Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

07 July 2009

Russia and NATO

The end of Robert McNamara’s tragic and disastrous life is a good time to reflect on our ignorance of foreign cultures.

Every American who cares about foreign policy—which ought to be all of us—should watch McNamara’s appalling but fascinating interview with Robin McNeill in 1995.

In that interview, McNamara baldly admits his ignorance. He just didn’t know, he says, that North Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh was a nationalist, anticolonial leader of great popularity and iron will, who was neither in Khrushchev’s pocket nor in Mao’s. He just didn’t know, in other words, that his “domino theory” (on which our part in the war was based) was utter nonsense.

Every expert on Vietnam knew and said so publicly at the time. But McNamara (and President Johnson) knew better. McNamara felt in his bones that our war was a lost cause from the very beginning, but he did and said nothing. And after the sterling examples of Eliot Richardson and Cyrus Vance, McNamara had the gall to say we Americans have no tradition of principled resignation.

The point is not just to spit on McNamara’s grave, although God knows he deserves it. The point is to draw a valuable lesson: ignorance about foreigners and their cultures can lead to fatal error.

With that in mind, I’d like to review a half-dozen facts about Russia that most Americans don’t know, and that those who know often don’t appreciate fully.

1. Russia’s Suffering in World War II. In its Soviet guise, Russia suffered far more than we or any of our allies in World War II. No one knows for sure, but the best estimates are that the Soviet Union lost 23 million people. That was about one in seven citizens and nearly four times the number of Jews lost in the Holocaust. Our industrial might helped win the war against Nazism and save Russia, but our losses in the entire war (including the Pacific) were tiny in comparison: less than 450,000 dead.

2. The Siege of Leningrad. This tragedy in Russian history, which I’ve described in another post, was one small example of Russia’s wartime sacrifice. In less than three years of siege and in a single city (now renamed St. Petersburg), Russia lost more people (estimated as twice as many) than we lost in the entire war, on all fronts. They died of wounds, cold, and hunger, and some survivors resorted to cannibalism. To understand what Leningrad means to Russians, you would have to combine the attack on us at Pearl Harbor with the Alamo, the Bataan Death March, and Andersonville (our Civil War concentration camp). Even all together, these four American tragedies wouldn’t quite match Siege of Leningrad, either in the scale of suffering or in its freshness in memory.

3. Invasions from All Sides. Anyone who seeks to understand Russia should spend a day walking around Moscow with a knowledgeable local guide. In the central city, there are war memorials on almost every block. Some recall Russia’s own expansion as it formed as a nation, but most recall invaders repelled. In just the last two centuries or so, Russia has endured four incursions from the west (two from Napoleonic France and two from Germany), two from the east (both by Japan), and interminable border skirmishes in the south, which are still ongoing today (in Chechnya and Georgia). Russia has suffered invasion from every direction but its frozen north.

4. Tensions with the Islamic World. For us, tensions with Muslims are new. Not so for the Russians. They’ve been jostling and fighting with Islamic peoples on their southern borders for about two centuries. If you want to get a flavor for how long and with what result, read Lev Tolstoy’s great novella Hadji Murat, about an Islamic resistance fighter in the Caucasus. The novella first appeared in print a century ago. Yet except for the ubiquitous horses and outmoded weapons, it could have occurred in Iraq or Chechnya yesterday. In understanding the Islamic world and how to deal with it, Russians have a century on us, maybe two.

5. Genghis Khan and the Mongols. The great Mongol Empire conquered or absorbed most of what is now Russia before Russia was much of a nation. But Russians still remember. In fact, they remember so well that Stalin ordered the chronicles of Genghis Khan and his Mongol conquest suppressed during most the Soviet period, for fear that the Mongols would rise again. You can read about the Mongol Empire, its conquest of Russia, and the Soviet suppression of its history in a fascinating recent book.

6. The Cuban Missile Crisis. I have written an entire post on the Cuban Missile Crisis, which I think is one of the most important events in world history. The United States and the Soviet Union came within minutes of mutual nuclear annihilation. Had nuclear war erupted, it likely would have destroyed the Earth’s biosphere and extinguished most mammalian species, including us.

