Poor Russians, or Putin's Complaint
August 13, 2014
Poor Russia! Look how Russia has been humiliated by the West when NATO expanded to include its erstwhile Warsaw Pact allies and its former Baltic possessions, not to mention the promise to bring Ukraine into the EU, thereby threatening the 1500 mile-long border Russia shares with Ukraine. Isn’t Russia vulnerable enough already! Besides, shouldn’t a former empire – 63% of Russians believe Russia is a “great power” – be able to exercise its influence over the territory it used to control while an empire? How can the Americans and the Europeans be so callous with such a peace-loving, cooperative, exceedingly friendly – and great – nation? How could Russia not feel vulnerable and threatened by the rich and powerful West? Doesn't the West understand that Russia has been on its knees far too long and now must rise again? Besides, who can take Ukraine seriously as an independent state, especially with a third of its population speaking Russian?
These are, in a nutshell, the sentiments of those both outside and inside Russia who advocate humoring Vladimir Putin with regard to Ukraine. For home consumption, the Kremlin and its media toss out red meat about the Nazi takeover of Ukraine and, in the words of the Speaker of the State Duma, Sergei Naryshkin, “the genocide of the Russian people” there.[1] The campaign for the dehumanization of the Ukrainians (“fascists,” “Nazis”) has been going on for months, including the WWI-style favorite propaganda myth of the Ukrainian soldiers crucifying a Russian child in Slaviansk. The report appeared on Channel 1 on July 12 and is still there.
Much of this rhetoric is predicated on the alleged deep, unbridgeable antagonism between Russia and the West. But first of all, Russia v. the West is a false dichotomy and Russia v. the EU, even more so. None of the EU member nations, separately or together, are interested in territorial expansion into Eurasia, nor NATO whose primary function has been to guarantee Europe’s post-WWII borders, nor its leading member, the United States. Putin himself has repeatedly proclaimed Russia to be a European power and seemed committed to this 300-year-old vision until he began to pivot towards Russian nationalism in the wake of the US invasion of Iraq. Still, the ambiguity persisted with profound political and economic implications. The difficulties the EU has been having with the sanctions in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea shows the high degree of Russia's integration into the web of EU economic and cultural relations. Visa-free travel for Russians to the EU was about to be negotiated when the Crimea debacle put everything on hold. Indeed, by historical reckoning, Russia's integration into the West since the fall of communism has been truly fast-track and, as it appeared, perhaps, a little too fast-track for the EU, given its long hesitation in responding to Russia’s blunt aggression in Ukraine.

But what about the issue of NATO expansion? When I was in Moscow in June, a die-hard Putin opponent told me he was sure that US and/or NATO had been planning to establish a military base in the Crimea and Russia’s take-over of the peninsula was meant to prevent it. I did my research. Apparently, the US requested a few years ago to be integrated into the old Soviet early warning system for missile defense against Iranian ballistic missiles. It is this request that has been morphed by the Russian propaganda machine into a menacing American plan to establish a military base on the Crimean peninsula. I have no doubt that a satisfactory arrangement could have been reached to allay Russia’s fears that the anti-missile defense system, still in the works, targeted at Iran, was “dual-use” and could have been pointed at Russia.

But what about the more general argument that seems intuitively right: Shouldn’t Russia feel legitimately threatened, as it is surrounded by NATO members? Seen from the United States (except through Sarah Palin’s windows), Russia may not loom too large (compare the 2013 US military budget of $640 billion to Russia’s $88 billion); however, seen from Western Europe, Russia’s might is far more menacing (Russia spends about twice as much on the military as do France, the UK, or Germany). Russia, in fact, is the unrivalled European superpower in the military, nuclear, and, increasingly important, the hydro-carbon sense. Such a high-profile military posture is pretty hard to maintain while standing on one’s knees. Furthermore, let us not forget that for half a century following WWII, when the Russians – or, rather, their leaders – held their heads high (under Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko), Russia’s legal antecedent, the USSR, oppressed its citizens and turned the countries of East-Central Europe into de-facto colonies. Who can, then, blame Poland, Hungary, Romania, Czechoslovakia, as well as the Baltic states that had been occupied by the Soviets under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939, for scrambling to assert their national sovereignty at the first historical opportunity and securing their statehood by joining NATO and the EU? Is there any rational reason for Russia to think that these nations are poised to start nibbling at Russia’s territory?

That there is no NATO threat to Russia should have become obvious even to the most thick-headed analyst in the wake of the Georgia War of August 2008. Resulting in loss of territory for Georgia, this conflict demonstrated that no outside power had the inclination (some say the ability) to challenge Russia in Russia’s own back yard, Senator McCain’s hollow saber rattling notwithstanding. In fact, the opposite argument has been legitimately made: the West’s demure reaction to Russia’s shenanigans in Georgia was realistic -- and a singular factor in Putin’s calculation when he decided to move into Crimea. Today, according to NATO’s internal documents, disclosed in Der Spiegel on 19 May 2014, NATO lacks the ability to defend its members among the Baltic states, should Russia choose to invade them.

