Getting Russia Wrong

July 23, 2015
Picture by Maxim Marmur

Despite decades, if not centuries, of experience with Russia, Western governments and political movements continue to get Russia wrong with surprising regularity. In an interview with Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, President Obama registered his surprise that Russia stood with the 5+1 process to obtain the recently signed deal on Iran’s nuclear program. However, the overwhelming majority of expert analyses on Russian policies with Iran showed that this was the logical expectation of what Russian policy would be. While we cannot reasonably expect a president to be a Russia expert; we can expect that his staff and some members of the huge national security bureaucracy will possess that expertise and forward their assessments up the ladder. Obama’s surprise suggests several possible alternatives, none of them good. Either his analysts are not up to date or up to snuff on this issue or the bureaucracy — top policymakers and staffers — are suppressing or distorting this data or simply dismissing it as not harmonizing with their own (often misguided) preconceptions or goals. And all this occurs at the same time as the Administration complains that it cannot find good analyses on Russia. Therefore we should not be astonished that all too often bad policy is the result.

To paraphrase a famous movie line, what we have here is a failure to understand, let alone communicate. Hence it is no surprise that US policy is constantly surprised, that the defense policy is to cut spending while Russia continues to attack in Ukraine and annex territories in Georgia, and that this is occurring even as we push Europe to spend more on defense.

Nor is it any surprise that key policymakers often show an abysmal ignorance or lack of concern for Russian policy. Despite the fact that Russia conducts global probes against the US — from the Arctic to Latin America and Southeast Asia — Obama and his team routinely dismiss it as a failing regional power. Even if that might be true (certainly in comparison to China), it nonetheless dismisses and ignores whole areas of Russian foreign policy. Thus the Administration seems to be totally unconcerned about Russian efforts to destabilize Latin America even though we now know that Putin promised support to Hugo Chavez in 2008 if the Venezuelan dictator started a war against Colombia — a US ally. Thus Moscow was trying to organize an anti-US alliance in Latin America, something it is still striving to accomplish. Ultimately, and ironically, Moscow is right when it complains that this Administration does not take Russia seriously enough, even if our understanding of what that actually means contradicts Russia’s argument, since it is clear that the Administration does not take Russia and its threats to international security with the requisite seriousness.

The deliberate suggestions coming out of the White House that praise the role Russia played in the Iran negotiations clearly look like an attempt to set up some sort of deal on Ukraine. Such a deal ignores the fact that Russia is continuing its invasion of the Donbass, and for that matter of Georgia, each of which represent a more immediate and greater threat to international security than Iran ever did. After all, the willful invasion of another state is something not even Iran has done, yet Russia has now done it at least twice and has not paid a sufficient price for doing so. Thus, once again, failure to grasp Russia invariably leads to bad policy decisions.

Neither is this ignorance confined to Washington. France has now twice, and Germany once, signed agreements with Moscow that allow Putin to amputate the sovereignty and integrity of neighboring states with impunity while demanding that the victim in effect surrender territory to Moscow. The analogy to the 1930s should be obvious to all. The recent demands by French President Hollande and German Chancellor Merkel, as well as the Obama administration, that Ukraine observe the Minsk II accord which Moscow broke even before the ink was dry, essentially represent a call for Kiev to sign a suicide pact regarding its integrity and sovereignty over the Donbass without holding Russia or the EU to any account.

This is a sad commentary on the heirs of Richelieu, De Gaulle, Bismarck, and Adenauer. But this demand also highlights the utter ignorance and tendencies of the West towards appeasement. Spokesmen for the Social Democratic Party of Germany scramble to get their colleagues to favor “dialogue “ with Russia over European and Eurasian security, and they even state that we have to recognize Russia’s great power interests as if there were no capable diplomats in Moscow who could assert those interests themselves. Such preemptive surrender enables German businessmen to make deals betokens a desire to surrender smaller states and nationalities to Russia. Clearly few if any of these would-be statesmen grasp the state-building dynamics of Russian history, which are in essence empire-building dynamics at the expense of the ethnic-religious groups at Russia’s borders, and Moscow’s steadfast desire to deny these countries sovereignty and territorial integrity.

The true history and complexities of the interaction between Russia’s historic “national question” and the imperial mentality at the core of the Russian state’s history go unexamined or are simply disregarded, as is the impact of thee dynamics upon European security.

In these Western responses to Moscow’s new found calls for dialogue — made in order to help extricate Putin from the cul de sac his own policies have led to — we see a willingness to sacrifice other peoples’ for the sake of Europe’s tranquility, without any regard for the consequences. Just as Maxim Litvinov told US correspondent Richard C. Hottelet in 1946 that yielding to Soviet demands would only generate new ones, so too yielding here to Putin’s calls for dialogue will only engender fresh demands from to destroy Ukraine’s sovereignty and integrity and further destabilize Europe. The understanding of the dynamics of Russian foreign policy and what used to be called the “national question” are not easily understood, but when governments willfully disregard the careful analysis of experts with long experience in the field in pursuit of some will-of-the-wisp of appeasement, in the guise of dialogue or cooperation with a state that is itself a state sponsor of terrorism as well as an unregenerate imperialist, can we be surprised that the international order is unraveling right before our eyes?