Russia, After the War: Don’t make the same mistake twice.

April 16, 2023

There is no way of telling how Russia’s war in Ukraine will end: win, lose, or improbable draw.  Comparisons to the trench warfare of World War I have become common. It is sometimes pointed out on both sides that the Great War ended, not by force of arms, but in a collapse of morale of one side.  In 1917-1918, it was Russia, Austro-Hungary, and Germany.

Cracks in the NATO alliance are becoming apparent. Security officials in Washington scrambled last week to learn how a trove a highly-sensitive documents describing Ukraine’s plans and military capabilities surfaced online last month, and to estimate their value to Russia.

Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin continues to button up wartime Russia. The Kremlin formally hardened its foreign policy ambitions for the first time since 2016, describing Russia as a “distinctive state-civilization” while identifying the US as the “main source of threat” to its own “unique historical mission.” Russian security officials began collecting passports of senior officials as fears of defection escalated.

It is worth thinking ahead.  However the war ends, Russia will still be Russia.  At the conclusion of Not One Inch: America, Russia, and the Making of Post-Cold War Stalemate, historian M.E. Sarotte quotes the Belarusian essayist Svetlana Alexievich, a 2015 Nobel laureate: “We need to wait for the new times all over again, because we missed our chance in the Nineties.”

(A note to new subscribers:  two sorts of experience explain my continuing interest in the Russian war in Ukraine and its consequences. For two years at the end of the Sixties, I reported from Saigon, for Pacific Stars and Stripes and Newsweek, on America’s Vietnam War. In the summer of 1974, I traveled by train from Nakhodka, near Vladivostok, to what is today St. Petersburg, stopping in various cities along the way, picking up background knowledge.

(That was, indeed, a long time ago. But for the fifty years since, I have covered economics and politics, one way or another. So I know something about how “shock therapy” was undertaken by the states of the former Soviet Union and its satellites at the end of the Cold War. Keeping track of how economics is understood remains my day job. Yet I can’t stop thinking occasionally about America’s role in provoking the war.)

The single most noteworthy article I’ve read recently on the well-springs of the Russian invasion is “The Emotional State of Nations.” It appeared in Noema, a magazine backed by US-based French billionaire Nicolas Berggruen. Its editor, Nathan Gardels, a cosmopolitan journalist, makes a simple point:

Humiliation and resentment over a lack of recognition and respect are among the most powerful drivers of history that ends badly. Russia may be the most indicative case in point at the moment. To consider Putin a maniacal outlier in his worldview misses how broadly his sentiments are shared by a range of otherwise sympathetic personalities in Russia over the post-Cold War period.

Gardels recounted a conversation twenty years before in which Mikhail Gorbachev had complained about Western disregard of the stories that Russians told each other about their history.  “Americans have treated us without proper respect,” the Russian president complained.  ‘Russia is a serious partner. We are a country with a tremendous history, with diplomatic experience. It is an educated country that has contributed much to science.”

Gardels quoted another prominent Russian as well. Alexander Lebed, a popular former general who ran for president of Russia in the days before Boris Yeltsin chose Putin, had said,

If [the] sense of loss and humiliation that comes with defeat is allowed to fester in the Russian mentality, it may lead to an inferiority complex that can only be overcome by gaining new victories, preferably over old rivals, Territories come and go, but humiliation of a nation’s dignity remains in the minds of the people. … It injects the virus of vengeance into the defeated nation.

Lebed was presumably thinking of German when he spoke.  The humiliation impose by the British and French on their defeated foe with the 1919 Treaty of Versailles led directly to World War II, twenty years later.   It is reason enough to wonder what will be the consequences of peace, however it comes, to Ukraine.

If Russia loses, all bets are off.  Putin was bullied as a child in St. Petersburg, and four American presidents, pushing NATO expansion, bullied him into undertaking a war for which his nation was, in retrospect, clearly ill-prepared. (President Donald Trump was too conflicted to count.)  Maybe an ebullient democracy will spring forth. More likely Russia will resemble a nuclear-armed Libya.

If Russia wins, it will be time to begin taking seriously the arguments Putin has made for the invasion as an act of self-defense, beginning with Alexander Nevsky, the oldest Russian story of all.  Russia has repeatedly been invaded, by knights of the Teutonic Order in the thirteenth century, the Swedes in the seventeenth century, the French in the eighteenth century, the British in the nineteenth century, the Germans in the twentieth century.

Does American encroachment via NATO expansion count in the twenty-first? It does if you listen to Russia.  Ukrainian desires for self-determination are much easier to understand. But war is about force, not sympathy for the other side Understanding comes afterwards, better sooner than later, given the rate of Earth’s climate change.

So ignore the relentless propaganda on both sides. Think ahead. You are going to be listening to Russia in either event.  It is not too late to start now. Recall Esther Dyson’s wise motto: always make new mistakes; or, in this case, don’t make the same mistake twice.

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