The Russians took the first step away from the brink by turning back the Soviet fleet approaching our blockade around Cuba and dismantling the nuclear missiles there. By agreement between President Kennedy and General Secretary Khrushchev, we reciprocated by removing our medium-range missiles from Turkey and giving Cuba a guarantee against invasion that stands to this day.

There are Americans who believe that our own clandestine services arranged Kennedy’s assassination because he had the effrontery to make this deal with the Soviets and let humanity muddle on for another day. If there are Americans who believe that, there are undoubtedly Russians who do, too—perhaps Putin’s friends in the former KGB. As for General Secretary Khrushchev, he reportedly wept on hearing of Kennedy’s death.

Against this background, it’s not hard to see why Russia would see encroaching NATO as encirclement, or a missile shield ostensibly directed against Iran as a dangerously destabilizing force in the nuclear balance of terror that has kept the peace among major powers for almost half a century.

Russians are fully aware of the power of American inventiveness and innovation. Although Soviet “historians” laughably claimed priorities, Russians know we Americans invented virtually every important consumer device, from the light bulb, through the phonograph and TV, to the Internet, as well as the most important recent military advances, including controlled flight, atomic weapons, and night-vision goggles. What we didn’t invent, like radar and jet engines, our present allies England and Germany did.

That’s why the Russians eagerly signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and that’s why they were horrified when we withdrew from it. That’s why they fear an anti-missile shield in their erstwhile satellite states and won’t hear that it’s only a small one and only directed at Iran.

Call these attitudes paranoid if you like. But it’s not paranoid to fear those who are really out to get you, and people have been out to seize Mother Russia by force from all directions for half a millennium before our nation was born. What looks to us like paranoia seems to Russians only historical realism.

With this history in mind, two relatively recent events struck me as absolutely extraordinary. Both sprang from the mind of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, and both reflected attempts to free himself and his people from the ghosts of history.

The first event occurred early in Putin’s first term as President of Russia. He approved changing the name of “Leningrad” back to its pre-Soviet version, “St. Petersburg.”

That may seem a small thing. But you can imagine how veterans of Russia’s tragic struggle against Nazism—let alone heroes of the Siege of Leningrad—reacted. They were appalled, just as American veterans and their families might be appalled upon seeing Pearl Harbor re-designated by its native Hawaiian name.

Yet Putin got on television—in a broadcast made available in the West—and explained the name change patiently. He acknowledged the heroism of Leningraders during the war. He recognized their pain on seeing a symbol of their heroism and sacrifice abandoned. But he said that Communism had destroyed Russia and would not be coming back. He approved the name change, painful and confusing as it was for many Russians, to make that point absolutely clear, in a nationwide “teachable moment.”

Putin’s second extraordinary step came just this week. He allowed us Americans to send troops and weapons—the whole nine yards—into Afghanistan through Russian air space. Not only that, Russia reportedly would pay the air traffic controllers’ fees for their passage.

Think about that. Putin approved weapons- and troop-carrying American military overflights for action in Afghanistan. Those flights would carry the troops and weapons of the very same nation whose adamant opposition and Stinger missiles drove the Soviets out of Afghanistan, barely twenty years ago, at an appalling cost in Russian lives and equipment.

Our own recent movie Charlie Wilson’s War let the world know just how much responsibility Americans had for all the Russian deaths and suffering. Imagine how you would feel, as the Russian mother of a son whose plane was downed in Afghanistan by a Stinger missile, about Putin’s decision.

I know, I know. In the long run, Russia has more to lose from terrorist havens in Afghanistan, and more to gain from a peaceful, prosperous democracy there, than we do. Afghanistan is a lot closer to Russia than to us. Surely Putin understands that.

But think about the common Russian people. As a matter of internal politics, permitting our overflights was a decision that no American politician in a similar situation could have afforded to make. If it were America, there would be protests in the streets. Republican blowhards like Rush Limbaugh would shout “traitor” from the rooftops. From an internal political perspective, Putin’s decision to grant permission looks like an enormous concession to us, and Russia’s people will probably perceive it as such.

Is there any similar, reciprocal move we could make to keep the “reset” button firmly pressed?

