Fear and Misunderstanding of Russia

Much of America’s recent demonization of Russia relates to deep cultural and even religious differences between the two countries, requiring a deeper understanding of the other’s strengths and weaknesses, writes Paul Grenier.

By Paul Grenier

Given the recent near-hysteria over Russia’s alleged hacking of U.S. political email traffic, it is difficult to imagine a U.S. -Russia relationship established upon a peaceful footing — or, to put it another way, a relationship so stable and constructive that it no longer would depend on the vagaries of changing political personalities.

Let’s look at it first through the prism of realism. If we are realists, we throw America’s habitual moralism out the window and offer the Russians a deal. The “normalization” negotiations between a realist America and the regional power of Russia might unfold along lines something like this:

In May 2016, Russian marchers honoring family members who fought in World War II. (Photo from RT)

The United States would propose a provisional alliance with Russia to thwart a rising China, which continues to grow inexorably in wealth and power. China’s ascendance naturally makes U.S. policymakers nervous, and thus does the United States (in the realist view) have a vested interest in a U.S.-Russian alliance.

According to this realist playbook, Russia would be flattered by these attentions but would want to know precisely what kind of provisional alliance the United States had in mind. Given that realists always seek to be open and honest, this particular realist government would explain that its attention is focused on China’s apparent expansionist ambitions in the South China Sea. After all, according to the realist outlook, nation-states not only usually do pursue constant expansion of their power whenever and wherever possible, as China seems to be doing now, but \should pursue such hegemonic expansion whenever possible because, in an anarchic world, that is the way to survive.

Would Russia accept such an offer? It might. But if it did, it would be with a certain sense of bad faith to match that surrounding the U.S. proposition. It would not be a friendship but an alliance based on mutual interest. If circumstances were to change, as inevitably they would at some point, the underlying sentiments of national interest might well evaporate — as they should.

But such conditionality wouldn’t contradict the realist conception of international relations. Under the realist model, there simply is no basis for a good faith long-term settlement. It is excluded by the power-political assumptions of the realist model, as is frankly acknowledged in such foundational realist texts, for example, as John Mearsheimer’s The Tragedy of Great Power Politics.

And realists are correct, no doubt, in arguing that Americans should stop moralizing about Russia taking actions to defend its vital interests in its own neighborhood in exactly the same manner as the United States does in defense of its vital interests in its own region.

And yet realism’s dismissive attitude toward the moral dimension — as historian Matthew Dal Santo recently pointed out — contains a flaw. It requires that the United States renounce certain moral concerns that are foundational to what America is. Would a coldly rational America still be America? And would Russia itself ultimately even welcome such a “partner”?

The prominent Russian political philosopher Boris Mezhuev, in a recent essay (in Russian) about the history of the America First movement, mused that an isolationist United States during World War II would not at all have been welcomed, first and foremost by Russia itself. It might have led to the annihilation of Russia at the hands of the Nazi war machine. Mezhuev’s point is that it is not the rejection of universal ideals that we should seek in international relations, but the finding of the right ideal.

Stop Being Russia
According to the outlook that might be described as the democracy-idealism/neoconservative-interventionist school, the only way to achieve a lasting settlement is for Russia to cease being what it is at the moment and to become instead much more like the United States. Russia should become a liberal democracy. Only then — because, as many Wilsonian idealists have argued, “liberal democracies don’t fight one another” — can the relationship be stabilized for the long term.

A military parade on Red Square. May 9, 2016 Moscow. (Photo from: http://en.kremlin.ru)

The theory is not entirely implausible. There are indeed forces within Russia that strongly identify with American liberal democratic values. American diplomats and journalists frequently run into people who hold such sentiments. They pop up among one’s well-traveled Russian-intelligentsia friends and are widely quoted in the articles written by prominent journalists who happen to be imbued themselves with the Wilsonian sensibility.

The problem with this line of thought — aside from the impossibility of imposing it from the outside — is that the Russian version of liberal democracy differs fundamentally from the American version.

