Losing our illusions about Russia

posted at 2:01 pm on March 23, 2014 by Jazz Shaw

The other night, one of the classic movie channels on cable was rerunning Fail Safe, the iconic 1964 Henry Fonda film which gave a generation of children nightmares for years on end. It may be the stuff of legend for younger observers in the 21st century, but for those of us with a sufficient collection of gray hairs, that was the world we grew up in. Everything changed with the fall of the Soviet Union, but that history was never truly erased.

Ross Douthat has an interesting column this weekend which deals with some of the lingering misconceptions we in the West hold near and dear when it comes to the remnants of the USSR. In it, he argues that many of us seem to have divided into a pair of opposing camps on the subject of Russia, each with opposing perceptions of the current state of affairs and each equally wrong. These two visions are fairly neatly summed up here:

The first was the conceit that with the right incentives, eyes-to-soul presidential connections and diplomatic reset buttons, Russia could become what we think of, in our cheerfully solipsistic way, as a “normal country” — at peace with the basic architecture of an American-led world order, invested in international norms and institutions, content with its borders and focused primarily on its G.D.P. Not the old Russian bear, and not an “Upper Volta with rockets” basket case, but a stable, solid-enough global citizen — Poland with an Asian hinterland, Italy with nukes.

The second illusion was the idea that with the Cold War over, we could treat Russia’s near abroad as a Western sphere of influence in the making — with NATO expanding ever eastward, traditional Russian satellites swinging into our orbit, and Moscow isolated or acquiescent. As went the Baltic States, in this theory, so eventually would go Ukraine and Georgia, until everything west and south of Russia was one military alliance, and its western neighbors were all folded into the European Union as well.

The recent events unfolding in Ukraine, the Crimean Peninsula, and potentially even Estonia, should be awakening us all to a rather depressing fact. Neither the illusion of Russia as a happy fellow traveler on the road of Western ideals nor the picture of the former Soviet Bear as a toothless buffoon, easily cowed and contained, are holding up well in the face of reality. The West, it seems, widely mistook humility from economic collapse for a sign of nascent Russian enlightenment. But even recognizing these errors after the fact, it’s equally obvious that there aren’t any quick, easy or logistically manageable solutions at hand. This has, in large part, to do with the unique ability of Vladimir Putin to build himself into legendary status – with the help of others both at home and abroad – while not holding the cards needed to run the table. Putin is aided in this effort by a lack of opponents who show any interest in calling him on what is only partially a bluff.

Meanwhile, in the Motherland, there are likely a great number of older Russians – now in more senior roles around the country – who still remember their glory days. I doubt they want to return to tension-filled nuclear standoffs, but they also recall when their nation was looked upon as one of two ruling powers on the planet. There has likely been some resentment at seeing their homeland treated like a joke in the international media since Reagan led the way to breaking up their empire.

Some of President Obama’s critics – among whom I count myself – frequently choose to portray Vladimir Putin as a massive figure, striding the world stage shirtless and unafraid in the face of perceived weakness among his enemies. We often contrast this with an American President who seems to lend himself to depictions involving mom jeans and a dorkish grin, drawing red lines which carry little threat beyond strongly worded letters and exhortations to allies which go largely ignored. But the reality is that Russia lacks the resources and the allies to go on an all out march to forcibly rebuild their former empire. Putin suffers from the same weakness of the national flesh as Kim Jong-un and a legion of petty tyrants who came before him. His muscular jab has a short reach, as observers of the sweet science like to say, and it is only effective when the opponent has a glass jaw. Yet he maintain the weaponry and local muscle to make a direct military confrontation with him a disastrous proposal.

But this situation won’t last forever. With the right leadership, the West can still win a long game, but it would require a combination of economic pressure and international diplomatic unity which still leaves Russia a way to back down while saving face. The only power base with the standing to pull this off remains the United States, assuming we can summon the skill to achieve it. There is still far more of Muhammed Ali than Buster Douglas in the spirit of the American people. This showdown, should Russia choose to pursue the path, will last far longer than the administration of Barack Obama, and Vladimir may want to watch Rocky IV a few times before considering his next moves.


Related Posts:

Breaking on Hot Air

Blowback

Note from Hot Air management: This section is for comments from Hot Air's community of registered readers. Please don't assume that Hot Air management agrees with or otherwise endorses any particular comment just because we let it stand. A reminder: Anyone who fails to comply with our terms of use may lose their posting privilege.

Trackbacks/Pings

Trackback URL

Comments

Comment pages: 1 2

There is your proof. It is certainly enough to get a conviction in court if the issue were “is obama a muslim?”

