[For a new, brief comment on demographics and security in Ukraine, click here. For more recent comment on the crisis in Ukraine, click here or here. For a 2009 essay on why NATO has outlived is usefulness vis-a-vis Russia, click here.
What went wrong
What Russians think of us
Conclusion: will history repeat itself?
Back in the dark days of the Cold War, after the Cuban Missile Crisis, “coexistence” was all the rage.
The rationale was simple. Each side had enough nuclear weapons to virtually extinguish the other, if not our entire species. So it was coexist or cease to exist.
Sounds like a easy choice, doesn’t it? But in the Cuban Missile Crisis it took three extraordinary men—two Russians and an American—to make that choice. Everyone else, including their closest advisers and especially the Cubans, was screaming “push the button!”
That crisis cast doubt on our claim to be an intelligent species. The result was bare coexistence.
Solomon Northup, whose experiences the Oscar-winning movie “Twelve Years a Slave” recently retold, had a better idea. Living, he said, is preferable to just surviving. The same could be said about co-surviving.
What went wrong
And so we come to Russia and Ukraine. During the Cold War, mutual disarmament came slowly. Then the Russians came to their senses, decided that Marx’ and Engels’ creative writing was not science, and threw off Communism of their own initiative.
The Soviet Union dissolved and splintered. The Russians collected their nuclear weapons and nuclear technology from the various spinoffs. Slowly they liberated most of Eastern Europe, the Baltics and much of Central Asia. The process wasn’t pretty, and it certainly wasn’t ideal. But it was effective and largely bloodless.
After the Russian Federation came into being, its new leader, Vladimir Putin, had dreams. He went before the German Bundestag and spoke, in fluent German, about a peaceful free-trade zone from the Atlantic to the Urals.
What happened to that
Vladimir Putin? Did he somehow morph, entirely on his own, into what conservative commentator David Brooks recently called “a narcissistic autocrat”? Is he just another in a long line of practical demonstrations of Lord Acton’s apothegm on absolute power?
Or did we Yanks somehow contribute to the sad transformation? Are we the spouse who’s always right and so killed the marriage?
Professor Emeritus Stephen Cohen thinks so. He may be the best and the brightest native Yankee expert on Russia since George Kennan, who developed the policy of “containment” that eventually ended the Cold War without a nuclear holocaust.
On Monday, Cohen delivered
the closest thing to a diatribe on the PBS News Hour that I ever heard from an academic expert. He excoriated the last two decades of Yankee policy toward Russia as wrongheaded, unfair, oppressive and potentially catastrophic. The reasons why reflect the difference between coexistence and living.
What Russians think of us
Coexisting is refraining from killing each other. Living begins by understanding the other party’s point of view.
Here’s what the average Russian, and maybe even Putin, might think about the history preceding Russia’s recent occupation of Crimea:
“In our great Patriotic War, you were our ally. Yet you watched and temporized while we suffered the greatest proportionate loss of any nation in any war, ever. By the time you landed at Normandy, we had already beat the Nazis back at Stalingrad and were on the march, but at catastrophic cost.”
“We were grateful for your materiel support, which we needed. But we overheard several high Western officials hoping that the ‘two great tyrannies’ would destroy each other.”
“We are not deaf. We don’t lack feeling. For better or for worse, one of those ‘great tyrannies’ ordained for destruction was our homeland.”
“The Cold War was a mistake on both sides. We Russians did not need to convert the world to a fictional economic system in order to be safe. Neither you Yanks nor we needed to build enough nuclear weapons (let alone biological ones) to destroy all mammalian life on this planet. We could have built just enough to deter attacks, like China.”
“But the fear on both sides had its terrible logic. And, you may recall, two out of the three men who avoided a nuclear holocaust and let our species muddle on were Russians.”
“Eventually, reason came to you and to us. We mutually disarmed. As we Russians relaxed from our two centuries of catastrophic foreign invasions, we got mellower. We dissolved the Soviet Union and then let our vassal states go free.”
“That was a time that could have changed the world. We Russians had abandoned all we once knew. It might be hard to believe now, but at that time many of us looked to you Yanks, our former ally and then rival, for advice.”
“So what did you do? You sent us idiots like Jeffrey Sachs, who knew nothing about Russia. You sent us ideologues and commercial vultures who destroyed our economy with so-called ‘shock therapy.’ They let the oligarchs steal what meager collective wealth we had.”
“Their motives were hardly pure or friendly. Some wanted to prove their abstract and untested theories, real people be damned. Others wanted to make a financial killing and take the money home to America.”
