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Feb 10, 2017

Whose Kids Are Ready to Fight and Die for Kiev and Tallinn?

tags: Pobedonostsev; Kolchak; Nicholas I; Putin

Putin commemorating 9-11 in NYC 2001  – CC BY 3.0  via Wikimedia Commons

This post is by Murray Polner,  a blogger, writer and HNN’s senior Book Department editor.

While analyzing Vladimir Putin, our latest foreign devil, I wonder if many of our born-again Russian experts could pass a simple exam evaluating and explaining the possible impact of Russia’s past on him. How many know enough about Russian history to know about Mikhail Bakunin, Alexander Herzen, Nicholas I,  the Crimean War, Nestor Makhno, Konstantin Pobedonostsev, Anton Denikin,  Serge Witte, P.N. Wrangel, A.V. Kolchak, the Czech Legion, the Cordon Sanitaire, or even U.S. General William Graves on their  relevance to  current Russian history? Would they know anything about Nicholai Danilevsky, who dreamed up Pan-Slavism, a principle based on the hypothesis that a common cultural tie and language formed a brotherhood, or at least ought to form one, among Slavic people? My guess is that most are instant experts. What we now see and read is offered up with barely a hint of dissent.

Many have tried to understand Putin's Russia. A plausible explanation came from Fiona Hill, who once worked in the Bush II, administration and co-wrote Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin. “He’s not delusional, but he’s inhabiting 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 yesterday and especially today.

From Moscow,  Shaun Walker, the Guardian’s reporter, asked, “What is Putin thinking?” and then  describes his and Russia’s “deep-seated sense of injustice of  unfair victimization from the west” because of  “an unwillingness to take Russia’s interests into account. Walker goes on to describe the thinking of Russia’s elite: “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 Romanov-like restoration?

In the meantime, Baltic and East European nations are assured and reassured by U.S. politicians that Article 5 of NATO mandates that, if attacked (by Putin’s Russia, who else?), the U.S., a charter member, will be required to spring to its defense and then our officials will once again have to urge Americans to tell their kids to hide under their school desks when they hear the alarms and get their sons ready to be drafted.

“The U.S. has treated Russia like a loser since the end of the Cold War,” wrote our former ambassador to Moscow, the non-conforming and shrewd Jack Matlock, Jr. in the Washington Post.  When NATO moved eastward and dangled membership to Russia’s neighbors, Moscow objected, interpreting the moves as nothing less than encirclement. Putin worked with the U.S. when it invaded Afghanistan and also abandoned its bases in Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam and Cuba, Matlock reminded us. In return, NATO reached into the Balkans and Baltics, invaded Iraq without Security Council endorsement, involved itself in the “Orange Revolutions” of Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan while hinting that it also might include Georgia and Ukraine, former SSRs.

With little or no historical knowledge “Americans, inheritors of the Monroe Doctrine, should have understood that Russia would be hypersensitive to foreign dominated military alliances approaching or touching its borders.” Crimea, he warns, worsens the break between east and west, a situation where “there would be no winners, only losers, most of all Ukraine itself” and, I add, an angry, isolated, bitter and uncompromising nuclear rivalry.

I recently turned to historians who, while not defending recent Russian moves, are trying to understand, even if our domestic hawks 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 President Yanukovych’s overthrow threatened Russia’s access to its warm water base in Sevastopol and its political influence in Kiev. He then cites Daniel Larison, a historian and blogger for the paleo-con The American Conservative: “Russia behaved the way that it has because it already thought that western interference in Ukraine was too great.”

Mark  Sternberg has just edited the eighth edition of Nicholas Riasanovsky’s definitive A History of Russia and is now writing a history of the Russian Revolution. In “Putin’s Russia is Far More Complicated than A Mere Autocracy,” he draws attention to what he views as a serious misinterpretation drawn from Churchill’s famous Westminster College speech in 1946, when he warned the west about his former ally Stalin.

 “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: There is a 'Russian national interest' ” (my italics).

Dreams of unlimited pretensions of near-perfection are natural in the West. Putin went out of his way in his St. George’s Hall speech to deride American posturing “in their exclusivity and exceptionalism, that they can decide the destinies of the world that only they can ever be right.”

Western “demonization of  Vladimir Putin is  not a policy; it is an alibi for the absence of one” said the cynical, occasionally realistic Henry Kissinger in the Washington Post. He suggests the U.S. goal should be to seek a way  for the two Ukraines to work together, and we not favoring the dominion of one side or the other. “We should seek reconciliation, not the domination of a faction.”

Western/American policy remains unknown and confusing.  Perhaps the U.S. has been too naïve about post-Soviet Russia, or conversely, dismissed its anxieties and interests too hastily. Still, the  best outcome of the complex Crimean mess is to take it slow, very slow. I don’t always agree with Ross Douthat, the Times’s brainy and conservative Op Ed columnist, but he’s on to something. Bismarck managed to keep the peace in Europe after a series of wars, and handed down to us his pithy reminder that his generation’s Balkan crises weren’t worth the bones of "a Pomeranian Grenadier."  Echoing the great European  conservative and unlike some demented neocons and liberal hawks, Douthat  wisely writes that “even the most bellicose U.S. politicians aren't ready to say that South Ossetia or Simferopol is worth the bones of a single American marine.”

"Where Douthat is right is in recognizing that our treacherous tit-for-tat contest with Russia has to slow down before someone shoots a modern-day version of the poor Austrian Archduke. In his real life genuine conservative mode, Douthat properly calls for 'Balance,'  explaining that, in dealing with an [allegedly] weak and [potentially] treacherous Russia,  the U.S. 'has been both too naïve about Putin’s intentions and too incautious in its commitments and that a new containment need not require a new Cold War.' ” Then he comes to his main and eminently sensible  point. “When illusions are shattered, it’s easy to become reckless, easy to hand-wring and retrench. What we need instead is realism: to use the powers we have, without pretending to powers that we lack.”

 It’s as far as we dare go in a nuclear age. And that goes for Moscow and Washington and the rest of the members of the Nuclear Club.

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