GaltBlvnAtty on March 23, 2014 at 7:39 PM

He was also listed as a Muslim on his school record in Indonesia.

sharrukin on March 23, 2014 at 7:42 PM

I’m betting that Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland are going to move a lot closer to the United States as a result. They are going to want our troops on their soil as a tripwire.

I am betting that they start making accommodations with Russia as NATO slowly comes apart.

I’d take that bet…you have no clue about history if you think that will happen.

ironmarshal on March 23, 2014 at 7:46 PM

The essence of liberalism (the puppet side-not the puppet masters pulling the strings)is sheer emotion, which like little children believe that if you just do good to bad people they will turn into good people.
Ron Reagan never fell for that useful idiot simplicity and correctly called Russia “the Evil Empire”.
Heck even our leftists’ hero Gorbachov is hailing the Putin led rise of the Russian commie bear again, reminding us of just how dangerously stupid liberals really are.

Don L on March 23, 2014 at 7:51 PM

The essence of liberalism (the puppet side-not the puppet masters pulling the strings)is sheer emotion, which like little children believe that if you just do good to bad people they will turn into good people.
Ron Reagan never fell for that useful idiot simplicity and correctly called Russia “the Evil Empire”.
Heck even our leftists’ hero Gorbachov is hailing the Putin led rise of the Russian commie bear again, reminding us of just how dangerously stupid liberals really are.

Don L on March 23, 2014 at 7:51 PM

Sadly, there’s no shortage of Putin-worshipping dupes on the right either. Go read the comments on Free Republic and you’ll see them, in all their pig-ignorant, historically-noncontextual glory, dutifully parroting the crap they read on Kremlin propaganda organ Russia Today and insisting that Putin is the One True Defender of Christendom, bravely standing up to The Gay Agenda, and that Ukrainians are all Nazis. Never mind the fact that he’s arming leftist thugs like Maduro in South America and supporting the Mahdist nutjobs in Iran in their quest for nukes, he’s a good guy because he passed a law that places prior restraints on certain speech by homosexuals, they insist.

Walter Sobchak on March 23, 2014 at 8:30 PM

Some never had illusions about Russia. The Soviets never went away; they merely rebranded themselves to appear more acceptable to the West.

Philly on March 23, 2014 at 8:59 PM

Some never had illusions about Russia. The Soviets never went away; they merely rebranded themselves to appear more acceptable to the West.

Philly on March 23, 2014 at 8:59 PM

And they moved to Washington DC.

1998 audio: I believe in redistribution, says Obama

On the other hand…

In the 20th century, the Soviet Union made the state’s role absolute. In the long run, this made the Soviet economy totally uncompetitive. This lesson cost us dearly. I am sure nobody wants to see it repeated.

- Vladimir Putin

sharrukin on March 23, 2014 at 9:15 PM

The New Improved Russia is as big a hustle as “Hope and Change.”

viking01 on March 23, 2014 at 10:44 PM

Big bad Putin.

Attempting to ban abortion, drastically lower alcohol consumption, and protect the Russian culture and identity.

Fortitude on March 23, 2014 at 11:21 PM

Putin understands what price he is likely to pay to work his plan and finds it acceptable. He will proceed. Obama is on defense, but doesn’t like the playing field. Advantage Putin for now.

Meremortal on March 23, 2014 at 11:44 PM

Mr. Bush in his memoir recalled confronting Mr. Putin, scolding him for being provoked by Mikheil Saakashvili, then Georgia’s anti-Moscow president.

“I’ve been warning you Saakashvili is hot-blooded,” Mr. Bush told Mr. Putin.

“I’m hot-blooded too,” Mr. Putin said.

“No, Vladimir,” Mr. Bush responded. “You’re coldblooded.”

Schadenfreude on March 24, 2014 at 12:50 AM

So there’s these 2 national leaders, Obama and Putin. ONE loves his country, the other does not. If they BOTH did, i think things would be better for all.

hurricane567 on March 24, 2014 at 2:42 AM

The first was the conceit that with the right incentives, eyes-to-soul presidential connections and diplomatic reset buttons, Russia could become what we think of, in our cheerfully solipsistic way, as a “normal country” — at peace with the basic architecture of an American-led world order, invested in international norms and institutions, content with its borders and focused primarily on its G.D.P.

In the practical application of policies, our western partners – the United States first and foremost – prefer to be guided not by international law, but by the right of strength. They believe in their exceptionalism, that they are allowed to decide on the fate of the world, that they are always right — Vladimir Putin

Stoic Patriot on March 24, 2014 at 7:24 AM

But this situation won’t last forever. With the right leadership, the West can still win a long game, but it would require a combination of economic pressure and international diplomatic unity which still leaves Russia a way to back down while saving face.

