Americans’ self-delusion that a post-Cold War era has been suddenly closed because of Russia annexing Crimea, is incorrect for several reasons. Chiefly, the continuity has never been broken. Each supposed thaw in relations has provided gathering space for primarily US cumulative arms-building, global market-penetration, emphasis on creating a national-security state, with Russia not bathed in innocence yet also hands-down outclassed by America in every department: a broad swath of military intervention, efforts at and success in regime change (implemented through the breadth of paramilitary operations), size of military expenditures (even as measured against gross domestic product), and the degree of ideological conditioning in support of war and the doctrine of permanent war. We speak of Russian totalitarianism, but say nothing about the substratum of ideological mind-bending in the West and especially America conditioning their peoples to equating freedom and democracy with the institutions and practices of advanced capitalism—no other standard on offer (in America the democracy-capitalism equation and consequent narrowing of permissible ideological BOUNDARIES since inception).
Today “Putinism” has become the term of choice for insinuating the combined Hitler-Stalin image as the nemesis of America reaching deeply into the national psyche. Exceptionalism has become all-consuming triumphalism, dulling moral sensibility and demanding conformity—since 1945 a progressive tightening of boundaries already set in place, now adding to capitalist absolutism the vigorous antisocialism which generates increased ethnocentrism and xenophobia. A combination of industrial-commercial-financial might, especially following a world war that devastated Europe and Russia, established the terms from the beginning of America’s claims to global hegemony. Today, from the US perspective, that context of arrogance and superiority has not changed, which makes the emergence of a multipolar power system then and now unthinkable, Russia no matter its policies—whether or not in response to US actions—the implacable foe, a paranoid currently directed as well to China.
The “reset” in Cold War US-Russian relations was always a fraud, and in fact only broke surface with Reagan and mumbo jumbo about looking into the eyes of the adversary while pushing all levers to the hilt which might conceivably bring about Soviet dismemberment. Few American presidents before even bothered with the rhetoric of peace, declaring Russia instead an international outlaw as part of a world conspiracy. The idea struck and still strikes receptive ground. Consider the evidence presented by Peter Baker, in his article, “3 Presidents and a Riddle Named Putin,” New York Times (March 24), which, in his apparent enthusiasm for the anti-Russian position, consistent with that of his paper, has led to excellent detailed coverage of the flagrant animus. Passing lightly over Clinton and Bush, he writes that under Obama there has been a steady deterioration “to the point that relations between Russia and the United States are now at their worst point since the end of the Cold War.”
The fault lies with Putin, of course. Baker writes: “For 15 years, Vladimir V. Putin has confounded American presidents as they tried to figure him out, only to misjudge him time and again. He has defied their assumptions and rebuffed their efforts at friendship. He has argued with them, lectured them, misled them, accused them, kept them waiting, kept them guessing, betrayed them and felt betrayed by them.” Translated: his sin of commission, he has talked back, was not properly submissive to the august US leadership, nor overawed by the power it commanded; his sin of omission, he did not sanction US-NATO interventions, welcome IMF protocols on austerity, privatization, and trade, or demonstrate good citizenship in the international community in myriad expected ways, e.g., a self-imposed subordination as the penance for Stalinist practice reputedly still in effect and therefore requiring a wholesale purging of the past so as to embrace the full genius of market fundamentalism. Baker’s final item, that “[Putin] felt betrayed by them,” unquestionably has to do with the West’s broken promise, as the condition of German reintegration and resolution of East-West tensions, about NATO expansion eastward, the point currently highlighted in the Crimean crisis because of the Ukrainian corridor potentially opened, through the coup, to the Russian border. The feeling of betrayal here is not unreasonable, Poland and Lithuania already in militarized posture facing East and Kiev actively seeking a relationship with the EU that might lead to NATO membership.
