At the heart of Russia’s foreign policy, fear of the outside world

By J Brooks Spector 25 March 2014

Trying to get a firmer grip on the motivations of Vladimir Putin in seizing the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine, J. BROOKS SPECTOR reaches back few thousand years for inspiration.

For as far back as this writer can remember, the contents of those vast, comprehensive historical atlases have fascinated him. Sitting in a library, through the pages of such atlases, one followed the ebb and flow of empires across the great Eurasian heartland; the changing borders and names of kingdoms sprinkled clear across Eastern Europe – from the fringes of Germany to the Urals.

Now, of course, a whole universe of animated maps on the Internet can easily be viewed on any computer. One watches as the Mongol empire swells across Asia into Europe from its near-desert heartland, and then, in an instant, virtually evaporates, leaving behind a trail of small khanates in its wake. Or, one follows the fates of the Byzantine, Romanov, Habsburg, Polish, Ottoman domains as they swell and shrink in size, changing shapes and even their actual locations like a collection of giant, multi-coloured amoebas.

Then, to overlay all these changes of suzerainty onto maps that delineate Europe’s many languages and ethnicities – and also its geography – is a way of gaining a better understanding of just how artificial some borders have been, once one moved into those regions beyond Germany in the West. The vast steppes and plains were rarely a detriment to the expansion of conquerors; save perhaps for those who tempted the fates – and the weather – as Napoleon did back in 1812, or as the Germans did in World War II.

By way of contrast, Western Europe was blessed with a natural landscape that ultimately helped fix its nations to territories. To trace the boundary between the French and German languages is to discover a line that has barely changed since Roman times. The respective political fortunes of the territory that straddled the region between those French and German areas has oscillated within about a hundred miles of this line for over fifteen hundred years, since just after the collapse of Roman rule.

But this was certainly has never been the case in Eastern Europe. In particular, there have been Russia’s circumstances. First it was as a Kievan Rus chivvied hard by the Khazars; then a Moscovy nearly exterminated by the Mongols; then Russia’s long, slow recovery and expansion under the Czars until its apogee just prior to World War I; a withdrawal from much of its European possessions afterwards; then the high water mark of the Soviet Empire thrust deep into Central Europe after the World War Two; the collapse of the Soviet Union; and now, most recently Vladimir Putin’s newly resurgent Russia.

The Russian polity has waxed and waned in tandem with the strength and fates of more western-located nations – Jagiellonian Poland-Lithuania, the Ottomans and the Swedes, once the power of the Mongol khanates was finally broken, that is. Kyiv (or Kiev), for example, was an integral part of the Polish kingdom for hundreds of years until the end of the 17th century.

Along the way, numerous national ethnicities, from the Finns and Karelians in the north to the Circassians, Chechens, Georgians and Azeris in the south were conquered by Russians (but not fully assimilated). And a vast Eurasian land empire was built out of the ancient Muslim regions of Central Asia – including legendary city-states like Samarkand along the Silk Road – and then on to the Siberian tribes and the East Asian clans along the North Pacific shore.

At one point, in fact, an expanding Russia in search of new lands to gain access to valuable furs actually laid claim to parts of North America as far south as Northern California. Russian America, or as it is now known, Alaska, was eventually sold the US in 1867 for $7 million by an near-bankrupt Russian government, with its treasury depleted by the Crimean War. Perhaps some readers were wondering when we’d get there. Well, we have. (Fortunately for Sarah Palin, so far at least, Vladimir Putin has not yet attempted to lay claim to Alaska on historical grounds as well.)

As a result of this most recent movement by Putin’s Russia to seize and then annex the Crimean Peninsula, analysts of Russia – as well as politicians and officials around the world – are now trying to come to grips fully with Putin’s motivations. And they are equally interested in trying to evaluate what comes next, of course.

In recent days, in the pages of major newspapers, and now, in more scholarly publications, long-time Kremlinologists, international relations analysts and others have been arguing furiously over the nature of Putin’s effort and whence it comes from. Concurrently, grand strategists have been trying to put all this into a deeper perspective, often arguing from historical analogy. Is the western response over Crimea an example of a new appeasement, as was the case at Munich; is it a new Berlin or Cuban Missile Crisis; or even is it the newest example that proves the eternal truth of the domino theory? Or is there still another dynamic at work?

For some, especially those who worked in government or were in academia during the Cold War, the Berlin and Cuban Missile Crises seem to have been promising metaphors. For such people, the key element is an expanding power like the Soviet Union/Russia, eager to push the bubble against the West. The immediate Berlin crisis began with the threat to take over the western zones of Berlin, and ended with the Berlin Wall, built by the Soviets and the East Germans to keep a subject population from fleeing westward.

With Cuba, it was the effort by the Soviet Union to alter the nuclear balance between the two major powers by placing missiles in Cuba that could be launched at the US and thereby reach their targets within fifteen minutes – destabilising the tenuous balance of terror that had been achieved before. From that vantage point, the Russian move on Crimea could seem the harbinger of an expansive Russia eager yet again to push the West at every opportunity. From that same perspective, it would be argued that this Russia, awakened from its twenty-year geopolitical nap, is now eager to reassert its earlier position as a global superpower, rather than fit into the western plan for a staid, stable, post-Cold War world.