The fact is that Russia today is already in many ways liberal. But its liberalism is of a peculiarly Russian sort. It does not deny rights and freedom, but it grounds them not negatively (in terms of what government shall not do), as does the Enlightenment liberalism of Locke and Hobbes, but rather in terms of Eastern Christianity’s image of what man is. As a result, there is no Russian liberalism, or Russian politics of any other sort — including its standard semi-authoritarianism — that separates the state from religion in the way that the United States does today.

An authentically Russian liberalism, in other words, is hardly less starkly different from our secular, liberationist order than is Russia’s present political arrangement under Vladimir Putin. The fact is that there simply is not available to Russia a political order that is aligned with the present-day American version of secular liberal democracy. Both its history and its mores exclude it. And if we try to impose it anyway, in defiance of Russian history and self-understanding, then we will find ourselves repulsed in the same way Napoleon was.

As Henry Kissinger wrote, “No power will submit to a settlement, however well-balanced and however ‘secure,’ which seems totally to deny its vision of itself.”

So where does that leave us? It leaves us precisely in the relationship in which the two countries currently languish. The realists, in such meager numbers as they exist, have little to offer beyond a temporary reprieve. As for the democracy idealists, they have witnessed Russia’s rejection of U.S.-style liberal democracy and secularism, and they have drawn the only possible conclusion: Russia is incorrigibly evil.

To prove their point, the idealists and neoconservatives point to Russian acts of violence, such as its bombardments in Syria or Chechnya or its support for the separatists in Eastern Ukraine. The Russians, for their part, cast back at America and its Western allies the West’s own acts of aggression and accompanying untruths.

Rejecting Lectures
It’s instructive, in this regard, to recall British Foreign Secretary David Miliband’s famous phone conversation with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, in which the latter, after pointedly reminding the former about the Anglo-U.S. invasion of Iraq, demanded of Miliband, “Who are you to f***ing lecture me?”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

Critics of Russia likewise point to various lies that Russian politicians have told in defense of their foreign-policy aims. But telling lies is in the very nature of international relations and certainly the waging of wars, as is reflected in the familiar accusation that  “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.”

And yet, though nations often tell lies as part of their self-defense, it doesn’t follow that what they are defending is therefore essentially a lie. It may be in some cases — Nazi Germany, for example, or ISIS. But such cases are rare.

In short, both the United States and Russia have used lots of violence against their enemies. In both cases, this violence has no doubt exceeded ethical norms. Both have told lies. So which side is the more evil? How does one prove such a thing?

Robert Kaplan, who generally belongs to America’s democracy-idealist camp, suggested in a recent essay that we can answer this question by means of a close reading of Russian literature.

Kaplan’s “The Real War of Ideas,” published in The National Interest in September, stakes its claim about Russia by reference to Anton Chekhov’s fictional My Life: A Provincial’s Story. A careful reading of this work, Kaplan tells us, allows us to “realiz[e] the utter impossibility of any good ever coming out of Russia.”

This remarkable story, Kaplan believes, holds the key to understanding Russia as a whole. “[E]verything from the czar, to Lenin and Stalin, to Putin, is connected in some indirect way to the Russian social reality” described by Chekhov. Here, for Kaplan, is the story’s money quote:

“They [the peasant muzhiks] were mostly nervous, irritated, insulted people; they were people of suppressed imagination, ignorant, with a poor, dull outlook, with ever the same thoughts about the gray earth, gray days, black bread, people who were sly but, like birds, only hid their heads behind a tree — who didn’t know how to count. They wouldn’t go to your haymaking for twenty roubles, but they would go for a half-bucket of vodka, though for twenty roubles they could buy four buckets. … [As for their masters, their money] had been acquired by a whole series of brazen, shameless deceptions.”

Here’s an interesting question: why, out of all the tremendous variety of Russian literature, has Kaplan chosen precisely this short story focusing on ignorant peasants, instead of, say, War and Peace? Answer: to demonstrate that Chekhov’s Russia is the same as Putin’s Russia — in the double sense that Russia has never successfully become modern and liberal and, for Kaplan, never will.

The peasantry symbolizes what is pre-modern and illiberal. These particular peasants, furthermore, are incapable of acting as a rational liberal should — maximizing their own advantage and thereby increasing wealth for society as a whole. Chekhov’s peasants cannot even properly calculate how to maximize their consumption of vodka!

