By Patricia Lee Sharpe
Putin looks like a Pink Pearl, doesn’t he? Pink torso, pink cheeks, pale pink pate gleaming through thinning hair, he acts like one, too, doing his best to rub out nearly thirty years of post Cold War adjustments to the map of the world, with special attention to the boundaries of Russia, which gobbled up its neighbors, first under the Czars, then under the Commissars, only to lose them, all at once (more or less), in 1991. So here comes Vladimir Putin, trying to erase what he doesn’t like, determined to revive a Slavophile, Russocentric version of history. It’s enough to make Lenin rise from his ghoulish tomb and bellow out the Internationale.
But the world has changed. Empires (China take note!) have had their day. Imagine the U.K. attempting to recover control over India! Yet some experts, including ex-Ambassadors, think we should sympathize with a bereft Kremlin and pretend that Moscow didn't lose when the Iron Curtain came down. In fact, according to Jack Matlock, the U.S. has been the big bully ever since the Soviet Union fell apart.
Remember the Hindenberg
My super rational scientist son has chewed me out for not writing about Ukraine, Crimea and Russia. He’s right. I’ve been suffering from a rare attack of caution based on the fact that I’m not a seasoned Russia hand. So I’ve been reading, thinking and vacillating. I’ve veered between increasing indignation at a peremptory Putin and increasing indignation at the sweet reasonableness of those like ex-U.S. Ambassador in Moscow Jack Matlock, who want us to pity Russia for losing the Cold War. Losing’s not the way to put it, these supposed experts insist, splitting some diplomatic hairs. Besides it hurts Russia’s pride. Right! But pride’s a quality of which Russian President Vladimir Putin has more than enough to inflate the Goodyear blimp—or should I say the Hindenberg, because his Rossiya is, in the long run, headed for disaster.
Meanwhile: these seeming Putin triumphs! The Georgia snatch. The Crimea annexation. The Potemkin—oops! Sochi Olympics. Call them Putin’s euphoria-inducing puffs of nitric oxide—ho!ho!ho!–intended to distract Russians from Russia’s bleak realities, a declining population and a miserable economy too dependent on the volatile income from energy exports, which, thanks to Putin, will trend downward as hapless current users find alternative sources. Nostalgic nationalists cheered in Sevastapol and on Red Square when Putin announced that Crimea is Russian again, but Russia herself, once again, is rotting from the inside. Not that the oligarchs mind. They’re busy buying up London. Sanctions that freeze the real estate sound like a good idea at this point.
Crippling Word Games
Back to Matlock et. al. To assuage easily-bruised Russian pride, we non-experts are informed that we mustn’t be so crass as to assert that the Soviets aka Russia lost the Cold War. Come again! This is like telling American textbook writers to gloss over the fact that the South lost the Civil War—and hey! if you want those books to sell below the Mason-Dixon Line, you’d best call that five year horror the War between the States, because every Good Old Boy knows that the slaves loved their always gentle masters and anyway White Southerners’s get nasty when their feelings are hurt. Another rough analogy: despite pinpoints of prosperity, the fantasy-engorged American South, like a backward-looking Russia, is a poverty zone. I worked in Moscow as a journalist not long before Matlock became U.S. Ambassador there, and the country I experienced wasn’t a worker’s paradise, unless queuing in the snow for toilet paper, oranges and a small chunk of beef is equivalent to harp-playing. The U.S.S.R. was a very sick entity lashed to a totalitarian ideology, and it imploded because its command economy couldn’t support its inflated ambitions, including the army needed to keep its satellites in line.
Grown Ups Face Facts
Mikhail Gorbachev, a Party insider who saw the handwriting on the wall, was smart and forward-looking. He met with some equally savvy American presidents, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, to make a few deals, which allowed the Soviets to say uncle, but diplomatically, in obfuscatory technical language. Ronald Reagan, for his part, reassured his own doubting citizens by changing his tune from “evil empire” to the words of wisdom that have gone down in history, “Trust, but verify.”
Now Czar Vladimir Putin is trying to rewrite Russia's painful history, but let’s be clear. Whatever the politesse that ended the MAD (mutually assured destruction) era, the Soviets lost their bet on being history’s dialectical darling. They lost the war of ideas and they lost the war of economic systems. Dictatorship lost to democracy and communism lost to capitalism (which is not to say that unregulated capitalism is an unmitigated blessing). And, finally, Soviet Russia lost most of its empire, which fell apart because the glue that held it together was nasty stuff. Should the U.S. sympathize with Russia over this tragic loss, as Matlock implies? I think not.
All that being said, I wholly agree with Matlock that crowing over a victory is always a bad idea. Why? Because humiliation rankles. It is never forgotten, a truism that U.S. President George W. Bush and His Vice President Richard Cheney were temperamentally unequipped to understand. When they won, they chortled: America is number one! Result du jour: the extraordinary bitterness informing Vladimir Putin’s Crimea-is-Russian-Again speech a few days ago. A good offense being the best defense, Putin also accused the U.S. of double standards when it comes to respecting international norms regarding sovereignty.
Nobody's Perfect, Not Even the U.S.
