A Reality Check on U.S.-Russian Relations: Not Time to Relax, but Not Time to Panic, Either
By Brian E. Frydenborg, February 26th, 2015 (updated February 27th-28th)
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One of the sad things about looking at current commentary about Russia, America, and the state of their relationship is the lack of measured and reasoned commentary. Make no mistake, though, the problems between Russia and America are serious and affect a whole host of major issues around the world from wars in Syria and Ukraine to global energy distribution, access, and prices, to space exploration and militarization, just to name a few.
Perhaps this is understandable, given the nature of the history of the most serious, dangerous rivalry the world has ever seen. Sparta and Athens, Greece and Persia, Rome and Carthage, England and Spain, England/Britain and France, Britain and France vs. Germany, Japan and China/Korea all pale in comparison in terms of the threat presented to world with the technology that enabled both the U.S. and Russia to be able to project nuclear destruction anywhere on earth and to the entire earth, especially when that technology was matched with red-hot ideological incompatibility and serious conflicts of interest all around the globe that often made the so-called Cold War burst into quite hot conventional proxy wars (and not always proxy even if this was unknown publicly at the time). The world came far too close to nuclear war and possibly the destruction of humanity because of this rivalry.
Thus, there is an understandable natural tendency for each to view the other as larger-than-life, inflated, and in hyperbolic and exaggerated terms. It has been remarked by more than a few that truth is among a conflict’s first casualties, but among rivals, you could add objectivity and a sense of proportion to that initial casualty list.
Among certain not uncommon elements in the U.S. and the West, especially among American Republicans, there is a tendency to speak of Russia and Putin today hyperbolically in the same breath as interwar Germany and Hitler, that somehow, Putin is a monster of a potential Hitleresque quality, if not in genocidal intent then in a global ambition to dominate. The word “appeasement” is thrown about as something to avoid when it comes to Russia. Putin is the greatest threat to the world order in decades, and, in this view, must be stopped.
Meanwhile, an incredibly common view in Russia and certainly among Putin’s ruling elite is that the U.S. is a global menace that is responsible for the rise of global terrorism and seeks to encircle and weaken Russia through imperialism while empowering Russia’s longtime enemies on Russia’s own borders. Everything can be explained by a U.S. government and (anti-Russian) mainstream media global conspiracy to bring about corporate imperialism not just to Russia, but the whole planet. It's about global domination, and Russia is under siege!
In truth, neither view captures the real policy aims and legitimate concerns and interests of either party.
The View from Russia
Russia’s actions, through a casual glance, may seem like those of a power hell-bent on wrecking the world system and bent on global domination. But this ignores much history, both from long ago and in recent decades. Russia, for one thing, has a deep insecurity and paranoia in its culture that goes deep into its history, beginning from when what is now Russia was devastated by Mongol invasions and domination. Russian history for the next 800 years is not a happy tale, with both some of the worst invasions suffered in the history of the world (Napoleon in 1812, German assaults in WWI and WWII) and some of the worst and most brutal rulers of any major state, from Ivan “the Terrible” to Stalin. Fear, then, is something that must be given its due in trying to understand the Russian psyche. While I would not say that Russians are truly afraid of the U.S., they do fear being weak and fear what that could mean, given their history. And the late 1980s and 1990s were a time when Russia was very weak, taken advantage of by Western missionaries of capitalism and fighting losing wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya. This was combined with Russia seeing its Soviet Empire collapse abroad while suffering crushing poverty and instability at home. A lack of security both at home and abroad, then, permeated the Russian mind in this period, and the Soviet system gave way to the Russian mafia, oligarchs, and anarchy.
It was into this chaos the Vladimir Putin waded, got his hands dirty, and stabilized Russia at home, though at the cost of moving firmly away from democratic norms. But for Russians, the rest of the world was another matter, and still a scary place and source of great anxiety. The worst terrorist attacks in the Western world (if you include Russia) over the last 15 years, excepting 9/11, all took place in Russia in spectacular fashion, from several 1999 bombings of apartment complexes (where there are actually some serious questions as to whether the Russian government staged them, and the war launched in response to them set the stage for Putin’s rise), to assaulting an opera house during a performance in 2002, to attacking a grade school full of children in 2004, in addition to other smaller attacks. Islamists from the Caucasus were the perpetrators of many of these attacks, and al-Qaeda had (and now even ISIS has) some connections to these people. Putin himself very much rose to power on prosecuting a war the Second Chechen War (1999-2009) there in response to terrorism, and brutally so. It should be no surprise, then, that Russia also sought to flex its muscle further south into the Caucasus in Georgia in 2008.
But, even with aggression in Ukraine, rather than see this as a nation hell-bent on world domination, we should see a wounded animal, carving out the territory covering the approaches to its cave, with the memory of much pain coming from the places against which it lashes out. Apart from Islamic terrorism coming up from the Caucuses, there are still some alive who remember the Nazi assault that very much came through the plains of Ukraine. It is not a mistake that Putin chose to highlight a real but tiny fringe neo-Nazi movement that forms a significant part of Svoboda, one small, far-right Ukrainian political party, when he was framing Russian involvement there. These are very real fears among Russians even if the threat—a Nazi Ukraine engaging in mass killing of its ethnic Russians or invading Russia—is not something that Russians should be concerned about as anything likely to happen anytime in the foreseeable future. The idea that a neo-Nazi fraction of a minor party or two in Ukraine (the larger of which only won its first seats in 2012 and lost almost all of those in October 2014 parliamentary elections) is somehow a justification for Russian support for rebels in an internal Ukrainian civil war or for annexing or invading sovereign Ukrainian territory is, simply put, flat-out ludicrous no matter how often and how strongly Putin and his machine of Russian-government-controlled/funded media outlets (most notably the very slick RT.com) choose to hype up their threat-level and make false claims that the West is ignoring these extremist elements. Still, it is important to note the emotional, very powerful themes going back to WWII—what Russians refer to as “The Great Patriotic War” and a war filled with nationalist, Soviet communist, and Nazi fascist overtones—that are still major motivators and influencers for Russian action today.
But there is a sizable minority of ethnic Russians in Ukraine in which the Kremlin has a legitimate interest, and we must also remember that the border is a very modern thing: it only dates to around end of WWI, a time when Russia was very weak, having suffered greatly during WWI and then in the middle of a revolution and a civil war (in which American Western forces intervened against the communist Bolsheviks). And when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, a Russian Bolshevik who had spent much of his early life in Ukraine and had risen through the ranks of Ukraine’s Communist Party apparatus, symbolically “gifted” the Crimea to Ukraine in 1954, this was at a time when Russia and Ukraine were inseparable and when this was going to be the situation as far forward as anyone could see at the time. This “gifting” of Crimea to Ukraine was done to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the joining of Ukraine and Russia, and a poster created for the occasion shows a Russian and a Ukrainian holding a single shield with the caption “Eternally Together” (see below). The gifting also symbolically fit into Khrushchev’s general “de-Stalinization” program. Historically, Russia had put a ton of resources and effort into developing the Crimea over the past few centuries, and the idea that this would be or today is part of an independent Ukraine is not only not something that did and does not sit well with Russians, but is something that did not have much historical weigh to back it up. The last time a Ukrainian state had control/influence over Crimea was about 800 years ago, but the Kievan Rus’ state lost control to Mongol invaders before it was itself destroyed by the same attackers. It is also important to note that there are well over twice as many ethnic Russians in Crimea as there are ethnic Ukrainians.