Misreading Russia

By Rachel Ehrenfeld, Kenneth D.M. Jensen
Wednesday, April 16th, 2014 @ 4:35AM

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Andrei Zubov, a well-respected Russian historian at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, was recently fired because of an op/ed that aptly compared Putin’s annexation of Crimea to Hitler’s annexation of Austria and the Sudetenland in 1938-39.


In response, one of Putin’s intellectual henchmen, Andranik Migranyan, justified Zubov’s firing and thus embraced the parallel between Hitler and Putin. Migranyan said: “We should distinguish between Hitler before 1939 and Hitler after 1939, and separate chaff from grain. The fact is that while Hitler was gathering German lands; if he … were known only for uniting, without a single drop of blood, Germany with Austria, Sudetenland with Germany, Memel [the German name for Klaipeda] with Germany, in effect achieving what Bismarck could not; and if Hitler stopped at that, he would be remembered in his country’s history as a politician of the highest order.”

If, according to Migranyan, there was a “good Hitler”, the one who returned German lands to the Homeland, there is also a “good Putin,” for uniting “all Russians” with Mother Russia.

“Revisionism,” as in adjusting the borders of states to suit the ambitions of some at the expense of others, has been the historical norm. The hopeful events of 1989-91 lasted only short while, until Russia detached South Ossetia and Abkhazia from independent Georgia in 2008. We should have expected Russian attempts to revise borders, especially with Putin at the helm. We didn’t.

After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the West, including the U.S., decided to pretend “revisionism” had disappeared from in international politics. We embraced the Velvet Revolutions in East Europe, and the fall of Communism in Russia, as a return of oppressed and aggressive states to something we foolishly believed was international “normalcy.” There were also talks about “peace” and “peace dividends” as if such things had occurred in the history of international relations.

Even the dullest policymakers might have remembered the maxim that “nature abhors a vacuum.”  How could there not be a vacuum when one combatant withdraws wounded from such an enormous field of combat?  And how could we assume that he wouldn’t live to fight again?

In reaction to Putin’s annexation of Crimea and ongoing activities in Ukraine, calls for retributive policies are continuously debated. Few dare say that Putin’s object is to replicate the old Soviet Union and its satellites in an imperial Russian state. It took a while for international conditions to be just right before Putin took opportunities in Georgia in 2008 and in Crimea lately.  Now he’s moving on eastern Ukraine and there will be more to come. Already there are indications that Moldova and Estonia may be next in line.

Russia’s loss of the Soviet satellites was cheered by the West.  But the Russians saw it differently. According to Russian novelist Svetlana Alexievich:  “Many conceived the truth (about our Soviet past) to be the enemy. The same applied to freedom. Russia changed, but also hated itself for this change.”

In her book “Second-Hand Time,” she describes how the Russians see themselves. “All of us, the people who came from socialism, are different from other people,” she writes in her book  “We have our own ideas about good and evil, about heroes and victims. We are full of hate and prejudice. We all come from the place that was once the home of gulags and of collectivization, or Dekulakization, the forced resettlement of entire populations. It was socialism, but it was also our lives.”

Refusing to understand that Russians are not, and do not wish to become Europeans, and that their concept of governance is different than ours, the West neglected to prepare for the eventuality that Moscow would seek to return to its hegemony over former Soviet territories. Therefore, we have nothing much to offer in the way of resistance to the expansion of Russian control in East Europe, Central Asia, etc.  Our last opportunity was lost when we failed to support Georgia in 2008.

A united Western policy on the future of East Europe should have been in place soon after the Soviet fall in 1991. The expansion of NATO and EU membership candidacy signaled the embrace of the East Europe as European, but spoke nothing to the question of the future of other Soviet states that gained independence in the early 1990s.

The end of the Cold War meant that the East European aspiration for freedom and democratic governance would grow exponentially. However, Western policy did not respond to this in such a way as to protect the East from the future return of Russia to the region.  Moreover, there is now no intention even to enforce a real sanctions regime that the U.S. and the EU have been advocating.