The threat to Russia from the West, then, is literally a travesty: the reverse is true, if one understands “the West” as a stable political order that has governed European borders since WWII and, by mutual consent, since the collapse of communism. The "threat from the West" is nothing but a propaganda myth, a dusted-off old Soviet saw about "capitalist encirclement" and the looming external enemy. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Mikhail Gorbachev, Edward Shervadnadze and Alexander Yakovlev did a lot to demystify it but, apparently, not enough.

Now, as under communism, this propaganda assault on the people, amplified by the craven, state-controlled Russian media (with very few digital media exceptions) is meant to shore up the legitimacy of the political class and its leader, who have proven incapable of setting their country on a course that would diminish its monumental corruption and narcotic dependency on the export of hydro-carbons. As a result, Putin and his United Russia Party, the political machine he jerry-rigged from the rubble of the Soviet one-party national-security state, are feeling vulnerable. The world has changed, and Russia’s new cosmopolitan elite, the so-called creative class, that has arisen since the collapse of the Soviet Union and has established itself economically in the prosperous oil-rich Russia, instinctively resists Putin’s authoritarian and increasingly ineffective rule. One common denominator of their protests was their sense of humiliation at the corrupt political process, a violation of their citizenship. After their protest demonstrations of 2011 and 2012, Putin turned away from this natural constituency for a modernizing leader, instead embracing the nationalism of the “silent majority” – populist, socially conservative, sanctimonious, and not infrequently chauvinistic. This must have been a desperate move on the part of the man who had previously condemned Russian chauvinism as a dangerous force that might lead to the break-up of the multi-ethnic and multi-confessional Russian Federation. A student of history, Putin has to be aware that the Russian empire of the Romanovs fell, in part, because of the autocracy’s embrace of exclusive Russian nationalism. Is today's Russia next?

No need, then, to feel sorry for Russia or the Russians as victims of the powerful West. Rather, as throughout much of Russia’s history, Russians continue to be the victims – surely undeservedly – of their own government. True, there are many Russians, affected by the imperial visions of the Kremlin propaganda machine, who have been assiduously imagining themselves standing on their knees under the diktat of the evil West. Even under the best conditions of partnership, according to some of them, the West has treated Russia as a second-class citizen in the world community. This is what Tony Blair picked up during his friendship with Putin in the early 2000s: “Vladimir later came to believe that the Americans did not give him his due place (my italics, GF). Worse, he saw them circling Russia with Western-supporting 'democracies' who were going to be hostile to Russian interests.”[2] In a recent interview, Putin’s crony, billionaire Timchenko, echoed such sentiments and declared that his Western business partners had always treated him as “second league.” Complaints such as these, needless to say, involve what Max Weber called “the prestige of great powers,” ever hungry for self-aggrandizement and extra recognition, not the dignity of individual citizens. The former must have the pyramids and the most fearsome weapons; the latter, property and respect.

Few will deny that the average middle-class Russian has been enjoying the best standard of living in all of Russia's history, replete with vacations abroad, separate apartments, country dachas, and late-model German, French, and Japanese automobiles. Aleksander Yakovlev used to say that Soviet citizens could not feel free because they did not own any property, for him the necessary condition of freedom. By this token, many of his compatriots may feel free these days and indeed they do hold their heads high. For years now, my undergraduate students at Stanford who have gone to Moscow to study alongside their Russian counterparts have complained that they felt a bit diminished by their colleagues’ off-campus spending habits. Yes, these are elite students, but I also remember my Stanford undergraduates traveling to study in Russia in the 1980s and telling me how shocked they were by the limited horizons and economic insecurity of their Russian counterparts. The 1980s are long gone! In my seven days of pounding the pavement in Moscow (after a twelve-year absence), I was able to spot only one Russian Zhiguli sedan, the most ubiquitous vehicle in Moscow circa 2002, but I noticed that Bentley has a dealership in the, yes, Revolution Square next to the Kremlin (in case you are wondering, you can get one, slightly used, for just half a million dollars). Luxury cars aside, as individuals, middle-class Russians feel as proud and dignified as at any time since 1917, whatever their politics. It is the political class that runs the country and its leader Putin, a deeply corrupt regime, presiding over a profoundly corrupt bureaucracy, who feel the need to buck up their sagging prestige with a “little victorious war” while conjuring up the spectre of the big bad US and NATO and the “fascist” Ukraine.
Surely, there may be an occasional clash of interests over this or that tariff or import/export issues, but there has not been a fundamental antagonism between Russia and its Western partners. Quite the opposite. The new, post–Communist Russia was embraced by the West, cautiously, to be sure, but embraced nonetheless, as well as aided considerably by governments and NGOs as it struggled with the transition from Communism. It was the United States, to use just one example, that was the strongest supporter of Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organization.

