Why we need to be patient with Russia

Europe's World

Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Simon Serfaty
Simon Serfaty

Professor at Old Dominion University and Emeritus Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy at CSIS

Twenty years ago, Russia was a mess – no longer an enemy, not even an adversary and certainly not a partner. What was feared most was a collapse that might turn Russia into something resembling the former Yugoslavia, all pire. “I don’t like it when the U.S. flaunts its superiority,” complained Russia’s then president Boris Yeltsin, who insisted, “Russia isn’t Haiti…Russia will rise again.” Events now confirm that; Russia is back. And it’s back as a bully to former Soviet holdings in Europe, as a challenge to the United States, and as one of the self-proclaimed leaders of what is allegedly a post-Western world.

This isn’t just a burst of imperial nostalgia akin to that of some European states a few decades ago. Nor is it a moment of post-bipolarity funk – a rebellion against an all-powerful America that didn’t make time for Russia when it was the time to do so, and a revolt against a uniting Europe that didn’t make room for its larger neighbour when it had been hoping for an invitation. As always, ghosts linger on. Seven decades of Soviet governance failed to bury centuries of Russian imperial history. La grande Russie doesn’t stay passively silent for long: her vocation is to be heard and expand, not to withdraw and shrink. The “soul” attributed by former U.S. President George W. Bush to Vladimir Putin after their first meeting in June 2001 mourned two decades of disrespect. Shorn of nearly a quarter of the Soviet Union’s post-1945 territories, Russia was still too big, too near and too nuclear for such treatment – not yet a true European power, but still a leading power in Europe. Russia thus longs for its imperial past, and the vexing question is how to impress upon its government in Moscow that there are limits to self-image that the Russian state can no longer sustain and which the West need not tolerate any longer.

“When Russia was weak in the 1990s,” remembers former U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates, a self-described hardliner on the Soviet Union, “we did a poor job…managing the relationship for the long-term.” The mistake, then, was to pay insufficient attention to Russia’s legitimate interests and concerns. Now that Russia looks stronger, the mistake would be to exaggerate the significance and relevance of those interests. America’s unfinished business with Russia is part of Europe’s own unfinished business, one half of which consists of an ever closer Union while the other half is being undone by national identities that challenge the EU member states’ sovereignty.

The end of the Cold War came abruptly. There was no cease-fire, no peace conference, no formal treaty and no settlement. As the Soviet Union held an unprecedented real estate sale, the West helped itself. What was in Europe was the Russian state of 1917. It might have seemed dead – “Mort à jamais?” as Marcel Proust had asked – but not forever or even for long. It was not wise to dismiss centuries of history that had seen Russia’s territories expand by one Belgium a year for 300 years, that had brutally imposed the Russification of ethnic minorities, and had relied on authoritarian and even totalitarian rule to subjugate its people.

Over time, an under-developed, de-populated, and encircled Russia has no credible alternative to closer co-operation with the West

Now it’s Vladimir Putin’s turn to dismiss his country’s most recent defeat and ride at the head of an anti-Western posse against what he calls the world’s “one centre of authority, one centre of force, and one centre of decision-making.” But that moment, too, will pass. As Russia’s economy runs out of gas, so to speak, it also finds itself short of energy – meaning; people and even security space. Over time, an under-developed, de-populated, and encircled Russia has no credible alternative to closer co-operation with the West. Too much history and too little geography separates Moscow from a dangerously ascending China, reportedly Moscow’s alternative of choice.

Boris Yeltsin had whimpered that if there was no clear winner, at least the Cold War had produced no loser. “We’re not talking about a relationship between superiors and inferiors, but between equals,” he wanted his “friend” Bill Clinton to know. There were echoes of Talleyrand at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 who insisted that defeated France should be treated as a co-equal. “If there are still allied powers,” Talleyrand told his victorious interlocutors, “then I do not belong here.” Of course, the legendary French diplomat was one of a kind, but in October 1991, on the eve of its collapse, the Soviet Union was also invited by the United States as the triumphant state to co-chair the Madrid Conference which then-Secretary of State James Baker viewed as “the end game for peace” in the Middle East. A decade later, Putin attacked his country’s implicit surrender and its dismemberment as a geopolitical catastrophe, “impossible to imagine” even while it was taking place.