The U.S. and the West are now called upon to pay the bill for their geopolitical short-sightedness, says Charles Fairbanks, but we don’t want to pay it anymore now than we did in the 1990s.

What Have We Learned from Crimea?  By Charles Fairbanks

What have we learned from the Russian seizure of Crimea and the Western reaction to it? President Obama seems to have learned nothing; he is more obstinate in pursuing failed policies than Jimmy Carter or Neville Chamberlain. Informed discussion of foreign policy has now expanded to include wide and valuable questioning of Obama’s indecisive, yielding tactics—and his general vision of a world without enemies. But something in the middle is still missing, and that something is important. What have we learned about the former Soviet bloc, and about ourselves?

Like France and Britain in the years between the great wars, 1919-1939, we have committed ourselves to the defense of an international order in Eastern Europe, including the former Soviet Union, that we don’t really have the energy or will to defend. The two epochs are very different, of course. For all Putin’s hostility to the West and its aspirations, and despite his skillful manipulation of Russian populist sympathies, his are nothing like the volcanic energies of a Hitler or Mussolini, and his people are nothing like the eager, war-hungry Germans and Italians of that time.

Nevertheless, there remains an important historical echo of the interwar period: what the West, defender of the status quo, is actually defending, and how we are going about the task. The order that the victorious allies could effortlessly impose at Versailles depended on the temporary disappearance of half the European great powers (who were bound to come back), and on the continued cooperation and sustained will of the victors. But as America and Britain retreated from Europe, responsibility for this effort fell more and more to France—a France that was uncertain and weary deep in its bones. In short, the Great War’s victorious allies genuinely preferred their new order—just as we do the Eastern Europe left by the Soviet Collapse—but they turned out not to care about it as a fundamental matter. As a result, when an aggressor eventually challenged that order, it collapsed with astonishing speed, like a house eaten from within by termites.

In more recent decades, we committed ourselves to defend new arrangements in Eastern Europe because we treated the accidental map of December 1991—deriving from the accident of a single sentence in Josef Stalin’s 1936 Constitution, giving Union Republics the right to secede—as if it were the result of a full-scale, 1815- or 1919-style peace settlement. But the Russian view was very different: that the collapse (and wished-for partial reconstitution) of the Soviet Union was a long, historical process, just beginning in 1991, and that the initial “state-like entities” it produced—and still less the borders—would not be permanent. This Russian view was the more realistic of the two. But as a guide to Western policy it was untenable, for its adoption would have legitimized Russian and Uzbek imperialism; required passive acceptance of frightful and lengthy ethnic-cleansing campaigns; and consigned the East to chaos for decades, opening it to Islamic extremism and other corrosive hatreds.

In the early 1990s there were many establishment Western authorities who preferred that Europe create a sort of Chinese Wall separating the civilized (Protestant and Catholic Europeans) from the barbarians (Orthodox and Muslim Europeans). But we ultimately chose otherwise, expanding NATO and even the EU far to the east, often with Germany in the lead. We imagined that we could maneuver as sentiment and convenience dictated, without ever having to pay very much. And now we are getting the overdue bill, which we don’t want to pay.

In the aftermath of Crimea—and the embarrassment of our supine response—the West is beginning to see the Russian vision of the future unfold: the long historical process of incitement, rebellions real and arranged, threats, secession, recombination in new states, and outright invasions. The international “order” in Eastern Europe after 1991 reflected not what power can achieve—as peace treaties usually do—but accommodation to unforeseen events. Such an order rests very largely on habit: on the kind of action that various leaders consider “thinkable” or “unthinkable.” During the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia (and subsequent Russian recognition of “independent” puppets South Ossetia and Abkhazia, both inside Georgia’s internationally recognized borders), the West, surprised, declined to bless the outcome as legitimate—but did nothing to stop or reverse it, either. Absent this historical precedent and example (and the similarly feeble and immediately ignored American “red line” in Syria), Crimea would probably not have been seized. Until 2008, the idea of Russia according formal diplomatic recognition to new states carved from one of its neighbors was “unthinkable” for its leaders and for us. Until earlier this year, the idea of Russia straight-out annexing a bordering nation’s territory was similarly “unthinkable.” What unthinkable thing will Putin do tomorrow? To fully shatter the order we have been defending, Putin needs only to abandon some habits, some diplomatic conventions.