The Chekhov passage has, furthermore, far-going implications for Russia’s place within the international order. If Russia were smart enough to become part of the Western order, if it played according to American rules, Russia would earn more than it does now! And yet Russia stubbornly, stupidly, and in contradiction of its own interest refuses this reasonable tradeoff. Russia’s rulers and oligarchs of today, like its peasant masters of yesteryear, prefer to practice deceit, because such is their nature. That, for Kaplan, is what Chekhov’s story tells us.

Selective Reading
Kaplan’s reading of the Chekhov story, however, is incomplete. On the very same page of Chekhov’s text, between the word “buckets” and the closing words about the masters’ “brazen, shameless deceptions,” there are the following lines:

Some of the estimated 12 million Russians who took part in Immortal Regiment parades across the country over three days in May 2016. (RT photo)

“In fact, there was filth, and drunkenness, and stupidity, and deceit, but with all that you could feel, nevertheless, that the muzhiks’ life was generally upheld by some strong, healthy core. However much the muzhik looks like a clumsy beast as he follows his plow, and however much he befuddles himself with vodka, still, on looking closer, you feel that there is in him something necessary and very important that is lacking, for instance, in Masha and the doctor — namely, he believes that the chief thing on earth is truth [pravda], and that his salvation and that of all people lies in truth alone, and therefore he loves justice more than anything else in the world.”

Had he quoted the Russian author in full, I would be in agreement with Mr. Kaplan about the importance of this story for understanding Russia. To be sure, modern Russia, with its impeccable metro systems and fashionable cafes, has little in common with the peasant world here described (though in the provinces, something of that peasant world — fortunately to my mind — still remains). Modern Russians, furthermore, know how to count very well.

What then remains constant? First, the centrality of truth and justice. We have already, above, briefly discussed the role of lies. They are, sadly, something of a constant in foreign relations. What needs stressing here is something else. The attempt to lure or to force Russia into a world that requires that it “deny its vision of itself” by forcing it to be liberal — and thereby to interpret everything exclusively in terms of advantage, rights, losses, and profits — will not work.

This is confirmed not only by Russian behavior but also by the explicit words of its foreign minister, who in a recent interview insisted that “Russia’s only role in the world is to stand up for the truth [pravda] together with other powers, but exclusively on equal terms.”

The second constant is Christianity. The text’s reference to “salvation” and the word pravda itself have clearly Christian overtones. Russian Christianity differs from American Christianity. American Protestant Christianity embraces individualism and is open to change; in many ways, it has hitched its cart to the modernization project.

Russian Orthodox Christianity uses virtually the same liturgy today as it has for hundreds of years. Its standard of perfection in iconography is the same as it has been for hundreds of years. Russian spirituality is oriented to what is timeless and to beauty. American spirituality is oriented to the future and to rights. Both Russia and America can be very tough. But that toughness defends two very different ideals.

Kaplan’s selective quotation of the Chekhov story quite likely was unintentional. He may genuinely have found unimportant the passage about truth and justice and salvation, because these things fall outside the realm of modern American liberalism. His inability to notice the good in Russia when that good falls outside of the specifically liberal framework is something very common in recent Western reporting on Russia.

No Junior Partner
An accommodation with Russia will never be reached by ignoring what Russia is, still less by attempting to transform it into a junior United States. Nor is there any need to do so. An accommodation between Russia and the United States can be reached by applying what is healthy in the realist and idealist traditions, and jettisoning what is false.

Russian President Vladimir Putin answering questions from Russian citizens at his annual Q&A event on April 14, 2016. (Russian government photo)

Realism is right to the extent that it teaches that one’s own nation’s ideals do not necessarily embrace the whole of the human good. It teaches a salutary humility. Realism is wrong, however, when it dismisses moral considerations altogether, among other reasons because such a dismissal eliminates the only possible foundation of long-term trust.

The idealist school clings to the United States’ longstanding vision of itself as a force for good in the world. There is no need for the United States to abandon this vision. All that is needed is for the United States to expand its notion of the good.