In autumn 2008, the violence and intensity of the war in Georgia were, according to Robert Gates, “eye openers” that demanded “a different set of lenses.” “Russia’s behaviour,” he announced, “has called into question the entire premise of our [strategic] dialogue and has profound implications for our security relationship going forward – both bilaterally and with NATO.” On the whole, though, he ignored his own warnings, which were not heeded by either by the two presidents he served as Secretary of Defence. On the contrary, a newly-elected Barack Obama soon sought a reappraisal, or reset, of U.S.-Russian relations, as if to make amends. Now however, Putin’s will to re-adjudicate the verdict of History restores a sense of conflict that can no longer be ignored by those he charges with having “not simply robbed” but altogether “plundered” his country.

The confrontation between the West and Russia in the spring of 2014 is no more about Ukraine than the 2008 war in Georgia was just about Georgia. Neither of these countries is a core American interest, and the EU states have shown little interest in bringing either into their Union any time soon. Ukraine and Georgia before have been crises for Russia more than for the West, and what has made of “their” crisis “our” problem is Russian behaviour that in each case has threatened the European institutional and territorial order built up over the past 60 years. From the start, though, Putin was not discreet about his intentions – how he viewed Russia and what he thought of the West. “A proud man who loves his country,” nevertheless felt George W. Bush, deceptively moved by a “sense of Putin’s soul.” In his first major speech after Putin returned to the presidency which he had for a while loaned to Dmitri Medvedev, Putin urged the Russians “not to lose themselves as a nation” and to reject the “standards imposed on us from outside” at the expense of “our traditions.” In a dubious replica of Ronald Reagan 20 years earlier, the Russian president unveiled an “evil empire” – a U.S.-led, post-Christian Western world said to be exporting godlessness, permissiveness, and moral depravity. Unlike Mikhail Gorbachev, Putin does not want a common home with Europe, but hopes instead to build one of his own: No longer Russia in Europe or even Europe with Russia, but Europe to Russia and even, at least for the post-Soviet space, Europe in Russia.

We must face the fact that Russia’s annexation of Crimea will not be reversed any time soon, if ever, and preventing further amputation is the best that can be expected

Why Nikita Khrushchev chose in 1954 to return Crimea to the Soviet Republic of Ukraine is more puzzling than Putin’s decision to return it to Russia. A proletarian intellectual who goes to the geopolitical barricades to fight for what he believes more than for what he knows, Putin echoes Nikolai Danilovsky, whose brand of Russian nationalism nurtured Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s belief in a “Great Russian hegemony” dedicated to “a great renewal … for the whole world” which, wrote Dostoyevsky, was endangered by a Western civilisation whose invasion “begins with luxury, fashions, scholarship, and art – and inevitably ends in sodomy and universal corruption.” That same conviction makes of Putin a gambler prepared to bet heavily on a doctrine of imposed self-determination for what he claims is, “the biggest ethnic group in the world to be divided by borders.”

Nor is the renewed confrontation between Russia and the West about more recent but no less spurious analogies. Comparing Putin to Hitler, and interpreting his discourse as a translated rendition of Mein Kampf, is no more constructive than comparing Nazi Germany to post-Soviet Russia. Tantamount to assimilating spring 2014 with autumn 1938, the analogy is hardly relevant when the Western democracies today show so little interest in waging the war against Russia that they should arguably have favoured in the 1930s over appeasement. History does not grant time outs for the replay of bad calls. Similarly, evoking a new Cold War with Russia is to return to March 1948, and call for the rollback that the United Sates might have favoured over the containment that the influential commentator Walter Lippmann at first dismissed as a “strategic monstrosity.” Get real: conditions with Ukraine are not comparable to those that prevailed in Munich, or on the eve of the coup in Czechoslovakia; Putin is no more a menacing reminder of Hitler or Stalin than Obama is a reincarnation of Neville Chamberlain or Franklin D. Roosevelt.

