The Russians and the Americans
by Eric Jackson
Is US politics getting back to a “The Russians are coming” discourse? If so, does it make any sense at all?
Russians tend not to think like Americans on some key issues, but then a big part of the difference was accentuated in the 20th century by Americans who trace ancestral roots back to the Russian Empire, albeit that they were not ethnic Russians as such.
Geography and history shape the Russian outlook on government. From a Western viewpoint, invading Russia has been the height of folly. Hitler learned it the hard way. So did Napoleon. So did the Teutonic Knights. Each in their turn beat the hell out of the Russians — at first. And what was left of Russia retreated, then retreated some more, and then winter set in and the invaders had impossibly long supply lines to protect. On its western end Russia has no natural boundaries that can be usefully fortified. Its protective barrier is vast open spaces, which throughout its history it has tried to push ever westward via conquests or the establishment of vassal states, protectorates or lesser allies along its periphery.
If you are a Finn, a Pole, a Lithuanian, a Czech or a Ukrainian, you are likely to be less sympathetic to Russian concerns about being naturally defenseless on the western side. Get into the extra added complications of church and state, and how Russia relates to its ethnic minorities, and you will begin to understand the mass exodus to America of Jews living in areas under Russian control or domination in the 19th and 20th centuries. Among this part of the Jewish diaspora were the theater people who by and large founded Hollywood. It’s not just that the Jewish film moguls, screenwriters, directors and actors embraced an American culture that was already anti-authoritarian. (That goes back to the resentments that led the pilgrims to flee the Church of England and later the 13 colonies to resent impositions like the Navigation Acts and the Stamp Tax.) The abuses of the czars, and then of the commissars, and the pogroms that the Russian state would neither prevent nor suppress and occasionally provoked, were part of the collective ethnic memory that went into the foundations of Hollywood culture.
Looking toward the east and south, Russians have another set of fears. They conquered places with some formidable natural barriers — mountains, deserts and the vast expanse of Siberia — but a lot of the Muslim peoples whom they conquered or dominated have long resented the Russians and have periodically risen in rebellion. Before those conquests and the establishment of Cossack settlements to defend them, part of Russia’s formative experience was a quite brutal conquest from the east, by the Mongols.
From the Russian perspective, to have a weak leader is to invite invasions and encourage revolts on the periphery, leading to death and suffering on a massive scale for ordinary Russians. After Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin presided over the loss of an empire and a consequent decline in the average life span of Russians — particularly the men — former KGB man Vladimir Putin looked and acted the part of a strong leader regardless of how strong a hand he actually held. Russians have appreciated that. Putin’s actions are at least partly explained by his political need to look strong. It’s a hard act to keep up these days because Russia has an economy mostly based on resource extraction — oil, gas, metals, timber and so on — at a time when commodity prices are down and countries that rely on such sources of income are hurting.
Are the Western powers going to install a regime subservient to them in the Ukraine, some 350 miles by a highway with no natural choke point from Moscow? Russians expect and demand their leader to take a hard line about that. Put nukes in Estonia, some 85 miles from Russia’s second city, St. Petersburg? Expect Russians, including Putin, to go ballistic about that idea.
What really happened in the last Cold War with greater Russia, the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact dependencies? Vast amounts of money and many human lives were expended in proxy wars which the USA and the USSR respectively lost, in Vietnam and then in Afghanistan. Then there was this insanely expensive nuclear weapons race. The Russian economic engine blew up first. Look at it as two teenagers drag racing daddy’s Lada against the other daddy’s Ford. But the Ford engine hasn’t been running very well since then either.
It’s a reasonable US military policy to be ready to fight anyone if the need arises. It’s not a reasonable US policy to pick a fight with the Russians by provoking them along their borders.
Do American voters face a policy choice between neoconservative belligerence toward Russia and a blowhard who has been known to hang out with Russian mobsters and who now — whether seriously or in jest — invites Putin to wage computer warfare against his election opponent? If Russia indeed cares to tip the balance, what is Putin to do?
The choice for the Russian leader is not obvious. Half of Hillary Clinton’s party is in the antiwar camp and will not readily accept a new military adventure. Half of Donald Trump’s party is appalled at the potential effect of his wild foreign policy pronouncements, one of which appears to be a retreat from Western guarantees of the Baltic states’ independence from Russia.
Sure, Putin might like an apparent rusophile in the White House, except that this particular one would be dangerously unpredictable. Having dealt with Napoleon and then Hitler, Russians tend to be particularly wary of maniac adversaries. (They had Ivan the Terrible and the non-Russian Josef Stalin, but generally draw different conclusions about those guys than Americans do.)
Rivals, allies or ever-changing mixes of both — those are all basic US-Russian paradigms with which both countries can live as the need arises. The ruin of both is avoided only if ways are found to limit the mutual damage that can be done by hostilities getting out of hand. In the worst case scenarios the costs of failure are expressed in terms of body counts but it would be foolhardy to discount the economic disasters that can happen without a shot being fired.
The people of the respective countries are not going to agree on things like the practical definitions of freedom, strength and safety. But there is a shared interest in having leaders who understand the math of decisions made or not made. A failed relationship between two major powers is not something that can be easily walked away from, like, say, from a bankrupt casino.
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