For my money, a good place to start would be with the writings of Semyon Frank, one of the most respected Russian philosophers in Russia today. “In all that is human as such,” Frank wrote, “… there is nothing sacred; ‘the will of the people’ can be just as stupid and criminal as the will of an individual man. Neither the rights of man nor the will of the people are sacred in themselves. Only the truth as such, only the absolute good which is independent of man, is primordially sacred.”

Russia, for its part, needs to guard against the temptation of identifying this good, this absolute, with Russia itself.

Paul Grenier is an essayist who writes frequently on cities, political philosophy, and foreign affairs. He co-directs a project, under the aegis of Solidarity Hall, on East-West dialogue. [This article originally appeared in The American Conservative at http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/legitimate-differences/]

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14 comments for “Fear and Misunderstanding of Russia

  1. Sam F
    January 6, 2017 at 9:30 am

    There is far too much confusion in the thoughts presented here.

    This false definition of political “realism” should be called “cynism” because it presupposes unbridled greed of others and uses that to justify its own greed. A cynic declines action in the common interest, while a realist merely guards against wrongful conduct of others. It is the amoral cynic who would have us renounce “moral concerns.”

    It is obviously false that Russian “history and its mores exclude” any “political order” related to western “secular liberal democracy.” Does the writer consider communism conservative and religious? Does he think that its collapse was due to a sudden wave of religious conservatism, or that it is now a theocracy or intolerant of religious diversity?

    The writer inverts the definition of liberalism as “to interpret everything exclusively in terms of advantage, rights, losses, and profits,” and ignores the fact that western oligarchy has left nothing but the illusion of democracy. So by western “liberal democracy” he means rapacious oligarchy masked by constant propaganda. Let us hope that the mores of Russia exclude such a political order.

    He is also clearly wrong that truth is “the absolute good which is independent of man” as there is no definition of good that does not depend entirely upon the needs of rational beings. Truth is necessary to do justice, it is not good or bad in itself.

    The neocon/interventionists do not care about democracy or peace, or they would not have carried aggression around the world since WWII, constantly looking for lies and excuses to “pivot” from attack to attack. They are appalled that “liberal democracies don’t fight one another” and could not be further from liberalism.

    The difficulties of U.S international relationships do not “depend on … changing political personalities” but consistent US aggression. This is the result of the use of demagogues by oligarchy to turn the people against progressive policies, by creating false external threats so as to pose falsely as protectors, and accuse their moral superiors of disloyalty. This is the tyranny over democracy against which Aristotle warned.

    • Brad Owen
      January 6, 2017 at 1:22 pm

      “So by ‘liberal democracy’ he means rapacious oligarchy masked by constant propaganda.” This is exactly what burned the Russians in the nineties, as they strove to emulate “The West”. Putin is the clear-eyed response to both the hypocritical authoritarian drivel of the previous communist order, and the putrid lie and hypocrisy that is “The West”. We’ll reach that place in a few more years ourselves.
      I also disagree about the “alien-ness” and utter difference of Russian society. They are PART AND PARCEL of the Western (meaning broadly European) culture and civilization. Tsar or czar derived from Caesar as also did Kaiser. Russians were the eastward-traveling vikings who settled there. There was an Ostrogoth (East Goth) Empire in that area. They traveled down to Constantinople to offer their services to the Eastern Roman Caesar (later to become the more-Grecian Byzantines), much like the Germanic Tribal nations that went knocking on the door of Rome to offer the Western Caesar their services(which Rome stupidly double-crossed them, so they sacked the place and took over, eventually becoming the Holy Roman Empire of Germania and a few other bits of Europe…lasted until Napoleon’s time). Since East Roman/Byzantine Empire went Orthodox, separating from Catholicism about 1000 A.D., Russia naturally has Eastern Orthodox influence in its’ Christianity. England (and Her vast Empire, including us, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and smaller outposts around the world) and German Principalities and Sweden embraced Protestantism, protesting yet again, the hypocrisy within the Catholic Church oligarchy. Truth, Justice and Love (charity or Caritas, pervasive Love for fellow humans everywhere, from which flow truthfulness and right or just behavior) form the basis of the West’s professed Ideals, which are simply variations of Jesus’s 2nd Commandment to LOVE one another: the Noblesse Oblige of Princes, our “Promote the General Welfare” and “Establish Justice” clauses, the many Welfare States that were formed in Europe, and will return again one day. I think we have more fundamental similarities that outweigh the plethora of little differences.

