It comes to us from many quarters, on the left (German Social Democrats) and on the populist right (Donald Trump). Perhaps the most lucid recent exposition is a piece in First Things by my friend Peter Hitchens.
Hitchens argues that we have needlessly soured our relations with Russia by expanding into territories that the Kremlin abandoned after the collapse of communism. We have unfairly demonized Vladimir Putin, who though a “sinister tyrant” (Hitchens’s words) is certainly no worse and perhaps better than our supposed allies in Turkey or Saudi Arabia. Russia is not the Soviet Union. Nor is it an expansionist power: Crimea was a justifiable one-off response to Ukrainian (and Western) provocation. So instead of fighting a new cold war, we should recognize the traumas the Russian people have been through and allow them to get on with restoring their “glorious” (his word) Christian and European heritage.
This argument is expressed with formidable eloquence and what looks like expertise. Hitchens is a former Moscow correspondent and knows his European history. Many Russians, and their friends in the West, believe it.
But it is mostly mistaken. For starters, the article is largely attacking a straw man: Those of us who believe we are indeed in a new cold war do not argue that Russia is the Soviet Union or is trying to recreate it. Russia is not a global power in any respect apart from nuclear weapons and land-mass. Its ideology, if one can call it that, is a crude and contradictory mixture of anti-Westernism, nationalist bombast, and Soviet nostalgia. It does not bear comparison with the grim but sophisticated edifice of Marxism-Leninism. The latter involved, for example, the compulsory study over many years of Dialectical Materialism (known unfondly to Soviet-era students as diamat). Nothing of the kind exists in Putin’s Russia.
What Hitchens fails to spot is that the Soviet Union was not just about Communism, or about Russia. It was an empire. One hundred twenty million-plus of the Soviet Union’s two hundred eighty-six-million population were non-Russians. Almost none of them were Soviet by choice, any more than the one hundred million people in the other Warsaw Pact countries wanted to be under Soviet tutelage. To view the collapse of the evil empire solely from a Russian point of view is therefore misleading. It would be like writing about Irish history solely from the point of the view of the British. Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, and other captive nations are real people, too. They have real languages, real histories, real dreams, and memories of statehood.
They suffered real traumas, too, both under Stalin’s repressions and by paying the greatest price in World War II (or the Great Patriotic War, as the Soviets misnamed it, and as modern Russia still does). If we fail to acknowledge the infamy of the Hitler-Stalin pact, which consigned these countries to the meat-grinder, and fail to note that most of the casualties and destruction of World War II involved these countries’ peoples and their territories, then our picture of the Soviet Union is incomplete -- and so is our understanding of what happened in 1989–91.
For the Soviet Union and Russia did not “withdraw” from these countries and the Warsaw Pact. The Kremlin’s power collapsed along with its empire. Unlike Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union did not suffer a military defeat. It suffered the ultimate political and economic one: The Russians, the supposed masters of the whole system, revolted against the lies, brutality, and incompetence with which they were being governed. Many of them revolted against the idea of empire, too.
The collapse of empires is always messy and poses great dilemmas. How do you balance the interests of the guiltless victims -- the honest, hardworking, conscientious foot-soldiers of the imperial power, whose lives are being upturned -- against the former subject peoples, newly freed and yearning for restitution, dignity, and sovereignty? There’s no pleasing everyone. Maximum humiliation of the kind imposed by Versailles on imperial Germany is wrong. But it is also wrong to take the privileges and constraints of imperial days as if they were the natural order of things.
This is the problem we have with Russia. It feels the itch of amputated limbs -- Kiev, the Baltics, Berlin, the Caucasus. But what about the limbs themselves? These countries -- all smaller than Russia—have their own historical traumas, too. They fear invasion. They crave security. They might even expect modern Russia -- the legal successor, by its own choice, of the Soviet Union’s assets and liabilities -- to pay compensation, just as Germany paid Israel, Poland, and other victims. In fact, victims of Stalinism both in Russia and abroad died waiting for any sort of real recognition of what they had suffered.
