May 21, 2018
By R. Lesnoix*
Over the last few weeks, a curious change has taken place in both mainstream media and among alternative news and opinion sites. Earlier on, the focus has been on actions of the west and the US in particular, with the mainstream media mostly extolling its virtues and the alternative media usually decrying them. Now the focus seems to be on Russia, and especially on what Russia does not do; not thwarting Israeli attacks in Syria, not responding adequately to the FUKUS cruise missile attack of last April, not delivering the S-300 to Syria, etc. Both sides regularly point to her as being ‘weak‘ in some way or other for not acting, or more precisely, for not reacting to certain events. So why does Russia do what it does? And why does she sometimes refrain from acting? The answer is, off course, that she acts in the interests of Russia. One can debate whether or not a specific action, or its absence, benefits her. That debate can be very enlightening and may help to understand the considerations made in Moscow. It gives us some insight into the weight attributed to different pros and cons affecting the deliberations. But we should not lose out of sight that we need to consider her actions and passivity in light of her interests. Before you can answer the why, you have to ask, and answer, what Russia’s interests are?
Now take a step back. Zoom out to the really big picture. Don’t get caught up in the minutiae of current events. Get back to the fundamentals. Once you do this you’ll realize that there is one priority for Russia which trumps all other considerations: survival. That is a fairly abstract concept though, survival of Russia. What does that mean in practical terms? What is this Russia that wants to survive? It is tempting to go into a comprehensive description of its people, culture, geography, sovereignty, etc. to come to an exact definition. The answer is deceptively straightforward and does not require lengthy analysis and deliberation. The Russia that wants to survive is whatever its rulers of the moment decide it is. They set the boundaries of what is and isn’t included. Their view may clash with yours. You may find theirs unrealistic, undesirable or just wrong. That, however, is a matter of opinion, not fact. There is no objective definition. Yes, you can come up with a definition, but it will always be subjective. In the end the opinion of the decision makers in Russia counts in determining their actions and inactions. Their opinion on what Russia is matters in the real world, others not so much.
So who are these rulers who define the state? It’s not just the president. It’s not his inner circle either. It’s the whole constellation of institutionalized power within the country. Nongovernmental groups and organizations are part of it too. Power and influence are not equally distributed among all of these actors, and varies over time and across different topics. The citizenry at large is also included in this as they can affect the institutions of power in several ways such as through elections, demonstrations, direct participation, religious beliefs, etc. Together these form a national consciousness of what it means to be Russian. This is not a fixed idea as it can and will deviate with time, because of various factions within society who gain and lose influence. Most of the time these deviations are very small, occasionally they are large. The national idea of what defined Russia differed significantly during the Soviet era from what came before and what came after. What happens is that one faction gains a disproportionate amount of power and influence over the form in which this national identity is expressed. Once in a while things get shaken up, usually through war, revolution or economic misery. A new state takes over from the previous one. Soviet Russia died and was replaced by Yeltsin’s yard-sale Russia. The national identity and its expression, the specific form of government of the day with all its trappings, are not the identical.
For one of the best examples of this subjectivity in expressing the state, look at how Germany changed during the 1800s and the 1900s. It redefined itself several times as different sets of actors dominated and took very diverse forms: the more or less independent states of the Holy Roman Empire, the German Empire, the Weimar Republic, the Third Reich, split between the capitalist BRD and the socialist DDR, reunited as one Germany and finally a Germany as the leader of the European Union which has usurped much of its members national sovereignty. Given the dominant position of the country in the EU, this is arguably the New German Empire. These changes over the last 200 + years were more than just geographical or of political systems. During these successive versions of the country people had evolving ideas of what it meant to be German and Germany. Don’t take national identity for granted. Don’t confuse relatively minor unchanging elements of national identity with the whole. Don’t mistake culture for national identity either. They are similar but not the same. Culture refers to the typical behaviors in a nation; national identity refers to how people see themselves and their place in the world as a nation. Take the United States where the national identity still is one of democracy, freedom and peace. Yet they have a culture of (legal) corruption, incarceration and violence. In my opinion this mismatch between culture and identity explains a significant part of America’s societal ills.
