The Self-Inflicted Myth of Omnipotent Russia

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One of many examples of the Russian/Soviet octopus in art, its tentacles implying a dominion it possesses anything but.

If you haven’t yet had a chance to read Keith Gessen’s terrific article on the “Russia hands” of the US foreign policy establishment, do yourself a favor and switch over to it right now.

The abiding mystery of American policy toward Russia over the past 25 years can be put this way: Each administration has come into office with a stated commitment to improving relations with its former Cold War adversary, and each has failed in remarkably similar ways. The Bill Clinton years ended with a near-catastrophic standoff over Kosovo, the George W. Bush years with the Russian bombing of Georgia and the Obama years with the Russian annexation of Crimea and the hacking operation to influence the American election.

Some Russia observers argue that this pattern of failure is a result of Russian intransigence and revisionism. But others believe that the intransigent and unchanging one in the relationship is the United States — that the country has never gotten past the idea that it “won” the Cold War and therefore needs to spread, at all costs, the American way of life.

Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has done a very poor job of extending anything like a hand to a fallen opponent. For all the hopeful talk of “a Marshall Plan for Russia,” all that the West seemed to offer the former Soviet Union was a path to privatization, deprivation, and the extreme enrichment of a few oligarchs, while at the same time picking off what was once considered the periphery of a millennia-old empire.

Unlike with other countries – say, China, which presents probably the most extensive security challenge to the west in the next few decades – there is a lack of nuanced discussion, or indeed even debate at all. In most quarters, Russia is an omnipotent boogeyman, “the bear awakened,” America’s arch-nemesis with whom no cooperation is possible. Even the mere suggestion that Russia and the United States might enjoy a shared interest or two is met with incredulity if not outright hostility.

Gessen does a fantastic job of comprehensively mapping the “breadth” of thought on Russia throughout the American national security apparatus, and it’s worth quoting extensively:

As in other foreign-policy sectors, the Russia hands divide less along party lines than along foreign-policy philosophies: They are either “realists” or “internationalists.” Realists tend to be cautious about American overseas commitments and deferential toward state sovereignty; internationalists tend to be more inclined to universalist ideals like democracy and human rights, even where these are forced to cross borders. But the two supposed categories are blurred by a thousand factors, not least of which being that realists don’t like being called realists, because it suggests that they have no values, and internationalists don’t like to be called internationalists, as opposed to realists, because it suggests that they have no common sense. In the end, a vast internationalist middle, consisting of neoconservative Republicans and interventionist Democrats, predominates, with tiny slices of hard realists on the right and soft realists, or “neorealists,” on the left. And there are many shades of difference among all these people.

The longtime Russia hand Stephen Sestanovich, a veteran of the Reagan and Clinton administrations, says there are two kinds of Russia hands — those who came to Russia through political science and those who came to it through literature. The literature hands, he suggests, sometimes let their emotions get the best of them, while the political-science hands, like Sestanovich, are more cool and collected. Fried, who served in every administration from Carter to Obama, also thinks there are two kinds of Russia hands, though he draws a different dividing line: There are those, like himself, who “put Russia in context, held up against the light of outside standards and consequences.” These people tend to be tough on Russia. And then there are those “who take Russia on its own terms, attractive and wonderful but subject to romanticization.” These people tend to give Russia what Fried would consider a pass.

Then there are those, like Michael Kofman, a young Kiev-born military analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses in Arlington, Va., who say that there only appear to be two kinds of Russia hands. “There are the nice missionaries who knock on your door and say, ‘Hey, have you heard the good news about democracy, freedom and liberalism?’ And then there are the crusaders who are trying to claim the heathen Eastern European lands for democracy and freedom. But they’re basically the same person; they’re two sides of the same coin.”

There are two kinds of Russia hands, or maybe there are six kinds of Russia hands, or maybe there is an infinite variety of Russia hands. And yet the mystery is this: After all the many different Russia hands who have served in the United States government, the country’s relations with Russia are as they have always been — bad.

And that, as Gessen goes onto say, is part of the reason US foreign policy has become so irrational and unhinged when it comes to relations with Russia – the vast majority of “Russia hands” in the establishment are hardliners who, despite a reasonably good understanding of the history and culture of Russia, insist on a broad nefariousness that makes it difficult to establish a productive working relationship. This naturally leads to a rather cloistered view of the possible, and the appropriate.

A selection of suggested alternative bear analogies.

Outside of the lone voices like Kofman and Kimmage and Charap, (and a Bartles) most within the defense and security establishment have a conception of Russia oriented solely around Moscow’s hard power capabilities and its attitude towards the United States (as opposed to any other part of the world). Some of the most valuable analysis on contemporary Russia comes from Mark Galeotti, a British academic whose primary focus is Russian organized crime, but also for whom this is a valuable lens with which to examine the country as a whole. This kind of policy tunnel vision is disastrous for any country, and doubly so for one like the United States, which devotes so many resources to the outcomes of these debates.

