A History Lesson: Russia/Ukraine

Professor William Polk offers a potted history of the Russian people in order to show the origins of the Russian fear of being encircled by perceived enemies. This is an interesting story, and we are indebted to Professor Polk for sharing it.

The professor, however, wishes to teach us as lesson about current policy thinking as well. He argues that one of the major themes of the modern era is how short sighted and ignorant policy making led to escalations of conflict, for example, in the cold war

At base was the conviction of each side that the aim of the other was its destruction. Each side furnished the other with ample reasons for this assessment, and neither made serious and sustained efforts to delve into the “mindset,” deep fears or legitimate concerns of the other.

Prof. Polk suggests that we not follow a similar path now

As we poise now on what appears to be the danger of a return to the dark days of the Cold War, the judgments of that time are being revived. In this paper, I have assumed that we well understand our own and have aimed to show those of the “other side.” I argue that we would be foolish simply to repeat to one another the clichés of the media. Perhaps the most urgent question before us both — the Western world and the Russian leaders — is whether or not we have matured and can bring intelligence, understanding and goodwill to guide our actions.

I do not take issue with Professor Polk’s historical account — though it does tend to gloss over the fact that Russia remains the last land based empire in Europe (and as such is an anachronism). But difficult questions do arise about the relevance of that historical account to current policy making with respect to Ukraine.

On the one hand, if current Russian policy makers are following historical precedent to resist encirclement, they pursue the agenda of an old fashioned expansionist power — a type of power that is inherently destabilizing in modern Europe. Understanding Russian expansionist urges does not make them disappear. Nor does it reduce their negative effects on European security.  The simple fact is that times have changed and Russia must change as well, whether the Kremlin likes it or not.

On the other hand, the good professor appears to assume that the policy decisions that have been made in the Kremlin are based on the above historical concerns. It is at least as likely that they were made for other reasons altogether. For example, the desire to prevent populist democracy from evolving in Ukraine. Why? Because it could easily spread to Russia and overthrow the powers that be in Moscow. In other words, the Kremlin may care nothing about history and everything about staying in power. If this is true, once again, understanding Russian history is not particularly helpful in coping with the rash decision making that led  to a violation of a basic principle of security in Europe. One, by the way, that Russia had agreed to.

My point — we do not and cannot know precisely what drives current thinking in the Kremlin. We do know what minimal standards are required for stability to be maintained in Europe. And if we value that stability, we must be prepared to stand up for our values.  Russian history, as interesting as it may be, does not help us maintain our resolve.

One last point. Much of the professor’s story is based on ancient thinking about who is the “enemy”.  After the cold war, considerable efforts were made by the west to change this rhetoric and befriend Russia. It was Mr. Putin who revived the rhetoric of enemies. And it is  Mr. Putin who has made it a central theme of his domestic political messaging. He opted out of friendship for whatever it is that we have now. Ignoring this very recent change for the purpose of maintaining “friendship” is an invitation for further abuse of friendship.

We might take this a step further. Mr. Putin is betting that his rhetoric about historical enemies will sell with the Russian people. So far, it has. But that rhetoric is messaging from the top down.  It  seeks to stoke nationalist feeling, rather than respond to a genuine swell of patriotic fervor over Ukraine. Consider, for example, that Russian military dead are brought home secretly. If Russian passions were so favorable to this military intervention, you would expect the dead to be brought home with full honors. Whether the Russian in the street will maintain his and her loyalty to Mr. Putin’s messaging as events unfold is far from clear. And it is as likely as not that the Russian in the street cares less for Mr. Putin’s version of history than a chance to live a decent life.

Why do I think so? Living near Russia, I meet Russians who come out of the country to vacation. These are not oligarchs, but middle class folks with family. When these people come, they are not full of rage or anger or fear. To the contrary, they have other things on their minds — like pursuing a good time. Admittedly, this is a very small sampling. But it is a real one. Perhaps the average Russian is less trapped by history than one imagines.

Summing up, there is quite a lot that we do not know at this point in time. But we do know one thing. There is no option but to face down the Kremlin’s expansionist gambit that we are witnessing in Ukraine.

Can Russia adapt to this? Well, consider that there was a time when US policy makers thought it reasonable and even necessary to invade and absorb Canada into the United States. Attempts were made more than once. The US failed each time and eventually it moved on. The US is no longer likely to pursue that idea anymore and it has not lost any national pride as a result of the change in policy.  These things do happen.

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