The benign international climate, perhaps, the most benign in all of Russia’s history, the absence of actual military threat from the West or elsewhere, and Russia’s deep integration into the EU seem to have been taken by Putin’s government for granted while Russia had a free hand in preventing a newly independent nation from electing the government it likes and the form of economic modernization it chooses. This is what happened in Ukraine (and before it, in Georgia). By some accounts, Putin's decision to annex Crimea was an intemperate reaction to the sudden resignation of Ukraine’s president after months and months of popular protests against him. A sly tactical move taking advantage of Ukraine’s weak care-taker government, the annexation of Crimea was strategically an irrational act: it produced the opposite effect of anything one could wish for one’s own country – it diminished rather than enhanced Russia’s security by turning the world’s most powerful nations, economically and militarily, against Russia. But above all, it united against Putin the politically and ethically diverse, as well as historically fractious, Ukraine and forced the EU states, ever a quarrelsome lot, to step back and agree, at last, on some concerted action to raise the stakes for Putin in his “big game” and to force him to reconsider his policies. After all, who wants a super-power bully in the EU's own back yard, a bully on the scale of a Stalin or a Hitler? With Western support for Ukraine now assured, Putin's adventure is liable to result in continuing turmoil on Russia’s borders that Putin himself may not be able to control – and a substantial strengthening of NATO’s Eastern and Northern borders. Poland used to have about a dozen US soldiers stationed on its soil prior to the annexation of Crimea. There are now about 500 US and NATO troops there and more are coming.

The analogy with Hitler's Germany and the 1930s has been surfacing repeatedly since the annexation of Crimea (first made on 1 March 2014 by Professor Andrei Zubov of the prestigious Moscow Institute of International Relations). Well, similarities stare us in the face. The Germans, some Germans, did feel sorry for themselves. To paraphrase the rhetoric of the day: Oh poor Germans! The Treaty of Versailles brought our proud nation to its knees! And now Germans must rise! Hitler saw to it. Germany got up and raised its head. This rising from the knees began in March 1936 with the re-militarization of the Rhineland in direct violation of the treaties of Versailles and Locarno. Putin’s annexation of Crimea invites itself as an analogy: he violated the solemn agreement made by Russia, Great Britain, and the United States with Ukraine which agreed to get rid of its nuclear weapons in exchange for the affirmation of the inviolability of its present borders (The Budapest Memorandum of December 1994). Back in 1936, no significant reaction followed from the international community, except for phony outrage while Hitler’s action merited an iron-fisted push-back. This was appeasement Act 1. Two years later, Hitler swallowed Austria. No reaction followed. That was appeasement Act 2. The analogy today would be the take-over of Eastern Ukraine by the Russian-sponsored irregulars, who have their sights set on a still larger chunk, the entire “Novorossia,” including Odessa. Act 3 was, of course, the Munich Agreement and the resulting fall of Czechoslovakia – the archetypal appeasement. Here we must gasp at the analogy: the Munich moment was followed by WWII; further appeasement of Putin raises the spectre of WIII.

To be sure, analogies are imprecise, which is why they are analogies, not equivalences. Putin is no Hitler. In Putin's case, what seems to be driving his expansionist agenda is not so much the wounded pride of the son of a former Great Empire (there is that, too, and yes, it hurts), but his fear for his own position as a head of state with his apparent aspirations for a life-time tenure. Back in 2011-12, when he realized in the wake of the shamelessly rigged parliamentary elections that he no longer enjoyed political support among the professional and cultural elite of the capitals (the cosmopolitans), he turned to the anti-cosmopolitan silent majority. Members of this constituency are far easier to convince of the just causes for their resentments (xenophobia, ethnic prejudice), as they have been sidelined during Russia's most recent spurt of modernization (a common enough phenomenon in the age of globalization and all too familiar to us in the United States – just watch Fox News). Putin spoke to them in language they could well understand, ratcheting up the rhetoric of incitement: first, the persecution of Pussy Riot, then the jailing of the demonstrators in the 2011 and 2012 protest rallies, and now the crescendo proclaiming Ukraine a nest of fascists.

Of course, if you happen to run into Putin in your neighborhood bar and ask him, "why, Vladimir, why did you do it?" He would say he was afraid, not for himself, but for Russia, lest it disintegrate in a political free-for-all, and for that reason and it alone, he had to tighten the screws and start the little bloody war. But motivations, ultimately, are beside the point. A nationalist bully is a nationalist bully - whether because of the “stolen victory” in the Great War (Hitler’s well-known beef) or the insufficient magnanimity on the part of the Cold War victors (Putin’s whine). For unless a bully is stopped right away, his appetite will grow as it feeds on appeasement. To wit, unless Putin is stopped through diplomacy and other forms of soft power, including sanctions, we – meaning all of us here and in Russia -- will soon be staring into the new guns of August, and this is not a prospect that any of us will enjoy.

August 10, 2014


P. S. My August Meditation I is here: Be Aware of the Quiet Days of August.

[1] Naryshkin’s speech in Belgrade on 5 May of this year.

[2] Tony Blair, A Journey: My Political Life (Toronto: Knopf Vintage Canada, 2010).


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