    • Neil Lori
      January 6, 2017 at 5:24 pm

      Great idea. We mind our own business and let Russians take care of their country aka coexist peacefully. America needs to fix problems here at home for example freight and passenger rail. Anyway watch Alan Arkin in the Russians are coming

    • tsi_noit
      January 7, 2017 at 11:09 pm

      Very well said.

      I would like to draw attention to Grenier’s ridiculous claim that “Kaplan’s selective quotation of the Chekhov story was quite likely unintentional.”
      Is Grenier saying this to be diplomatic? The likelihood of Kaplan accidentally expunging three or four sentences from the middle of the section he quotes is not high. But Grenier doesn’t use Kaplan as an example of the types of lies and distortions the neocons pride themselves on spreading. If the contraries Grenier puts in motion to power his writing were not as hackneyed and confused as you demonstrate them to be, I might think he is exposing Kaplan as a fraud. But I am afraid he is not.

  2. zman
    January 6, 2017 at 10:39 am

    There is no fear or misunderstanding of Russia by corpgov…only the adversarial stance dictated by our national(corporate)interests of long standing and the resultant propaganda. The only ‘fear and distrust’ of Russia is from the brainwashed masses, which means nothing to DC and it’s owners, except for it’s value to drive the herd. To try to ‘counter’ the Chinese by cozying up to the Russians presupposes duplicity on the part of the Russians, vis a vis China. Why would Russia risk their relationship with China for some pie in the sky supposition of agreement with the US(or the West in general)? Unless the west decides to forego centuries of imperialistic capitalism (not at all likely), Russia could never trust the US. Besides the economic outlook of western countries is not exactly bright. Automation will drive a new wave of unemployment and deficit spending to prevent outright rioting as corporate America continues it’s drive for the ultimate in productivity. China represents a trading partner to Russia, the US, a competitor. Any chance of deepening trade with Russia has been dealt a blow by the sanctions which has driven Russia to become more of a producer of commodities than a traditional consumer-only, which it has been for the last century. Any ‘deal’ would likely be seen as foolhardy and shortsighted, given the US actions in Syria and it’s duplicity and the distrust it engendered. The only thing the US really wants(for the corporate energy gods)is to stifle Russia’s energy sector…or better yet control it outright. This has already been tried under Yeltsin and is the reason for the Syrian war. Russia would be better off to keep an arms length stance in regard to the US and strengthen it’s international ties and commerce, including it’s relationship with China. To believe that a leopard would change it’s spots(even IF it would benefit it) would be akin to professing the existence of the tooth fairy.

  3. James lake
    January 6, 2017 at 11:06 am

    I suggest you get Stephen Cohen to write about Russian issues, this writer hasn’t a clue what makes Russians tick.
    Putin is not Authoritarian- that’s an image created in the west.
    In Russia he is considered a moderate politician. He leads – but there has to be a consensus as there are many competing factions.

  4. Herman
    January 6, 2017 at 12:00 pm

    “The United States would propose a provisional alliance with Russia to thwart a rising China, which continues to grow inexorably in wealth and power. China’s ascendance naturally makes U.S. policymakers nervous, and thus does the United States (in the realist view) have a vested interest in a U.S.-Russian alliance.”

    The first time I heard of this bizarre proposal when I heard it was one of Kissinger’s ideas. How dumb do you think the Russians are?

    Anyway, Paul Grenier has some interesting things to say and his point about Kaplan’s selective quotes from Chekhov exposes Kaplan’s agenda.

    I will look for Mearsheimer’s book.

    Finally it is easy to understand that trying to design a rapprochement model requires pointing to the flaws of the positions of the two protagonists and suggesting the aggression residing in one resides in some form in the other.

    In comparing the foreign policy of the United States with that of Russia, that is not an easy thing to do since the fall of the USSR.

