly shared their mutual contempt over the years) has managed to chisel into form a swashbuckling image – one that would have made even Rough Riding Cowboy Teddy Roosevelt blush. Putin is a multilingual renaissance man who speaks Russian, German, Swedish and conversational English. He has demonstrated that he has a genuine interest across domains outside of politics sees himself as a cross between the reformist Russian patriarch Peter the Great and American Davy Crockett.  The former KGB agent is his nation’s conservationist-in-chief who personally supervises endangered animal programs and grants frequent interviews to the Western press. But despite his efforts at soft power diplomacy, including the recent coming-out party at Sochi, Putin – and Russians in general – continue not to get a fair shake in an American media establishment still stuck on the “Red Dawn” script. On both sides of the American political split screen, commentators like Anderson Cooper and Bill O’Reilly are united in their bellicosity towards Russia. Across diverse expressions of journalistic thought, comparisons to Hitler abound, and for those commentators who dare direct the commentary off script and into the terrain of objective analysis, pressure to conform  all but ensures self-censorship. It seems there is nothing that transforms the cacophony of disparate political commentary into a harmonious melody more effectively than the specter of a resurrected Russian Bear.

Red Tide Rising – Not Really

Anti-Russia bias is not confined solely to popular and mainstream journalism culture. It has very real world implications, affecting  national security logic, leading to distorted assessments, missed cues, off-the-mark reports, and most of all, a flawed engagement strategy. So long as outdated analytical logic is used to assess Russians there will be persistent misinterpretation, misunderstandings and missed opportunities.  Instead of casting Putin as simply a rogue actor who is trying to jump-start Soviet imperialism, America’s national security decision-makers would better serve the American people by objectively presenting events in a broader context sans the infusion of Cold War era good vs. evil rhetoric.

In addition, as we take in “fair and balanced analysis of hyped-up Russian “acts of aggression,” we should be skeptical of  information gatekeepers who are rewarded for staying on script.  The anti-Russia pied pipers leading the parade include politicians who fear cuts in defense spending, media organizations who want to fortify the “Weak Obama” narrative, and a handful of very senior U.S. senators who won’t see the Cold War era as complete until the Russian Commonwealth of Independent States (which at this point includes 12 former Soviet Republics) is permanently dismantled.

For those who can escape the anti-Russia echo chamber to venture into the terrain of objective analysis, the Russian tide comes into view in its more true form – a red ripple of scant threat value to the West. Consider the following:

The world's top 7 military spenders in 2012. Figures sourced from the SIPRI Yearbook 2013.

The world’s top 7 military spenders in 2012. Figures sourced from the SIPRI Yearbook 2013.

  • Shoestring Defense Budget: Even with Putin’s efforts to reconstitute the Russian military, defense spending is approx. $53 Billion annually – that’s about 1/8 of America’s defense spending (reference: SIPRI Yearbook 2013 – World’s top 15 military spenders). 
  • Regional military – not global: Russia’s post Soviet  military doctrine (promulgated in 1993) acknowledged the contraction of the old Soviet military and called for a smaller, lighter, and more mobile Russian military with a rapid deployment capability. Yes, its military is capable of conducting regional operations – but not sustained global expeditionary operations akin to U.S. capabilities.  
  • NATO expansion continues to scare Russians

    NATO expansion continues to scare Russians

     Russia is encircled by NATO: Just because this is an oft-repeated Putin talking point doesn’t mean it’s not true. Veteran New York Times reporter Steven Kinzer put it this way – “From the moment the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991the U.S. has relentlessly pursued a strategy of encircling Russia.  It has brought 12 countries in central Europe, all of them formerly allied with Moscow, into the NATO alliance.” Getting Ukraine to join the EU, and subsequnelty NATO, would put NATO F-16s less than 500 miles from Moscow. 

  • Relatively small economy: The Russian economy is small compared with the U.S.  The American eagle, with a $2.45 trillion economy, is ranked first in the world and is six times larger than the Russian bear. (Source: CIA World Factbook). It’s even getting worse for Russia. Capital outflow for the first three months of 2014 has already exceeded outflows recorded for all of 2013.

 The above facts are inconvenient truths to Russia experts like Dr. Vali R. Nasr, the dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies who chooses to play up the Russian threat. In an article published in the Washington Post, Dr. Nasr warned, “For too long, America has played down its difficulties with Russia. But Russia now poses a clear and present strategic challenge to the United States that is at least on par with any from Iran or China.”  Russia’s extensive nuclear arsenal – and its seat on the U.N. Security Council – are what makes Putin’s Russia a “strategic challenge.” Beyond that, the once mighty Russian military is an underweight and washed-up heavyweight boxer struggling to make ends meet – and not the fearsome threat the American political-media complex would have the public believe. 

Time for a New Script 

Since the implosion of the Soviet enterprise in 1993, Russia has undergone significant changes, moving from a centrally planned economy to a more market-based and globally integrated economy.  And although many Russians lament the fall of the Soviet Union, there is no way forward for a struggling Russia but through the gates of international trade and conformity. However, the West ought to acknowledge its missteps, especially its precipitous encroachment into what the Russians label their “near abroad.” Even former Secretary of Defense and Soviet containment practitioner Robert Gates (R) acknowledged this strategic overreach in his recently published memoirs.  Slowing NATO’s roll toward the Russian heartland is not appeasement, but prudent self-restraint guided by an understanding of Russia’s security hypersensitivity.  After being subject to successive invasions by the Swedes, the French, the Germans, as well as a multitude of other medieval-era states, the Russians’ NATO-phobia is not without basis and should be appreciated even if not openly acknowledged.


So as the West continues to cash in on the death of the Soviet Bear to include successfully enticing states located within Russia’s “near abroad,” a more measured and thoughtful expansion strategy should be formulated: one that balances the aspirations of former Soviet states to enjoy improved governance with legitimate Russian national and economic security concerns.  The political rehashing of retro-commentary and rhetoric is counterproductive and potentially destructive to one of the most important geo-political relationship of the 21st century.

Lastly, the West needs the Russians as partners to work collectively on a host of global challenges including terrorism, climate change, taming North Korea and untangling vexing geo-political knots like Iran and Syria. The movie “Red Dawn” had a successful run – but it’s time for the West and Russia to get off the old script, acknowledge each other’s equities and engage in constructive ways so a transition to a new day in relations can begin in earnest.



Oliver Barrett

Oliver Leighton-Barrett is a multi-lingual researcher and a decorated retired military officer specializing in the inter-play between fragile states and national security matters. A former U.S. Marine, and Naval aviator, Oliver is a veteran of several notable U.S. military operations, to include: Operation Restore Hope (Somalia); and Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan and Philippines). His functional areas of focus include: U.S. Diplomacy; U.S. Defense; and Climate Change. His geographic areas of focus include: Latin America and the Caribbean and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).

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