“There will be costs for any military intervention,” warned President Obama in February 2014, on the eve of the Russian annexation of Crimea. But pray tell: what was there for Putin to fear after he had witnessed a year earlier Obama’s reluctance to enforce his own “red lines” in Syria with John Kerry himself calling their threatened strike “unbelievably small”? There has been little Obama could do relative to how much Putin can take, in Ukraine and even some of the non-NATO territorial space in Europe. After the military option has been taken off the table, what’s left is pontification – about being on the wrong side of history, as Obama put it – to deter an adversary whose sense of history goes the opposite way.

As the United States “pivots” to Asia, it hopes for a Russia that is strong enough to not be tempted by China, but weak enough to not concern the EU

“Not to rush to judgment,” advised veteran American diplomat George Kennan after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, and “not to write off the Russians and their leaders. Patience, patience – that’s what we need.” That may well be sound advice, but for how long and how far? There is a long game to be played: don’t provoke Russia and its leaders with empty threats, to be sure, but don’t indulge Russia and its people with too much “understanding” either. Let it be stated once and for all: History does not owe Russia the apologies it owes Ukraine and other territorial pieces of Europe’s tragic geography of pain. That is the area where can still be heard the silenced sounds of war, and where can best be smelled the worst odours of death. As historian Timothy Snyder has noted, more Ukrainians were killed fighting Nazi Germany than American, British, and French soldiers combined – not to mention the millions who had been starved to death by Stalin before the war. The history of Russia has been written by what it did to its people and in the lands of its neighbours rather than the other way around.

In short, the Russian government does what it does because Russia is what it is: a country unable to imagine life without empire, and unprepared to populate its new democracy with truly democratic leaders. The annexation of Crimea was not just Putin’s way of showing Obama his manhood, rather it is a renewed bid to fulfill the idea the Russians have of themselves and of Europe. Russians may not like all that their president does, but over 80% of them approve his action. Meanwhile, Obama satisfies the broad preference of Americans who wish to do less in the world, but his foreign policy approval rating shows support from fewer than one person in three. It is as if there was public embarrassment and even some shame relative to the way in which Americans as a nation like to think of themselves.

You know where to begin, noted Kennan on more than one occasion, but often ignore where you’re going to end. So it was after the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, and with the division of Germany in 1949, and since the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991. First Georgia, and since then with Crimea and Ukraine, Putin started “something” – but what? Does he know where he is going? In the same vein, Obama has shown he knows how to stand up to the so-called swaggerers – but will he also know where to stand up, and for what? This is Kennan turned inside out: knowing how it will end because of the limits of Russian power may actually be easier than knowing where to begin. War is no longer the way of history, but how do you bring along those whose own history takes them another way?

Over 40 years ago, President Richard M. Nixon hoped to put in place a strategy that would calibrate interests and capabilities. Knowing “when it makes a real difference and is considered in our interest” was not easy then, with a surge of Soviet power and the rise of “new influentials” which Nixon viewed as the introduction of a new multipolar order. America, he pledged, “cannot – and will not – conceive all the plans, design all the programs, execute all the decisions and undertake all the defence of the free nations of the world.” Now as then, Obama’s foreign policy reticence is shared by a majority of Americans who want “to come home.” But also like them, it is a source of concern for a large number of America’s closest allies in need of strategic reassurance. The irony is plain for all to see. Ten years after the fiasco in Iraq, the global demand for American power has never been higher, but its credibility rarely lower and its reliability more in doubt.