Let’s look at these different Germanies in terms of survival. The idea of the Holy Roman Empire as the foundation of being German was abstract because back then ‘Germans’ identified with their region. You were Bavarian, or Hanoverian, or Saxon, etc. Being German didn’t represent that much. It was more a statement of what you were not, not French or British or Russian or Italian or Swedish, but part of that group of intermingled statelets in central Europe referred to as Germany (a term that goes back to the days of Julius Caesar). Which does have a better ring to it than group-of-intermingled-statelets-in-central-Europe. Between the death of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806 and the formation of the German Empire in 1871 a new awareness of being-German developed, a true national identity had taken root. It grew during the imperial epoch and by the time the German Empire died in 1918 it was deeply embedded. Now being German did signify something and for many, maybe even most, it had equalled or superseded their regional identity. When the Third Reich died, the idea of Germany did not. The BRD and DDR which followed differed radically not just from each other but also from what came before. Yet both were still clearly German. These are all examples of rulers (in the broad sense as described above) redefining the nation and shaping the national consciousness into new forms. Nowadays there is a distinct sense of national identity among Germans, and regional identity has taken a backseat.
What this illustrates is that there is a distinction between the content of a national identity and the form, the institutions and their relative power, in which this identity is expressed. Most often there is a large overlap. If there isn’t, revolution or oppression is around the corner. The form may change (another type of government) but unless you are willing to do what the Romans did to Carthage, the country will reemerge in a new incarnation. It will retain enough of its national identity to be clearly recognizable as that country. This makes for a tricky situation. When talking about current Russia, how do you distinguish between the expressed form of the nation and the underlying national identity? Usually, you can use these two to refer to the same thing but for this article, the distinction is relevant. Russia and the Russian Federation are not the same thing.
We’ve seen how different incarnations of a nation can die but the country can live on. The Soviet Union disappeared but Russia continued. Out of the French Revolution of 1789 the First French Republic was born in 1792. Now France has its Fifth Republic, and it underwent two periods of imperial rule between republics. Yet it has always been France. Times have changed, unfortunately. In the age of nuclear weapons, it is conceivable that enough destructive force is unleashed on a nation to effectively eradicate it entirely. Not only the death of the Russian Federation but also the death of Russia are possible. This is the context of Putin’s remarks during the interview of March 7th, 2018:
“So, if someone made a decision to destroy Russia then, we have a legitimate right to attack. Yes, for human kind this would be a global catastrophe, for the world it will be a global catastrophe, but me as a citizen of Russia and the head of the Russian state, then I want to ask myself a question, but why would we need such a world if there is no Russia?”
The survival of Russia is now a genuine issue. The survival of the Russian Federation is also a concrete issue. I can’t help but wonder if and to which degree the rulers of the Russian Federation recognize the distinction between the two. It is easy to imagine those in power equating a forced end to their rule to the end of their nation. The prospect of becoming a vassal of the US for example, which would effectively put an end to the current Russian Federation, might be unpalatable to such an extent that it could trigger an extreme response. This could also happen in the US. The imminent demise of their Empire will lead to drastic changes in the power balance in Washington. Those with power who’ll see themselves end up as the losers of this internal struggle, could also react in destructive ways, likely aimed abroad.
With both the survival of Russia and the Russian Federation as real issues, these are, and should be, key considerations for the Russian government when deciding on how to act or refrain from actions. The chaos that now typifies US politics presents risks. As I pointed out in a previous article, the risk of nuclear war does not solely come from military escalation. Nonmilitary escalation could also lead to a global catastrophe. Defusing the situation where and when they can makes sense. The resulting actions or inactions may look like weakness or indecisiveness but when dealing with idiots you need to be extra careful. As Mark Twain said:
“The best swordsman in the world doesn’t need to fear the second best swordsman in the world; no, the person for him to be afraid of is some ignorant antagonist who has never had a sword in his hand before; he doesn’t do the thing he ought to do, and so the expert isn’t prepared for him.”
Whether the rest of us like it or not, it makes sense for the Russian government to avoid getting dragged into risky adventures by third parties. We have gotten used to having a policeman on the block. We subconsciously expect the Russians to be the new good guy to put out fires and stop bullies. But why should they? What has the rest of the world done for Russia lately? Why should they risk themselves for them? In Syria Russia has a security concern which affects their own safety. Combatting the jihadis there is in Russia’s direct interest. It is way better to take them on abroad than it is to wait until they strike within Russia’s own borders. The manner in which they have done this has been very cost effective too. It has offered them the opportunity to train and gain experience in a real combat environment. They have been able to test their own new weapons and other systems and observe the (lack of) performance of potential future adversaries and their equipment. They’ve used the fighting to showcase what their military technology is capable of and generated substantial sales. Expanding the scale or scope of their military activities abroad provides diminishing returns and risks getting caught in the proverbial quagmire. There would have to be a commensurate interest to justify it.
