Ready For WW III?

Ready For WW IIIWhile analyzing Vladimir Putin, our latest foreign devil, I wonder if many of our born-again Russian experts could pass a simple exam evaluating and explaining the possible impact of Russia’s past on him? How many know enough about Russian history to know about Mikhail Bakunin, Alexander Herzen, Nicholas I, Nestor Makhno, Konstantin Pobedonostsev, Anton Denikin, Serge Witte, P.N. Wrangel, A.V. Kolchak, or even perhaps U.S. General William Graves on their relevance to current Russian history? Would they know anything about Nicholas Danilevsky, who dreamed up Pan-Slavism, a principle based on the hypothesis that a common cultural tie and language formed a brotherhood, or ought to form one, among Slavic people?
My guess is that few will. Most are instant experts. What we now see and read are how my friend, a longtime reporter, once described journalism: the first draft of journalism rather than the first draft of history. Our media chatter is of another Munich, a new Cordon Sanitaire, or encirclement, of Russia, spheres of influence, the Crimean Anschluss (memories of the Nazis marching into Vienna in 1938 and being hailed by Austrians) even the unthinkable possibility of Cold and nuclear wars.The Times and our major media are filled with frightening commentaries, some evoking 1914. Roger Cohen’s nightmarish recollection of Gavrilo Princip, the 19- year-old Bosnian supposedly selected by Voya Tanksovich, the head of the ultra-nationalist Serbian Black Hand, to kill an inconsequential Austrian archduke and his blameless wife in Sarajevo in June 1914 and proceed to spoil everyone’s summer holiday and the rest of the bloody century. Cohen, in a later column, ridicules CNN’s “breaking news” obsession with that missing Malayan airliner, concluding, rather frantically, that, as we all remained fixated on trivia, Putin could “invade” Estonia and WW III begin.Peter Baker’s lengthy piece in the newspaper tries understanding through the experiences of Clinton, Bush I, Gates, Obama and Cheney (sic). Still, perhaps the most plausible comment came from Fiona Hill, who once worked in the Bush II administration and co-wrote a book about Putin, Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin. “He’s not delusional, but he’s inhabiting a Russia of the past, a version of the past that he has created. His present is defined by it and there is no coherent vision of the future.”From Moscow, Shaun Walker, the Guardian’s reporter, asks “What is Putin thinking?” and describes his and Russia’s “deep-seated sense of injustice of unfair victimization from the west” because of “an unwillingness to take Russia’s interests into account. About Crimea, Russians “close to the Kremlin” told Walker that Putin “simply snapped, and decided it was time to act unilaterally.” It may have been an ad hoc choice, but Walker goes on to describe the thinking of Russia’s elite: “This ideology envisions Russia’s emergence as a conservative world power in direct opposition to the geopolitical hegemony and liberal values of the west” a hint of a Romanov-like restoration?The New Yorker’s David Remnick, who once covered Russia, concluded that Russia’s move against the Crimea “demands condemnation” but the comedian-commentator Bill Maher asks why, given that 58% of Crimeans are Russians happy to rejoin Moscow. Why? asks Remnick? Because “Ukraine is a sovereign state”—though so too was Spain, Mexico in 1846, Spain in 1898, Haiti and Nicaragua, pre-WWI Mexico, Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1954, Grenada, Panama, Nicaragua again, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, North Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, drone-drenched Pakistan, et.al.Meanwhile, our neo-liberal politicians are at it again, as many initially did when they celebrated Vietnam and Iraq. Hillary has compared Vladimir to Adolf and Kerry, once the leader of anti-war veterans, keeps vowing—as he did against Syria and Iran—that “all options are off the table.” Does that mean biological, chemical and nuclear war? In the meantime, our ubiquitous Vice-President tells Estonians that, Article 5 of NATO mandates that, if attacked (by Putin’s Russia?), the U.S., a charter member, will be required to spring to its defense and then presumably President Obama will have to take to the Oval Office and solemnly urge Americans to once again instruct their kids to hide under their school desks.Whatever the eventual outcome, Kiev, Crimea and eastern pro-Russian Ukraine are in fact worrisome problems. If there is to be a resolution some Russian interests will have to be taken into account. Like it or not, their neighbors are in their historic and geographic sphere of interest.