[This is what I hope will be the last—at least for a while—in a series of essays on the fast-moving crisis in Ukraine. For a suggestion for a better kind of diplomacy, click here. For other earlier essays (in inverse chronological order), click here, here, here, here, here, here or here. For a 2009 essay on why NATO has outlived is usefulness vis-a-vis Russia, click here.
Those who want to know whether the Ukraine crisis still has legs should read Vladimir Putin’s speech
on annexing Crimea. Those who understand Russian should watch the speech
, in its entirety, so as to assess Putin’s attitude and sincerity from his facial expressions, cadence and the nuances of Russian speech.
Although my Russian is rusty, I did the latter. The speech is fifty minutes long, and Putin spoke more quickly than usual because he had a lot to say. So it took me well over two hours, with instant rewind, to review the whole thing.
The result was worth the effort and the time. I got the message from the horse’s mouth, addressed to his own people, complete with all the nuances of in-person delivery that video can capture. And that speech was, is and will remain one of the seminal utterances of a great-power leader in the first quarter of the twenty-first century. Some day Slavic people may liken it to Winston Churchill’s postwar castigation of the Iron Curtain.
Putin was speaking primarily to Russia’s political leadership assembled in the hall before him. His secondary audience was the Russian people. The people of Crimea, who had just voted to secede from Ukraine and join Russia, came in third. Other nationalities in the Ukraine came fourth. The international audience came dead last.
So Putin was speaking “en famille
,” so to speak. Of course he was also conscious of his international audience. This is the same man—and the same Russian “great communicator”—who introduced multi-time-zone telethons into Russian politics in the mid-nineties and recently tried to sway us Yanks
on Syria with an op-ed piece in the New York Times
Russia’s perennial detractors, of which our nation has so many, will point first of all to Putin’s propaganda
. He said, for example, that the ultimately successful Maidan demonstrators were nationalists, Fascists, Russophobes and anti-Semites.
That statement is probably literally true. Undoubtedly the Maidan had some representatives of each of those groups present. But to imply that extremists were the soul of the Maidan movement is to misconceive both recent history and Ukraine’s distress. It is also to misconceive the yearning for freedom that has animated popular protests worldwide—protests which Putin dismissed with a single cynical comment: “the Arab Spring became the Arab winter.”
Of those two depressing claims, the second is the most troubling. Putin undoubtedly aimed his name-calling at Russians who don’t think beyond tribal labels and villains of the past. We have lots of similar folk in our own home, and our private for-profit ad writers make careers out of stoking their primal fear and hate. We certainly can’t blame Putin for doing what our own pols do every day, fueled by Citizens United
and using a propaganda machine more clever and sophisticated than any that Hitler or Stalin ever possessed.
But we can take gentle amusement from the extent to which rampant overuse has diluted the meaning of “Fascist.” Our own President, the Maidan demonstrators, Western Russophobes and Putin himself can’t all be Fascists, as pols in various venues have oft described them. If I were one of the few remaining true Nazis, I would feel offended and demeaned.
More serious is Putin’s dismissal of the Arab Spring. He has a blind spot in his training and perhaps his character. A silovik
and authoritarian to his core, he simply cannot fathom that useful and constructive change can come from the bottom up, from common people.
One of the most important things for us Westerners to understand about Russia is that this is not Putin’s flaw alone. It is a deeply shared feeling throughout Russia’s culture. Russians fear disorder more than any other people because they have suffered more from it, far more.
When we Yanks look down our noses at Russia—as we do far too often—we forget that Magna Carta will be eight centuries old next year. We forget the centuries of senseless imperial and religious wars that forged our culture and Anglo-American democracy. We forget the vast disorders and Hundred Years War that literally lasted centuries.
Most of all, we forget that Russia’s last century was probably the worst for any major power, ever. It started with the bloodiest revolution in human history, which fed right into the most senseless war in modern history (World War I), in which tens of millions of young men died for reasons that no one can understand today and that no one but professional historians can even remember. Stalin’s iron rule followed, with deportation of millions for ethnic reasons alone, and then the gulags and the Terror. Next came Russia’s Great Patriotic War, in which one out of seven Russians perished, and more Russians died in a single city (Leningrad) than all our Yankee troops on two fronts. In addition, most of Russia’s territory was overrun and devastated, and the Terror consequently hardened.