Similarly, there are those who may see this most recent Russian effort as the newest version of the domino theory of international politics. The domino theory holds that if one nation allowed a bully nation to get away with one act of aggression, the next would inevitably follow, and then another. In its Cold War incarnation, the argument went along the lines of, for example, once China fell to the communists, then it was Vietnam’s turn. And after Vietnam, it would be Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia and the Philippines’ turns.

In its more extreme versions, unchecked, the invading hordes would have to be fought, finally, in a desperate struggle on the coasts of Australia and Japan – or California. Closely aligned with this domino theory argument was that of the fear of appeasement. If the fall of the dominoes was what happened when a dictator had free reign to run the table, appeasement was the disgraceful result of what happened when a nation refuses to block such a challenge – as in the enduring image of Neville Chamberlain’s failures in going for “peace in our time” at Munich.

While these have often been assumed to be important international political discoveries of the twentieth century, when rapacious dictators were allowed to have their way, or are blocked, the power of this world-view was first articulated 2,500 years ago. Spartan military leader, Alcibadies, urging resolute resistance to the overwhelming Athenian military aims in the Peloponnesian War, had told his fellow generals:

“And now let me prove to you that if you do not come to the rescue, Sicily will be lost. If the Greeks would all unite they might even now, notwithstanding their want of military skill, resist with success; but the Syracusans alone, whose whole forces have been already defeated, and who cannot move freely at sea, will be unable to withstand the power which the Athenians already have on the spot. And Syracuse once taken, the whole of Sicily is in their hands; the subjugation of Italy will follow; and the danger, which, as I was saying, threatens you from that quarter, will speedily overwhelm you.”

A clearer evocation of the dangers of those falling dominoes and the risk of appeasement would be harder to find in our own time. And for many Cold War analysts and scholars, Thucydides’ history of that tragic Greek war could easily have been an animating metaphor of their own worldview as well in the bitter lesson of Munich and the struggle against the Soviet Union after World War II.

But most important of all in defining the perspective of three generations of analysts and policy makers towards the Soviet Union was surely George Kennan’s “Long Telegram”. Kennan had been a US diplomat assigned to Moscow in the immediate post-war period. Asked by Washington for a comprehensive explanation of Soviet behaviour in a way that could help inform future policy choices, he responded with an extraordinary document that quickly became crucial in shaping policy. When it was declassified and published in Foreign Affairs magazine the year after it was first sent, under the pseudonym “X”, became one of the key documents of the Cold War.

Based on his extraordinary knowledge of Russian literature, history and culture, rather than focus solely on the impact of communist ideology or Joseph Stalin’s quirks for an explanation of Russian policy, Kennan had written instead:

“At bottom of Kremlin’s neurotic view of world affairs is traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity. Originally, this was insecurity of a peaceful agricultural people trying to live on vast exposed plain in neighborhood of fierce nomadic peoples. To this was added, as Russia came into contact with economically advanced West, fear of more competent, more powerful, more highly organised societies in that area. But this latter type of insecurity was one which afflicted rather Russian rulers than Russian people; for Russian rulers have invariably sensed that their rule was relatively archaic in form fragile and artificial in its psychological foundation, unable to stand comparison or contact with political systems of Western countries. For this reason they have always feared foreign penetration, feared direct contact between Western world and their own, feared what would happen if Russians learned truth about world without or if foreigners learned truth about world within. And they have learned to seek security only in patient but deadly struggle for total destruction of rival power, never in compacts and compromises with it.”

Whether or not the specifics of Vladimir Putin’s policies fully conform to Kennan’s late 1940s analysis of Russian society may be an arguable proposition; but, as New York Times columnist David Brooks had written recently in exploring the books Putin has been recommending to his lieutenants:

“To enter into the world of Putin’s favorite philosophers [i.e. Nikolai Berdyaev’s The Philosophy of Inequality, Vladimir Solovyov’s Justification of the Good, and Ivan Ilyin’s Our Tasks] is to enter a world full of melodrama, mysticism and grandiose eschatological visions. [For example:] ‘We trust and are confident that the hour will come when Russia will rise from disintegration and humiliation and begin an epoch of new development and greatness,’ Ilyin wrote. Three great ideas run through this work. The first is Russian exceptionalism: the idea that Russia has its own unique spiritual status and purpose. The second is devotion to the Orthodox faith. The third is belief in autocracy. Mashed together, these philosophers point to a Russia that is a quasi-theocratic nationalist autocracy destined to play a culminating role on the world stage.”

This doesn’t sound all that much different from the way George Kennan had chosen to wrestle with the task of defining that riddle wrapped in an enigma. And, more importantly still, it makes Putin’s policies towards Ukraine less about possible western responses or provocations, and much more about the internal motor driving Putin forward, almost regardless of what happens in the minds of officials in Kyiv, Brussels, London, Berlin or Washington.

The way EU and American policy makers choose to understand Vladimir Putin’s motives and goals will go a long way towards shaping the responses they decide upon to address Russia’s seizure of Crimea. And to the extent Russian leadership is motivated by a age-old set of ideas towards territory, enemies and societal objectives, it will be crucial for other world leaders to both understand this and be able to respond effectively. DM

Photo: Russian President Putin watches the launch of a missile during naval exercises in Russia’s Arctic North on board the nuclear missile cruiser Pyotr Veliky.  REUTERS/ITAR-TASS/PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SERVICE.

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