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Friday, June 16, 2023

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This whole argument founders on the plain fact that the international order Russia resents so much, and the American hegemony over Europe that alarms it, was created in the first place to resist the imperial ambitions of the Soviet Union ... which was, in effect, Russia. If Russia under the Communists had not been credibly threatening to conquer Europe from the Urals to the Atlantic, the US would never have stationed masses of troops there, or created NATO, or funded the Marshall Plan.

Similarly, the states carved out of the Soviet Union after it fell tried to join NATO, not because the US was forcing or bribing them, but because they feared being invaded or dominated ... by Russia. That's especially true for Ukraine. And before Russia actually invaded Ukraine (we'll ignore Crimea for now) none of NATO's members were much in favor of letting it in, because they didn't really want to go to war with Russia. Starting the war was the one thing Putin could do to make Europe's states think fighting him was necessary.

Russia, in short, has a history of being a hegemonic power builder - and failing at it. It makes enemies of its neighbors by clumsy attempts to control them, then accuses them of conspiring against it. The alternative it offers to the American hegemony amounts to becoming mere tributary states to a Russian Empire. The burdens the US lays on its allies are so much lighter that no one should be surprised Russia's neighbors would rather bear them than Russia's yoke.

The idea that NATO's expansion is aimed at the subjugation of Russia is no more than an expression of Russia's perennial fear of any state on its border it can't control. The truth is that if Russia could find a way, consistent with its historical identity and character as a civilization, to live in peace with its neighbors, the US wouldn't do anything to change its regime, however unjust Americans might think it. It would reason - as it did with China - that commerce and progress would soften its enemy's cruelty over time, and actively working against it would only harden its heart. (I'll pass over whether this reasoning is sound; the point is that US policymakers believe it.)

It's eminently possible to exploit the US-led international order while denying all its principles and working to displace the US from its primacy - China has been doing just that for more than two decades. (And China owes far less to European culture than Russia does, and has a far stronger claim to being an alternative civilization.) Russia's existential crisis is self-inflicted, rooted in its own paranoia; it has itself summoned the demons who will destroy it.

Michael Brazier's comment is much more informed about Russian history than the article by Soriano. Russian history is choke full of imperialist intentions and behaviours -- some realized (e.g. colonization of Siberia), some failed (e.g. Poland & the Baltic). Ignoring Russian imperialism is a fatal mistake for a professional political analyst. Ignoring the ex-KGB-led government fuelled by Russian nationalism (aka "fourth way"), stolen people's money & deep disdain for most other Slavic people is the second fatal mistake. In fact Soriano sometimes sounds like a Russian analyst -- in particular when he only cites Russian military successes like beating Napoleon and Hitler armies. There were plenty of military failures (e.g. Turkey, Japan and Mongolian domination of Russia for hundreds of years in the middle ages). Nobody knows how this will end, but the fact that Ukraine was invaded twice is undeniable. The fact that de-nazification of Ukraine is a cover up for aggression against a sovereign country is undeniable as well.

Michael,

I'm afraid I disagree and feel compelled to raise some salient considerations and geo-political realities, especially about that part of the world, absent from your analysis of historic Russian foreign policy and the mentality that animates it, as well as its invasion of Ukraine.

For starters if America, NATO and the West's intentions are innocuous with Russia, what's the urgent reason for NATO accepting more members and moving farther east after it's professed enemy to confront and raison d'être, the Soviet Union, no longer exists? What purpose does that serve other than to antagonize a humiliated Russia? Outside of Poland, who has more ties to the West than many of her neighbors, and some of the Baltic states that Churchill and Roosevelt let Stalin gobble up with Poland at the end of WW2, there isn't much of an apparent reason or obligation on our part to keep expanding the alliance eastward after winning the Cold War. Yes, I can understand how the countries of Eastern Europe would want belligerent Uncle Sam to guarantee their sovereignty and borders, but is that the best idea for maintaining peace across Europe and Eurasia, aggressively isolating and cornering a diminishing, yes, but current great power who still boasts the largest number of nuclear warheads on the planet?