They are constantly trying to corner us in retaliation for our having an independent position, for defending it, for calling things by their names and not being hypocritical — Vladimir Putin

Russia has no interest in an off-ramp. They view the U.S. as essentially an evil country.

Stoic Patriot on March 24, 2014 at 7:27 AM

“…a combination of economic pressure and international diplomatic unity which still leaves Russia a way to back down while saving face.”

If giving Putin a way to “save face” is the starting point, we should just give up and not bother.

Our foreign policy apparatus is a JOKE. Who’s running it? Susan Rice and Samantha Power, two of the most feckless, incompetent, and criminally dangerous apparatchiks in history; they’re led by the Queen B, who of course runs everything, including the WH, who is, for all intents and purposes, THE PRESIDENT; yes, Valerie.

This is ridiculous. It’s laughable. It’s Pathetic. And, it’s no joke. History is being written; or re-written, in the case of Ukraine. And, we are powerless to do anything to stop it. IT’S SHAMEFUL! This will be our epitaph in history: We broke our treaties with Allies, and then we had no allies because what would be the point? It’s every man for himself now. The US was called the “Supra-Power” a decade ago; now, we’re a footnote in history. That will be dangerous for everyone, and it will, in time, be a very grave danger for US.

mountainaires on March 24, 2014 at 7:48 AM

Russia has no interest in an off-ramp. They view the U.S. as essentially an evil country.

Stoic Patriot on March 24, 2014 at 7:27 AM

Putin is offering Christianity, heterosexuality and security, backed by Russian nationalism. America’s ruling class is against these things.

Putin is systematically promoting Orthodox Christianity. The American ruling class is methodically driving Christianity from public life, forcing the churches to fund abortions and moving toward forcing them to approve “gay marriage”.

In the moral battle at Sochi, Team America was Team Gay, pitted against evil Russians who reject the gay agenda.

America has supported the “color revolutions” in Ukraine, especially the last one that, that resulted in a virulently anti-Russian junta, which terrified Crimeans into voting to rejoin Russia.

Putin is pushing back against that.

Russians approve what Putin is doing, so it’s not just him.

They are not ready to sign up for what America is selling if only you let Putin save face while he climbs down.

David Blue on March 24, 2014 at 8:24 AM

Putin is offering Christianity, heterosexuality and security, backed by Russian nationalism. America’s ruling class is against these things.

Putin is systematically promoting Orthodox Christianity. The American ruling class is methodically driving Christianity from public life, forcing the churches to fund abortions and moving toward forcing them to approve “gay marriage”.

In the moral battle at Sochi, Team America was Team Gay, pitted against evil Russians who reject the gay agenda.

America has supported the “color revolutions” in Ukraine, especially the last one that, that resulted in a virulently anti-Russian junta, which terrified Crimeans into voting to rejoin Russia.

Putin is pushing back against that.

Russians approve what Putin is doing, so it’s not just him.

They are not ready to sign up for what America is selling if only you let Putin save face while he climbs down.

David Blue on March 24, 2014 at 8:24 AM

All great points. In that regard, Putin ironically may be the only capable of saving what was once great about the Western world.

Stoic Patriot on March 24, 2014 at 8:55 AM

But the reality is that Russia lacks the resources and the allies to go on an all out march to forcibly rebuild their former empire.

If I’ve ever seen a more naive sentence penned, I can’t remember it.

Mr. Obama mentioned in an interview the situation in the Ukraine “is not a zero sum game”. What does that even mean? Is that some type of furtive excuse for his weakness in the face of conquest over democratic, free, sovereign states?

He further stated that thinking that way “went out with the Cold War”. Really? Besides burning his own confusing strawman- to some people conquest over sovereign nations and autocracy never goes out of style.

This is exactly the type of foolish thinking which has drawn our country into conflicts for a century. You simply cannot respond to this type of despicable conquest with weak, tepid, half-hearted gestures. It only guarantees over the long run that our security will be weakened and we will be drawn into a greater conflict.

We “protect our interests” because people who believe in democracy provide a barrier against those who want to eventually take ours away. Thinking otherwise is the epitome of foolish, dangerous thinking and its been proved such over the course of history.

Marcus Traianus on March 24, 2014 at 9:10 AM

If I’ve ever seen a more naive sentence penned, I can’t remember it.

Marcus Traianus on March 24, 2014 at 9:10 AM

Amen! What a foolish, dare I say RHINO outlook.

Get with reality, Jazz. The safest conquest is the one that takes small advances and then consolidates. Now, look at the Ukraine again, and tell me that is not what Putin is doing.

captnjoe on March 24, 2014 at 9:19 AM

I have a much greater problem with Washington than Putin, and I suspect I’m not alone.

claudius on March 24, 2014 at 9:27 AM

The picture for this thread reminds me of this commercial:

Good commercial.

justltl on March 24, 2014 at 11:02 AM

All great points. In that regard, Putin ironically may be the only capable of saving what was once great about the Western world.