“But even that didn’t stop us from cooperating with you. When you invaded Afghanistan after 9/11, we helped you. We let you use our air space. We didn’t even charge you the usual fees for air traffic control. We all had a mutual interest in taming the perpetual unrest in Islamic lands to our South, where we Russians had fought for centuries.”
“But all the time, we sensed that you wanted to encircle and squeeze us. The Cold War was over, but NATO remained. Wasn’t NATO’s reason for being to contain and block the Soviet Union, which no longer existed?”
“It seemed to us, and still does, that NATO is no longer necessary. It’s a military alliance. The EU is the trading bloc. If you wanted trade and economic cooperation, why encircle us with steel?”
“And so we come to Ukraine. You Yanks see a people striving to be free. We see a lawless mob burning tires and official buildings and making demands. We see disorder—much the same kind that brought us our 1917 Revolution.”
“That Revolution, you may recall, was the bloodiest in human history, surpassing even the French. It brought us Russians Communism, Stalin’s Terror and the gulags. We suffered under them for seven decades. So forgive us if we don’t see disorder in the streets with starry eyes.”
“We get it that you Yanks see yourselves as different, exceptional and better than others. You are the world’s youngest major power. You are also the most fortunate. Except for your revolutionary war against England, and except for your own civil war, you have fought all your big wars on others’ territory. You have never suffered mighty foreign invasons as we did from Napoleon and the Nazis.”
“We have never known your kind of ‘democracy.’ We had the czars, under whom most of us were serfs. Then we had the Commissars, under whom many of us went to the gulags, or simply disappeared. After a brief spring with Gorbachev and Yeltsin, we have Putin.”
“Believe it or not, he’s the best. He controls what’s on TV, but he lets us read what we want. There’s no longer any censorship here. We can travel, go abroad, make money, talk freely, and do what we want, as long as we don’t challenge Putin’s leadership. For most of us, that’s far more than we’ve ever had, and we are content.”
“As for war, we’re happy to make a comparison. In the twenty-plus years since Russia became the Russian Federation, we’ve had only one minor war, in Georgia. Our sole goal was to protect enclaves of ethnic Russians. We accomplished that mission and withdrew in weeks.”
In contrast, you were in Afghanistan and Iraq for about a decade each. What you accomplished there, if anything, is hardly self-evident. Both invasions await the judgment of history. We won’t even mention Vietnam.”
“So please forgive us if we follow the leader who has improved our lives. Please forgive us if we’re proud to be Russians—members of a long-suffering nation that, despite a terrible history, has made seminal achievements in art, music, literature and science. Please forgive us if we don’t consider ourselves barbarians, worthy of encirclement and containment, after letting Eastern Europe, the Baltics and large parts of Central Asia go free.”
“As you consider why our relations with you Yanks are souring, think of this. Germany, in its Nazi phase, destroyed one-seventh of our people and most of our western territory. Yet today Germany is our largest trading partner and a trusted friend.”
“You might want to think about why that is so, and why our relationship with you Yanks is so bad. Could it be that Germany today is more reasonable, less inimical and less arrogant?”
Conclusion: will history repeat itself?
Unlike Woodrow Wilson, Stephen Cohen never was our president. Nor does he have any prospect of becoming a national leader. But Cohen may have something else in common with Wilson.
When World War I ended, Wilson strongly advised our European allies not to punish the German loser collectively, or to try to isolate it economically. The Allies didn’t listen. Just two decades later came Hitler, the Nazis, the most terrible war in human history, and the Holocaust.
So Wilson was a Cassandra of mythic proportions. Maybe Cohen is, too.
No one “won” the Cold War. Both sides lost
, and both are still recovering, economically and socially. But we Yanks deem ourselves the “victor” in that senseless war, entitled to lord it over and dictate to the “loser,” namely Russia.
Now we’re setting up international sanctions to punish Russia for taking steps that it feels are necessary to insure its security, protect its Black Sea naval base, protect its people from alienation and discrimination, and continue its efforts, however awkward, to forge a Slavic Commonwealth.
Has it occurred to anyone that the policy we are preparing is exactly the same kind of policy that the victorious World War I Allies applied to Germany, with such disastrous results?
Woodrow Wilson never had a chance to say “I told you so.” He died in 1924, even before the Great Depression, let alone the greatest war in human history.
So may be the fate of today’s Cassandra Stephen Cohen, but for a different reason. Russia still has a huge nuclear arsenal. It’s not Iran; it’s a major global power with wide historic and current interests on the Eurasian continent. If a global policy of isolation and moralist condemnation has the same effect in this century as it did in the last, no one may have the last word. We might all soon be dead.
