Sunday, February 23, 2014

Does Russia still matter?

Some very smart people think not.

At the end of day the Russia just doesn't matter that much in the early 21st century world, certainly not as an any sort of primary let alone existential threat to the United States. Constantly wondering whether there's going to be another Cold War is either based on ignorance or the continuing presence of people in the US who simply grew up with the Cold War and haven't ever been able to think outside of its constructs and thus, paradoxically, pine for it to come back.

That's Josh Marshall, purveyor of liberal link-bait at Talking Points Memo, but also a serious journalist with an historian's education and a sharp eye for world trends.

The combination of the Sochi Olympics, Russia's escalating crack down on dissenters and its gay people, and the upheaval in Ukraine that inherently involves its huge neighbor has awakened contrary voices seeking to overcome the US media's dismissive attitude toward Russia. Most prominently on the loosely left, publishing in the Nation magazine, has been Stephen F. Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at New York University.

The degradation of mainstream American press coverage of Russia, a country still vital to US national security, has been under way for many years. If the recent tsunami of shamefully unprofessional and politically inflammatory articles in leading newspapers and magazines—particularly about the Sochi Olympics, Ukraine and, unfailingly, President Vladimir Putin—is an indication, this media malpractice is now pervasive and the new norm.

...the most crucial media omission is Moscow’s reasonable conviction that the struggle for Ukraine is yet another chapter in the West’s ongoing, US-led march toward post-Soviet Russia, which began in the 1990s with NATO’s eastward expansion and continued with US-funded NGO political activities inside Russia, a US-NATO military outpost in Georgia and missile-defense installations near Russia.

..And what of Barack Obama’s decision to send only a low-level delegation, including retired gay athletes, to Sochi? In August, Putin virtually saved Obama’s presidency by persuading Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to eliminate his chemical weapons. Putin then helped to facilitate Obama’s heralded opening to Iran.

The first two paragraphs above seem to me a necessary corrective to US arrogance toward Russia, as does Cohen's contention that President Putin rescued Obama from starting his very own dumb war in Syria last fall. But that bit about the US Sochi delegation -- it smacks of the left's historic admonition to women and people of color and gays to postpone their self-assertion while the white boys get on with the important things …

However I remembered Professor Cohen as one of the very few interesting voices in our media writing in the 1980s about Russia's Gorbachev era, so I decided to get hold of his more recent book, Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War and see where he was coming from. I found a lot to ponder. Cohen writes about a series of turning points when different choices might have resulted in a different Russia, beginning with Buhkarin's alternative path to that set for communism by Stalin, through Khrushchev's incomplete "thaw" of the 1950s and 60s, and on into the Gorbachev reforms of the late 1980s and the subsequent break-up of the Soviet Union into its component states.

Cohen doesn't want any of us to forget how much Russians suffered from the break up of the Soviet system and its replacement by an oligarchic kleptocracy while US and European elites applauded.

The result was the worst economic and social catastrophe ever suffered by a major nation in peacetime. Russia sank into a corrosive economic depression greater than that of the American 1930s. Investment plunged by 80 percent, GDP by almost 50 percent; some two-thirds of Russians were impoverished; the life expectancy of men fell below 59 years; and the population began to decline annually by almost a million people. In 1998, with nothing left to sustain it, despite several large Western loans, the Russian financial system collapsed. State and private banks defaulted on their domestic and foreign obligations, causing still more poverty and widespread misery.

The disaster shattered whatever post-Soviet consensus had existed about the nation's future. A new debate and political struggle began over what kind of economy was needed to save the country from further collapse and foster Russia's general development without its recurring episodes of "modernization through catastrophe," as many viewed the Stalinist 1930s and the Yeltsin 1990s.

It is not surprising that a people so traumatized didn't know where to turn. Cohen maintains that Russian experience, not only during the 20th century but also much older, has left its population open to looking to authoritarianism for stability.

Opinion surveys taken fifty-five years after Stalin died, a half a century after most survivors of his terror had returned, and nearly twenty years after the Soviet Union ended showed that the nation was almost evenly divided between those who thought Stalin had been a "wise leader" and those who thought he was an "inhuman tyrant," with pro-Stalin views no less widespread among young Russians.

Those findings mean that the struggle in Russia's political life (and soul) over the significance of the Stalin era, which is as much about the nation's present and future as about its past, is not over. …

… it would be a mistake to think that the Soviet system over seven decades, or Sovietism, was nothing more than the Moscow state and its ruling Party. It was also a political civilization with defining features, including collectivist economic attitudes, popular concepts of social justice, authoritarian rulership, and bureaucratic practices that had deep roots in Russia's pre-Communist history. If Soviet Communism had simply been imposed on Russia, as many Western and Russian commentators maintained after 1991… the nation should have quickly escaped its twentieth-century past. That, of course, did not happen.

Meanwhile, "the West" -- meaning Bill Clinton and successor US leaders -- has in Cohen's telling engaged in a foolish triumphalism that has helped ensure that Russia's evolution has been toward an authoritarian internal system and a xenophobic posture.

The new cold war and the squandering of the post-Soviet peace began not in Moscow but in Washington.

