Russia Rises From the Mat

The U.S. government doesn’t want to admit that its heady “unipolar” days are over with Russia no longer the doormat of the 1990s, but Washington’s arrogance risks war, even nuclear annihilation, explains Gilbert Doctorow.

By Gilbert Doctorow

In Moscow, the preparations for the May 9th Victory Day parade began in the middle of the final week of April. Heavy equipment including mobile ICBM carriers and the latest battle tanks, together with troop formations passing through Red Square, carry on the long tradition established in Soviet times of demonstrating the nation’s military might on this day for televised dissemination across the entire expanse of Eurasia.

Meanwhile, preparations have also been made for this year’s edition of another Victory Day parade that began just one year ago but is likely to become a still more enduring tradition, the so-called March of the Immortal Regiment in which ordinary citizens carry photographs of their own family heroes from WWII: fathers, grandfathers, mothers and grandmothers who fought on the front or worked at defense positions behind the lines.

These processions, which are held in towns across Russia, tap into a nationwide wellspring of emotion and pay tribute to the fact that every family in the country lost members to the WWII war effort. Every one.

This extraordinary sense of loss from war is something that sets Russian consciousness apart from American consciousness and at times makes it difficult to recall that we were allies in that epochal war. The 40 years of Cold War alienation between us is another factor that dims what we once achieved together. For these reasons, President Vladimir Putin’s evocation of our WWII alliance when he spoke before the United Nations General Assembly meeting in September 2015 and called upon the United States to link arms with Russia and head up a multinational effort to defeat the Islamic State and vanquish terrorism fell on deaf ears in the U.S.

Tense Relations

The past several years have not been easy for relations between our countries. And yet, if looked at with some detachment, the apple of contention between us can and should become the very source of our future mutual understanding and cooperation in addressing constructively the world’s many problems. Both nations in their own way take pride in their independent spirit and creative contributions to peace and generalized prosperity. Both nations are great powers that determine the world’s destiny. Both are “hammers,” not “nails.” For that very reason we are often at odds.

On the U.S. side, triumphalism over its self-declared “victory” in the Cold War in 1989, gloating over the economic and social collapse of the Russian Federation in the 1990s, and ambition to secure Woodrow Wilson’s vision of a world safe for democracy through interventions abroad intended to hasten the seemingly inevitable course of history all heightened the tensions in Russian-American relations way beyond where they would naturally have been from the inherent competitiveness of two great powers.

Until the eye-opening display of Russian military gear and capability beginning with the bloodless reunification with Crimea of spring 2014 and running through the resoundingly successful five-month Russian air campaign in Syria starting in October 2015,

American behavior towards Russia in the new millennium had been conditioned by a now seriously outdated view of its potential adversary as a failing state lacking in economic might and in social coherence to withstand serious pressure from outside, enjoying unjustified international rights inherited from its Soviet past and having as its only military props an aging strategic nuclear force that would be practically unusable if push came to shove because that would spell national suicide.

The reality today is what President Boris Yeltsin foretold to Bill Clinton when Russia was in a supine position, protesting lamely against American intervention in Russia’s old client state, Serbia: “think again, because Russia will be back.”

Indeed, under Vladimir Putin Russia has come back as great powers usually do. It may be smaller than the USSR, but it is vastly more fit, with a mixed market/directed economy that is far more agile and better managed, with conventional forces that approach and in certain domains exceed Western standards. Russia’s living standards are higher and it possesses strong reserves of patriotism to support a shared sense of its place in the world. Russia is now a formidable and arguably unbeatable foe if confrontation is where some U.S. policymakers want relations to go.

There are those Americans who look back with nostalgia to what they perceive as Ronald Reagan’s negotiations with Moscow “from a position of strength.” U.S. Ambassador to Russia at the time, Jack Matlock, has made it clear that the U.S. carefully avoided any appearance of abusing its relative advantage when dealing with Mikhail Gorbachev to reach a dramatic relaxation of tensions through dismantling the Soviet Union’s Eastern European empire on mutually agreed terms. But even if we assume that the “position of strength” was an invisible driver of those talks, in conditions of today’s revitalized Russia such an approach is only bringing us tit-for-tat escalation of military and political posturing.

Nuclear War Risks

In such a climate of heightening tensions, the law of averages tells us that if something can go amiss it will, and there is presently too little shared trust to ensure that faulty launch warnings or some similar technical or human errors will not lead to irrevocable counter-responses, ending civilization on Earth as we know it.

Statesmanship and common sense dictate that the United States and Russia seek ways to engage with one another in permanent rather than episodic manner, and that we deal with each other in a spirit of equality and mutual respect.

That is the essence of foreign policy “realism” – the judicious use of American power – which has been injected into the ongoing presidential campaign as a guiding principle by Republican candidate Donald Trump. He has no proprietary rights over it, and it would be a good thing if congressional candidates gave it a test drive as well because it is the only approach to international affairs that can save us from needless confrontation and risk of nuclear war, which is where we find ourselves today.

Only when this critical threat has been resolved can we move on to the unquestionable benefits of constructive programs of cooperation between Russia and the United States in peace-keeping and support for political processes in the world’s hot spots, in investment and trade, in culture and education, in sports, in science and technology, and in the many other forms of interaction at the level of ordinary citizens which characterized these relations in happier times.

Gilbert Doctorow is the European Coordinator of The American Committee for East West Accord Ltd. His most recent book Does Russia Have a Future? was published in August 2015.  © Gilbert Doctorow, 2016