Let's Not Do Something Stupid About the Russians

It’s supposed to be the time of year for joy and merriment, but I’ve seen a few things lately that bother me about the immediate course of the country. Most of those concern foreign policy, that necessary evil Americans aren’t very good at, even with all the years of travel and media coverage. (I think the media coverage is part of the problem, but I digress…)

What I specifically have in mind are the drumbeats of war about Vladimir Putin and the Russians. I’ve heard endless bawling about how he is the new Adolf Hitler and the Russian Federation the new Nazi Germany and, if we don’t “do something” about him, he’ll go on and conquer the world.  I’m sure that some Boomers, whose lives were dominated by the Cold War but who were too late to the party to end it, feel a tingle up their legs at the whole idea of reviving the ethic of that era.

It’s a lot of rubbish.

Back in 2008 I wrote a piece entitled Why I Wouldn’t Obsess Over the Russians. In that piece I noted the following:

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.

But I also noted this:

…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.

Or put more humorously:

 In the early 1970’s, when the Brezhnev era seemed most full of promise, an elderly Frenchman travelled from Moscow to Khabarovsk on the Trans-Siberian railway.  After only a few hours at the eastern end of the line he boarded the train again for the long journey back to Moscow.  The Frenchman watched life through the windows of the train, commenting on what he saw to his wife and anyone else who would listen.  The sights, as he saw them a second time, seemed even more fascinating and puzzling; and as the train passed yet another straggling town he took off his spectacles and addressed the carriage.  ‘There are only two words in the English language to describe this country.  One is mesee and the other is sloppee.’ (Mark Frankland, The sixth continent: Russia and the making of Mikhail Gorbachov, p. 46)

Russia is, to use their own expression, a very specific country, one which people in the West (to say nothing of Americans) have always found mystifying. The simple fact of the matter is that most of what we are seeing Putin doing is basically defensive posturing wrapped up in Russian nationalism. Putin is playing from a weak hand and he knows it; his adventures are nibbling about the edges and not swallowing up vast territories.  I think that Angela Merkel understands this but whether her counterparts in Washington do is another matter.

Rather than being another Hitler, Putin is an outsized Mussolini.  Russia is no Germany, never has been. (Neither, for that matter, are we, which is one reason why we don’t have a Hitler in the White House, either).

What dealing with Russia will take is patience and flexibility, understanding our real national interests rather than our hippie or Cold War dreams. We don’t need to do something stupid or impulsive we will regret later. That advice also applies to the Middle East, where endless calls for “boots on the ground” defy the lessons of recent history or that everyone there has many natural enemies who can prove useful.

We are paying a foreign policy establishment well; it’s time we got something for our investment other than one fiasco after another. Otherwise we will prove once again what most snobs know: that you can be a real American and a foreign policy expert, but you can’t be both.

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