When the “glorious past” attracts in the bleak present.
A madness, thought to be banished into the sealed coffin of bygone times, is reemerging. The returning Dracula threatens with the destruction of the procedural order that preventively canalizes conflicts among advanced nations. Some of the discord has roots in the communist past’s refurbished Brezhnev Doctrine of limited sovereignty. The remainder is contributed by the resurrected components of vintage czarist imperialism. In international relations, the aggressive empire building assumed to be mummified for good, is again reemerging. The Russian successor state of the Soviets pursues the tradition of conquest bequeathed by the Romanovs.
Recent events suggest a disturbing diagnosis. In the case of Putinism - to Russia’s ultimate detriment - territorial restoration is enlisted to serve an economically underdeveloped and politically retrograde system. Power, conquest, and collective pride are exploited as an “ersatz” for democracy, progress, and material well-being. Instead of addressing itself to modernization, Moscow seeks domestic popularity by relying on the sole yardstick by which it ranks as a “top nation”.
Some modernizers operate in a national context that produces good cultural learners. These are able to emulate and adapt advanced systems without feeling humiliated. If this is the case, the pressing task of “catching” up is disconnected from “shame” and of the fear a lost national identity. In these instances, the purpose of upgrading is not the upper hand in an anticipated military confrontation between “teacher” and “pupil”.
Here realism requires an amendment. It acknowledges that the impulse for modernization tends to come from a defeat that is associated with the superior instruments of power of an industrialized victor. At the same time, the pursuit of modernization’s military component can have the limited purpose of creating security through power. Thus, total victory or retaliation can be, but need not be, a goal. If it is avoided, progress will be, thanks to the savings, faster than when militarization –as in the historical Russian and Soviet case- is the principal purpose of advancement.
Russia’s forward policy, implemented through the instruments of local thugs directed by her infiltrated agents, expresses a frequent error. Moscow has opted for an upgraded authoritarianism. Its components are the communist tradition, czarist precedents, chauvinistic nativism, and a national church. A reinforcing addition is the “Angst” of the future by elements that do not comprehend the modern world. Additionally, these are threatened by structural change, which implies their redundancy because their skills are, reflecting Soviet backwardness, antiquated. Cleptocracy and incompetence, wrapped into the phobia of a hostile world that can only be contained if it is dominated, hinder social, political and economic modernization. If so, the ruler can establish legitimacy by the display of military might.
Post Soviet times have warped the self-perception of ex-Soviet subjects that enjoyed during that era, as a compensation for deprivation, shareholder status in a hegemon. Putin expressed this loss when he called the dissolution of the USSR a “geopolitical catastrophe”. Such considerations make the restoration of old greatness and of dignity through might, understandable strivings.
To avoid misunderstandings is important to a Russophile. A modern and self-confident Russia is in Europe’s interest. Especially so if one has, as does this writer, a central European background. There cannot be a stable European or global order without Russia’s support. That country’s real interests need to be served.
The hurt pride of those that are blind to their new chances for personal advancement, take consolation in the pursuit of empire and territorial recovery. This endeavor of those that reject the feared future also receives support from the outside. It is the product of a vacuum where the resistance to Soviet restoration should and could come from.
A factor that eggs on a skillfully calculating Putin, originates in an element of Western thinking. Our culture has an inclination that firmed once the era of eternal peace was proclaimed when the cold war ended. We are suffering from a habit of conflict cosmetics, which supposes that challenges are overcome by denying them. An example is a recently publicized action of Clinton’s State Department. America kept Boko Haram off her terrorist list, in the hope that it will make that gang mend its ways.
Another nice example for denial, as well as of the ingenuity to bring up “understanding” for anything and everything, is a Merkel quote (14/05). She limited the participation of the separatists in the negotiation about the Ukraine’s future to those that could “convincingly” prove that they do not pursue their goals through violence. No violence should be applied to solve problems, she stated. Now then, without the effective injection of violence there would be no separatism, no escalation, and no negotiation. Therefore, the precondition is a synthetic one that exploits diplomacy to overlook the facts of the case.
Europe has currently only a few ways to respond to the challengers of her order. Due to neglect, NATO lacks the means to resist even small foes. This, and the respect lost, means that she does not deter incursions before they occur. (That happens to be the main utility of armies.) As a result, the alliance “fights” aggression by finding explanations to tolerate it and to remain inactive. The upshot of invoking “understanding” is to move from there to support through the tolerance of the intolerable. In its current condition, Europe finds it easier to proclaim a bearded drag queen as the winner of a talent show than to face a bearded Islamist or a Kalashnikov-swinging unshaven Ukrainian separatist.
America’s indirect contribution to a climate in which violence rules is not negligible. “Yes”, we have heard that, “we can”. One is still waiting for what that might be. Outstanding among the letdowns is the famous whisper to Medvedev to “tell Vladimir” that, after the election, there can be “more flexibility”. The American public ignored it and went on to reelect. Unintended but not surprising: that signal has been registered as a blank check of concessions.
The discrepancies of Western policy mislead Moscow. When in disarray and seemingly weak, NATO has expanded into countries that did not need formal membership. When assertive, the concern seems to be the manufacture of excuses that pave the way of retreat. It is a hope that, regardless, Russia will find a working balance. It will be equilibrium between her short-term muscle flexing possibilities that cater to a gut feeling, and her cerebrally defined long-term strategic interests. These are those of a dignified, status-quo and satiated great power. Such an entity, once at peace with itself, can find security within the consensual framework of a universally accepted procedural order secured by a balance of power.