The Russian government should act on behalf of Russia and the Russian people. They should not act on behalf of the rest of the world unless that coincides with their own interests. Survival may be the first consideration, but it is not the only one. Ensuring the safety of its citizens is important too. Providing for those citizens as well as they can is also high on the list. The Russian government is reducing its military spending and increasing investments in infrastructure, public health and education. Increasing the welfare, health, wealth and happiness of its citizens should be genuine goals of any government in any nation. The more money a nation has to spend, the more they can realize these noble goals. Which brings us to another interest of the Russian Federation: increasing its income so it can spend more on improving the life of Russians and on ensuring their safety.
Once again we go back to basics. Throughout human history trade has been the way to generate supplemental income. Trade is a win/win situation. Both sides gain something in the transaction. Both sides are better off than they were before. Think of it as pies. Through trade both sides increase the size of their pies. Bigger pies mean more generous portions for everyone. Russia is a big country, and it has a lot of resources and goods available for trade. More trade partners means more trade and better deals. That also means additional income. The larger the number of trade partners is, the larger the pie becomes. You don’t need to be friends with someone to conduct business transactions with them, but you want to avoid creating enemies as these make for poor trade partners. Russia has a genuine interest in making friends, not enemies. Why should they intervene or act on behalf of third parties, undoubtedly antagonizing others while doing so?
The Russian government is doing the opposite. They follow a policy of turning enemies into neutrals, neutrals into friends and friends into allies. Even when relations experience a downturn, like those with Europe after 2014, they do their best to repair these. It may take time but it in the end it will pay off. Many people seem to view the current international situation as some kind of duel between Russia and the US where all events are analyzed in terms of winner-and-loser. That’s a distinctly American way of looking at the world. It’s not how the Russian government looks at it. They will happily let the US turn neutrals into enemies and friends into neutrals. Russia doesn’t really have to do much for this to happen. The US is perfectly capable of alienating almost the entire world by itself.
The most recent folly is the withdrawal from the Iran deal and declaring trade war on Europe. That is an incredibly stupid move. I’ve consistently talked about the confrontations between Russia and the US, and not the west in general. Given how Europe has followed US policies, there is an understandable view that they are mere vassals who can be more or less ignored. I believe that is incorrect and risky. Treat vassals poorly and they may rise up or defect. The EU and the US are not friends. Allies yes, as long as they have sufficient mutual interests. Assuming they were friends in the first place, this ended at least as early as 1999 with NATO’s war on Yugoslavia. The Americans seemed completely oblivious to how problematic it was morally for the governments and people of the European NATO countries to initiate a war against a fellow European country. This went against everything the European nations had worked for and had advocated since the end of the second world war. Understandably the leaders of these countries negotiated during NATO meetings before the attacks began to strictly limit them. And so it was decided. I watched many of them announce before their parliaments and their national press that NATO would intervene but would act only in Kosovo and only against purely military targets.
The following day they woke up to news of bombings across all of Serbia and against civilian targets. The European leaders had not just been betrayed by their US ‘allies’, they had been humiliated in front of their people, their parliaments, their constituents as they now had to publicly defend the actions of NATO. I have rarely seen politicians with such held back rage as I saw that day. I sincerely believe that was the day the US lost most of their European friends and allies. They still followed, but reluctantly and with a minimum of effort. When 9/11 happened two years later and the US called upon them to join the ‘War on Terror’ they were far from eager to do so. The American press of the day was outraged at the lack of support and many nasty stories appeared in US media. But could you blame them? The American treachery was fresh in their minds. Since then the story has been much the same. Reluctant European allies most of whom merely give token support when called upon. Europe has been drifting further and further away. It won’t be long before the divorce is final, especially if Trump is stupid enough to push through his trade war. Russia knows that there is very little love left between the main European and North-American partners. So they stay on friendly terms with Europe. They keep the door open. For them Europe is the big prize. Full on trade between Russia and the EU will produce considerable benefits for both. Russia’s pie will get bigger as will Europe’s. The best security strategy for Russia is to establish good economic relations with them. More income will also mean a more generous budget for security and defense.
We’re not there yet. Bad blood between the US and the EU does not directly translate into friendship between Russia and the EU. But it will be the start. With the UK leaving the EU, the most bitter and vitriolic Russia hater will be gone. They’ll try to keep the EU from looking east (the real reason why the UK establishment was against Brexit) instead of west but it will be a losing battle. Europe’s future lies to its east. And Russia patiently waits for that inevitable future to arrive.
*R.Lesnoix is a concerned citizen who grew up during the Cold War under the constant fear of nuclear weapons. He is dismayed with the direction the western democracies are going in.