  5. January 6, 2017 at 12:07 pm

    This is a muddled but interesting essay. First, Grenier assumes that “realism” is all about confrontations between nation states where one state perpetually seeks to maintain an advantage which is plausible except it does not reflect the current reality. International politics is now only in part about competing national interests–that’s no longer the case. We are experiencing a confrontation between multi-national corporations, nation-states, international organizations and associations (EU, IMF, NATO, UN and a dozen other organizations that have their own budgets, staff and constituencies), organized crime, covert operatives of all kinds who have their own alliances and policies that stretch across international boundaries. To put it another way, the conflict between Russia and the United States is impossible to resolve because Russia is ruled, mainly, by a strong national state of the old kind and the U.S. is a melange of competing forces that use various state agencies for their own purposes. This was shown dramatically by the failure of the Lavrov/Kerry agreement on Syria that was not only publicly opposed by the Secretary of Defense but within a week the agreement was deliberately sabotaged by a military attack on Syrian positions. This was the first time in my memory that I saw mutiny of this kind by the U.S. military. They could do this because different agencies are now influenced not by Congress or the POTUS but by whatever constituencies they are allied with thus the zig-zag sorts of policies that have been the hallmark of the Obama FP.

    Now various groups of ideologues use national myths in order to advance their own power within government sometimes to attempt to rally groups and the American people to their view. The current hysteria over Russia is not “serious” but an attempt to create a more cohesive alliance between the corporate media, elements of the National Security State, and the mainstream Republicans and Democrats in order to counter Trumps attempt to recreate a centralized government with a bit more independence and coherence. This is what this past election was about–national coherence.

    As for Robert Kaplan, my God, he represents everything that is wrong with our “official” intellectual culture on all sides of the political spectrum. I’ll put it as simply as I can, Kaplan is an illiterate ideologue who only deserves to be ignored. “Russia” of the American imagination is not Russia but a propaganda tools made up of bits and pieces of convenient myths established as much from movies as anything else.

  6. Adrian Engler
    January 6, 2017 at 12:14 pm

    I also think it is important to get away from this dichotomy between a kind of amoral “realism” and neoconservative interventionism that is probably based on good intentions of some people, but often serves as an ideological cover for a particularly aggressive kind of interests-based foreign politics.

    I would not even completely reject criticism of Russia’s internal politics. Of course, other countries should be careful doing so, and it would certainly be inconsistent to promote values of liberal democracy in Eastern Europe and at the same time pretend it is a big scandal if the point of view of the Russian government is spread in languages like English and German by RT. But I still think that there are values like pluralism and division of power that are generally important. Of course, it has to be taken into account that the American model is not the only one, European political systems differ considerably from the American one, but I still think that there are some core values. And I think it is obvious that there are problems with things like pluralism and the division of power in Russia. Today’s Russia is probably a good example of what Zacharia calls “illiberal democracy”. It is more authoritarian than Orbán’s Hungary, but it is, of course, much more democratic than countries like China or Saudi Arabia. In principle, I do not think it is wrong if people in the West hope that Russia will develop more towards a liberal democracy if this does not lead to arrogant actions. But I think it is important not to conclude too hastily that Russia is on the wrong path and not to identify the desirable development towards a more liberal democracy in the future with forces that have very little popular support in Russia.

    In many countries, the development of a liberal democracy has taken a long time, and I think it would be absurd to expect that after the end of the Soviet Union, there would suddenly be a perfect liberal democracy in Russia. In particular, I think it is wrong to put the situation in a way as if Russia had been a nice liberal democracy in the 90es until the evil authoritarian Putin came about. Boris Yeltsin was very authoritarian, and his actions in 1993 when he had the army shoot at the parliament in order to stay in power after parliament impeached him in a constitutionally correct way can, in my view, hardly be justified. But at that time, many in the West (e.g. Bill Clinton) liked the authoritarian position of the Russian president because he was perceived as more “pro-Western” than the Russian parliament. Apart from very small minorities, people in Russia view the 90es when much of what used to be public property became oligarchs’ property in a very negative light.

