In light of the increasing tensions between the U.S. and Russia, and the recent round of negotiations between the two powers over Ukraine, I thought it might be appropriate to publish a revised version of an essay on U.S. Russian relations posted on this website during April of last year. The earlier version mistakenly listed Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic as former Soviet Republics–they were not. I apologize for this error. These states were Soviet satellite states, each belonging to the Warsaw Pact–the former Soviet defense alliance. There are other minor revisions, and the introduction of two additional ideas towards the end of the essay.
But let’s be clear, I am not an expert on Russia. You and I do not have access to intelligence materials so we only get part of the story. I do believe, however, on some topics, we enter these debates with unchangeable biases and beliefs, and then build our arguments around these beliefs. Consequently, the information we gather may have little to no impact on our beliefs, as least for the ideolouges amongst us.
I am a pacifist; I can think of few scenarios which justify war. That’s not to say my humanity might not get the best of me during a time of crisis, but even during an extreme circumstance, if engaged in an act of war, whatever the rationale, I would feel this engagement had violated a deep moral principle. So, no matter whether I’ve gathered partial information or more information, I would likely still argue against war. Based on that qualification, let’s continue with my biased, layperson’s view.
Tensions continue to escalate between Russia and the West over the build-up of Russian troops along the Ukrainian border. Tough guy politics generally gets involved when it comes to Russia so it is important to keep the Russian perspective in mind. Russia has been pushed around by the West since the Soviet Union’s dissolution in December of 1991. At that time, its state dominated command economy was collapsing and there began a movement towards a free market capitalist system, first gradually during the late 1980’s under the Soviet leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev, then very rapidly under Russia’s first democratically elected president Boris Yeltsin during the 1990’s.
During the 1990’s Russian economic collapse, the western nations offered aid to Russia, largely through the G7–a group of advanced industrialized nations–and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), contingent on Russia’s dismantling of its state dominated economy. The transformation from the old to the new system was highly controversial within Russia, with President Boris Yeltsin pushing for reform while Russia’s parliamentary body, which consisted largely of communist and ultranationalists, resisted the rapid transformation. This deeply divided the Nation.
It would be hard to overestimate the hardship this transformation imposed on the Russian people. Widespread homelessness, child and adult prostitution, increased rates of alcoholism, decreased life expectancy, all accompanied the transformation to the western style economic model. From 1991-1998, during the western aided transformation, Russia’s GDP, by some estimates, fell 40%. During the 1996 presidential election, the G7 and the IMF pumped billions of dollars into the Russian economy in order to salvage a Yeltsin victory from a stiff challenge by a communist opponent: election interference by any measure of the phrase.
The transformation left deep scars on the Russian people and depending on one’s view of the transformation, generated resentment against the West. Many among the older generation, the intelligentsia, and workers, longed for a return to Soviet times. Conspiracy theories exist which suggest the West deliberately undermined the Russian state. It is, of course, possible that Russia would have suffered equal economic hardship had Russia persisted on its state dominated path, but this matters little as the people were suffering and they attributed their suffering to free market reforms.
President Putin was elected president during 2000 based largely on the public’s belief that Putin would bring order out of the chaos that enveloped Russia during the 1990’s. A poll around that time found that 80% of the Russian people believed that bringing order back to Russian society was the most important thing a future President should do: thus, Russia’s current hybrid authoritarian democratic model. The U.S. condemns Putin’s trend towards authoritarianism, but little such condemnation existed in 1993 when U.S. President Bill Clinton supported the free market oriented Yeltsin’s unconstitutional dissolution of the generally anti-capitalist Russian parliament.
During West-East negotiations over the reunification of Germany during 1990, Russian concerns about NATO expansion eastward towards the Russian border were allayed when high level U.S. and European officials likely assured the Russians that NATO would not expand “one inch eastward” towards the Russian border. There is some controversy over that view, with a split in the academic community as to whether such assurances were actually made. Based on my readings, however, it appears the split strongly favors the view that informal assurances were given to the Soviet negotiators over NATO expansion. Russians are unified in their belief that such assurances were granted by western leaders.
