As I have been researching this topic more, I have begun to think that Russia’s intolerant views and nationalist problems are mostly the result of their own internal issues and their culture’s way of responding to them, and what the west is doing is a less significant factor. The actions of the west certainly should not be ignored – and think we should still try to avoid war with Russia and be non-hostile – but western actions do not seem to be a primary cause of Russia’s prevailing attitudes.
This isn’t to say that Russia is inherently bad though. The United States has many problems with intolerance and nationalism as well, despite us being the most powerful country on earth.
Robert M. Gates, former U.S. Secretary of Defense, has written an article regarding the recent developments in Crimea. In the piece, he speaks about Russian president Vladimir Putin, and the ideals and attitudes of the west as Mr. Gates sees them, as well as what he thinks our response should be to Putin’s actions.
The problem with what Mr. Gates says is that he fails to recognize the impact of western actions; has a vastly distorted view of even how the west acts; ignores the Russian perspective; and advocates for policies that only exacerbate the problem we’re trying to resolve.
Mr. Gates begins his article by pointing to the various accusations Putin has made against the west, and cites the now famous time Putin referred to the collapse of the Soviet Union as “worst geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.”
Gates then says that although Putin does not seem to desire to re-establish the Soviet Union itself, he does wish to bring the former Soviet republics back under Russian influence and dominance; and that Putin will attempt to do this opportunistically rather than through a grand scheme.
Now I think this much is true so far. But Mr. Gates article goes downhill into what could even be called a fantasy when he begins describing the differences between western leaders and Vladimir Putin:
[Putin] has a dramatically different worldview than the leaders of Europe and the U.S. He does not share Western leaders’ reverence for international law, the sanctity of borders, which Westerners’ believe should only be changed through negotiation, due process and rule of law. He has no concern for human and political rights. Above all, Mr. Putin clings to a zero-sum worldview. Contrary to the West’s belief in the importance of win-win relationships among nations, for Mr. Putin every transaction is win-lose; when one party benefits, the other must lose. For him, attaining, keeping and amassing power is the name of the game.
This list of alleged contrasts is utterly biased and demonstrably incorrect. The reality is that western leaders, intelligence, and militaries engage in all the same behaviors as our Russian counterparts.
Western leaders ignore laws, borders, and negotiation when they are seen as barriers to their goals, and they equally seem to view world poltiics as a zero-sum game and have no problem violating human rights or supporting dictators when it suits their aims. And to accuse another nation of being obsessed with “keeping and amassing power” is awfully hypocritical coming from a man defending the western ideology of the United States whose military spending equals that of the next top ten countries’ combined – and which has just been involved in two major invasions, plus continued operations in many more, and which has a history of military intervention and overthrowing democratically elected governments.
Unfortunately, Gates’ drastically rose-tinted view of western politics forms the basis of how he thinks we should deal with Russia.
So what are his proposed solutions to the tense ideological conflict between Russia and the west? He tells us,
NATO allies bordering Russia must be militarily strengthened and reinforced with alliance forces… Western investment in Russia should be curtailed; Russia should be expelled from the G-8 and other forums that offer respect and legitimacy; the U.S. defense budget should be restored to the level proposed in the Obama administration’s 2014 budget a year ago, and the Pentagon directed to cut overhead drastically, with saved dollars going to enhanced capabilities, such as additional Navy ships; U.S. military withdrawals from Europe should be halted; and the EU should be urged to grant associate agreements with Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine.
And after all that, he has the gall to say, “No one wants a new Cold War, much less a military confrontation.”
But almost everything he advocates is exactly what caused the problem in the first place, and it’s exactly what will drive us to war.
Sanctions, increased military armament in border states, isolating Russia economically and diplomatically – and all while maintaining a false sense of our own countries’ moral superiority and blindness to the hostility of our own actions – are not going to improve relations or make Russia divert from its current course.
In fact, it will have the opposite effect, because Russia will feel increasingly threatened, bullied, and powerless – and history shows us that this only provides fuel for nationalism, aggression, and conflict. Mr. Gates’ solution simply appears to be to do more of what caused the problem in the first place.
He wants to keep punishing Russia and treating it like an inherently evil beast that cannot be helped or changed; something to be chained up. But what good could possibly come from enforcing that scenario?
