Why everyone misunderstands Russia
How should the West deal with Russia? The perennial question has reached a new level of intensity since the election of Donald Trump to the White House.
On the American political spectrum, there seem to be essentially two schools of thought. On the left, the approach favored by President Obama seems to have been, essentially, to ignore Putin and just hope he goes away. Putin invades Crimea? Place some sanctions and cross fingers. Putin takes over Syria, challenging America's status as the key power broker in the Middle East? If he wants a Middle Eastern quagmire, let him have it. Obama basically expressed this view of Russia: As an illiberal regime, the country is on "the wrong side of history" and so it will magically get better over time if you let it.
On the right, meanwhile, Vladimir Putin seems to be taken as something like the incarnation of the devil. Every aggressive action needs to be met with a counter-reaction. If Putin invades Crimea, the U.S. should arm the anti-Russian Ukrainian forces and start a proxy war in Europe. In Syria, the U.S. should (somehow) beat back Assad, and ISIS, and Putin, and Iran and its proxies, and al Qaeda-linked groups (except, you know, the ones we're arming). If Putin makes threatening noises towards the Baltic states, the U.S. should respond with a big show of force.
Does Trump represent a different way? No one really knows. He campaigned on a platform of alliance with Russia, but the neoconservatives he is rumored to want to hire for foreign policy and national security positions are strongly anti-Russia hawks. Rather than those two extremes, or Obama's lackadaisical complacency, it's worth taking a step back to think about what really animates Russia.
The basic problem with dealing with it is that not all the topics are the same. Ukraine and Syria are not the same thing, and neither is NATO or WikiLeaks. And this speaks to an even deeper problem, which is that American policymakers show a fundamental incapacity to understand Russia's thinking, history, and worldview.
Russia is a country with a unique history and culture. With its own script, its unique geography, and its own Eastern version of Christianity, Russia has always been a country at once Western and Eastern. What's more, it has long harbored an inferiority complex towards the West, with a mix of attraction and revulsion. In the 17th century, Peter the Great's drive to "Westernize" Russia — complete with instructing Russians to shave off their beards in the Western style — and the hostile reactions it received from his people were already a sign of this. Another historical example was Russia's tottering search for identity through the 19th and early 20th century, split between the temptations of Western-style liberalism and ethno-religious nationalism, with the Czars' incapacity to make a choice and stick to it leading to successive tremors, culminating in the disaster of the Bolshevik revolution.
Closer to our day, the disaster that was the 1990s — featuring economic collapse, gangster capitalism, oligarchy, and the drunken incompetence of Boris Yeltsin — was a national humiliation, as was the breaking away of countless regions that were part, not only of the broader Soviet bloc, but of the traditional Russian sphere of influence.
History matters. Old rules of statecraft matter. When Western-affiliated Ukrainian protesters throw off their pro-Russian protesters, and Russia responds by sponsoring a crackdown and annexing Crimea, Westerners see an expansionist power trying to invade a foreign country. But Russians see things very differently. They see foreign powers — the EU, NATO (a military alliance whose goal is to fence in Russia militarily and geopolitically), and the U.S. — as trying to take control of the last protective buffer between Russia and the West, and encroaching on territory that, as a matter of historical fact, has almost always been within the Russian sphere of influence. Indeed, Russia itself was born on what is contemporary Ukraine's territory, as the Kievan Rus'. Again, historically speaking, Crimea was a Russian territory for centuries and is more closely bound to Russian history and culture than California or Texas is to America's.
For the West to try to pull Ukraine into its sphere of influence is, in foreign policy master Charles de Talleyrand's phrase, "worse than a crime, it's a mistake." But the West wants to grab something from Russia that it considers vital, for something that is of little importance to the West's interests. It's simply a recipe for disaster.
At the same time, Russia is not just an old power working by rules of old power politics; it has also been, under Putin, an ideological rival to the West, trying to promote a social-political model of authoritarian, socially conservative autocracy around the world. On this terrain, the West should be unyielding. Of course threats against NATO should be taken extremely seriously, and confronted with actions that demonstrate resolve. It should figure out clever ways to nip in the bud the budding Putin-Erdogan bromance. It should take the intelligence fight that Putin has been so cleverly waging to Russia.
And as for Syria? Well, as for Syria, you're a better man than me if you can figure out an option that's not terrible at this point. The U.S. should certainly pursue not only the destruction of ISIS and other terrorist groups, but the establishment of a friendly and relatively non-horrific regime, while ensuring that Russia's immediate interests in the region, such as its warm water port of Tartus, will not be challenged.
The point is this. Russia is a great power, and always has been, and will always crave being recognized as such. Moreover, some of its grievances with the West really are legitimate. Others are not. Western policymakers should be careful, cultured, and cold-headed as they try to discern which is which.