The ex-captive nations’ interests and Russia’s, therefore, are irreconcilable. Somehow they have to be balanced. Nobody is going to be satisfied.
Hitchens does not deal with this dilemma. He dismisses it, by saying that it is “baseless” to liken Russia to the Soviet Union. He takes Russia’s feeling of insecurity, and its fears of the loss of historic trophies such as the Sevastopol naval base in Crimea, at face value. These feelings are real. But there is another side to the story. The Crimean Tatars, who have a better claim to the peninsula than do the Soviet-era military pensioners and dependents who moved there after the war, see Ukraine as their only hope. Ukrainians -- who appear only once in Hitchens’s essay, in a dismissive aside -- want the same liberty, decency, dignity, and justice in their country that we enjoy in the West. Why shouldn’t they have it? The Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians, Romanians, Bulgarians, and others have been allowed into these Western clubs -- and have benefited mightily from it.
Hitchens sees just one power bloc expanding into the area another bloc has vacated. But this view fundamentally mischaracterizes the enlargement of NATO and the EU. The member countries of these blocs joined by choice. They had to argue hard to be let in; initially, they were regarded by many in Brussels as too backward and volatile. To equate the Russian pull-out from the Baltic states, say, with those countries’ subsequent membership in the EU and NATO is to regard kidnapping and marriage as fundamentally the same thing.
In addition to ignoring the non-Russian point of view, Hitchens sentimentalizes Russia itself. He downplays the growth of a secret-police state in Russia, the return of Soviet-style coercive psychiatry, the rising numbers of political prisoners, the falsification of history, the loss of academic freedom, the ubiquitous hate machine, the use of beatings and assassinations. He hankers for a return of pre-revolutionary Russia’s “glorious” past. Yet for many people in the years before 1917, the Russian empire was anything but glorious. The appalling rule of the Romanovs, the grotesque privileges of the aristocrats, the obscurantism of the church, the harshness of the courts, the systematic attempts to wipe out other languages and cultures -- none of that seems very encouraging. True, other places may be worse. But we don’t live next door to them.
In particular, Hitchens underplays Russian foreign policy and the threat it poses to its neighbors. Of course the geopolitics of the post–Soviet Union is complicated. But it is clear that from the early 1990s onwards, Russia has taken upon itself the role of protector and arbiter in conflicts across the former empire. This is not the dark fantasy of an old cold warrior. It is stated again and again by senior Russians, who use terms such as “the near abroad” and “sphere of privileged interests.”
Russia did not have to adopt this revisionist, revanchist approach. It could have decided that its top foreign-policy priority was good relations with the former captive nations. That is the way Germany has treated countries such as the Netherlands, Denmark, Poland, and France. It has worked rather well. But Russia -- it soon became clear in the 1990s to anyone who was paying attention -- was approaching its former empire differently. It did not regard these “former Soviet republics” (as it termed them) as real countries. It blasted them with propaganda, twisted their arms with energy supplies, channelled money into their politics, and sponsored subversion. We in the West had to decide whether we were going to acquiesce in this or try to prevent it by accepting these countries’ desires for closer integration. Fortunately, we chose the latter course, accepting Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania into the European Union and NATO, along with the former Warsaw Pact countries of central Europe and two of the ex-Yugoslav republics.
This was not a reckless or ill-considered move. It was made in full knowledge that Russia would not like it -- but was also, therefore, accompanied by careful diplomacy meant to alleviate, as far as possible, Russian worries. Russia was brought into the heart of NATO, through the NATO-Russia founding act and the NATO-Russia council. It was, officially, a partner and a friend.
Had Russia wanted, it could have had close and friendly ties with NATO. It was certainly able to see, at the time both big rounds of expansion were happening, that the alliance was not putting extra troops in the new frontline states, nor holding warlike exercises in these countries. Moreover, NATO was so eager to show that it did not regard Russia as an adversary that it explicitly excluded Russia from its threat assessment and it did not even make contingency plans for defending its member countries from a Russian attack.
