Losing our illusions about Russia

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.

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