  • A growing military encirclement of Russia, on and near its borders, by US and NATO bases, which by August 2008 were already ensconced or being planned in at least half the fourteen other former Soviet republics, from the Baltics and Ukraine to Georgia, Azerbaijan, and the new states of Central Asia. ...
  • A tacit (and closely related) U.S. denial that Russia has any legitimate security concerns outside its own territory, even in ethnically akin or contiguous former Soviet republics such as Ukraine, Belarus, and Georgia. ...
  • a presumption that Russia does not have full sovereignty within its own borders, as expressed by constant U.S. interventions in Moscow's internal affairs since 1992. …
  • familiar Cold War double standards condemning Moscow for doing what Washington does -- such as seeking allies and military bases in former Soviet republics, using its assets (oil and gas in Russia's case) as aid to friendly governments, regulating foreign money in its political life, and recognizing secessionist territories after using force to abet them. …
  • the United States has been attempting, by exploiting Russia's weakness, to acquire the nuclear superiority it could not achieve during the Soviet era [by repudiating the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and installing missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic.] ...
  • Above all, the growing presence of NATO and American bases and U.S.-backed governments in the former Soviet republics moved the "front lines" of the conflict, in the alarmed words of a Moscow newspaper, from the epicenter of the previous Cold War in Germany to Russia's "near abroad." ...

That last item certainly catches what Moscow has been saying about Ukraine over this eventful weekend.

So what? Does Russia still matter? Cohen answers an emphatic "yes," for reasons of US security as well as out of humane concern for what happens to Russians.

As long as catastrophic possibilities exist in that nation, so do the unprecedented threats to U.S. and international security. Experts differ as to which danger is the gravest -- the proliferation of Russia's enormous stockpiles of nuclear, chemical, and biological materials, all of which are sought by terrorist organizations; poorly maintained nuclear reactors on land and on decommissioned submarines; an impaired early-warning system controlling nuclear missiles on hair-trigger alert; or a repetition of the first-ever civil war in a shattered superpower, the terror-ridden Chechen conflict. But no one should doubt that together they constitute a much greater constant threat than any the United States faced during the Soviet era. If nothing else, the widespread assumption that the danger of a nuclear apocalypse ended with the Soviet state is a myth. …

… [When US politicians like John McCain and Dick Cheney chatter about 'regime change,"] they seem indifferent to what it might actually mean --- if not political chaos, even civil war, certainly not a "regime" of their anointed Russian "democrats," who lack any meaningful popular support in the country, but of forces much more repressive, nationalistic, and uncompromising than those represented by Putin.

Is Cohen right and Marshall wrong? I certainly don't have the answer.

But as the excitement of watching people rise up in Ukraine and apparently chasing out a kleptocrat grips us (wonder if the departed President Yanukovych was BFF with Jamie Dimon?) it would behoove us to have a somewhat more sophisticated picture of the region. Professor Cohen provides one set of nuances.

There are others -- for example this article by Yale professor Timothy Snyder which offers a passionate description of the breadth of the Ukrainian protest and insists it represents a native Ukrainian turn away from Russian domination.

The protesters represent every group of Ukrainian citizens: Russian speakers and Ukrainian speakers (although most Ukrainians are bilingual), people from the cities and the countryside, people from all regions of the country, members of all political parties, the young and the old, Christians, Muslims, and Jews. Every major Christian denomination is represented by believers and most of them by clergy. The Crimean Tatars march in impressive numbers, and Jewish leaders have made a point of supporting the movement. The diversity of the Maidan is impressive: the group that monitors hospitals so that the regime cannot kidnap the wounded is run by young feminists. An important hotline that protesters call when they need help is staffed by LGBT activists.

As the author of the magisterial history of the area in 20th century --Bloodlands-- Snyder undoubtedly knows the terrain and the languages. But his sanguine picture of the Ukrainian uprising -- will he be correct? or will Ukraine turn out more like what Cohen fears?

Guess the Ukrainians and Russians will have to work that out -- presumably with massive meddling from Europe and the U.S. if this declining empire still has the capacity. One thing I am sure of: people in the United States are much more eager to spend the nation's resources on improving life at home than on Russia's frontiers, whatever lingering resentment and fear we carry from the Cold War era.


Rain Trueax said...

Whatever Americans might prefer to spend their money on, they better be real careful who they elect. Every time I hear McCain talk it reminds of the warhawks in this country and those who profit from our wars. It's no time to be careless in where we donate to candidates in '14 or who we work to elect president in '16. A lot would rather the money all went to war machinery-- necessary or otherwise-- and some of those are democrats!

Hunter Cutting said...

Russia still matters a lot when it comes to a global agreement on climate change and controlling carbon pollution.

Almost all the attention is given to China and the EU. In part that's because Russia is a wild card in the negotiations.

Russia is in the unusual position of having crashed it's emissions when it's economy crashed - and they feel that sacrifice should not go unrecognized.

Their negotiating strategy seems to be to let other countries squabble and stall negotiations while they hold their cards close the vest, waiting until the last minute to play them

Climate change is very complicated subject in Russia. One the one hand denialism runs rampant, on the other many in the country see Russia as a "winner" in warming planet. Not to mention the countries vast fossil fuel reserves.

Russia still matters, a lot, when it comes to climate change. And since that means we're talking about the fate of the planet, that means Russa still matters, period.

Hattie said...

Jan: Thanks for this thoughtful analysis and commentary. I heard Cohen speak on the topic of Russia,and what I remember most is that he thought poking fun at Putin was not a good idea.

Ken Hoop said...

As for Snyder, when a Yale or any other professor ends an essay like that worrying about the preservation of the orthodox reading of the Holocaust!!!, you know you got problems. Zionist Lobby cretins have pounded way at victimology for several generations to garner sympathy for their own imperialism. Ask Arno Mayer and several other Israel-critical authors. Oh, but as Mayer has said, that youthful trip to Israel has been practically the only instrument preserving Jewish identity for the past fifty years, at least those 50% who haven't married out, most of whom of the latter's progeny having been raised as Christians.

Maybe Dugin and the Russian imperialists have a case--when the Zionist Nuland says "fuck the EU she's also saying "fuck Russia" too-and anyone who stands in the way of Amer-Israel Empire.

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