The Cold War followed. Imbued with economic nonsense and anti-Western propaganda, Russia squandered its substance out of raw fear, trying vainly to keep abreast of Western investment and innovation in weapons and defense. We Yanks forget the Cuban Missile Crisis, in which the cool and mature judgment of two Russians helped our species survive. We forget Russia’s voluntary and spontaneous abandonment of Communism and dissolution of the Soviet Union.
And so, when Putin speaks about the Russian diaspora, we Yanks listen with little comprehension.
Yet that was a key point of Putin’s speech, and a valid one. Russians, he said, have suffered one of the greatest, if not the single greatest, diaspora in human history.
As a Jew (albeit highly assimilated), I at first took exception to that point. But after thinking about it, I had to agree. In sheers numbers and recency, the Russian diaspora matches any in history. Millions of ethnic Russians are now stranded in the Baltics, Moldova, Ukraine, Central Asia, and Crimea. As Putin so dramatically put it, they went to sleep one day in the Soviet Union and woke up in another country, not their own.
This was a voluntary diaspora. No one forced the Russians to do it. They did it of their own accord. They wanted to end Stalin’s history of coercion, deportation, terror and gulags. They wanted to drop their insane insistence that our entire species adopt a fictional economic theory arising out of history’s bloodiest revolution. They wanted the world to respect them again, not fear and hate them.
It was time for the homeland of Chekov, Dostoyevsky, Mussorgsky, Pavlov, Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky to come back to its senses, just as the Germany of Bach, Beethoven, Euler, Heine, Göthe, and Planck eventually threw off its Nazi psychosis.
Early in his rule, Vladimir Putin validated this transformation in a national telethon. He was explaining why the City of Leningrad—the site of the most terrible siege in human history—would once again and evermore be called “St. Petersburg.” Communism, he said, had destroyed Russia’s economy and spirit and would never be coming back. The name St. Petersburg was and is a symbol of that transformation, despite the terrible sacrifice of many heroic Russians under the old Soviet name.
Does Putin now want to take it all back? That’s what many Yanks and some people in the old Soviet vassal states now fear.
But that’s not what Putin said, with every indication of sincerity. In fact, he disclaimed any such ambitions. What he wants is for Russians in the Soviet diaspora to be fairly and equally treated, and respected as local citizens. That’s why he urged that Ukrainian and the language of Crimean Tatars be co-equal official languages in Crimea, along with Russian.
Will he keep his word? Some Yanks think “no.” They say he broke his promise not to invade Crimea.
But Putin said he didn’t “invade” Crimea. At least 25,000 heavily armed Russian military personnel were already there. Russians had a near three-quarters majority of the people in Sevastopol and a decisive majority everywhere in Crimea. There was no invasion, only a political recognition of the facts on the ground, and of the absolute strategic necessity, from Russia’s perspective, of keeping Crimea and its Black Sea Fleet in Russia’s hands.
Whether or not you sympathize with Russia, you have to concede that these arguments make sense. And they make even more sense when you consider that Yanukovych and his goons killed many more people on the Maidan than have fallen from any cause, including accidents, since Russia’s direct involvement in the Ukrainian crisis began.
In the final analysis, Putin is a realist. He knows that dispersed Russians outside of Crimea are minorities wherever they live. He knows—with Syria a prime example—what happens when minorities try to rule by force.
Maybe that’s why he made no military threats to support Russian minorities, whether inside or outside of Ukraine. Maybe that’s why he spoke only of economic, political and judicial action.
Of course Putin wants those governing dispersed Russians to know that the Russian bear has claws. But he didn’t bare his claws during his speech. He first wants to trust his neighbors, near and far, to follow the norms of modern civilization and protect innocent minorities, wherever and whoever they might be.