Perhaps you're also not aware, but we likely sponsored the revolution in 2014 that overthrew the duly-elected Ukrainian President Yanukovych, who was more sympathetic toward strengthening ties with Russia than with the West. I believe that played a part in Putin's decision to annex Crimea shortly afterward. It seems we meddled in Ukrainian domestic politics because we didn't like whom its people elected, which further alarmed Putin. For better or worse, Russia views Ukraine as part of its sphere of influence, and any prudent foreign policy of ours respects that if the goal is to avoid conflict. Do you think we would tolerate Mexico joining a military alliance with China? Hell, why do you think we've tried to overthrow Castro in Cuba? Because we take Cuba to be within our sphere of influence and viewed, not without reasonable cause at the time, its alignment in the Soviet bloc as unacceptable for our security. The presumptions and prerogatives of the Monroe Doctrine still reign in our corner of the globe.

You speak of Russia's paranoid mindset. It's true that Russian imperialism historically was based out of the ironic fear of being invaded in a similar way that Rome expanded and preemptively waged war because it feared barbarian invasion/settlement of Cisalpine Gaul. But as it so happened, Brennus and the Senones did sack Rome in the 4th century BC, and two centuries later, Hannibal did cross the Alps and march around the Roman heartland with the help of Celtic and Gallic tribes for more than a decade, bringing the republic to its knees. In the case of Russia, as it so happened, Napoleon and Hitler, most notably, did invade the country to devastating effect. But so did Poland-Lithuania, who actually successfully occupied Moscow for several years and installed puppet czars in the early 17th century (the Time of Troubles). Not to mention the Central Powers pushed East in WW1, and in the ensuing October Revolution and civil war between White and Red Russians, foreign powers like the US, Japan, Britain and France did have actual troops fighting and involved in that struggle. There's some historic precedent for Russian "paranoia."

Consider also the fact states do have legitimate security interests, even bullies like Russia. At a certain point, Russia knows it can't feasibly defend that widening Eurasian front that grows as NATO expands if the West decides to invade again from eastern Ukraine instead of Poland -- where Hitler and Napoleon's troops and their supply lines started from. Mind you, the last invasion from the West is still on the fringes of living memory in the same way Pearl Harbor and WW2 are for us. It wasn't that long ago.

All this isn't to argue that Putin is a good guy or his invasion of Ukraine is just. The opposite is true on both counts. The point, however, is that Putin's actions and the chilling of relations with Russia during the last decade to where they are now were predictable and most likely avoidable. We do bear responsibility for needlessly poking the Russian Bear, exploiting Ukraine and her people to be fodder in a proxy war against an autocrat we irrationally fixate on being our blood enemy because simply he's not ideologically a modern Western liberal and doesn't rule his country, for better or worse, as such. I also suspect Washington D.C. resents the fact Russia, as a nation, is not chomping at the bit to give up its distinct cultural particularity and weaken its sovereignty in a marriage with the decadent America-led West and the nationhood-enervating markets of the global cosmopolitan order it dominates. It's due to this brazenness of policy-makers that we are now the closest to nuclear war that we ever been in my lifetime (33 years).

I think you're ignoring the dirty open secret that we democracy- and freedom-loving Americans don't like to admit the fact that we have an empire of our own, and we, for reasons no less self-interested, hypocritical and unsavory than the Russians of old, are seemingly always keen to further expand its borders and consolidate its influence -- as all great powers endeavor to do since the time of ancient Uruk.

“It’s clear now that Putin’s endgame is nothing short of a revanchist imperialist remaking of the globe to take control of the entire former Soviet space. He has complete disregard for international law, norms and human rights and will only be stopped by maximum economic, political and military pressure. Russia is nothing less than a rogue state on par with North Korea and Iran”. (Evelyn Farkas)

Of course, America’s interests are not Europe’s interests.

Note that Russian GDP is less than almost any major European power. Less than Italy’s, for example. But it has a lot more terrifying weapons.