Few people will say so out loud, least of all the Obama administration, but Russia is what used to be called a “revisionist” power—like Germany, Italy, and Hungary in the interwar years—in the sense that it seeks a dramatic alteration of present international arrangements and balances of power. Any careful reading of elite Russian foreign-policy discourse over the past 20 years should drive this reality home with force. And fresh Western understanding of the situation we confront post-Crimea must begin with it.

Crimea is a heady moment of triumph for Russia’s ruling elite, one that may tempt them to act more systematically on a long list of pent-up resentments. To date, there have been occasional acts of aggression but no consistent revisionist strategy. There have always been advocates of such a strategy, however; many Russian foreign policy experts like Andranik Migranyan, for example, have consistently advocated an expansionist, explicitly anti-Western strategy to “reintegrate” the former Soviet Union. Should we passively allow a situation to arise in which this policy alternative becomes more attractive? Unlike interwar Germany, Italy and Hungary, Russia’s current leaders still appear to place their own enrichment above nationalist ambition. Personal sanctions and isolation are therefore tools that have a lot of potential power—if the West applies them seriously, as we have not.

Russia also differs from the interwar revisionist powers in being very weak relative to its ambitions, or rather resentments. In this sense, it is relatively weaker even than Italy was in 1940. For his own domestic political reasons, President Obama has begun to point this out. But the relevant weakness when cross-border aggression is going on is military weakness. Except for nuclear weaponry, Putin has not greatly modernized Russia’s obsolete, corrupt, and demoralized armed forces; he is afraid of them. A major reorganization began in 2008, but as often when starting with a mess, comprehensive reform schemes have resulted in much disorganization. Russian forces don’t have much recent, major combat experience, even in counterinsurgency. A few quick, successful operations (the beginning of the second Chechnya war, Georgia 2008, Crimea) were carried out by small special forces. It is a big policy mistake to taboo discussion of the vastly different quantity, quality, and experience of Western and Russian military forces during the Ukraine crisis. Better to let the issue hang in the air.

It is already clear that neither the US nor the EU will make Russia pay a major price for invading a sovereign neighbor state. To deter another aggression, they rely on hope, instead. We hope Russia will not invade Donetsk, Kharkov, and Luhansk. But those in the West dissatisfied with this reliance—those who understand that hope alone is far from adequate—can do more than merely roll our eyes and sigh. We can loudly and explicitly identify what it is that’s gone wrong with longer-term American policy toward Eastern Europe and Russia. We can formulate a clear policy agenda to implement when the West’s present wrong one produces its next disaster. And our policy within Ukraine can still become effective.

What is most forgotten in this crisis is the uncertain fate of what we are defending: European-oriented democracy in Ukraine. Recent events should remind us that a deep and recurrent yearning for democracy exists—even in the former Soviet Union. That yearning is not always reflected by the formal political leadership that Western nations are accustomed to dealing with and advocating. Throughout the region, many, many people have learned from the falseness of Soviet public spirit to despise and avoid politics altogether, as I have learned while trying to work with student activists. In Ukraine democratic revolutions happen in the street, but there is no guarantee that the governments they install—like the present one—will turn out to be any less disappointing and divided than the rule of Yushchenko and Tymoshenko that followed the Orange Revolution.

Western efforts to help defend Ukraine’s independence will be in vain if this cycle goes unbroken. We need to give a lot of effort—and a lot of thought—to the development of lasting democracy and free markets in Ukraine. We know how to help financially and organizationally, if we are willing to back our words with money, which is not yet clear. We seem much less sure of ourselves where the effort to turn democratic longings into functioning democratic institutions is concerned. We need to focus much more seriously on that.

* Charles Fairbanks is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute presently teaching in post-Soviet Georgia.  This research report was originally published here.

Categories: ACD/EWI Blog, Latest News, Russia and East Europe, U.S. Foreign Policy, Ukraine

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