For Americans who have repeatedly urged Europe to do more, the institutional standstill since the 2008 financial crisis is increasingly exasperating

To convince its friends, a preponderant power must be right; to tame its enemies it must be strong; to do both, it must inspire trust. All too often Obama has appeared to do the reverse – at best, right for what he said but weak for what he did and ineffective in the way he did it. By his own account, comfortable with complexity – “the big things” as Bill Clinton noted – Obama can easily win an argument, but a lack of attention to what follows often leaves his exchanges with adversaries unheard, his reassurances not implemented, and his likeable personality not trusted. In any case, this, too, is not just about Obama but, more broadly, about a post-American world. Long past the Cold War, and possibly past America’s prime too, this is not a world an emerging post-Western America understands well: every power a potential ally but every partner a possible adversary, depending on needs and urgency; every judge a penitent and every penitent a judge, depending on the case and the moment – Kosovo and Crimea, Iraq and Syria, Moscow’s Afghanistan and Washington’s Afghanistan, and so forth.

Obama did not originate this world – one in which the dwindling U.S. supply of security for growing world demand since the Cold War, comes together with a reduced world supply of security for rising American demand since 9/11. Nor did Obama “lose” Putin or “betray” Crimea any more than Roosevelt betrayed Eastern Europe at Yalta and Truman lost to Stalin at Potsdam. Still, there has been too much loose talk in the United States about rebalancing, to Asia or elsewhere; too much ill-timed talk of a reset, with Russia or others; too much vacuous talk, about leadership from behind and too much dismissive talk about the EU and its leaders or about Putin and his leadership. Words can impress momentarily for their elegance, but they matter more durably for their substance. Admittedly, Putin is not in Obama’s intellectual league, but more plainly, he can nonetheless hammer home his points the old fashioned way – with the domineering Slavic idea of a strong and united Russia.

After World War II, the strategy of containment was embraced as a third way between appeasement and war, the two options that had been pursued by the Western democracies during the interwar years – the former to avoid the latter until the latter grew irresistibly out of the former. Fears that containment was too passive and could not rollback Soviet advances were proved wrong, and whether a different strategy would have achieved rollback faster seems unlikely. What is now known is that after some initial geopolitical confusion, the Soviets were stopped until they ran out of time, and the United States was careful to look elsewhere whenever the Soviets used force to control their half of Europe, in Hungary and elsewhere. With war on behalf of any non-NATO or non-EU country now largely ruled out in the West, Russia’s renewed passion for empire must be denied with a firm yet prudent narrative similar to that of President Truman in March 1947.

How best to assist Ukraine begins with the plaintive recognition that little can now be done to keep the country entirely whole, or even free. Twenty years of Western neglect stand in the way of the former goal, and centuries of territorial and cultural intimacy with Russia constrain the latter. The echoes of past calls for the early “liberation” of Eastern Europe during the Cold War still resonate. “What are you proposing to do,” John Foster Dulles was asked when Secretary of State. And President Eisenhower answered at the start of the 1956 crisis in Hungary when he announced that “the day of liberation may be postponed where armed forces for a time make protest suicidal.”

The Western alliance is once again troubled by a Russian problem which the United States can no longer ignore, a German problem which the EU can no longer hide, and an American problem which NATO can no longer dilute

What followed – a “holocaust,” wrote Eisenhower – should not be forgotten. But we must face the fact that Russia’s annexation of Crimea will not be reversed any time soon, if ever, and preventing further amputation is the best that can be expected. History still shapes Ukraine’s destiny – two peoples in a single country that urgently needs a new constitutional formula to if it is to maintain its unity. But geography, with borders shared by seven neighbours, also gives Ukraine pivotal significance for Russia and the West. Attempts by either to build Ukraine up as an outpost against the other will not go unanswered and would deepen a dangerous geopolitical fracture in the heart of Europe.