“The U.S. has treated Russia like a loser since the end of the Cold War,” wrote our former ambassador to Moscow, the non-conforming and shrewd Jack Matlock, Jr., in the Washington Post. When NATO moved eastward and dangled membership to Russia’s neighbors Moscow objected, interpreting the moves as nothing less than encirclement. Putin worked with the U.S. when it invaded Afghanistan and also abandoned its bases in Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam and Cuba, Matlock reminds us. In return, NATO reached into the Balkans and Baltics, invaded Iraq without Security Council endorsement, involved itself in the “orange revolutions” of Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan and hinted that it also might include Georgia and Ukraine, former SSRs. With little or no historical knowledge “Americans, heritors of the Monroe Doctrine, should have understood that Russia would be hypersensitive to foreign dominated military alliances approaching or touching its borders.” Crimea, he warns, worsens the break between east and west, a situation where “there would be no winners, only losers, most of all Ukraine itself” plus, and I add, an angry, isolated nuclear Russia.Thanks to George Mason University’s History News Network, I turned to historians who, while certainly not defending recent Russian moves, are trying to understand, even if our domestic hawks equate “understand” with “Munich.” Diplomatic historian Sheldon Stern’s “Putin Didn’t Seize Crimea Because Obama is ‘Weak’,” tells us that “It would be surprising if Putin did not intervene in the Crimea after Yanukovych’s overthrow threatened Russia’s access to its warm water base in Sevastopol and its dominant political influence Kiev. Only in the ahistorical world of pundit-land chatter would Putin be restrained by who happened to be president of the United States –as demonstrated by Russia’s actions in 1948, 1956, 1962 and 2008.” He then cites Daniel Larison, a historian and blogger for the paleo-con The American Conservative: “Russia behaved the way that it has because it already thought that western interference in Ukraine was too great.”
Mark Sternberg has just edited the eighth edition of Nicholas Riasanovsky’s definitive A History of Russia and is now writing a history of the Russian Revolution. In “Putin’s Russia is Far More Complicated than A Mere Autocracy,” he draws attention to what he views as a serious misinterpretation drawn from Churchill’s famous Westminster College speech in 1946, when he warned the west about his former ally Stalin.“Winston Churchill famously called Russia ‘a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma’ –a phrase that makes me cringe when it shows up in contemporary journalism…. Part of the problem is that we forget Churchill’s point: there is a key. “Russian national interest”.Dreams of national self-importance or ego are natural in the West. Putin went out of his way in his St George’s Hall speech to deride American pretensions “in their exclusivity and exceptionalism, that they can decide the destinies of the world that only can ever be right.”Western “demonization of Vladimir Putin is not a policy; it is an alibi for the absence of one” said the cynical, often realistic Henry Kissinger in the Washington Post. He suggests the U.S. goal should be to seek a way for the two Ukraines to work together, and not favoring the dominion of one side or the other. “We should seek reconciliation, not the domination of a faction.”Western/American policy remains unknown and confusing. Perhaps the U.S. has been too naïve about Post-Soviet Russia, or conversely, dismissed its anxieties and interests too hastily. Still, the best outcome of the complex Crimean mess is to take it slow, very slow. I don’t always agree with Ross Douthat, the Times’ brainy and conservative Op Ed columnist, but he’s on to something. Bismarck managed to keep the peace in Europe after a series of wars, and handed down to us his pithy reminder that his generation’s Balkan crises weren’t worth the bones of a Pomeranian Grenadier. Echoing the great conservative and unlike some crazed neocons and neoliberals, Douthat widely and rightly repeats the thought that, with “even the most bellicose U.S. politicians aren’t ready to say that South Ossetia or Simferopol is worth the bones of a single American marine” –not even Joe Biden’s Estonia or any other minuscule state he and his bosses care to add.Where Douthat is right is in recognizing that our treacherous tit-for-tat contest with potentially unmanageable turns and devastating crashes ahead has to slow down before someone shoots another Austrian Archduke. In a genuine conservative mode, Douthat properly calls for “Balance,” that, in dealing with an [allegedly] weak and [potentially] treacherous Russia, the U.S. “has been both too naïve about Putin’s intentions and too incautious in its commitments and that a new containment need not require a new Cold War.” Then he comes to his main and sensible point. “When illusions are shattered, it’s easy to become reckless, easy to hand-wring and retrench. What we need instead is realism: to use the powers we have, without pretending to powers that we lack.”It’s as far as we dare go in a nuclear age. And that goes for( Moscow,) Washington, Kiev and all the rest.

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