So, let me be a little charitable to Donald Trump for a change. I don't know whether his pro-Russia policy will be successful. I don't know whether Rex Tillerson will be any good as Secretary of State. But I am prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt. I do not think we are altogether innocent in our deteriorated relations with Russia, and I do think a reset is in order.
For anyone who thinks Russia is an expansionist power on the march, keep some things in mind. Back during the Cold War, Russia ruled an empire known as the Soviet Union. It was the hegemon over a large chunk of Europe, extending as far west as East Germany. In 1989, Eastern Europe revolted, and the Russians did nothing to stop them. Before long, all the former Warsaw Pact countries had joined the anti-Russian NATO alliance. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the states of Russia's old empire declared independence. Three of them (Latvia, Estonia and Lithunia) actually joined NATO as well. Now there has even been serious talk of Georgia and the Ukraine joining, bringing a hostile alliance all the way to Russia's borders. This is not an aggressive power on the march; it is a country in retreat wanting to stop and shore up its position. This is not unreasonable.
It is a most annoying tendency of our foreign policy establishment to assume that global hegemony is our god-given right and that any country that opposes it is simply being unreasonable. Russia has reasonable reasons not to want a hostile alliance on its borders, in lands that it once ruled and now wants at least to dominate.
But these countries don't want to be dominated by Russia, some may object. If they want alliance with us, why should be give Russia a veto? Quite simply, because this is how international politics works. When a country has nuclear weapons, it has a way on insisting that its wishes be taken into account. To anyone who complains about our "passivity" in the face of Russian invasions of Georgia and the Ukraine, I would ask, are you prepared to go to war with a nuclear power over the desire to extent a hostile alliance all the way to its borders? All right, then, let's start considering realistic alternatives.
During the Cold War, Finland was right along the Soviet border. Yet it managed to preserve its domestic freedom and democracy by agreeing to submission in matters of foreign policy. "Finlandization" was widely derived as cowardice, but given the circumstances, it was the best that Finland could realistically hope for. Sweden and Austria, though less in the Soviet line of fire, felt the need to maintain neutrality in order to protect their own domestic liberty.
Within the Warsaw Pact, Findlandization was not a realistic option. When the people of Hungary in 1956 revolted, overthrew Communism, and attempted to leave (while agreeing to remain neutral and not joint NATO), Russia sent in tanks and crushed the rebellion by brute force. Yet they had allowed the overthrow of one Communist government and its replacement with a milder one in Poland earlier in the same year. And they allowed the new Hungarian government to institute reforms softening its severity. When Poland experienced a great wave of strikes and established an independent union in 1980, the Soviets allowed considerable expansion of freedom, and required the government to declare martial law only when the people started calling for free elections which would, of course, have meant the end of Communism. The lesson was clear. Once a country became Communist and was taken into the Warsaw Pact, Findlanization was not an option. Neither the overthrow of Communism nor withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact would be tolerated. But the Soviets would allow some relaxation of the severity of Communism and limited freedom within their rigid framework.*
The case of Hungary was particularly tragic. Naive Hungarians looked to us to rescue them, never understanding that rescue was out of the question, given that the Russians had nukes. When John Foster Dulles declared that we were exchanging a policy of containment for one of "liberation," many Hungarians were foolish enough to take him at his word. They revolted in the belief that we would come to their rescue and were savagely crushed because such a rescue was never in the cards. Certainly we were right not to intervene. Horrible as the invasion was, Hungary would hardly have been better off as a mushroom cloud. But it was a mistake to encourage the Hungarians to think that we would ever come to their rescue. They would have been much better off understanding that they were stuck in the Soviet orbit for the foreseeable future and that their best option was too see how much autonomy they could negotiate with the Soviets. But wouldn't it have been foolish to come right out and publicly proclaim that we were going to leave the Hungarians to their fate? Maybe so. But there are quiet diplomatic channels for conveying the same information to would-be anti-Communist leaders.
Likewise, if we can't say so publicly, we should be privately making very clear to the political class in Georgia and the Ukraine that Russia has nukes, and that we will make our policy taking this fact into account. We do these countries no favor by encouraging them to confront the Russians counting on our support that we are not going to give. Nor do we do them any favor by putting them at risk of ending up as a mushroom cloud -- or even a battlefield between the great powers. Findlandization is the best that any country on the Russian border can hope for, and the sooner they understand that and make the best bargain they can, the better.
*Although the Soviets did send in their army to suppress a milder form of Communism in Czechoslovakia in 1968.