    Therefore, what Western media often portray as the “liberal opposition” in Russia is hardly very relevant. This is usually parties like Yabloko of Yavlinsky who is linked with the very unpopular economic reforms in the 90es and fundations connected with exiled oligarchs like Khodorkovsky. It is extremely unlikely that these forces will receive the support of a majority of Russians.

    There are other opposition parties that are much more popular – e.g. the communists, the center-left party Just Russia or the nationalist LDP. The largest opposition is the communist party, and it should hardly be treated as the end of the world if some time in the future this became the strongest party again. This would hardly mean the return to a totalitarian Soviet system. If parties like Just Russia or new parties that are non as anti-Putinist as many in the West would hope, but still contribute to a certain pluralism become more influential, this might be even better from the point of view of a future development of liberal democracy. Even United Russia, the party close to Putin, in my view, should not be treated as the boogeyman as it often happens in Western media. The power base is essentially a compromise between the siloviki (elements in the secret services and the army) and more liberal elements, particularly in St. Petersburg where Putin started his political career. Medved’ev is, to some degree, rather a representative of this liberal wing of Putin’s power base. To a significant degree, it probably depends on the development of international relationships which part of this power base becomes stronger. If conflicts are exacerbated, this has the tendency to strengthen the siloviki element, while better international co-operation could well strengthen the liberal wing of the power base of United Russia and Putin and open the path for further development towards liberal democracy in the future.

    In that context, international conflicts in which Russia is involved play an important role, and I think it is important not to look at them in a one-sided way. A controversial aspect of the “realist” view is the widespread recognition of the idea of “spheres of influence”. I think that, to some degree, this should be taken into account, but it should not be exaggerated. Of course, many people in Russia and in the Russian government feel threatened when there are attempts to expand NATO even further and to include even Ukraine and Georgia, like the US would feel threatened if Russia opened military bases on Cuba. I think this perspective is not completely illegitimate. But, of course, the counter-argument is that countries should not be forced to be in a zone of influence if their population wants something else. Therefore, I would not unequivocally criticize NATO expansion to Poland and the Baltic states because there, NATO membership really corresponds to the wish of large majorities of the population. It should probably have been taken into account that this will be problematic for Russia and more measures for establishing trust with Russia should have been taken when countries like Poland were accepted to NATO, but on the other hand, in Poland, there is a broad consensus beyond political divisions that Poland should belong to “the West” and to NATO. This is very different in Ukraine.

    I think what often gets lost in such discussions is the enormous diversity within Ukraine. From a cultural, linguistic and a political perspective, there is an enormous difference between areas in Western Ukraine (Lviv and other areas) that used to belong to Austria-Hungary and later Poland (partially Romania), are monolingually Ukrainian-speaking in everyday life and where in a historical perspective, Russia and the Soviet Union seen as an oppressor in a similar way as in Poland and areas in the East and South of Ukraine where Russian is the predominant everyday language and, although a majority of people clearly identify as Ukrainians, not as Russians, Russia is not only seen by most as an oppressor, but also as a country with which they share a long common history. The areas in the center and North are more diverse, and they decide whether a president who has hugely lopsided majorities in the West of the country or one who has hugely lopsided majorities in the East and South of the country gets the overall majority in Ukraine. Independent polls like this Gallup poll from 2014 show the large differences between different parts of Ukraine: https://www.bbg.gov/wp-content/media/2014/06/Ukraine-slide-deck.pdf

    The West can try to pull Ukraine completely away from Russia, and it is plausible that this will get a majority in Ukraine, especially if Crimea and the Donbass region do not take part in votes/elections. But one of the main effects will be that internal conflicts will be exacerbated. In my view, a much more sensible approach would be to collaborate with Russia to offer Ukraine good relationships with both the EU and Russia. For economic treaties, this will hardly be possible without tripartite negotiations including Ukraine, the EU and Russia – free trade with one side inevitable affects the other side. Of course, the Baltic states completely reoriented their economy towards the West, this can in principle be possible. But the Baltic states are more prosperous, and in the case of a restriction of economic relationships with Russia for a complete reorientation towards the West, it would be the Eastern regions of Ukraine that would pay the heaviest price – just those regions where many people want to have good and close relationships with Russia and are hardly ready for a complete reorientation of the economy like in the Baltic states.