And why should dispersed Russians expect anything less? Are they not human, too?
And so we come to Putin’s chief complaint. From his perspective, the West has never stopped tightening its military noose around Russia. NATO was born for a single-purpose only: to contain the Soviet Union and stop the spread of Communism.
Now the Soviet Union is no more, and Russians have disclaimed Communism, with Putin himself at the forefront. So why does NATO still exist? Why does it still march relentlessly toward the borders of what is now the Russian Federation?
Well you might ask. The short answer is that countries like Poland and parts of Ukraine still fear the Russian bear and want to cage it. They are the ones who relentlessly seek NATO’s aid and protection. But we Yanks, let alone NATO, aren’t going to fight Russia on or close to its home turf. We certainly aren’t going to replay the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and its close brush with species self-extinction.
And NATO itself hasn’t been able to prevail decisively even in Afghanistan. Who thinks it would prevail easily, if at all, on the endless plains of Russia’s home turf? So who is kidding whom? What good does even a threat of war mean if you don’t intend to enter one and probably couldn’t win it even if you did (unless “winning” means extinguishing our species)? The uselessness of idle imperial dreams cuts both ways.
For Russia, the acme of outmoded Western thinking comes in the so-called missile shield proposed for Poland and the Czech Republic. As I outlined nearly four years ago
, this “shield” was ostensibly intended to protect Europe against missiles from Iran. But geography and physics make it useless for shielding most of Europe against missiles from that source. It might stop a few missiles aimed at us Yanks
from Russia, but it could not ever hope to stop a full-scale Russian nuclear assault.
So what is the so-called “shield” for? Its only conceivable practical purpose would be to try
to stop one or two missiles launched by terrorists or other extremists who somehow managed to capture a Russian missile silo. But it scares the hell out of Russians, who fear our technical innovation and believe that the Cold War balance of terror has kept the peace for 69 years.
Why should we want to scare the hell of out people who have voluntarily dissolved their empire, abandoned their counterfactual economic theories, and now seek to join the global economy? Is the off-chance of iffy protection from an improbable terrorist attack worth alienating one of the world’s great powers, now trying to respect twenty-first century moral and legal norms?
Think I mistake Russians’ mood? Well, listen to Putin himself. At the very outset of his long speech, he opined that the world has become less stable since the Cold War’s bipolar world vanished. Like John McCain and Lindsey Graham, he longs for the “good old days” of supposed moral black and white.
much more stable during the Cold War. You knew whom to hate and fear, and the hate and fear were so strong they obliterated any other considerations. The villains’ identities were stable for decades.
But the price was stasis, not stability. Not only did we come close to species self-extinction in 1962. We held global progress in abeyance while vile tyrants throughout the third world genuflected (and supplied oil to) one cartoon ideology or another. Today’s world of near-universal democratic ferment, which Russians almost uniformly see as “chaos,” is a direct result of that stifling stasis.
Surely our global leaders, including Putin, are smarter and more flexible than that. Surely they can see that perpetual enmity and Manichean dualism are not the path to human progress.
The crisis in Ukraine can be over if both sides will it to be. Putin has disclaimed any intent to invade or annex Eastern Ukraine as long as Russians there are fairly treated. We should lean on Ukraine to make sure they are.
problem on the ground is that Ukraine is a mess, economically and politically. There is plenty of blame to go around. Putin tolerated and fostered Yanukovych’s despicable and inept tyranny for far too long. We Yanks have delayed and denied help for Ukraine because (1) we know little about it and (2) our business people and economists, with some reason, think it’s a bad investment.
Putin thinks the solution is a Ukrainian strongman like him. We Yanks think the solution lies in the Maidan demonstrators, a sort of dictatorship of the proletariat, Western style. Neither solution is self-evidently promising.
So what we need is new thinking, flexibility, patience and cooperation. Is there really any other rational choice?
Syria is Russia’s biggest foreign-policy blunder since the Soviet Union dissolved. It’s a hard nut to crack precisely because it’s such a self-evident disaster. Pols everywhere have the tendency to double down on failed policies, especially when they don’t know what else to do.
