Understanding Russia Today: Russia's Many Revisions
Russia is on a collision course with the West. War is not inevitable. Confrontation and conflict are. The sources of hostility are primarily within Russia. They transcend the aims of Vladimir Putin, but spring rather from fundamental problems created during the collapse of the Soviet Union. Any Russian leader following Boris Yeltsin would have had to cope with them. Others would have handled them differently, but not necessarily better from the West’s perspective or from Russia’s. These problems form inherent and irreducible contradictions in Russia’s relationship with the West. Western policy toward Russia must recognize them and accept the reality that Russia will remain hostile to and resentful of the West for some time to come, regardless of Western attempts at conciliation. This conflict is a crypto-war, characterized by deception and self-deception, grey-zone and hybrid war, and masking Russian crypto-imperialism. We must bring its sources out from the shadows and into the light before we can hope to meet its challenges.
There is no such thing as Weimar Russia. Analogies between Russia today and Germany after World War I minimize the problem facing the West now. German resentment resulted entirely from the harsh peace treaty the allied powers imposed upon it at Versailles in 1919 after defeating it in war. Russia was not defeated in a war, nor was any peace treaty imposed upon it. Russia lost its empire in 1991, rather, as the result of a revolution and a non-decision. Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev chose, at the critical moment, to allow the Soviet Union to collapse rather than to use force on a massive scale to preserve it. This non-decision shaped the course of the post-Cold War world.
The suddenness of the Soviet collapse was breath-taking and shocking. Soviet republics broke away from the remnants of the union faster than Moscow could comprehend. Negotiations to settle the myriad complexities of the break-up of the largest centralized economy in the world were perfunctory. No process to manage the complex citizenship challenges of Russians in the post-Soviet republics or of non-Russians within the Russian Federation was created. The Soviet military disintegrated.
Yeltsin immediately faced the determined efforts of the still-powerful Communist Party to restore the Soviet system in some way. He confronted two attempts at a military restoration of Communist rule in 1991 and 1993. With no time or energy to spare from this fight for the survival of Russian democracy, he acquiesced to a new order that did not suit Russia at all well.
Russia’s identity itself had collapsed as the revelations of perestroika undermined the myths and narratives that had undergirded it for seven decades. Yeltsin could do nothing more than establish an identity of freedom and democracy—ideas that seemed increasingly bereft of value as the Russian economy collapsed in the 1990s.
Putin took power in 2000 determined to address these crises. He is redefining Russian identity in the terms the tsars used in the 19th Century—Russian Orthodoxy, nationalism, and strong government (they called it autocracy, but he does not). He claims the right to renegotiate the terms of the bad deals Russia made with the post-Soviet states, by force if necessary. He cites the plight of ethnic Russians in the new republics as justification for eroding or even erasing the sovereignty of those states. He seeks to restore Russia to the position of global eminence it had as the Soviet Union by re-establishing its positions in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. He stokes conflict with the West to distract it from these endeavors even as he blames the West for inventing the hostility he has created.
The West cannot appease its way out of this crypto-war. Putin requires conflict to justify his rule at home and his actions in the territory of the former Soviet Union. But Western appeasement cannot address problems that spring from deep within Russia itself. Putin is encouraging Russians to believe that they must regain suzerainty over their former empire, that they must weaken and fragment the West, that they must cut the United States down to size, and that the West will oppose them implacably in all these endeavors. Appeasement can only draw him into further demands, since he cannot allow the hostility to wane.
The West, with the United States at its head, must rather persuade Putin and the Russian people to accept the terms they themselves negotiated for the post-Cold War settlement—or renegotiate those terms on an equal basis and in peace with their neighbors. We must persuade Russia that it will lose another confrontation, and that the consequences of another loss will be even worse than those of 1991. We must cajole Russia into developing a new national identity not bound in the subjugation of a large empire and military might but rather as a peaceful democratic state with an ancient tradition and a future of hope.
We will have to accept conflict and the risk of war to succeed in this task, although we should do everything possible to minimize the one and avoid the other. But the path to enduring peace lies through confrontation, backed by determination and force. There is no other way.
This essay was written for an ongoing AEI project. A version of it will be published in an upcoming volume, tentatively titled The Rise of the Revisionists and edited by Dan Blumenthal and Gary Schmitt. Read the essay in full.