“Accordingly, Russia went to war not to conquer, but from a no-nonsense threat assessment.” How well did that work out? And when people (usually Putin propagandists) talk about NATO expansion, ask why that happened. Which former Soviet states chose to remain loyal to their former overlords?

If the goal in DC is regime change in Moscow, then how do we know the Duginist we know won't be replaced by another Duginist we don't know? I don't believe anyone will take Putin's place that doesn't come with the blessing of the security apparatus. It is this security apparatus that maintains its hold over Moscow and the people by playing on the recent history, meaning WW2 and the Cold War, to keep themselves in control and wealthy.

As the years go by, and the old generation fades, younger people who know little about the past will not be so easily manipulated by paranoia. They tend to like their modern electronics and other conveniences and don't see why money and blood have to be shed to take over a neighboring country that hasn't harmed them. They want no part of Putin's merc, mobik, con army and are willing to flee the country. Young people like Western luxuries as do the oligarchs.

It hasn't been lost on Moscow, who has to plead with China for weapons, that China is taking full advantage of Russia's ineffective conventional army which should have been able to take Kiev in a matter of days. China is organizing at least 5 of the 'stans' on their border into an economic and political understanding. This was done on May 18th. China sells drones to Moscow and it sells them to Kiev. Turkey does the same. Just business they say.

Ukraine's future lies in her east and so does Putin's. This can end if Putin packs up and leaves all of Ukraine including Crimea. He can gather some of his wealth and arrange to leave Moscow alive.

"For starters if America, NATO and the West's intentions are innocuous with Russia, what's the urgent reason for NATO accepting more members and moving farther east after it's professed enemy to confront and raison d'être, the Soviet Union, no longer exists? What purpose does that serve other than to antagonize a humiliated Russia?"
Who said there was any urgency? As I said before, NATO was not treating Ukraine's request for membership with any haste, precisely because they didn't want to antagonize Russia. Germany, for instance, was relying on Russian oil and natural gas. It wasn't until Russia actually tried to conquer Kiev that European opinion swung against Russia.

"we likely sponsored the revolution in 2014 that overthrew the duly-elected Ukrainian President Yanukovych, who was more sympathetic toward strengthening ties with Russia than with the West."
Very likely. But I submit to you that Yanukovych was thoroughly corrupt and was stealing Ukraine blind, and that this had much more to do with his ouster than American support to his opponents did. Which brings up another point about Russia: its proxies in other countries all seem to be thieves. Organized crime is bad enough when it's on its own, but it's much worse when it actually controls the state.

"It's true that Russian imperialism historically was based out of the ironic fear of being invaded in a similar way that Rome expanded and preemptively waged war because it feared barbarian invasion/settlement of Cisalpine Gaul."
But that comparison cuts against Russia. Rome was a supremely successful hegemonic power builder - the people it conquered, after the war was over, came to like being under Rome's dominion. The peoples Russia conquers grow to hate Russian rule and escape it at the first opportunity.

"I also suspect Washington D.C. resents the fact Russia, as a nation, is not chomping at the bit to give up its distinct cultural particularity and weaken its sovereignty"
Possibly. But as I said before, US policymakers wouldn't have acted on any such resentment. To the Washington consensus, liberal democracy is the natural form of government, which every nation will eventually adopt; if a state hasn't done so, but it poses no real threat to the US, the US can wait patiently until it sees the light and reforms itself. Francis Fukuyama is Washington's guru, even now.

Again, consider China - much further away from the culture of the West, and more opposed to the American hegemony, than Russia is. The DC policy establishment positively encouraged China to become a major industrial producer, in the serene confidence that it would then become a liberal democracy like the US.

"I think you're ignoring the dirty open secret that we democracy- and freedom-loving Americans don't like to admit the fact that we have an empire of our own"
Not at all. America is a hegemon in the same way that Rome was between the Punic Wars and the fall of its republic. But as I said, we got there largely by fighting the Russian ambition to conquer an empire under the Communist banner, so Russia is largely responsible for the perilous position it's come to.