For years, this approach worked. Russia did not welcome NATO enlargement, but it accepted it. NATO enlargement became an issue only with Putin’s Munich speech of 2007, when Russia suddenly started claiming that promises had been broken and the West was expanding an aggressive military alliance to its borders.
In truth, NATO has always been on those borders -- Turkey bordered the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and Norway borders Russia to this day. More importantly, it was only in April 2009, under pressure from President Barack Obama, that NATO decided to make even outline reinforcement plans for the Baltic states and Poland. Even now, NATO does not have a standing defense plan -- the core of its deterrent against the Soviet Union.
Hitchens privileges big countries over small ones, and he assumes that all big countries have equal moral weight. Just as the United States would not like it if Canada became friendly to China, so Russians don’t like it that Ukraine is friendly with the West. But these arguments cut both ways: If the US had been a bloodthirsty dictatorship and had treated Canada the way Russia has (for centuries) treated Ukraine, then freedom-loving Canadians, given the chance, might indeed seek a friendly and democratic protector against American revanchism.
Hitchens is quite right that some of our allies are unpleasant. We had this problem during the Cold War, too, when fascist Spain and Portugal, and militarily-ruled Greece and Turkey, were members of NATO. Far worse things happened in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. This is nasty, but not new. Is China a worse threat than Russia? Maybe, but it is farther away. The main thing about a war is not to lose it. That was our guiding principle in Europe during the Cold War. It remains a good one now.
Hitchens writes: “Nobody who understands history, geography, or, come to that, arithmetic can possibly accept” the portrayal of Russia as expansionist. It is true that Russia does not want to recreate the Soviet empire by military conquest. But Russia can and does pose other kinds of threats. The old cold war is indeed over. But Hitchens’s thinking is frozen in that era. The new cold war -- the title of a book I wrote amid considerable skepticism in 2007 -- is fought on different fronts, for different aims. Russia uses money, propaganda, cyber-subversion, and other tactics to disrupt and weaken its neighbors and the West generally.
Many people are aware of this. They include millions in the countries concerned, and many (I would venture now, most) seasoned Russia-watchers in Britain, America, the Nordic states, and increasingly Germany. We are worried about, even frightened of, Russia. We may be wrong -- facts and arguments, please -- but we are not “nobody.”
Edward Lucas writes for the Economist. He is also senior vice-president at the Center for European Policy Analysis, a think-tank in Warsaw and Washington, D.C.
[W.Z. The link lucas20140903Russia.html leads to the "Written testimony to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, 03Sep2014" by Edward Lucas.]
It often strikes me as quite funny that I spent so much of my life as a foreign correspondent, a profession for which I am so unfitted. When I went to live in Moscow in 1990, I felt that I had somehow betrayed my native soil. (I was born in the middle of the Mediterranean, but these are technicalities.) I still recall a brief return from the U.S.S.R. to my hometown of Oxford, during which I was asked for directions by an American tourist. “You must live here,” he said, impressed by my historically detailed advice. “No,” I confessed with a strange feeling of guilt. “I live in Moscow.” For the first time in my life I had chosen to live in foreign parts, and very strange and hostile parts they seemed to be.
Yet the experience of living in that sad and handsome place brought me to love Russia and its stoical people, to learn some of what they had suffered and see what they had regained. And so, as all around me rage against the supposed aggression and wickedness of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, I cannot join in. Despite the fact that Moscow has abandoned control of immense areas of Europe and Asia, self-appointed experts insist that Russia is an expansionist power. Oddly, this “expansion” only seems to be occurring in zones that Moscow once controlled, into which the E.U. and NATO, supported by the U.S., have sought to extend their influence.