I would argue that, far from expanding NATO to encompass more former Soviet satellites and “encircling” Russia, we should think about how to wind NATO down and give the Russians some peace. There are three reasons for this conclusion.

First, as Iraq suggested and Afghanistan proved, NATO is not much of a military alliance. Every member nation jealously guards its power to approve contributions of troops and material, down to the platoon level, as well as the power to set rules of engagement. We have seen recently how well that hydra-headed command structure worked in Afghanistan. Without the United States and its massive contributions of troops and equipment, NATO would be woefully ineffective. Without British and Canadian troops and equipment, it would be pathetic.

NATO is more a sign of resistance to and solidarity against former Soviet aggression than a vibrant alliance with an effective fighting force. It is more symbolic than real.

Second, as a symbol NATO has severe disadvantages. Its existence gives Europe a pretext and excuse for failing to undertake the hard work of adding foreign and military policy to the EU’s portfolio. The EU—especially the Euro Zone—has far more substance and reality than NATO ever had or ever will. Over 300 million people follow its rules and pay its taxes every day, and most of them also use its currency. It is high time for Europe to continue its process of peaceful integration and extend integration into the realm of foreign policy and closer military cooperation. NATO’s existence retards that process by providing an excuse for inaction and another bureaucracy with which to contend.

Finally, whether or not you believe the threat is real, NATO threatens Russia in Russians’ eyes. Even if not a threat, it is a symbolic affront to Russia, for it was created to contest Soviet domination of Europe. It has served that purpose admirably. Now may be the time to wind it down and seek more effective means of European cooperation and integration that can entice Russia to join and participate eagerly, without embarrassment, political or otherwise.

As for the Ukraine and Georgia, which now are the principals objects of desires to extend NATO, they will always be closer to Russia that to the West. For them, geography is destiny. As oil gets more expensive with economic recovery, they will naturally trade and do business more with Russia than with the west simply because they are there.

Of course we should support the legitimate aspirations of the people of the Ukraine and Georgia (and similarly situated nations) for self-rule, independence from Russia and democracy (if they want them). But the situation in the Ukraine and Georgia is far more complex than most Americans have analyzed. Both nations have strong cultural ties to Russia. Stalin came from Soviet Georgia, and the Ukraine’s capital, Kiev (Kyiv in Ukrainian), is an icon of Russian history. In addition, the Ukrainian language (though not Georgian) is close enough to Russian to allow both peoples to communicate and to learn each other’s tongues easily—about like Italian or Portuguese as compared to Spanish.

Most important of all, both countries have large ethnically Russian, Russian-speaking minorities. Most of these people didn’t come as soldiers or conquerors; they came as migrants for economic reasons or for warmer weather. At worst, they are victims of the mass displacement that Soviet “planning” wrought throughout the Eurasian Continent.

If we Americans are true to our own values, we ought to be as concerned about the civil rights and human rights of these Russian-speaking minorities as we are about the rights of the native majorities under whose hegemony they now find themselves. Saakashvili’s Georgia, for example, is no paragon of democracy and human rights; to pretend it is is nothing more than Cold War jingoism on our part.

Except for the speed with which it was achieved, there is little surprising about the concord in renewing and extending the SALT Agreement. The massive arsenals of nuclear weapons that each side has are not only unnecessary for deterrence. They are also expensive to guard and maintain, and they are extremely dangerous. Terrorists might seize them, or they might cause horrendous environmental damage in man-made or natural disasters. Most warheads contain plutonium, which is not only highly radioactive but one of the most toxic and carcinogenic substances known to science. Reducing these unnecessary expenses and risks to a reasonable minimum is in everyone’s financial and security interest.

The military overflights to Afghanistan are another story entirely. Although undoubtedly in Russia’s long-term interest, there is no immediate need for them in Russia and likely fierce domestic opposition. Putin and Medvedyev have put themselves out to accommodate us, our new President and our immediate pressing needs. If nothing else, that shows that they are serious about “resetting” the relationship.

We should work hard to find a reciprocal concession to prove that cooperation runs both ways. Reconsidering the future of NATO, an organization whose military effectiveness is doubtful, whose symbolic value is fading, and whose very existence is constraining European integration, might be just the thing.



