Russia readings

In the April issue of Reason, I examined the question: Whither Russia after Putin. (Or should that be “Russia after still under Putin”? That depends on what the meaning of “after” is.) Of course, I could not have imagined that the answer to this question would be: To war with Georgia and the triumph of Putinism, a triumph that has pushed the soft-spoken Medvedev to ape Putin-speak and refer to Georgia’s leadership as “morons” and “psychos”, and ratcheted up the level of brazen lies and propaganda in the official Russian media to Soviet-era high watermarks.

I hope to say more on the subject soon, but for now, I offer those of you who may have missed it my article in The Weekly Standard, Don’t Cry for Russia. It’s a response to arguments (see here, for instance) that Russia was driven to violence by ill-treatment from the West and the United States in particular.

As Russian tanks rumble through Georgia, and Western pundits talk of the “new Cold War,” one trope keeps reappearing in their discourse. Russia’s newly aggressive stance, we are told, is partly our fault: After the fall of Communism, the West went out of its way to humiliate and trample Russia instead of treating it as a partner–and now, an oil-powered Russia is striking back.

“Russia’s litany of indignities dates to the early 1990s when the Soviet empire collapsed,” Samantha Power, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and former Barack Obama adviser, wrote in Time. “A bipolar universe gave way to a world in which the ‘sole superpower’ boasted about how it had ‘won’ the Cold War. Russia was forced to swallow the news that NATO would grant membership to former client states in Eastern Europe, along with former Soviet republics.” This theme, particularly NATO expansion as an affront to Russia, has been echoed by many others, from Tom Friedman in the New York Times to Pat Buchanan in his syndicated column.

By contrast, few of the Russians who lament their country’s slide into belligerent authoritarianism under Vladimir Putin blame it on “humiliation” by the West. “Russia humiliated itself,” says human rights grande dame Elena Bonner, widow of the dissident and scientist Andrei Sakharov. “It spent 70-plus years building Communism, and reaped the results.”

Victor Davidoff, an independent Moscow journalist and former Soviet political prisoner who became a U.S. citizen but returned to Russia in 1992, told me in an email exchange that he was “nauseated” by talk of Russia’s humiliation. “How did the West humiliate Russia? Gave it money–much of which was pilfered? Sent humanitarian aid? Paid for the dismantling of missiles? Invested in Russian businesses? The Germans don’t consider the Marshall Plan a humiliation; why is aid to Russia humiliating?”

Davidoff’s mention of the Marshall Plan is fitting, since Samantha Power explicitly contrasts the West’s treatment of post-Cold War Russia with that of post-World War II Germany: “On occasion, Western countries have consciously avoided humiliating militant powers.  .  .  . Having neutered Germany following World War I, the Allies showed West Germany respect after World War II, investing heavily in its economy and absorbing the country into NATO.”

This is a breathtaking inversion of reality. If ever a defeated power was “humiliated,” it was postwar Germany–forced to endure several years of occupation, de-Nazification, a massive education campaign promoting the idea of collective German guilt for Nazi crimes, reparations to countries affected by the war, and loss of territories accompanied by the expulsion of millions of Germans. There was also the small matter of the country being split in half.

The contrast with the West’s treatment of post-Communist Russia is stark indeed. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States and Europe eagerly embraced Russia’s young democracy. Western economic aid to Russia totaled $55 billion from 1992 to 1997 (not counting private charity). While some aid was conditioned on the continuation of market-oriented economic reforms, none of it was tied to political demands for a formal condemnation of the Soviet legacy. Russia was not required to dump the Lenin mummy from the mausoleum in Moscow, to put former party apparatchiks or KGB goons on trial, or to restrict their ability to hold government posts and run for public office. Nor was it forced to pay reparations to victims of Soviet aggression, or surrender territories such as the Kuril Islands, seized from Japan after World War II.

What about the much-maligned NATO expansion? Friedman asserts that it was particularly galling to Russians since Russia itself was disinvited from joining NATO, sending a message that it was still seen as an adversary. Ira Straus, founder of the Committee on Eastern Europe and Russia in NATO, tells a more complex story in a paper for a 1997 George Washington University conference on Russia and NATO.