[W.Z. Peter Hitchens claims to "love Russia and stoical people", but hates Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Belorusans, Ukrainians, Georgians, Armenians, Kazakhs, etc. and all the other ethnic groups that comprised the Soviet Union. Neither does he sympathize with the Chechens, Circassians, etc and other ethnic groups comprising the Russian Federation. Thus, Mr. Hitchens supports the genocide of all these people that Mr. Putin has relegated to subservience and/or extinction.]
The comparison of today’s Russia to yesterday’s U.S.S.R. is baseless. I know this, and rage inwardly at my inability to convey my understanding to others. Could this be because I have been unable to communicate the change of heart I underwent during my more than two years in the Russian capital?
Let me try again, starting in a Moscow street called Bolshaya Ordynka. The existence of this place, at the end of the Soviet era, was a great shock to me. Moscow in 1990 was at first sight a festival of concrete. Its cityscape was the Leninist word made flesh, arrogant proletarian lumps deliberately defying all concepts of beauty and grace, the very suburbs of hell.
But Bolshaya Ordynka was not like this. Here was the Moscow of Leo Tolstoy, with trees and low classical houses, not ordained by some gigantic bureaucratic plan, but sweetly proportioned to human needs. On it stood a church with the haunting name of “The Consolation of All Sorrows,” something badly needed at that time of nervous shortage, abrupt catastrophe, and the ever-present fear of a midnight putsch with tanks grinding along the streets. (In August 1991 I woke from a fretful sleep to find those tanks coming down my Moscow avenue, Kutuzovsky Prospekt, barrels aslant in the morning light, throwing up dust as they tore the road to bits.)
This modest street, Bolshaya Ordynka, could outdo Paris in loveliness. Here, under many grimy and bloody layers of Leninism, neglect, and about three wars, lay Russia, a very different thing from the U.S.S.R. Unlike the U.S.S.R., it was profoundly Christian, rather glorious, and no particular threat to the West. Perhaps the Bolsheviks had not, after all, destroyed and desecrated absolutely everything, and a lost nation was waiting quietly to return to life.
The name of the thoroughfare means “The Street of the Great Horde,” and refers to the Golden Horde, the Mongol power that used to send its emissaries along this very road to demand their tribute from medieval Muscovy. Here is a difference to be noted. My country boasts that it has not been invaded for one thousand years. The U.S. has not really been invaded at all, unless you count Britain’s 1814 rampage through Washington, DC (almost exactly two years after Napoleon Bonaparte had made a far more destructive and less provoked attack upon Moscow). But Russia is invaded all the time—by the Tatars, the Poles, the Lithuanians, the Swedes, the French, us British, the Germans, the Japanese, the Germans again: They keep coming. Nor are these invasions remote history. On the main airport road into Moscow, at Khimki, stands a row of steel dragon-teeth anti-tank barriers, commemorating the arrival there, before Christmas 1941, of Hitler’s armies. The Nazis could see Ivan the Great’s tall white and gold bell tower glittering amid the snow in the Kremlin, but they never got any nearer.
In my time in Moscow, one day each May was marked by the sight of stocky, grizzled old men, excusably tipsy, dancing and singing in the street, their medals clicking on their chests, as they remembered the ghastly war which turned back the Hitlerian menace. No matter that their own government was evil. They knew that better than I. The thing they had faced was even worse: It was a matter of survival, and young men and women would applaud and embrace these survivors, who must by now be all gone, given the wretched life expectancy of Soviet men. Anyone unmoved by the realization that these men had once looked death and hell in the face, and not flinched, has something wrong with him.
People often say silly things about other people’s languages, such as George W. Bush’s rumored claim that “The problem with the French is they have no word for entrepreneur.” (The source is former British Cabinet Minister Shirley Williams, the Baroness Williams of Crosby, who may have been being mischievous.) But I have checked the following carefully with Russian friends, and it is true. The usual Russian term for safety or security, bezopasnost, is a negative word meaning “without danger” (bez = “without”; opasnost = “danger”). The natural state of affairs is danger.
