I rarely agree with Henry Kissinger, our latter day Metternich, but his recent Washington Post Op Ed was on the mark: Western “demonization of Vladimir Putin is not a policy; it is an alibi for the absence of one.” He suggested instead that the U.S. goal should be to find a way for the two Ukraines to work together, not favoring the domination of one side or the other. “We should seek reconciliation, not the domination of a faction.” Bravo, Henry K.
Like lots of people I’ve been trying to figure out Vladimir Putin, our latest foreign devil. I doubt if many of our born-again Russian experts could pass a simple test evaluating and explaining the possible impact of Russia’s history – imperial and communist – on Russia’s present direction under Putin? How many instant experts know enough about Russia’s past to write a comprehensive essay about say, Mikhail Bakunin, Dora Kaplan, Alexander Herzen, Nicholas I, General Vlasov, Nestor Makhno, Anton Denikin, Vera Figner, Alexander Kerensky, Serge Witte, Baron Wrangel, A.K. Kolchak, Konstantin Pobedonostsev, the Dekabristi, or even US General William Graves?
My guess is that few can. Who cares about Russian history anyway? Instead, our media chatter is about a revived economic, military and political cordon sanitaire or encirclement of the Moscow fiends. Meanwhile, the Crimean coup is viewed superficially here as an attack on “freedom” and self-determination, at times evoking an image of the Nazi’s 1938 Anschluss of Austria.
Comments about Putin have been almost universally hostile — he worked for the KGB, ignoring that Bush The Elder ran the CIA. A more reasonable comment came from Fiona Hill, who once worked in the Bush The Lesser administration and co-wrote Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin. “He’s not delusional,” she wisely concluded, “but he inhabits a Russia of the past, a version of the past that he has created. His present is defined by it and there is no coherent vision of the future.”
Like most world leaders today.
“What is Putin thinking?” asked Shaun Walker, the UK Guardian’s Moscow-based reporter. He’s been writing about Russia’s deep-seated sense of injustice and supposed unfair treatment by the West because of “ an unwillingness to take Russia’s interests into account.” Putin went out of his way in his St. George’s Hall speech a few months ago to deride Americans pretensions “in their exclusivity and exceptionalism that they can decide the destinies of the world and that only they can ever be right.” Walker has described the thinking of Russia’s elite and presumably Putin: “This ideology envisions Russia’s emergence as a conservative world power in direct opposition to the geopolitical hegemony and liberal values of the West – a hint of a traditional Romanov-like restoration?
The New Yorker’s editor David Remnick covered Russia and wrote a fine book about his experiences. He concluded that the move against Crimea “demands condemnation.” But a shrewder comment came from an unlikely source, comedian-commentator Bill Maher, who asked why, given that 58% of Crimeans are Russians happy to rejoin Moscow. Remnick’s reasoning included his outrage that Ukraine, a “sovereign state” was violated – though so too were all the sovereign nations attacked throughout our history – Mexico in 1846, Spain in 1898, Haiti, Nicaragua, pre-WWI Mexico, Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1954, Grenada, Panama, Nicaragua again, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Korea, North Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, drone-drenched-Pakistan, et.al., et.al.
Meanwhile, our hawks are at it again, never having absorbed the lessons of defeat in Vietnam, Iraq or in today’s unwinnable obsession with the volatile, alien, unmanageable Middle East.
Hillary, hardly a dove, has compared Vladimir to Adolf and politicians like Biden tells Estonians that Article 5 of NATO mandates that, if attacked, the US as charter member will be required to spring to its defense. Some American political figures even love tossing around empty threats like “all options are on the table,” whatever that means. Maybe nuclear, chemical and biological warfare? No one asks and no one dares bother to explain to the American people that there are no more major American military alternatives left in Eastern Europe or anywhere else.
“The US has treated Russia like a loser since the end of the Cold War,” wrote our former ambassador to Moscow, the non-conforming and insightful Jack Matlock, Jr. in the Washington Post. When NATO , which operates under the watchful eyes of the Pentagon, moved closer to Russian borders, Putin objected, interpreting the move as amounting to encirclement. Matlock reminded his readers that, like him or not, Putin worked with the US when it invaded Afghanistan and also abandoned Russian bases in Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam and in Cuba. In return, NATO reached into the Balkans and the Baltics and involved itself in the “color revolutions” of Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan and hinted that its doors were open to former SSRs. With little or no historical knowledge, and oblivious to the risks, American heirs of the Monroe Doctrine refused to concede that a nuclear-armed Russia would be hypersensitive to foreign – dominated military alliances approaching or actually on their doorstep.
Some historians of Russian history are trying to understand, even if our domestic hawks always equate “understand” with “Munich.” Diplomatic historian Sheldon Stern’s “Putin Didn’t Seize Crimea Because Obama is ‘Weak,’ ” tells us that “It would be surprising if Putin did not intervene in the Crimea after [Ukrainian PM] Yanukovych’s overthrow threatened Russia’s access to its warm water base in Sebastopol and its dominant political influence in Kiev. Only in the ahistorical world of pundit-land chatter would Putin be restrained by who happened to be president of the United States – as demonstrated by Russia’s actions in 1948, 1956, 1962 and 2008.” He cites historian Daniel Larison, a blogger for the paleo, anti-neocon The American Conservative: “Russia behaved the way that it has because it already thought that western interference in Ukraine was too great.”
Mark Sternberg just edited the eighth edition of Nicholas Riasanovsky’s definitive A History of Russia and is now writing a history of the 1917 Russian Revolution. In “Putin’s Russia is Far More Complicated Than a Mere Autocracy,” he drew attention to a serious misinterpretation drawn from Churchill’s famous Westminster College speech in 1946 when he warned the West about its former WWII ally.
“Winston Churchill famously called Russia ‘a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma’ – a phrase that makes me cringe when it shows up in contemporary journalism…Part of the problem is that we forget Churchill’s point: “Russian national interest” [my italics]
Another pundit I don’t always agree with is the smart and genuine conservative (unlike the loonies on the far right) Ross Douthit of the NY Times. After the hysteria about Crimea, Douthit’s advice was for the US was to take it slow, very slow. It was Bismarck who once said that Europe’s 19th Century wars were a lesson that they “weren’t worth the bones of a Pomeranian Grenadier” – the same advice that should have been applied to the brainless invasion of Iraq and its many victims. Douthit sensibly added: “Even the most bellicose US politicians aren’t ready to say that South Ossetia or Simferopol is worth the bones of a single American marine” – not even Joe Biden’s NATO member Estonia.
What we don’t need is a tit-for-tat contest before someone decides to create another unexpected shoot-the Austrian-Archduke incident. So here’s Douthit’s and my main point about Putin and Ukraine: “When illusions are shattered, it’s easy to become reckless, easy to hand-wring and retrench. What we need is realism: to use the power we have, without pretending to powers we lack.”
It’s as far as we dare to go in the nuclear age of Obama and his successors.
Murray Polner wrote No Victory Parades: The Return of the Vietnam Veteran, Disarmed & Dangerous, a dual biography of Daniel & Philip Berrigan (with Jim’O’Grady), and We Who Dared Say No To War (with Thomas Woods Jr.).