In true-NYT fashion with respect to reporting on Russia (i.e., loading the dice), and one might add China, Cuba, and Venezuela, Baker writes that the three presidents sought “to forge a historic if elusive new relationship with Russia, only to find their efforts torpedoed by the wiry martial arts master and former K.G.B. colonel….And they underestimated his deep sense of grievance.” Putin the reproachful autocrat. Their national-security advisors “saw him [Putin] for what he was,” but had no choice in the attempt “to establish a better relationship.” Sotto voce, because he does nothing to follow up the point, Baker adds: “It may be that some of their policies hurt the chances of that by fueling Mr. Putin’s discontent, whether it was NATO expansion, the Iraq war or the Libya war, but in the end they said, they were dealing with a Russian leader fundamentally at odds with the West.” Ah, the West, the holy shrine of geopolitics, with liberty and justice for all—Putin ungracious to a fault by not buying into the mythology of international capitalism.
Russia should take its medicine, a declination to match American ascendancy, as in the remark of James Goldgeier, dean of international studies, American University: “The West has focused on the notion that Putin is a pragmatic realist who will cooperate with us whenever there are sufficient common interests. We let that belief overshadow his stated goal of revising a post-Cold War settlement in which Moscow lost control over significant territory and watched as the West expanded its domain.” What nerve of Putin, to want to reverse Russian loss, Western domain-expansion! Dennis Blair, Obama’s first director of national intelligence, says that dictators should be thought of like “domestic politicians of the other party, opponents who smile on occasion when it suits their purposes, and cooperate when it is to their advantage, but who are at heart trying to push the U.S. out of power, will kneecap the United States if they get the chance and will only go along if the U.S. has more power than they.” Power, the universal solvent of social justice.
Eric Edelman, Bush’s undersecretary of defense, warns that “U.S. presidents and Western leaders” tend “to see the sense of grievance as a background condition that could be modulated by consideration of Russian national interests.” Not so, and why respect their national interests in the first place? Give them an inch and they’ll take a mile (themes of Toughness and Credibility invariably defining the US mindset), for he adds: “In fact, those efforts have been invariably taken as weakness.” It only gets better with Mike Rogers, chair of House Intelligence, this on Meet the Press (March 23): “He [Putin] goes to bed at night thinking of Peter the Great and he wakes up thinking of Stalin. We need to understand who he is and what he wants. It may not fit with what we believe of the 21st century.” This political-ideological atmosphere ( one can find similar views ad infinitum) gives to the demonization of Putin a plausibleness because left unchallenged, and because US-EU provocation is equally passed over.
Baker poses a final (loaded) question which leaves little room for other than continued confrontation: “Has Mr. Putin changed over the last 15 years and become unhinged in some way, or does he simply see the world in starkly different terms than the West does, terms that make it hard if not impossible to find common ground?” Perhaps two world views do exist in conflict. Does that necessarily make the US one preferable?
My New York Times Comment on Michael McFaul’s op.-ed. article, “Confronting Putin’s Russia,” (March 24) epitomizing the hostility toward Putin and Russia, follows, same date:
McFaul is the perfect voice of the Obama admin., even though now at the Hoover. He covets engagement (aka, market fundamentalism, or ISOLATION, take your pick via US-defined international law and order). Yes, Putin is tough, unrepentant, an adversary of the West (Baker’s related column has choice quotes of Americans reeking with hostility and innuendos of large-scale military conflict), unwilling to play dead to US hegemonic claims. Can we blame him? Frankly, I don’t.
McFaul speaks of the unprovoked war in Iraq as a p.r. liability. What of targeted assassination? Afghanistan? Pacific-first strategy, for containment on another front (China)? global paramilitary operations for regime change? at home, a massive surveillance program, which should satisfy McFaul’s definition of autocracy? Espionage Act prosecution of whistleblowers?
Putinism, as caricatured in the West, seems junior-grade compared with Obamaism. Why the Crimean incursion? Wasn’t there a coup in Ukraine? Did not significant involvement come from self-proclaimed FASCIST forces? Did not the US support those forces? Is not the Alliance–US,EU, IMF, NATO– expressing aggressive design, the potential of moving forces and missiles to the Russian border and possible NATO membership for Ukraine?
McFaul of course is entitled to his view, echoed and re-echoed by The Times. But this reader sees the spirit of war, anger at denial of world supremacy, revanche at every step and demonizing Putin cover for dominance.
Norman Pollack has written on Populism. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at email@example.com.