The point is that, even if you set aside the moral aspects - as I did before - the Russian strategy for defending its cultural particularity has been epically incompetent. An empire that constantly provokes its subject nations to revolt, and its neighboring nations to take up arms against it, is just bad at being an empire. If Russia really had an attractive alternative to the US-led political order, it would have real friends for neighbors - and it would not be in danger of falling apart.

Something on Alexander Dugin. Linkage doesnot constitute endorsement.
https://bigthink.com/the-past/the-dangerous-philosopher-behind-putins-strategy-to-grow-russian-power-at-americas-expense/

Thanks for this post, Bill. The passage from Soriano is consistent with some of my readings in political philosophy and history. For example, Soriano’s distinction between the descriptivist/realist international affairs policy of Russia and the normative approach of the U. S. fits what I recall regarding Russian history and political psychology and the influence of Wilsonian idealism in U. S. foreign policy. The Wilsonian idealists generally seek to disseminate American-style democracy worldwide, even though it seems unwelcome in some parts. Yet Russia has a deep and historically rooted sense of national sovereignty and cultural autonomy that doesn’t take kindly to foreign obtrusion, combined with a desire for buffer regions to protect its interests.

Note: I am not taking a position on this topic, but only noting the consistency above. Foreign policy is not my area, though it interests me.

It is worth noting that Wilsonian idealism seems to possess an internal tension between its support for (a) the global spread of democracy and (b) self-determination. If self-determination is the right of a people to decide, without external interference, its own political order and place in the international community, then the attempt to extend democracy into a nation that doesn’t choose it risks interfering with that nation’s self-determination.

Hi Elliot,

Geopolitics is not my bag, either, which is why I hesitate to jump into this. I am not sufficiently versed in the historical and cultural details. But like you, what mainly interested me in Soriano's piece are the broad conceptual issues. e.g., Realpolitik versus Wilsonian idealism. One thing is clear to me: the USA is in steep decline and is now corrupt from top to bottom, possibly beyond repair. The only thing keeping us from being a full-on police state is a lack of concentration camps. We are in no position to teach anyone anything. We are in no position to export 'democracy' even if that word meant anything -- which it doesn't. We are supposed to be a constitutionally based republic with democratic input. But neither the will of the people nor the Constitution mean anything to the corrupt wokesters now in charge.

Interesting discussion. What we have not touched upon is the weird phenomenon mentioned in this New York Times article, namely the similarity between the anti-war positions of the American right and left. “In some ways, that right sounds like the hard left it used to oppose so fiercely.”

When I grew up, things were so much simpler. There was the Cold War, the Iron Curtain over Europe and the division of the world into “blocs”. I remember visiting Berlin in my late teens and seeing the barbed wire curtain separating East and West, with sad little crosses mourning those who had tried to escape from East Berlin and had been shot. The European and American right were united in the concept of military (as well as intellectual) opposition to communism. The Left deplored American overseas involvement as a form of American imperialism. I think Chomsky has a similar position today.

It's behind a paywall. Giving money to leftists is like giving ammo to sworn enemies. There must be a free version online. I'll look for one later.

Ha! My wife never contributes to The Guardian when they pass the hat round, for the same reason.

Which is why my hat is off to her. A charming woman as I recall from our meeting in Prague.

NYT article here: https://dnyuz.com/2023/05/02/the-curious-conservative-case-against-defending-ukraine/

I take a dim view of Bret Stephens, for example, here: https://williamfvallicella.substack.com/p/should-we-discuss-our-differences

Oz,

Given your interest in rap music. at dnyuz you can read about Big Pokey. He be dead.

Geopolitics is not my field. But: I think that Russia sees itself as a redoubt of the True Christian Faith at this point, and Putin, and Metropolitain Kirill, are horrified at the real moral decadence of the West and want to keep it out of Holy Mother Russia. The transgender mutilation of children would fill them with horror;(indeed it would horrify any decent person), and this increases their resolve several-fold, I bet. And the West has only itself to blame for this.

Here is the Russia that cannot be defeated:

(4 girls singing)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ANKjat2bj94

Joe @8:51: another great comment.

We have no moral credibility left. This is what the useful idiots at the The Bulwark do not understand.

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