Since that time, NATO has expanded eastward towards the Russian border to include 14 additional nations–most of which were former Soviet Republics or satellite states, and most of which were also members of the Warsaw Pact. Three of these additional NATO members–the former Soviet Republic Baltic states which include Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, lie directly on a Russian border. NATO and western politicians have repeatedly expressed a willingness to add both Georgia and Ukraine to the western alliance–both of which also lie on the Russian border and are viewed by Russia as important buffer states against western aggression. Ukraine in particular has deep historical connections with the Russian Nation. Russians are generally united in their belief that NATO expansion to its borders is threatening and in breach of western promises to not expand “one inch eastward” towards its border. One can only imagine the U.S. reaction if Russia were to form a defense alliance with either Canada or Mexico.
Russia’s 2014 forceful occupation and subsequent annexation of the Ukrainian Crimean peninsula, a mostly Russian speaking territory which was transferred to Ukraine from Russia during 1954 under former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, was approved by a vote of the Crimean people. The annexation should be seen as an effort to protect both the Russian border, as well as the Russian Black Sea fleet partially housed on the Crimean peninsula. NATO encroachment in this area, if Ukraine were to be added to the western alliance, would be particularly threatening to the Russian Nation. Further, both Ukraine and Georgia have experienced western friendly coups, both with some level of U.S. support.
More recently, in response to continued tensions between Ukraine and Russia, the U.S. and the U.K. have floated warships into the Black Sea which would be the equivalent of Russian warships sailing into the Gulf of Mexico.
The former great power undoubtedly feels threatened and humiliated by the above turn of events. Russia views itself as a world power which has been undermined by the western neoliberal economic order. Russian bashing among U.S. politicians generally works well across the full political spectrum, although somewhat less so among conservatives since Trump; and the U.S. libertarian movement generally opposes international entanglement and war.
The Russians undoubtedly are trying to protect their borders. The annexation of Crimea, their activity in the Donbas region in the Eastern part of the Ukraine, the five day 2008 war in Georgia, and the helping hand it has recently extended to Kazakhstan via the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a collection of six former Soviet states which includes Kazakhstan, are all efforts to protect its borders, create stable trading relationships, and to wield influence.
Also, it should be understood, there is a messianic tradition within Russian thought. Russia sees itself as a force for good against the decadent west which has sacrificed its spirituality for the pursuit of excessive material ambitions. Russia’s own relatively less developed material foundation is part and parcel of the Christ role which Russia, if it is to fulfill its role as the savior of the world, must bear. Undoubtedly, this grants Russia a moral foundation for its activities in the international realm, much like the concept which Manifest Destiny plays in the support of U.S. interventions abroad. In other words, Russians feel morally justified in their actions and in my view, when people feel morally justified, they will act, suffer consequences, and generally engage in behavior which may seem irrational to others.
I don’t want to leave the impression that this messianic tradition dominates Russian thought. Russia has attempted in recent decades to eliminate ideology as a basis for action and to replace it with more pragmatic considerations. The messianic tradition, however, is there, and likely provides a partial explanation for Russian behavior. Russia is not the “evil empire”, quite the contrary, Russia views itself as the savior of humanity.
There is no effort here to suggest Russia is holier than its western counterparts. Hierarchy is hierarchy and it knows no other way than domination and submission. If the tables were turned, the Russians might act in a manner similar to that of the U.S. and NATO. This, assuredly, is the view of the hierarchical actors who play this nonsensical game. Just as assuredly, however, there are people in Russia, as in the U.S., who desire peace. It is hard for the peacemakers to rise to power when there is so much turmoil in the world. To even speak of peace is viewed as naive. If, in the U.S, a significant peace movement were to evolve, this would allow room for the Russians to do the same–international public relations would require tolerance by the Russian state. If not, we are doomed to “solutions” by war. There seems to be no shortage of those who belong to the war movement.
To protest the U.S. movement towards war is not an unpatriotic act. It is, perhaps, the highest act of patriotism. Young people, who often join the military in an effort to fulfill a deep sense of idealism, should not be subject to the loss of life and limb in order to fulfill the political and ideological ambitions of a cynical ruling elite. To love one’s nation is to embrace the potential of its youth, not to sacrifice its youth to the gods of material and political ambitions. It is time for the insanity to end.