Safety, for Russians, is something to be achieved by neutralizing a danger that is presumed to exist at all times. From this follows a particular attitude to life and government. If the U.S. had China on the 49th Parallel and Germany on the Rio Grande, and a long land border with the Islamic world where the Pacific Ocean now is, it might be a very different place. There might even be a good excuse for the Patriot Act and the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI. If Russia’s neighbors were Canada and Mexico, rather than Germany, China, Turkey, and Poland, and if its other flanks were guarded by thousands of miles of open ocean, it might have free institutions and long traditions of free speech and the rule of law. It might also be a lot richer. As it is, Russia is a strong state with a country, rather than a country with a strong state. If it were otherwise, it would have gone the way of the Lithuanian Empire or, come to that, the Golden Horde.
You will have heard that Europe ends at the Ural Mountains. This is not true. The Urals are a much overrated geographical feature, but even if they weren’t, you can find Asia in Moscow, and feel its closeness. In the days before Christmas, when I lived there, Moscow took on the mythical characteristics of the East, as old women wrapped in black took up station on street corners, selling fresh-killed geese raised in snowy clearings. I would not have been surprised if these ageless crones had offered me a handful of magic beans or three wishes. In thundery summer, the great eastern highways out of the metropolis had a feeling of endlessness. There was nothing much, really, between me and China but a failing power, trembling in its armor. In those moments, I found myself wanting a Russia more muscular, not less so.
Down by the river in a great bend, near the horrible Lenin Stadium, which was used for the Moscow Olympics of 1980, sits the Novodevichy Convent, whose swelling golden domes and odd, clattering bells, ringing for Vespers as the light thickens, have as much of the East about them as of the West. This serene place was turned into a Museum of Female Emancipation by the Bolsheviks, who emancipated millions of women straight into factories and collective farms. Bit by bit, it has since been returned to the Church.
Many other such buildings have been recovered, though hundreds were lost forever in that frenzy of hatred nearly a century ago. The Danilovsky Monastery was used as a reformatory for juvenile delinquents, who were not much discouraged from wrecking it by their guards. The idea that man was made in the image of God was an affront to the belief that Soviet power could make a New Man. But how was he to be made?
A few miles away, near the turbulent Taganka Theatre, is a small park, with trees and a pond. A friend of mine, Conor O’Clery of the Irish Times, remarked in the early 1990s on how the grass grew badly there and the trees were stunted. Only as the pace of reform quickened did he discover why. Men and women still living nearby came forward to recall what they had seen there as children in 1937, in the early summer mornings, as they hid in the foliage of the trees. Silent men had dug great pits in the park. Unmarked vans had arrived, and more silent men, wearing long rubber aprons, had flung corpses into the pits, dozens of them, bloody from the execution chamber. The pits had been filled and covered over. And the children, when they climbed down from the trees and hurried home, were ordered by their frightened parents never to speak of what they had seen -- at school, with friends, in shops, anywhere. Nor did they, for more than fifty years.
This, remember, was in the very center of the capital city of a great empire. Florid symbols of a new civilization stood all around. Officially there was a liberal constitution, there were law courts, things that called themselves newspapers, and supposed deliberative assemblies. Yet within sight, sound, and stink of these things men and women were murdered by the agents of the state, perhaps because they had told an unwise joke about the regime, perhaps for no reason at all. This was the culmination of a process that had begun with some of the world’s cleverest and most idealistic young men and women setting out a program for utopia. Those lucky enough never to have known the accompanying fear and uncertainty can hardly begin to understand the cynicism and darkness of the lives of normal people in such countries, or of the liberation they felt when the last traces of the Communist Party were scrubbed away.
This was life as it was, harsh beyond belief to us, normal to them. Our Russian friends thought we were ten years younger than we were. We thought they were ten years older than they were. Even births (annually outnumbered toward the end of the U.S.S.R. by abortions) were fiercely regimented. In terrifying maternity hospitals, short of necessary basics and none too clean, newborn Russians were snatched away by nurses, wrapped tightly, and brought back at set times for feeding, then snatched away again. Fathers were not allowed to visit for many days, and mothers would hang strings from the windows, bearing notes pleading for bars of chocolate or other comforts and giving news of the baby’s progress.