  • At Sat Jul 25, 09:03:00 AM EDT, Blogger ion iliescu said…

    Hi Jay,
    I enjoy reading your posts for some time now, even if lots of time I disagree with your opinions (actually this is one of the reasons I read it).

    Please wrote a post with your thoughts on the relations between the Eastern European countries and Russia during the second world war, during the communism and after and what NATO means to those countries. Also, if posible, write on what do you think Russia means for those Eastern European countries.
    Thank you.

  • At Sun Jul 26, 07:55:00 AM EDT, Blogger jay said…

    Dear Mr. Iliescu,

    It is an honor to host a comment from the distinguished former president of Romania. (Your comment's diplomatic phrasing, plus a small mistake in English tense, convinces me that you are indeed who you purport to be.)

    Your comment deserves a thoughtful, complete reply, perhaps the whole post that you suggest. I'm traveling now and don't have time to write one. But I would like to explore briefly a few themes on which that post will touch.

    First, no one, least of all I, denies the suffering and oppression that Romanians and other peoples of Eastern Europe experienced under the Soviet heel. On this blog I have identified (1) Stalin as one of history's greatest monsters. I am no Jerry Ford.

    Stalin's deliberate and egregious displacement and oppression of non-Russian peoples began decades before World War II. It continued for decades after Stalin lay dead. It was one of the greatest crimes of human history.

    That said, we all should remember three things. First, it was the Russian people themselves (albeit under strong economic and political pressure) who dissolved the Soviet Union and let Eastern Europe go free.

    Second, hatred and lust for revenge are not constructive emotions. Stalin was a world-class monster precisely because he believed that revenge is the greatest human feeling. From a practical standpoint alone, baiting the Russian bear is not an effective strategy, as Saakashvili learned so painfully last year.

    The third and most important thing to remember is that no one “won” (2) the Cold War. Our American loss was subtler and slower to appear than Russia's but no less profound. The current worldwide recession is a direct consequence of the ideological stupidity (3) that the Cold War fostered here in America, as is the overextension of American military forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. That overextension, in turn, means Eastern Europe can no longer rely (if it ever could) on America for a military solution to disagreements with Russia.

    You ask what Russia means to Eastern Europeans today. Undoubtedly it still means oppression, bullying and injustice to many. But the Russians themselves also suffered aggression and conquest. They lost one-seventh of their population to Nazi aggression sixty years ago; yet today they trade and talk peaceably with Germany and cooperate with Germans on many fronts. If the Russians can deal amicably with Germany, so can Eastern Europeans deal amicably with Russia, despite the past. In this nuclear age there is no alternative to intelligent engagement among nations, whatever their differences and whatever their tortured history.

    Simple propinquity and economics mean that Eastern Europe must trade and deal with Russia. And simple humanity beckons Eastern Europe to deal justly and fairly with its Russian-speaking minorities, most of whom are innocent victims of history, too.

    NATO is a military alliance heavily dependent on the reality and symbol of the United States as a dominant superpower. That was then. Now we live in multipolar world (4), the realities of which call not for military confrontation, but for dialogue and cooperation. The notion that the United States, through NATO, could police the world and beat back the big, bad Russian bear was always a bit childish. It is even more so today.

    So the future, it seems to me, belongs to the EU, not NATO. Rather than work to continue the Cold War confrontation that NATO symbolizes, we should all work for a new long-term goal: the EU's absorption of all of Eastern Europe and eventually Russia itself.

    Early in his presidency, when he was still an idealist, Vladimir Putin himself announced the dream of a peaceful Europe stretching from the Atlantic to the Urals. It is a dream still worth pursuing. I don't think NATO will get us there, but the EU might.

    Respectfully yours,


    P.S. My travel computer doesn't handle HTML well. I'll provide links to the numbered references when I get back.

  • At Sun Aug 02, 10:02:00 AM EDT, Blogger jay said…

    Here are the links for the numbered foonotes:

    (1) Stalin as monster

    (2) No one winning cold war

    (3) American ideological stupidity

    (4) Multipolar world


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