Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Cold War Redux?

Let me weigh in on the question as to whether we are on the verge of a "new cold war" with Russia. I agree with those who point out that the Cold War had very specific ideological underpinnings--criteria absent today. It seems to me that the U.S. rather is stepping into the role Britain often played vis-a-vis a rising Russian Empire in the 19th century--looking to find ways to contain the power of a continental hegemon. Read up on the British role in the Caucasus in the 19th century and one can see similarities with what is happening today.

A few Russian politicians say that geo-political reasons have always been more important for the US than ideological, even during the cold war. A Russian political analyst found a piece written by a group of underground anti-Soviet intellectuals who believed that the West fought Soviet Union for geo-political reasons first and the Communist ideology played a secondary role.

What they are trying to communication to the Russian people is that we are all here in Russia have no choice but to fight. They would continue bullying us no matter what.
Nikolas - Yes, there are remarkable echoes. But I'm not sure Russia today is the rising power that it was in the 19th century. Russia is trying to recover its local influence but I don't think they threaten to expand into South Asia or the Middle East, which was the British fear in the 19th century.

I agree that America could be following in British footsteps, especially Britain after 1870. In the late 19th century, the British got drawn into occupying more places and waging a series of wars on the Islamic periphery with Afghan tribes and Mahdist fanatics. The Great Game with Russia was part of this too. But ultimately the industrialization of Germany and Japan and the threat they posed was more critical.
Anonymous 3:57,

"A Russian political analyst found a piece written by a group of underground anti-Soviet intellectuals who believed that the West fought Soviet Union for geo-political reasons first and the Communist ideology played a secondary role."

I don't see how to differentiate between geopolitical and ideological motives if both were coextensive. Assuming that one could, I don't see how the former can explain the record of American strategy. Let's review some history:

1. The two biggest trading partners of America in 1939 were Germany and Japan.

2. After 1945, America backed the losing side in China.

3. In the 1960s we did the same in Vietnam.

4. After helping the mujahidin evict the Soviets from Afghanistan in the 1980s, a group that we backed then repaid us on September 11, 2001.

5. Thirty-five years after the 1973 oil embargo, America is more dependent than ever on foreign oil.

We did outlast the Soviet Union but it was the Soviet leadership that made the decision to abandon its ideology and wider empire.

I have long admired a number of Soviet dissidents, two in particular. Andrei Amalrik was only five years off in his 1970 forecast of Soviet downfall. In 1925, Nikolai Kondratyev predicted the inflection points in the long-term fluctuation of the world capitalist economy. His turning points (late 1940s, early 1970s, late 1990s) came true. His ideas turned Western economists on their heads but also, unfortunately for him, did the same to Marxist ones. These are dissidents you could cite with pride.

America failed to extend a sufficient hand of friendship to Russia after 1991. But if Russians now perceive a sinister consistency in American actions, they may be overestimating American capabilities.

As Churchill said, "Americans can be counted on to do the right thing, after they have exhausted the alternatives." If we get a new administration in Washington this year, at least give it a few months to find its footing before reverting to your conclusions.
An interesting and to my mind rather sad development is that some Russians who twenty years ago were convinced both that the Cold War was primarily about ideology, and that on the ideological questions the U.S. was in the right, now think they were naïve fools.

From an article by the sometime Gorbachev-era 'new thinker' Sergei Karaganov, recently republished in the NYT:

'At one time, during the Communist times of the weakening and decay of the USSR, members of the dissident intelligentsia and simply intellectuals were asking the strictly speculative question: what if the country throws off the stranglehold of Communist ideology and the socialist economy and becomes capitalist and free? Most believed that a free and capitalist world would welcome us with open arms. A minority of these unrestrained romantics said that a strong capitalist and economically more effective and free Russia would cause no less opposition than the Soviet Union.

'It appears that the latter came out the “winners” in the argument.

'The basis of the cold war was more geopolitics than ideology.'

(See http://topics.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/09/03/the-traps-of-a-cold-war/.)
I agree that since 1991 geopolitics does explain US policy better than ideology. I was thinking about the Cold War before then. It is hard to read Karaganov and not regret even more the missed opportunity of the 1990s. But there are two questions that Karaganov and other Russians at his level need to consider:

1. What alternatives are there to Ukraine being a buffer state? Karaganov seems to want to continue the present ambiguity (to which he refers as a "divided nation syndrome"). But what if this cannot continue?