We should engage with Russia. We should try to convince it to make a fair, bloodless transition in Crimea, to protect minority rights, and to go no further than Crimea, where its greatest interests lie. Attempting to isolate and punish Russia will only retard the global economy, fuel growing Russian resentment, and perhaps start a new war, which we can only hope will remain cold.
The link I had previously used, which you can find here
, is to an earlier interview of Cohen, with less punch. In this interview
[set the timer at 5:00], from Monday, March 3, Cohen let his hair down and said what he really thinks. Everyone who cares about Russia, America, peace, progress or prosperity should watch both.
Realpolitik and Order
Two additional points are worth making. First, realpolitik makes it unlikely that Putin will seek to project Russian military power beyond Crimea. The reason is simple demographics.
This week’s issue of The Economist
(March 1st through 7th, page 22) has a helpful demographic map of present-day Ukraine. Crimea is its only region with a majority-Russian population, between one-half and two-thirds. The Russian majority in Sevastopol, Crimea’s de facto
capital and the home of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, is close to three-quarters.
The map shows eight regions of Eastern Ukraine outside Crimea. (There are no demographic data for Odessa, which may, like Crimea, have a majority of Russians.) Of the eight, not a single one has a majority of Russians. Only two have even close to 50%. Four have about a quarter, and the other two have about one-eighth or fewer.
Whatever Putin’s approach to power may be, he’s not a stupid man. Syria has made him acutely conscious of Colin Powell’s “Pottery Barn” rule: you break it, you own it. Syria also has given him the most persuasive demonstration possible of the perils of minority rule by force.
So it shouldn’t take much argument, perhaps by a friend like Angela Merkel, to convince Putin to keep Russian troops in Crimea. Whether they stay there depends on how well the new Ukrainian government respects the rights and language of the Russian minority in the east, and how much autonomy Kiev (Kyiv) gives the eastern regions.
The second point relates to order. It’s impossible to understand how much Russians crave order and fear disorder unless you’ve lived there.
Russians live in a hostile world. Their climate is hostile
, at least in their big cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg. Every year too many people—mostly men—drink too much vodka, go out in the snow, lie down to rest, and become inanimate icicle statues.
Their neighborhood is also hostile. Huge armies had been marching back and forth across their homeland for over a millennium before we Yanks became a nation. In the last century or so alone, there were four invasions: two by Germany and two by Japan. Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution was the bloodiest in human history.
So Mother Russia is a battered mother.
For that reason, when Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov calls the Maidan demonstrators “thugs” and “hooligans,” you have to listen with a culturally attuned ear. Objectively, the epithets were inaccurate: the snipers who opposed the demonstrators killed and injured far more people than the demonstrators did (although the demonstrators destroyed far more property). But subjectively the epithets were in perfect pitch as propaganda to the Russian people. They also may reflect sincere feelings of Russia’s elite.
Thomas Jefferson once said that a people who value security above liberty will have neither. But Jefferson lived in a largely empty continent where European technology, weaponry and population pressure made short work of the only competition: the native people misnamed “Indians.”
Russians never had it so good. For most of their history, they have had neither
security nor liberty. They have had to struggle mightily just to survive and protect their nation from invasions, which came from every direction but the frozen north.
With that history, it is understandable that Russians seek security first and foremost. This is especially so after Russia’s horrendous last century—possibly the bloodiest that any people in history, anywhere, ever have had to suffer. Liberty requires security to grow.
The rest of the world, as well as Ukrainian leaders, should keep both demographics and Russia’s craving for security and order in mind when dealing with Russia in Ukraine. Russia backed Assad against a large majority of non-Alawites in the hope of achieving security quickly. Its leaders are unlikely to be so stupid as to have missed the lesson of that policy’s complete failure. Ukraine’s leaders should not be so stupid as to misread Russia’s need to protect its own people and the bastions of its own national security, wherever the forces of history may have thrown them.
My own experience as a Fulbright Fellow in Moscow showed me how Russians’ perennial battle with the cold makes them look out for each other. I had come to Moscow from Honolulu, where I then worked, in early February. Used to wearing aloha shirts, I was often negligent about my dress. Reminders to don my cap came from everyone, from the coat-check babushkas
at every Russian institution, through my colleagues, to complete strangers on the street.
When I rented a furnished apartment, my landlord took one look at my San-Francisco-style raincoat and chuckled. He dove into his personal storage and extracted what looked like his old Red Army coat. It was knee-length, made of blue wool, and over an inch thick. It weighed about twenty pounds. He loaned it to me, absolutely free, all winter, and it kept me warm. It was so thick and stiff that I sometimes fantasized it could stop bullets. Despite my best efforts and my acclimatization to Hawaii, I did not freeze that winter.