But to return to Sestanovich’s formulation – e.g., the cultural versus the political – I was reminded of this duality in Rachel Wiseman’s recent contribution on Joseph Brodsky and “uselessness” to The Point‘s debate on intellectualism (ironically, Wiseman in turn goes on to cite none other than Gessen himself on Brodsky, and challenges his interpretation of the latter’s poetry as mere “aesthetics instead of ethics,” rather than “aesthetics as ethics”):

When I first discovered Brodsky I was stumbling my way into a Russian major, starting with a freshman language class where we memorized lines of Pushkin before we knew how to count to ten. I signed up for more classes in the department, one after another, even though I had no idea what I could do with a B.A. in Russian besides maybe going into academia or the CIA. I was drawn, as if by the gravity of a foreign object, to the lives and works of Russian writers—Gogol, Tolstoy, Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Platonov, Brodsky.

So it was for me: tales of Rurik, Novgorod, and 862, along with Chekhov and a brief overview of Cyrillic, turned into a lifelong interest with Russia (and my own dabbling in the language early on in college). And I think that that’s where part of the disconnect lies – between those who first came to Russia as a cultural-historical entity encompassing a tremendous range of literature, music, and other arts, versus those who approached it first and foremost as a political actor on the world stage locked in an ideological conflict with the United States.

I’m not saying that the Russia hawks need more Dostoevsky in their lives, but rather that it makes sense to evaluate Russia somewhere in between a completely detached relative morality and Daniel Fried’s holding them “up against the light of outside standards and consequences.” Much like the evolving historiographical approach to the American Civil War (I’m reminded here of some of Barbara Fields’ remarks in the Ken Burns documentary), in which you can evaluate morality by modern standards and actions by contextual ones. If we focus solely on the righteousness (or otherwise) of Russia’s actions, we lose the ability to understand from where they originate.

In other words, without empathy, we needlessly restrict our options.

It isn’t necessary to support Russian decisions and policies, but without a firm grasp on their origin – be it the historical quest for peripheral security, the pursuit of a unified identity, a struggle to modernize and be accepted as equal – it will be impossible to find satisfactory diplomatic outcomes. And should that continue to prove the case, should the two come to blows, the consequences are unimaginably dire. Even at the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the United States managed to negotiate multiple arms control treaties, the Outer Space Treaty, bans on entire weapons systems and classes of weapons systems, inspection regimes that left both vulnerable to the other.

The prospects for such seem remote today: a New START follow-on would be dead on arrival and legislators seriously discuss withdrawing from the INF Treaty, which would leave Open Skies as the sole international agreement allowing direct observation of the other party. Cooperative Threat Reduction is dead and gone, counterterror partnerships lie fallow, even climate change is (for obvious and deeply stupid reasons) a non-starter. But this, in a way, is exactly what the Russia hands have always wanted. Unbridled opposition and hostility makes their expertise necessary. An “angry bear” is a foe that they can speak to. But if the only Russia we can conceive of is one with whom we can’t treat, then that’s exactly what we’ll get. And that bodes ill for everyone.

Nuclear “Decadence”

You know, sometimes I really admire Al Jazeera’s reporting. And other times to call out certain articles reminds me too much of picking on a small kid in gym class or the merciless vigilantism against Judith Griggs of “but honestly, Monica” fame.  But honestly, readers, this article that’s three months old – “Nuclear weapons as instruments of peace: The support for nuclear weapons found among top scholars in the field is a warning sign of American cultural decadence” – has been in the limited queue of AB for a while, and it’s an itch that I feel like scratching.

The meat of UN Special Rapporteur Richard Falk’s argument is:

What shocked me about the panel was not its claim that violence was declining and war was on the brink of disappearing, but the unqualified endorsement of nuclear weapons as deserving credit for keeping the peace during Cold War and beyond. Nuclear weapons were portrayed as if they were positive contributors to establish a peaceful and just world, provided that they do not fall into unwanted hands (which means “adversaries of the West”, or more colourfully phrased by George W Bush as “the axis of evil”) as a result of proliferation.

He refers to nonproliferation as a “ploy” (vice a full commitment to disarmament) and suggests that scholars are “captivated” and have “succumbed to the demons of nuclearism.” I mean, yeesh, what do you expect from al Jazeera, but still.

I was told once by a vice commander of a US nuclear base that “we use nuclear weapons every day.” And in fact, the current mode of their employment is in fact the way that we should hope to always use them: passively. They sit, they wait, but they never launch because they don’t have to. Obviously nuclear weapons have proven of limited use when it comes to conventional conflict (though note that there have been few truly interstate wars since Korea, and only a single one in the short twenty-first century: the Russo-Georgian War in 2008), but their very existence is an argument against using them.

Yes, let’s reduce numbers; yes, let’s try to prevent nations from developing or obtaining nuclear weapons; and yes, let’s eventually get rid of them worldwide. But don’t tell me that in the world we live in nuclear weapons don’t serve a stabilizing purpose.