Russia first expressed cautious interest in NATO membership in 1991, when NATO was not prepared to admit any Eastern Bloc countries. By the time the admission of former Communist states was seriously considered, Boris Yeltsin’s administration was already backing away from its embrace of the West, mainly as a result of pressure from the neo-Communists and nationalists who scored victories in the 1993 and 1995 Duma elections. In 1995, pro-Western foreign minister Andrei Kozyrev was replaced by Evgeny Primakov, who, Straus writes, emphasized “multipolarism” and (foreshadowing the leitmotif of the Putin-era Russian political elite) criticized “American attempts at unipolar domination of the world through NATO.”

Initially, supporters of NATO expansion envisioned Russia’s eventual inclusion, and Yeltsin seemed receptive to the idea. But NATO enlargement soon became a bone of contention. Straus writes that in the mid-1990s, the United States often misinterpreted Russia’s opposition to the fast-track admission of smaller states into a Russia-less NATO as opposition to expansion per se. Russia in turn sent many conflicting signals. Above all, it was clearly unwilling to commit to a broad acceptance of NATO strategic policy, one of the main criteria for membership set in the organization’s 1995 “Study on NATO Enlargement.” This was a serious hurdle, since NATO operates by consensus, giving every member country a de facto veto over the alliance’s policies.

Samantha Power dismisses Russia’s inclusion in NATO’s 1994 “Partnership for Peace” as “largely symbolic.” Yet the partnership’s framework document not only provided for extensive military cooperation but gave each member guarantees that it would be consulted by NATO about any perceived threats to its security. Straus wrote, in 1997, that Russia “held back from full participation” in the Partnership “due to domestic pressures [and] to suspicions of NATO.” This was followed by the creation of the NATO-Russia Council in 2002. Its work included not only joint anti-terrorism efforts but programs that provided job training and other assistance to discharged military personnel in Russia.

Bonner believes that, far from treating Russia as an enemy out of habit, Western politicians and pundits have been too prone to “wishful thinking” in treating it as an ally in the war on terror. Says Bonner, “Russia wasn’t even treated as an equal partner but a favored child who was petted and given treats.”

One such treat was an invitation to join the G7 group of industrial democracies in 1998. Despite Russia’s dubious qualifications for membership in a club based on such criteria as economic performance, political stability, and low level of corruption, the group became the G8. In January 2006, after Putin had crushed his independent media and political opposition, Russia actually assumed chairmanship of the G8–just as its Freedom House ranking slipped from “partly free” to “not free.” (According to a December 2005 National Public Radio report, some eternal optimists hoped that giving Russia G8 leadership would encourage liberal tendencies.)

Much Western hand-wringing over Russia’s wounded pride seems to accept the premise that Russia is entitled to dominate its smaller neighbors and to have its ego coddled as no other former empire has had. Such entitlement is also deeply entrenched in the mindset of many Russians. “At least they used to be afraid of us” is a sentiment I heard repeatedly on my trips to Russia in the early 1990s. Another popular phrase in those days, “za derzhavu obidno,” can be roughly translated as “makes you feel bad for the country,” but really means much more: derzhava has overtones of “great power” and “autocratic state”; obidno conveys shame, hurt and resentment. With such a mentality, Putin’s bully rhetoric–”Russia can rise from its knees and sock it to you good and hard,” he remarked in 1999–found an eager audience.

The painful humiliation of Germany after World War II had one major positive aspect: The Nazi virus was purged from the nation’s system. Russia never truly confronted or rejected the evil of its Communist past. Yeltsin, to his credit, sought to do just that. He outlawed the Communist party (which successfully challenged the ban in court) and spoke of the Soviet Union as “the evil empire.” This changed under Putin, whose idea of resurgent Russian pride includes celebrating Soviet-era “accomplishments” while treating the crimes as deplorable, but fundamentally no worse than the blots on any other nation’s history.

The new Russia bristles at any effort to account for those crimes, be it Ukraine’s attempt to have the state-engineered famine of 1932-33 recognized as genocide by the United Nations or Estonia’s prosecution of veteran Communist Arnold Meri for his role in the deportation of Estonian “undesirables” in 1949. In July, the Russian foreign ministry issued a peevish protest against President Bush’s Captive Nations Week proclamation that mentioned “the evils of Soviet Communism and Nazi fascism,” decrying it as an attempt to “continue the Cold War.” “But how can it not continue,” asked Soviet-era dissident Alexander Podrabinek in an article on the EJ.ru website, “when those in charge of Russia’s foreign policy openly try to whitewash Communist ideology?”

National humiliation is not a thing to wish on anyone. But perhaps, after Russia’s 20th-century history, a few lessons in humility would have been useful–and well deserved.

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