2. Are Russia's domestic and geopolitical conditions truly independent of each other? Karaganov implies that nothing Russia does in terms of its domestic development (democratic or authoritarian) makes the slightest difference to its geopolitical situation. In fact, that is debatable. Even if it makes no difference to American policy, could it not make a difference to the EU if Russia were to offer to align itself to EU norms in return for candidacy?
David Billington,

What happens if the 'present ambiguity' in the Ukraine cannot continue is indeed a very good question -- one of the most important issues I think in contemporary European politics

For those of us with little expertise on the Ukraine, the answer is largely a matter of whom one believes.

In a recent article in the Financial Times, entitled 'Ukraine rifles its history for heroes', the paper's U.S. Managing Editor, an amiable Ukrainian-Canadian lady called Chrystia Freeland, described an 'eight-month television quest to identify the greatest Ukrainian, based on the BBC series, Great Britons.' She tells us that Yaroslav the Wise, the eleventh century prince of Kievan Rus, narrowly defeated 'western Ukrainian partisan leader Stepan Bandera, who led a guerrilla war against the Nazis and the Soviets and was poisoned on orders from Moscow in 1959.'

This 'contretemps', Freeland went on to say

'is being framed as yet another example of the divide between western and eastern Ukraine, where the Soviet portrayal of Bandera as a traitor still lingers. That would be a mistake. The real story of Ukraine is the astonishing rapprochement between east and west, which began in 1991 and accelerated after 2004, when big business decided it paid to buy into independence.'


An interesting Russian response to the enthusiasm of many Ukrainian nationalists for Bandera can be found in a recent article entitled 'Bandera: A Blood Bath for Every Day' by the veteran journalist Boris Sopelniak -- (the name, I am told, is not Russian, but indicates West Ukrainian or Polish antecedents.) An excerpt:

'Among the current eulogists of the Banderaites there are those who allege that Ukrainian nationalists fought under this slogan: "Kill all kikes, Poles, Russkies and Huns." As for Jews, Poles and Russians, they did precisely that, but Germans... Oh no, with Germans the Banderaites had a touchingly chummy relationship.'

This reiteration of a familiar Russian view of Bandera as a particularly eager (and bloodstained) collaborator in Hitler's war of annihilation against Russians and others, it is worth noting, appeared on the Guardian.psj-ru site run by the veteran liberal journalist Sergei Roy.

(See http://www.guardian-psj.ru/history-article-10.)

If -- as so many in Washington and London appear to do -- one accepts the claims made by people like Freeland, the ambiguity can be resolved by incorporating a unified Ukraine in Western institutions.

If, as I tend to do, one suspects that there are plenty of people in the Crimea, and also in the east of the Ukraine proper, who feel like Sobelniak, and that the preference of eastern Ukrainian oligarchs for avoiding competition from their likes in Russia provides a poor basis for a unified Ukrainian national identity, then the alternative to ambiguity can only be fragmentation.

If this happened, my hope would be that the Crimea would, as it were, cleanly secede, becoming a kind of (hopefully happier) Kaliningrad. What I fear is that elements in the eastern Ukraine might decide to follow suit. One might then find that the country had been in a state of unstable equilibrium. The more people in the East decided that they did not want to live in the same country as Western Ukrainian nationalists, the more it would appear that any future independent Ukraine would be dominated by those nationalists.

And very many people elsewhere in the country who either had either actively preferred the status quo, or were quite happy to live with it, might find themselves pulled agonisingly in different directions. As the resulting faultlines would not match up with geographical divisions, one could have a very messy split.

Fear of some such eventuality is, I think, a reason why sensible people in Moscow and Berlin, who know the history, prefer to avoid doing anything that risks the Ukraine splitting up. So to do sensible and historically-aware people in the United States, like Reagan's Ambassador to the Soviet Union, Jack Matlock. In a recent article, he brought out the fundamental point that the risks do not derive from any determination on the part of Moscow to upset the status quo, but from the possibility that the incorporation of the Ukraine into NATO could leave them with no option but to do so. Such an attempt, he noted

'would almost certainly split the country and virtually force Russia to demand a referendum in the Crimea on Ukrainian sovereignty. Want to guess who is likely to win that referendum? Or what would happen if Ukraine were to refuse it and try to remove the Black Sea Fleet from Sevastopol when the current lease runs out? Or, if NATO would attempt military maneuvers in Ukraine?'