Family life, once begun, was precarious and fraught. Divorce had been made very easy by the family-hating Bolsheviks. One wedge-shaped Wedding Palace was known as “the Bermuda Triangle” because all the marriages contracted in it disappeared so quickly. I do not think I ever met a Soviet couple with two children who were full brothers and sisters. Invariably, it was a merger of two broken marriages into one new one. And no wonder. All the things that keep families together were absent or weak. Rents and prices were devised to ensure that even the educated middle class needed two full-time salaries to pay the bills. Unless there was a retired grandmother around, children were inevitably abandoned in early infancy to state nurseries and became the state’s charges. By the time I was there, the hideous state-sponsored cult of Pavlik Morozov, a young traitor to his family, was fading, but friends of mine remembered, sometimes with a shudder, being marched to pay respects to statues of this little monster, and to sing songs in his praise at Soviet youth gatherings.
This was one of those points at which Soviet Russia, which looked on the surface like a cheap copy of Western Europe, turned out to be fundamentally different. The Morozov cult was not quite as horrifying as the worship of Moloch, the dreadful Carthaginian deity who required fiery child sacrifice. But it was so far from the beliefs and morals of the Christian world that I am amazed it is not better known and more studied in the West. “Comrade Pavlik,” a thirteen-year-old peasant boy from a Ural village, was revered as a martyred Soviet youth because he had denounced his own father to the secret police. His family had then murdered him in revenge. Poems, films, books, and even an opera celebrated this unlovely person. Though post-Soviet scholarship has established that the story is almost wholly untrue (Pavlik existed but was probably killed in a meaningless village squabble), the official worship of him continued at least until 1991 when—to my amazement—I found a statue of him in a small park in central Moscow.
Pictures of the statue (now at last destroyed) can still be found, including a 1948 U.S.S.R. postage stamp depicting a boy atop a granite cylinder, holding a red flag and gazing into the future. This truly happened. The cult of Pavlik was present in every mind, the whispered urge to set state and party above parent, a splinter of ice placed deliberately in every little heart.
The generation most fully exposed to this propaganda was permanently warped. One of these worked for me as a translator. She had been born into the elite in the 1940s and as a teenage girl had attended dances among the brown marble pillars of the KGB social club behind the Lubyanka prison. When I questioned her about Morozov, she shuddered. At the time, she had been taken in by the propaganda, only to learn in the long years after just how deceived she had been.
I could not possibly condemn her, nor the other Russians I knew who, like she did, viewed Christianity with lip-curling cynicism, mixed with deep ignorance. They had been marked for life, and it was not their own fault. They felt this wound, and so did their children, who in many cases have turned toward the cross their parents had been taught to despise, because they have seen what a world without Christ actually looks like. Would that their Western counterparts, who think atheism bold and original, could have that knowledge without the accompanying pain.
A good picture of the general squalor, cynicism, and despair in Soviet life was provided by a documentary film Tak Zhit Nel’zya (roughly “We can’t go on living like this”), which was released into movie theaters in the summer of 1990. It had been made by Stanislav Govorukhin, a friend of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and distributed only after the Communist Party Politburo reluctantly gave permission. As far as I know it has never been shown in the West. I attended a screening in the Cosmos theater in North Moscow, a district given over to commemorations of Soviet space triumphs. As I watched the frank and sometimes jeering parade of failure and unhappiness unroll on the screen, I became aware that everyone else in the theater was weeping. For the first time, they were seeing an honest account of how harsh their lives were, contrary to the unceasing propaganda proclaiming the U.S.S.R. an unmatched, enviable success. Now they were free of the lies, and free to mourn.