The 1955 neutralisation of Austria, concluded at a time when Moscow could have imposed partition, is an adaptable precedent. For 40 years after that, Austria was left out of the Western institutions, but the West was not kept far away from Austria. That time-out was well used, for Austria gradually became a non-member member of the European Community, thereby easing its transition to full EU membership shortly the end of the Cold War. By comparison, a quarter of a century of bad governments has made of Ukraine a failed state which the EU is unwilling to adopt and which Russia looks unable to rehabilitate. We should also consider Russia’s own condition – the state of its economy, the health of its society, and the efficacy of its own governance. Russia is back, admittedly, but not as Yeltsin had hoped: however influential it wants to be, this is a demandeur state whose staying power suffers from a lack of capabilities, including people; dwindling market power, including oil; and shrinking security space, with an expanding NATO in the West, while China grows ever stronger and more intrusive in the East and Islam more unsettled and even threatening in the South. These are the facts of geographic and economic vulnerability which Gorbachev understood when trade, mostly with Eastern Europe, amounted to less than 4% of the total Soviet economy. Now, Russia’s foreign trade represents 30% of GDP, with more than half of its exports going to the West, mostly to Europe and mainly consisting of oil and gas sales that contribute the major share of Moscow’s revenues. Add to this Russia’s need for Western capital for technology purchases and the question of who needs whom is clear. Even as the West lacks the military will to deter Putin in the short term, it has the economic power to alter Russia’s behavior before long.

When asked what he thought of Western civilisation, Gandhi reportedly answered that “it would be a good idea.” At 65 years of age, the transatlantic alliance, too, still looks as if it would be a good idea. The obstacle to putting the idea into practice is not a matter of capabilities or even commitment. Rather, what is lacking is the confidence that the capabilities will be used effectively and the commitment assumed evenly; absent such confidence, the will to act is lacking. For the European allies who have become used to relying on the United States for waging, winning, and ending their wars, the recent display of inefficacy in Iraq and Afghanistan is squarely un-American. But if not the United States, who? For Americans who have repeatedly urged Europe to do more, the institutional standstill since the 2008 financial crisis is increasingly exasperating. If Europe cannot be rendered capable as a Union, how can it be responsible for its own security?

These questions, and the expectations they raise, have surfaced many times before. Now, however, their resonance is being heightened not only by Russia’s resurgence in the East but also by Germany’s influence in the EU and America’s drift to Asia and other influential newcomers. In other words, the Western alliance is once again troubled by a Russian problem which the United States can no longer ignore, a German problem which the EU can no longer hide, and an American problem which NATO can no longer dilute. The balance of military forces appears to favour Russia more than ever before; rarely, too, has the balance of economic influence been as favourable to Germany as it is now and never has America sounded less European.

In all these cases, the dilemma is daunting. This is a surprising end to a century of total wars that were fought mostly around these two European superpowers and where there was decisive American leadership. Yet as the United States “pivots” to Asia, which it knows to be inevitable, it hopes for a Russia that is strong enough to not be tempted by China, but weak enough to not concern the EU. And it expects a Europe that is united enough to bury the past century with a fully completed union, but divided enough to depend on an American leadership that is still learning how to consult with, rather than merely inform its allies. Meanwhile, as Europe struggles with institutional questions that it knows to be indispensable, it awaits a Germany assertive enough to lead, but compliant enough to be overruled.

Back to Kennan, then: patience, patience – don’t provoke but indulge. What else? This is how the Cold War was won and half of Europe redone; this is how the other half of Europe will make the continent whole after it has been kept free. The strategic recipe hasn’t really changed much: To borrow from the quip of Lord Ismay, NATO’s first Secretary General, America is still very much “in”, and while Germany should no longer be kept “down” (now that the EU is up), Russia must be kept “out” until such time as it’s prepared to come in.

Insights

view all insights
Track title

Category

00:0000:00
Stop playback
Video title

Category

Close

We use cookies to improve your online experience.
For more information, visit our privacy policy