Putin very cleverly alluded to the spotty American record vis-à-vis non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries. The Monroe Doctrine began as a way of protecting American shipping while also protecting fledgling Latin American countries from Old World exploitation. But there was no one, over the years, to protect the ex-Iberian colonies from the U.S. behemoth. Eventually the backlash began. First, in Cuba, with more than a little help from the Soviet Union. More recently, with plenty of cheering from Havana, Venezuela and Equador have been snubbing their noses at the U.S., as have, in their own ways, Argentina and Brazil. In short, Latin American countries have begun to declare their independence from U.S. hegemony—and about time, because U.S. meddling hasn’t done much good for democracy or prosperity in the long run.
But don’t expect Vladimir Putin to admit that Soviet domination was anything but good for the involuntary satellites ringing Mother Russia, and don’t expect Russian chauvinists to concede that the satellites broke out of orbit as soon as they could, not because of U.S. machinations, but of their own volition. The Baltics. Poland. Czechoslovakia. Romania. Hungary. East Germany (Yes, Ambassador Matlock, however reunification was negotiated, the truth is that the emergent recombined German state didn’t opt for a Communist system, which means the Soviets lost. As for the former Yugoslavia, Tito had long since kissed Stalin good by.) And so, each of the satellites wiggled out of the Russian bear’s embrace and chose—yes! chose, freely, to join (or became a candidate to join) the European Union and/or N.A.T.O. in order to keep Moscow forever at bay.
Aside from the requirements of basic civility, then, why must we perpetuate a fantasy in order to spare the Russian ego from the pain of assimilating the debilitating consequences of destructive Soviet policy? History may be reinterpreted, but facts can't be erased. Want proof of the persistent strong fear of an overbearing Russia? Note the relief felt among the Baltics, the Poles, the Czechs, et. al., as N.A.T.O. aircraft arrived to affirm their borders and sovereign integrity.
Tradition and Opportunism
And now, let’s consider Russia's wholly opportunistic approach to its dear cousin Ukraine. The Soviet Union was perfectly happy to sever ancient traditional ties with Kiev when it was in Moscow's interest to declare Ukraine a sovereign state. It worked like this: the U.S.S.R. insisted that Ukraine and Belarus weren’t mere Soviet Republics, but rather independent nations and, therefore, deserving of full member status in the U.N. Since both, de facto, were anything but independent and wouldn’t dare cast votes contrary to Soviet wishes, this gave the U.S.S.R. three votes. Neat trick, but the Soviets got away with it. As for today, Ukraine was supposedly a fully independent state free to pursue its own interests in the U.N. and elsewhere, joining Europe or not, but cooperation with the latter turned out to be an unacceptable last straw for Putin's post-Soviet Russia — and justifiably, according to some Americans who've written on the current crisis in Crimea. Poor Russia, they say. The post Cold War splintering of the U.S.S.R. cost Russia its control over so much territory, a humiliation almost impossible to bear. Why not offer a chained-to-Russia Ukraine as a consolation prize?
Amazing! Either a country is independent or it is not. If it is a sovereign state, it gets to chose its own friends and make its own alliances. That includes Ukraine. Period.
Living with Russia
Jack Matlock is correct in noting that Europe and the U.S. must deal with Russia on all sorts of global issues that have nothing to do with Crimea or the Ukraine. But to say that the U.S. must therefore tread softly when confronting Putin's agressiveness is going too far. Furthermore, suggesting that Putin considers much beyond a very narrow notion of the Russian national interest makes a mockery of diplomatic language. Take Syria. It’s good to destroy Syria's chemical warfare capacity, but who benefits most? Russia the neighbor? Or the distant U.S.? Russia, meanwhile, keeps funneling arms to the Assad regime, which looks likely to prevail in the civil war as a result. Finally, Mr. Matlock, please explain how, aside from sharing a table during futile Group of Eight talks, cooperation from Moscow has mitigated the threat from North Korea's nuclear ambitions.
There’s a red line to be drawn here. It has to do with invading Eastern Ukraine. I hope Mr. Obama is ready to announce economic sanctions so heavy that even the swaggering Vladimir Putin will recoil. Otherwise, I suggest that the ex-satellites prepare themselves for the next chapter of Mr. Putin’s attempt to restore the boundaries of the Soviet empire. I wish I could promise them that the U.S. would defend them vigorously, because they are very very small and Russia is very very big.
Meanwhile, the mighty Vladimir Putin strikes bare-chested he-man poses, recreates Soviet repression while parading his ballooned-up Russian fairy tales during the opening ceremonies at the Sochi Olympics, siezes symbolic bits of territory from helpless neighbors and imagines that he's rebuilding the Soviet empire whose dissolution, he believes, was the greatest of 20th century catastrophes. No doubt he actually believes this, though countries that have been happily free of Russian rule for half a century would hardly sing from that sheet of grim music. Perhaps, if Putin himself managed to fight free of his miasma of nostalgia and worked to build an inspiring, prosperous, modern (even non-Western) Russia, wealth-skimming oligarchs wouldn't be sending money abroad, ordinary Russian men would stop killing themselves by swilling vodka and the Russian population would reverse its pathetic shrinkage.