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Time to Chill the Putinphobia

Paranoia and misinformation about Putin have gotten out of hand. It’s time for Americans to take a deep breath, cool the overheated speculation, and rein in the rampant fears of Russia.

Not long ago the press told us Putin was the one who was paranoid and it was impossible to reason with him. Why? They claimed he was obsessed by conspiracy theories that the U.S. incited demonstrators in Moscow and instigated regime changes all around Russia’s borders.

Now journalists and commentators tell us Putin is so insidiously powerful that he hacked Clinton to defeat, captured Trump in compromising videos, and will soon throw Trump to the mat like the judo master that he is. One column in a California paper ( The Mercury News) even compared Putin’s meddling in U.S. politics to Nazi propaganda in the 1930s and imagined that Putin will retake control of Alaska.

Panicked about Putin’s supposed sinister prowess, influential Americans propagate demonic images of him (“a murderer and a thug,” thunders Senator John McCain) and argue that we should ramp up pressure on Russia. After all, they reason, that was how we won the Cold War, with Ronald Reagan calling the Soviet Union an “evil empire” and launching a massive military build-up that crushed the crumbling communist economy.

Such myths will misguide us. In reality, Soviet-American hostility ended through engagement and dialogue that overcame mutual suspicions and hostile stereotypes. Between 1985 and 1988, Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev met four times, dramatically reduced the tensions and fears that had justified communist repression, and thereby enabled Soviet liberalization. By May 1988, when he stood with Gorbachev in Red Square, Reagan concluded the U.S.S.R. had changed so much that it was no longer an “evil empire.”

Even before Gorbachev came to power, hundreds of Americans began reaching out to Soviet citizens – through “spacebridges,” tourist travel, and ham radio contacts. They sought to transcend ideological antipathies and reduce the danger of nuclear war. Well before Reagan and Gorbachev first met, citizen diplomats began demonstrating that it was possible to escape from the mindset of the Cold War and build cooperative relationships with people of the “enemy” nation.

Yes, sometimes Putin has been extremely suspicious of the U.S., but not completely without reason. The U.S. did expand NATO into the former Soviet Union. U.S. diplomats did connive to put the guy they wanted in power in Kiev in 2014. The U.S. is moving forward with missile defense systems in Eastern Europe that the Russian military fears will neutralize its strategic deterrent.

Putin has shown that he can be a valuable and reliable partner. Following the 9/11 attacks on America he overruled Russian hardliners and provided critical intelligence and logistical support for the U.S. war in Afghanistan. Even after American-Russian friction grew Putin facilitated the removal of Syria’s chemical weapons and the deal to halt the Iranian nuclear program.

Paranoia regarding Putin threatens to impede cooperation with Russia against terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and other problems. It’s time to curb the hysteria about Putin and give engagement a chance.

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