Stoic Patriot on March 24, 2014 at 8:55 AM

That’s the best outcome.

The worst outcome is if Putin decides Russia is outmatched against America and the way to restore the balance is to build an alliance with China, on Chinese terms if need be.

David Blue on March 24, 2014 at 11:46 AM

Putin back in Afghanistan

Schadenfreude on March 24, 2014 at 11:59 AM

Only an utter fool would have ever had any illusions whatsoever.

Ukraine is independent today because Russia was prostrate in the early ’90s.

Anyone who believes that such situations are permanent ought not be in a position of authority.

Unfortunately, we have a President who is highly degreed but not educated. Who do we blame for this? Our incurious and culturally blinkered chief executive? The expensive schools through which he rose? Or the voters who would so readily embrace such a transparently shallow man?

JEM on March 24, 2014 at 12:46 PM

Putin has almost three full years to push Obama around before he has to worry about consequences. I hope Hillary doesn’t win in 2016 because I’m too old to start learning Russian.

myiq2xu on March 23, 2014 at 2:09 PM”

Well, I do know that Russian “Reset” translates to “overcharge” in English, so I’m on the road to preparation.

Anti-Statist on March 24, 2014 at 6:12 PM

But the reality is that Russia lacks the resources and the allies to go on an all out march to forcibly rebuild their former empire.

If I’ve ever seen a more naive sentence penned, I can’t remember it.

Mr. Obama mentioned in an interview the situation in the Ukraine “is not a zero sum game”. What does that even mean? Is that some type of furtive excuse for his weakness in the face of conquest over democratic, free,

Marcus Traianus on March 24, 2014 at 9:10 AM

I had the same reaction as you did, hearing that nonsense. He actually went on further and said that the Ukrainians do not have to choose between West and East…????? really? What are their other options?? Is there a third way that nobody else is aware of, except, of course for the ‘Wise One’ in the WH? I really am curious…this man is either in way over his head or totally insane, I really don’t think there’s another explanation for that sort of empty, meaningless talk coming from a head of state…and not just any head of state…

jimver on March 24, 2014 at 10:36 PM

JEM on March 24, 2014 at 12:46 PM

I’d go with the latter. He mirrors exactly his voters’ ‘aspirations’ (or lack of thereof) and their chronic incuriosity about their own country and the world in general…ignoramuses on a grand scale…

jimver on March 24, 2014 at 10:40 PM

Russia could become what we think of, in our cheerfully solipsistic way, as a “normal country” — at peace with the basic architecture of an American-led world order,

Yeah. The American led world order encouraged to the tune of billions of USD dumped into ‘democracy training’ in the Ukraine, in attempt to split the oil shale Ukraine away from the Russian sphere

Meanwhile, Crimea was the only warm water naval station of the Russian fleet, and traditionally Russian.

So why would Russia be glad the US led world order was working to split the Ukraine away from Russia, by, among other things promising a better bail out than Putin’s, having first disarmed the Ukraine by promising the Ukraine the US led world order would in return for disarmament, always defend them?

In other words, the US led world order set up an arab spring agitator training school in Ukraine, set up the Ukrainian nation to be defenseless, and promised Ukrainians if the S hit the fan, the US led world order would charge to the rescue?

Now Ukraine has lost Crimea, and needs a gigantic bailout asap. Guess the US led world order will have to move in, banker style, and mortgage the nation in return for a bailout. Guess they could use the shale oil fields as collateral.

Putin is coming out of this smelling like a rose

entagor on March 25, 2014 at 7:53 PM

“With the right leadership, the West can still win a long game…” What kind of controlled substance are you smoking Jazz? The “West” is bankrupt, Europe can’t cobble together an armored division between the lot of them (you’ll remember that the UK admitted they were essentially combat ineffective and incapable of fielding a brigade less than two years ago) – the most anybody had in Afghanistan (the “good” war) was a couple thousand troops (heavily subsidized by the US) and that the bombs they dropped on Khadaffi were our bombs… I’ll not remind you (much) of the European trend of not breeding and having wide open immigration from the illiterate third world so SOMEBODY can work and pay taxes…

As to idiots in the media and politicians – all any of you had to do was ask somebody in the intelligence community if Russia had changed it’s ways…at any point since the wall came down… and the answer would have been No. We could have forged some kind of relationship with them in the counterterrorism department, but that opportunity has been lost, I would say…

John_G on March 26, 2014 at 10:25 AM

Comment pages: 1 2