A little more than a year later, I remembered those people and their silent tears as I wandered round a Moscow at last liberated from the Communist tyranny that had demanded the allegiance of everyone since 1917, a Moscow from which the tanks, defeated mainly by popular scorn for a rotten, drunken, washed-up junta of secret policemen and hacks, had withdrawn. I was so full of joy that I was singing hymns at the top of my voice as I drove down the liberated avenues. And then I observed something that I have never seen anyone else record. In the urn-shaped trash cans on dozens of streets, there were heaps of red Communist Party membership booklets, burning. All those people who had been compelled to adopt this badge of servitude for the sake of a promotion or an apartment or a child’s education, who had publicly swallowed what they knew privately to be a lie, at last felt free to assert the truth.
A few months later I traveled to the once-closed city of Sevastopol, an august Soviet Sparta, the chief station of the Black Sea Fleet and heart of Admiral Sergei Gorshkov’s attempt at a global navy to rival the U.S. Navy. In every creek and inlet lay wrecked and scuttled warships, billions of dollars of warlike power, half-sunk and rusted. The dragon was dead in its lair. There could be no doubt about it: The two twin horrors of Soviet power, Marxism-Leninism at home and expansion abroad, were corpses, irrecoverably dead.
Nobody who has seen these things could possibly compare the old Soviet Union with the new Russia. The trouble is, almost nobody has seen them. Nor, it seems, has anyone noticed the withdrawal of Moscow’s power from 700,000 square miles of territory which it once held down with boots and tanks and secret policemen. Somehow or other this unprecedented peaceful withdrawal of a power undefeated in war is being portrayed as “expansionism.” Nobody who understands history, geography, or, come to that, arithmetic can possibly accept this portrayal. There is much to criticize in Russia’s foreign policy, especially if one is a Ukrainian nationalist, but the repossession of Crimea does not signal a revival of the Warsaw Pact. It is instead a limited and minor action in the context of this conquered and reconquered stretch of soil, the ugly but unexceptional act of a regional power.
Here I risk being classified as an apologist for Vladimir Putin. I am not. I view him as a sinister tyrant. The rule of law is more or less absent under his rule. He operates a cunning and cynical policy toward the press. Criticism of the government is perfectly possible in small-circulation magazines and obscure radio stations, but quashed whenever it threatens the state and its controlled media. Several of the most serious allegations against Putin—alleged murders of journalists and politicians—have not been proven. Yet crimes like the death in prison (from horrible neglect) of Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer and auditor who charged Russian officials with corruption, can be traced directly to Putin’s government, and are appalling enough by themselves.
But this is not really the point. Western diplomats, politicians, and media are highly selective about tyranny. Boris Yeltsin’s state was not much superior to Vladimir Putin’s. Yeltsin used tanks to shell his own parliament. He waged a barbaric war in Chechnya. He blatantly rigged his own re-election with the aid of foreign cash. He practically sold the entire country. Russians, accustomed to corruption as a way of life, gasped at its extent under Yeltsin’s rule. Yet he was counted a friend of the West, and went largely uncriticized. Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who locks up many more journalists than does Mr. Putin, who kills his own people when they demonstrate against him, and who has described democracy as a tram which you ride as far as you can get on it before getting off, has for many years enjoyed the warm endorsement of the West. His country’s illegal occupation of northern Cyprus, which has many parallels to Russia’s occupation of Crimea, goes unpunished. Turkey remains a member of NATO, wooed by the E.U.
As for Saudi Arabia and China, countries much fawned upon by the Western nations, the failure to criticize these for their internal despotism is so enormous that the mind simply refuses to take it in. But I need not go on. The current attitude toward the Putin state is selective and cynical, not based upon any real principle.
