Why I Wouldn’t Obsess Over the Russians

The Russians are back in our news again. Our media is manic-depressive: it careens from supine pacifism to hyperventilating bellicosity, and these days the invasion of Georgia is inspiring the latter. Our government isn’t much better: it can’t seem to know whether to send the troops, send the diplomats, or just hide.

I have a good deal of experience dealing with these people, as those of you who follow this blog well know. I won’t link to all of the places where I deal with the subject here; I will point out one especially memorable moment which actually took place in Washington. But that should be enough to illustrate my central point: the Russians aren’t what they seem to the Americans, that was the case in the Soviet era and remains so today.

To start with, Russian “agression” and an “attack against democracy” are being emphasised these days. But Russia is a nation that has been invaded many times, from the Mongols to the Turks to the French to that most terrible invasion, the Germans during the “Great Patriotic War.” Stalin, never much to export his revolution (as opposed to Trotsky,) developed the “Warsaw Pact” as a strategic buffer to prevent a repeat of what the Germans had put them through. Brutal and inhuman, yes, but it got the job done for almost half a century.

It’s fair to say that the current regime in Moscow is looking for yet another buffer, having lost not only the Warsaw Pact countries but also the other republics of the old Soviet Union. From a strategic standpoint the touchiest of those is the Ukraine. Invading Georgia is one sure way of sending a message to the Ukrainians not to welcome NATO with open arms, which the Russians would interpret as a stab into their heartland (and a look at the map would confirm this.) Wisdom for the Americans would dictate that we, while certainly securing a position in places like Poland (maybe, I’ll take that up later,) should not push too hard in places like Georgia or Ukraine. If we corner the Russians, they have no where else to come out but straight at us, and that’s not a pleasant thought for a country with a large arsenal of nuclear weapons–especially if some of them end up in Cuba.

As far as attacking democracies are concerned, it’s hard to characterise any of the old Soviet republics (with the exception of the Baltic states) as democratic in a real sense. Some are trying harder than others. Georgia for its part is a fairly corrupt state, not unlike the one we set up in Kosovo a little while back (that adventure didn’t do anything for our relations with the Russians either.) Here, as in the Middle East, democracy is a mirage, one we keep looking for but never find except in our imaginations.

While thinking about the Middle East, it’s hard to think of a nation which is more blessed than Russia with sheer territory and natural resources and yet never seems to take full advantage of it. Russia had a golden opportunity to shed its authoritarian past and adopt a working economy and state, yet squandered it in a fashion worthy of the Middle East, first in the “Mafia” years of Boris Yeltsin and then those of Vladimir Putin when the power of organised crime was centralised in the state. The main reason why the Soviet Union lost the cold war was that it never developed a viable economy to match its military arsenal, and both Russian and American history show that, if you want to be a sustaining world power, you have to have both.

Beyond that, American fears centre on Russia’s supposed “allies:” Iran and China. Anyone vaguely familiar with Russian history know that neither of these nations are natural allies of Russia (who is a natural ally of Russia, anyway?) In the case of Iran, Russia sold them nuclear and other military technology for one reason: Russia desperately needed the hard currency in the wake of the Soviet collapse. And, of course, Russia saw Iran as a counterweight to the U.S.. But Russia cannot be pleased with the emergence of a nuclear-capable Iran, which is also capable of making the same kind of power challenges in the old Islamic republics (Uzbekistan, etc.) as the U.S. is making in Georgia.

As far as China is concerned, the two countries are natural enemies. Russia still lives in fear of the “yellow peril,” and they too have competing interests in Central Asia.

Russia’s best hope for friends comes in Western Europe, which is dependent on Russian gas for energy. And that leads to a long running quandary for the U.S. that it never really came to grips with in the Cold War. Europe, especially after the 1956 Suez crisis, never carried its weight in the Cold War. The continent of Napoleon, Julius Caesar and Rommel turned chicken, and is showing the same tendency now. It’s too bad that we cannot flip the continent, having appreciative states such as Poland and the Baltics on the west and leave Germany and France on the east to deal with the Russians the best they can. In fact, I always wondered whether we would have been better off with the whole continent in the Soviet axis and used the Atlantic as our “Iron Curtain.” It would have been easier to defend and would have eliminated a long-term economic rival in the bargain. The whole rationale of NATO is that Europe is worth defending, and if the Europeans don’t act like it is, why should we?

But basic questions like this never get answered in our foreign policy. Boomers, now in control and familiar with a bipolar conflict such as the Cold War, cannot blast themselves out of their comfort zone and come to grips with the new reality, which consists of many old ones that have come back to life in the wake of the end of the Cold War. It’s easier to revive old conflicts than deal with current ones.

And that’s reflected in our political parties’ (and their Presidential candidates’) reaction to all this. They’re taking a “fight or flee” response, one party for each. One would think that, as much money as we put in our government, we could get past this type of response matrix. Foreign policy, sad to say, isn’t like buying car insurance–it takes more than a cave man, and his responses, to do it.

What the U.S. needs to do is to adopt some realistic expectations of the results of this conflict. We also need to build our strengths, and right at the moment that’s primarily our economic ones, such as stabilising our indebtedness, not larding our economy with excessive taxes and wealth transfers, and cultivating the development of military and civilian technology and production at home. All of that in turn is dependent upon a rational energy policy that includes both conservation and production to reduce the cash outflow we experience for foreign oil, but that’s still trapped between utopian dreams on both sides.

But rational policies seem to be beyond our system. It’s been that way for a long time. The Cold War was seriously complicated by American emotionalism, and we nearly lost that conflict in the nervous breakdown we suffered in the early 1970’s in the wake of the Vietnam War. We’ve wasted too much time, money and blood trying to “make up for” that disaster, especially in Iraq, only proving we’ve learned little and forgotten nothing in the intervening two score. I’d like to be optimistic about this, but honestly I’m not. Otto von Bismarck used to say that “God has a special providence for fools, drunks, and the United States of America,” and we can only hope and pray that his providence will be with us one more time.

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