And lest we Yanks fault Putin, let us recall Lyndon Johnson. He passed our modern civil rights laws, making Obama’s presidency possible. He fought poverty here valiantly and, for a time, effectively. Insofar as his domestic politics went, he could have been one of our greatest presidents. But he also devastated Vietnam and Cambodia and lost 50,000 of us fighting on the wrong side of a civil war for national liberation. It took two successor administrations—and the most ignominious defeat in American history—to wind our senseless part in that sad war down.
So we Yanks have no right to expect the light to dawn on Putin in Syria any quicker than it dawned on Johnson and his successors in Vietnam.
Nevertheless, an offhand remark by Secretary Kerry led, with astounding speed, to an international accord on chemical weapons. By this June that accord should have led to removal or destruction of all of Assad’s chemical weapons. With them will recede the risk that terrorists might capture those awful weapons and use them against Russia, Israel, or us.
If we want a new world, we Yanks must do our part. We must wind down NATO. We must stop treating Russia as the Soviet Union’s ghost, and Putin as a clone of Stalin. Neither view has any substantive merit to it. If we want a new relationship with Russia, we must understand its unique history, its qualms and fears, and our need (as Putin said) to take its core interests into account and respect them.
Russia was never going to let Crimea and its Black Sea Fleet go, or suffer them to take orders from a “government” that is self-evidently unstable and, at best, nascent. Thinking that Russia would is no less day-dreaming than believing that Russia can collect all its diaspora into a new empire without incessant conflict and the risk of hot wars.
In his speech, Putin gave evidence that he understands these realities. Do we?
Reconciliation may sound easy, but it is not. Too many of us Yanks are like John McCain (a real war hero) and Lindsey Graham (who spent his military service in a law office). Whether once heroic or not, both men lack the ability to understand, forgive or forget.
There are many oldsters like them. So truly resetting our relationship with Russia may be a generational thing.
The President has always set his political sights on our younger generation. And rightly so. For them, our disastrous blunder in Vietnam is ancient history. So is the Cold War. They can read anything that Russians write today and translate it easily with Google. They can make friends on social media. For them, the people who were once so dangerous and mysterious are just a mouse-click away. For them, if not for history, the President and his advisors must work with Putin, accept this new reality, and wind down the Cold War for good.
Can they do so? Can they treat the Ukrainian crisis as an opportunity to adjust our policy toward Russia, while at the same time drawing a hard line against further Russian annexation and any naked aggression? Can Europe, with Germany in the lead, do the same?
Of course they all can. What they require is good will and understanding. Most of all, they must know that Putin is an authoritarian with a difference. In his speech Tuesday, he expressed great sympathy for ordinary people in Ukraine and Crimea, for their suffering, their want, and their needs. He did precisely the same for his own Russians during his first term as their president.
To my recollection, Putin never used the first-person singular, as our own Dubya so often did. When he used a personal pronoun, it was always “we,” referring to his own people. So much for David Brooks’ “narcissistic autocrat.” If Putin thinks, with Louis XIV, that “L’etat c’est moi
,” he keeps that thought to himself.
Don’t get me wrong. Putin is
an authoritarian strongman. Like most Russians, he believes that strength is the antidote to disorder, and that disorder is the next worst thing to Hell. He has no Western conception of how democratic disorder can lead to harmony, and his understanding of markets is tenuous at best.
But he has an overweening interest in avoiding war and bloodshed, and a penchant for resolving conflicts peacefully. He is almost certainly ashamed of what Syria has become under Russia’s and Iran’s tutelage. He wants Russia to become a big player in the global economy but doesn’t know quite how to make that happen. He self-evidently wants our Little Cold War with Iran to end peacefully, and Iran to help Russia stay safe from Sunni jihadists.
So we Yanks have enough interests in common with Russia to work together, on Iran, or terrorism and on fixing Ukraine, as on chemical weapons in Syria. If only we Yanks can stop insisting on having everything our own way, and can focus on common goals and reaching them amicably, much is still possible.