As I may have said before, my own small worms' eye view of the situation, incidentally, derives from my sister-in-law, who comes from Lviv in the West Ukraine, and her children from her first marriage, who are good friends of mine. One ironic effect is that I find it very easy to see how Ukrainian nationalists looked for support to Germany against both Poles and Russians. But I vividly recollect how when we were in Kiev for her wedding, absolutely everyone she addressed in Ukrainian responded in Russia -- bar none.

I certainly did not take this as indicating that the inhabitants of the most 'Western' of the great Russian cities were hell-bent on reincorporation in a state ruled from Moscow: far from it. If however the alternative was living in a state dominated by those nationalists from the West Ukraine, who knows which way they might jump?
"But I vividly recollect how when we were in Kiev for her wedding, absolutely everyone she addressed in Ukrainian responded in Russian -- bar none."

"I certainly did not take this as indicating that the inhabitants of the most 'Western' of the great Russian cities were hell-bent on reincorporation in a state ruled from Moscow: far from it. If however the alternative was living in a state dominated by those nationalists from the West Ukraine, who knows which way they might jump?"

A lot of Ukrainians Russified themselves in the Soviet period and I wonder if the people you met were some of them. The most nationalist part of Ukraine, the western areas annexed in 1939, only have about one-sixth of the population. If the country as a whole grows more nationalist, it will reflect a broader tendency.

The scenario you outline of a Ukrainian breakup raises some troubling questions:

First, there are still a lot of ethnic Russians and Russified Ukrainians in the west bank territory of the republic. The position of these people could become problematical, eg. army service with Russia as the likely adversary, even if a truncated republic doesn't join or try to join NATO.

Second, I don't see how a west bank Ukraine could be turned down for NATO membership, if Russia vetoes a UN Security Council resolution to uphold the integrity of Ukraine's present borders.

Finally, if Ukrainian nationalists in Russian-occupied areas begin an insurgent campaign with roadside bombs against Russian forces, the situation could turn into a larger conflict.

I think cooler heads will prevail in both Moscow and Kyiv, but if Moscow pushes to detach Crimea, or if Kyiv terminates the naval lease or tries to join NATO right now, then things could escalate. The situation is very dangerous, potentially much more so than the Afghan-Pakistan crisis that preoccupies us right now.
Hit button too soon. I meant to include at the top of my last post that it is to David Habakkuk.
@David Burlington

"But what if this (divided nation syndrome) cannot continue?"

First of all, why exactly it cannot be continued? Time heals divisions. People from different parts of Ukraine mostly don't really have problems with each other (neither with the country's neighbors), perhaps politicians will learn to do the same.

More importantly, the West's (or the U.S.) political, financial, informational, and any support of a rather narrow cohort of ethnic chauvinsts who believe that a half of Ukraine is not "really Ukrainian" must simply be stopped. It is too dangerous and, sorry, this support clearly exists.
Anonymous 4:45,

I noted in my post of 1:23 above some events that could follow an initial breakup of the country. If that initial event doesn't happen, then the "divided nation" problem could indeed diminish with time.

Regarding the east Ukrainians, I am not aware of any evidence that the West is encouraging Russians or Russian speakers to secede.
@David Burlington

But it encourages the Western camp in Ukraine to pursue divisive policies, starting the campaign to join the NATO. Calling the Eastern Ukrainian politicians ethnic chauvinists is clearly wrong. They have all kinds of sins but not this one. The title rightly belongs to Mr. Ushchenko and other real Europeans and real democrats.
"Starting the campaign" should be "starting with the campaign".
Anonymous 5:07,

My understanding is that NATO has backtracked. I don't think Ukraine should receive an invitation to join NATO unless Russia receives an equal invitation as well. It was a mistake for the West not to bring Russia in earlier.

My point was simply that if Russia annexes the Crimean peninsula or any other part of Ukraine, then NATO membership for the remainder of Ukraine would be judged under a different set of circumstances.

"The title rightly belongs to Mr. Ushchenko and other real Europeans and real democrats."

May I ask why being a "real democrat" is wrong in this context?
Are the various ethnic groups also "Anglicizing" themselves?

Are we to have a "Green Revolution" in whcih the Southwest is retruned to the bosom of Patrio - Mexico?

Those who live in glass houses should not throw stones - specially the born-again real democrats.
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