Perhaps we would understand Russia’s situation better if we imagined that NATO has been dissolved and that the Confederate States and the territories conquered in the Mexican-American War have declared independence. The U.S. retains a precarious hold on the naval station at San Diego, sharing it with the Mexican Navy on an expensive lease that Mexico regularly threatens to cancel. Americans still living in San Diego are compelled to adopt Spanish names on their drivers’ licenses, and movie theaters are instructed to show films only in Spanish. Schools teach anti-American history. Quebec has seceded from Canada, and is being wooed by a Russo-Chinese economic union, with a pact including military and political clauses. Russian politicians are in the streets of Montreal, urging on a violent anti-American mob, which eventually succeeds in overthrowing Quebec’s pro-American president and replacing him with a pro-Russian one—violating Quebec’s constitution in the process. This brings military forces aligned with Russia right up to the border with New York, Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont.
In such a case, I cannot see the U.S. sitting about doing nothing, especially if it had repeatedly warned in major diplomatic forums against this expansion of Russian power on its frontiers, and been repeatedly ignored over fifteen years or so. If a Marxist takeover in Grenada was considered good enough reason for military action, what would these circumstances provoke?
Mikhail Gorbachev’s feline spokesman, Gennadi Gerasimov, once teased suspicious Western correspondents by sneering at them in the early days of the great perestroika and glasnost experiment, “We have done the cruelest thing to you that we could possibly have done. We have deprived you of an enemy.” He was laughing at us, but he was dead right. The Cold War was a period of moral clarity when the other side really was an evil empire, and when armed resolve for once succeeded in defeating the expansion of evil in the world. It allowed my own poor country to feel more important than it really was, and it suppressed the seething impulses and rivalries of the European continent.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the West has struggled to find a new bogeyman. Noriega would hardly do. The Taliban crumbled at a touch. Saddam Hussein was not up to the job, and the failed attempt to make him look more dangerous than he was has made the populace more incredulous than ever. Even the Iran of the Ayatollahs turned out to be quite keen to make friends. Al-Qaeda and now the Islamic State have an unconvincing fuzziness about them, nasty for sure but not as big as the headlines that are written about them. So what a relief to return to the old and trusted Russian menace, even if it does not really exist and its supposed aggression consists mainly of retreats.
The misreading of Russia’s geopolitical situation is especially sad because for the first time in many decades there is much to hope for in Moscow. Out of utopian misery has come the prospect of rebirth. It is as yet incipient. But I see great possibilities in it, in the many once-blighted churches now open and loved and full again, in the reappearance of symbols of pre-Bolshevik Russia, in the growth of a generation not stunted and pitted by poisoned air and food, nor twisted by Communist ethics. Many Russians will never recover from the cynicism they were taught, the mistrust, the contempt for religion and the foul cult of Comrade Pavlik. But their children can, and may. Why then, when so much of what we hoped for in the long Soviet period has come to pass, do we so actively seek their enmity?
[W.Z. Mr. Hitchens is promoting the re-establishment of the Czarist Russian Empire.]
Hillary Clinton’s comparison of President Putin to Adolf Hitler in a speech in California in March is the most striking example of this willingness to adopt the most extreme possible language, even by senior figures in government. Diplomats and media follow the same course, squawking about a “New Cold War” and seeking the most alarmist possible interpretation of every Russian action. But much of this NATO-related chatter increases the very fear and tension against which this odd alliance (whose actual purpose was fully achieved in 1991) claims to be defending us. We are now talking ourselves into a conflict for no good reason.
There was an old English description of the collapse of all order, hope, and mercy during the reign of King Stephen: “Seven long years when God and his Angels slept.” In Russia it was seventy years, not seven. Now they are over, and it is time we acknowledged this. If Russia is ever to become a country in which safety is normal and danger an aberration, we must understand the depths to which they were forced to sink and from which they are now slowly emerging. It is time not for a New Cold War, but for the Consolation of All Sorrows. If we do not recognize this, there will be many more sorrows to be consoled, here and there.
[W.Z. Peter Hitchens may be a friend and supporter of Vladimir Putin and his regime, but he is certainly not a friend of the Russian people or the nations and ethnic groups living within the Russian Federation and the "near abroad".]Peter Hitchens is a columnist for The Mail on Sunday.