    The question is also how far the EU is willing to go. A lot of money was paid to help the new EU member states in Central-Eastern Europe. Is the EU really ready to give even much more money for a successful integration of such a large and poor country like Ukraine into the EU? If this was the plan, there might even be a certain chance that a majority people in Southern and Eastern Ukraine might agree, even though they do not necessarily share the cultural goals of a complete reorientation of the country towards the West. But that is hardly the plan, the EU has enough financial problems of its own. Moldova has now had an association treaty with the EU for some time, but that has changed little about poverty and corruption, and this is an important reason why a pro-Russian president has been elected. In Ukraine, this may be less likely because Russian involvement is probably seen as something negative by a clear majority of Ukrainians, but disappointment with the EU is also likely.

    Therefore, I think it would be much better if the EU and Russia worked together for offering Ukraine as a neutral state good economic and cultural relations with both sides. A development towards a more federal system in Ukraine could be beneficial, given the diverse nature of Ukraine, even if it can be difficult to achieve at the moment (the Ukrainian parliament even rejected the proposals contained in the Minsk agreement). First and foremost, better relationships between the West and Russia and stopping the tug of war to pull Ukraine completely towards one or the other side would, in my view, be beneficial for Ukrainian society in order to alleviate internal tensions. But in the long term, it could also help more liberal forces in Russia because depictions of the West as hostile, aggressive forces that want to expand their zone of influence would become less plausible.

  7. Exiled off mainstreet
    January 6, 2017 at 5:49 pm

    The latest wikileaks tape of outgoing Secretary of State Kerry’s conversation with yankee-backed opposition Syrian figures at the UN reveals that the yankees were on board with supporting even ISIS to overthrow Assad. What this proves is that the Russians are backing civilization, while the US and their satellites, making up the rest of the former “western” world went over to the dark side and backed the barbarians. Hopefully, if the new administration can assume office on schedule, this can be reversed.

  8. Silly Me
    January 7, 2017 at 8:27 am

    Read “How to make America great again with other people’s money” on http://www.cluborlov.com. It’s witty and quite accurate, considering it was created by the human intellect.

    Russia, China, and the US are forming a triangle in which balance of power exists by each party knowing that if any of them defeats another (strategically, monetarily, or any other decisive way), it will devour the third. Although the Russians and the Chinese are not particularly fond of each other, they already have the understanding and they have their not-so-secret alliance in case America attacks one of them. Consider Iran part of the current pack, which creates disharmony in their otherwise flawless alliance.

    As long as the US stays on its butt, so far, so good; only the US taxpayer gets burnt, but he has been unsalvageable for a while, anyway.

  9. Arturo
    January 7, 2017 at 2:51 pm

    “Russia, for its part, needs to guard against the temptation of identifying this good, this absolute, with Russia itself”

    Really? Who are we to lecture Russia, or anyone else for that matter? We have no moral high ground. If we want to get along with Russia we will have to accept Russia “as is”. Let them take care of their business while we take care of ours. We can work together quite well if we focus on the goal at hand and not get caught up in the distractions commonly known as bulls–t.

  10. rosemerry
    January 7, 2017 at 5:14 pm

    I find this an extraordinary article. Why would Russia want to abandon its ally and partner, China, to approach the USA which has chosen the wrong path in nearly every “battle” this century, and only survives by bribery, force and money, which it prints?
    Why should China not dominate the south China Sea? How is Pres. Putin’s behavior at all inferior to that of POTUS Obama (whom he helped in 2013) and even in a Christian context I would contend that Putin is far closer to the ideal than is Obama or the poisonous Biden.
    The idea that the US position is one to follow, or that the ideals touted by so many USans are actually acted upon, is not obvious.

  11. Brad Benson
    January 9, 2017 at 5:01 pm

    The arrogance and stupidity of my fellow Americans is staggering. This guy apparently has no understanding of what is going on in the world today. China and Russia are working together to keep us from starting WW III. They are not going to throw away those good relations for some deal with us. They know we can’t be trusted. That time is past.

    What the Chinese are doing in the South China Sea is also none of our goddamned business.

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