Gates’ desire to take this approach with Russia seems to partly stem from his misconception of Putin’s place in Russian politics. Gates writes:
We want Russia to be a partner, but that is now self-evidently not possible under Mr. Putin’s leadership.
He looks at Putin as if the Russian president unilaterally runs the entire country. The man has a lot of power for sure, but he is not Russia itself.
It is crucial to understand that Putin enjoys such enthusiastic support in his country because the Russian people feel disempowered and threatened. And it’s true that Putin drums up nationalism and anti-western sentiment, but the reason he is so successful is because there is genuine western aggression for him and his propagandists to build with. If the actual situation did not warrant Putin’s nationalist, aggressive attitude from the perspective of the Russian people, then his efforts would be met with more resistance.
Unfortunately we’ve helped feed this situation since the fall of the USSR and now we’re in a situation where we could end up fighting a major war. We should stop the posturing, arms buildups, missile sites, sanctions, and NATO expansion. And regarding the Crimean incident specifically, there were several radical right-wing anti-Russian groups driving violence in the protests in Ukraine which had, and continue to have, U.S. support. The nationalist protests were intense enough to drive out the president, and Russia risked losing its Black Sea naval bases in Crimea to a U.S.-backed anti-Russian government. If we were in their place our leaders likely would have done something similar.
My point is that as long as we look like the aggressor, the Russian people will support Putin as a national hero. Until Putin looks like the aggressor in their eyes, they won’t turn on him and enthusiasm for nationalism and expansionism in the country will not change.
In my view, if Russians weren’t feeling as threatened by the U.S. and Europe, then nationalism wouldn’t be as prevalent and Putin’s aggressive attitudes, militarism, and disturbing groups like Nashi wouldn’t be as widely supported.
It’s true that such things would still exist, as they do in any country, and especially since many Russians still feel frustrated at their poor economic and military situation resulting from the fall of of the USSR. But I think these problems would spread to a lesser degree and the situation in Russia would be moving in a better direction, not a worse one.
But Gates’ ideas will not move the situation in that better direction. He inadvertently seeks to feed the problem he’s trying to contain, as evidenced by his flawed logic in this paragraph (emphasis mine):
The only way to counter Mr. Putin’s aspirations on Russia’s periphery is for the West also to play a strategic long game. That means to take actions that unambiguously demonstrate to Russians that his worldview and goals—and his means of achieving them—over time will dramatically weaken and isolate Russia.
But this is a terrible idea that that will not work. Try to look at this strategy from the point of view of the Russian people. They will only see the west causing their problems and they will see Putin as the man standing up for them.
In a recent opinion piece for Al-Jazeera, Rebecca Adler-Nissen notes that “isolation and shaming may boost national pride and a country’s sense of cohesion, inadvertently helping support the regime in power.” Russians will see us as the ones directly inflicting damage to their country’s well-being, not Putin.
She argues that before trying punish a country, we need to understand that country’s perspective on their own situation, otherwise our actions can have the opposite effect we hope for. If we don’t, those countries will just redirect blame and animosity. As Ms. Adler-Nissen put it: “States may be politically shunned and materially deprived, and their populations suffer, but their governments experience ideological victories through counterstigmatization.”
Gates concludes his piece with a quote that is terribly ironic given all his comments up to this point:
As President Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “Government includes the act of formulating a policy” and “persuading, leading, sacrificing, teaching always, because the greatest duty of a statesman is to educate.”
This quote is a strange one to reference, because it is antithesis to everything he argued for in his article. Instead of teaching, he supports bias, misunderstanding, and confrontational attitudes.
Understand however, that I am not advocating for letting Putin do whatever he wants. If Putin makes an unambiguously aggressive incursion into a country whose majority does not want him there, then we should meet it with a sudden and severe military defense – one which is sufficient to repel the invasion and no more.
My position is that we must end the concept of trying to slowly strangle Russia during times of peace. And we should not rush to fight over their actions, such as in Crimea, where Russia is viewed quite favorably, the events were almost entirely bloodless, and their actions would be viewed as understandable or even necessary if we were in their place. Nor should we support radical groups like Svoboda and Right Sector that we would not want established against us either.
I believe we should end Cold War style policies and instead abide by a doctrine that considers the perspectives and situations of other countries, because I think this is the best way to achieve better relations with Russia, weaken Putin himself, and achieve a more peaceful world in general.