The US is spoiling for war, cataclysmic consequences notwithstanding, Russia the near-target, China, if the world survives, next in line. Putin understands this, the whole world outside the West also does. He has acted circumspectly (as in his conversation with Pope Francis), refusing to descend into the labyrinth of pathological obsession with eradicating ideological and systemic differences among nations, in favor of a general tolerance predicated on security and respect for international law. Not so the US, especially with regard to Russia, having violated countless times, beginning with Woodrow Wilson and the Siberian Intervention, both elements of the latter’s identity, sovereignty, and place in the world. Beginning with the Bolshevik Revolution, as in the period 1917-19, America has solemnly committed itself to destroying all traces of communism/socialism as representing the total menace to an American-defined presumed democratic world order, itself the legitimating agency for capitalism enjoying exclusive status as morally and politically acceptable. This is not something new, then, but a carefully wrought policy-framework of increasingly military proportions and barely veiled if at all hostility.
Little changed in the interwar period. Take, for example, the US recognition of Russia in 1933, thought today perhaps as a parting of the clouds and testifying to FDR’s noblesse oblige, supreme confidence in America’s greatness, and pragmatism, when in reality Russia was almost irrelevant, from the standpoint of political respect and ideological rapprochement, to the decision. Instead, two things: the business community openly salivated at the opportunity for market expansion—far less doctrinaire when it came to profits than the existing state of public opinion—in such a vast untapped area; perhaps more basic, the thought that Russia would be a counterweight to Japan, which was already making encroachments on China, particularly with respect to trade, offering obstacles to American expansion in its chosen (aka, god-given) economic venue and sphere of influence. Too, recognition had to do indirectly with larger dimensions of trade: the fear that Germany, Italy, and Japan were making inroads into Latin American markets (and their extraction of raw materials therein), Russia standing dimly as a useful ally or example of American Open Door ground rules and even surrogate for lost opportunities closer to home. In sum, Roosevelt was not giving anything away, so that recent scholarly attempts to show FDR and Stalin on the same page sharing common ground throughout the period including World War II are nonsense.
For the preponderance of scholarship, the historical narrative is now familiar: In the late 1930s, the rise of Hitler and Nazism left Russia largely unnoticed at first as a possible major player (reinforced by the Nazi-Soviet Pact, which represented Russia’s own desperate attempt to save itself from attack, given the relative indifference to its fate of Britain and the US). This changed only with the worsening of the war situation–the overrunning of Poland, the fall of France—when Russia came seriously into American and British war planning. And even then, Russia was taken for granted, for the crucial years 1941-43 given no mutual cooperation and agreement on the shape of the postwar world. As the war progressed and Russia suffered horrendous loss of life and vast destruction of land, buildings, infrastructure, it was clear to Stalin that Roosevelt and Churchill were not aghast at the Nazi bloodletting (Hitler doing the job of anticommunism for them, or at least evidence of this view on Churchill’s part), so that the paramount issue arising by 1943 for Stalin was the opening of a second front to relieve the pressure on Russia which bore the brunt of the Nazi attack.
FDR purposely delayed a decision, an unforgiveable act in the circumstances. Worse followed, for with war’s end there was still little common ground between FDR and Stalin, the latter vainly asking for economic aid for social reconstruction and, of grave significance, assurance of security via safe borders.
Hence the Cold War initially the product of fundamental differences over Russia’s future, its weakened state only inciting the US to further obduracy. By 1944 the architecture of containment was already in place, and, following Roosevelt’s death, was achieved by the Marshall Plan. So many issues were strewn around, e.g., the division of Germany, dropping the second atomic bomb on Japan primarily as warning to Russia not to expand eastward (rather than merely hasten the victory over the Japanese), above all, I think, the question of a security perimeter. More can be said, but this account forms the background for the present condition of mistrust between the two countries and sheds light on policy continuities of anticommunism which Obama inherited but also has extended, to the extent of making even the early Cold War unrecognizable today. No longer fishing in troubled waters, America is exercising a full-court press in Eastern Europe right up to the Russian border. Where is Putin in all of this? Before examining his recent press conference with an Italian paper on Russia’s broader attitudes, I would like to suggest the more immediate setting for his and Russia’s disappointment if not anger at the West, America in particular, for violating the terms of the 1997 accord between NATO and Russia on “Mutual Relations, Cooperation, and Security,” signed in Paris (May 27, 1997).
Some obvious provisions follow (enough to make one cry, so clear their betrayal on the US-NATO side of the ledger). Titled “Founding Act,” it states that NATO and the Russian Federation, “based on an enduring political commitment undertaken at the highest political level, will build together a lasting and inclusive peace in the Euro-Atlantic area on the principles of democracy and cooperative security.” This, as NATO presses eastward, announcing only this week that American-supplied military equipment would be placed near the Russian border in response to a putative Russian intent to swallow up all of Europe, the proximity of the material to the border in order to lessen the response time to the assault.
New York Times reporter Neil MacFarquhar’s article, “Russia Urges U.S. Not to Deploy Weapons to Border Areas,” (June 16), is indicative of the concern raised by this latest move, itself—as Putin has noted—obviously out of step with the Accord between NATO and Russia. MacFarquhar writes, “Moscow issued warnings on Monday [June 15] in response to the Pentagon’s possible stationing of battle tanks and other heavy weapons to speed the deployment of American troops if needed in NATO states bordering Russia.” The Foreign Ministry, fearing “herald[ing] the start of a competitive arms buildup,” issued this statement: “’We hope that reason will prevail and the situation in Europe will be prevented from sliding into a new military confrontation which may have dangerous consequences.’” The reporter’s attempt at even-handedness: “What the West considers renewed Russian aggression prompted the Pentagon to consider the move, but Moscow sees it as a longstanding pattern in which NATO forces creep closer to its borders.”
“Renewed Russian aggression” refers to Crimea and Ukraine, which, the plebiscite in one, the coup d’etat in the other, might well be viewed otherwise. Putin is said to have “had no immediate reaction,” while the Ministry said “the deployment would undermine a crucial provision of a 1997 agreement between Russia and NATO, in which the alliance pledged not to station substantial combat forces near Russia.” The coup alone invalidates the US-NATO action as defensive, especially in light of the alacrity within which Kiev fell in line with the alliance planning. MacFarquhar allows Washington to weasel out of the move with this fatuous distinction: “But the Pentagon maintains that it is merely deploying the equipment, not the troops themselves.”
Returning to the “Founding Act,” we find a miracle of public relations (surprisingly, Russia did not protest) about a relationship fraught from day one—or rather, implicit from the Siberian Intervention to the present– with conflict: “NATO and Russia do not consider each other as adversaries. They share the goal of overcoming the vestiges of earlier confrontation and competition and of strengthening mutual trust and cooperation.” This commitment “marks the beginning of a fundamentally new relationship between NATO and Russia. They intend to develop, on the basis of common interest, reciprocity and transparency a strong, stable and enduring partnership.” One that lasted less than a decade, if not cynically conceived from its inception. The Act speaks of “the goals and mechanism of consultation, cooperation, joint decision-making and joint action,” as meanwhile US-NATO increased militarization, contingency plans, further interventions including both US and NATO forces, and dead-ahead weapons’ production (yes, the Foreign Ministry’s feared arms race, which in fact never abated in America from the beginning of the Cold War, much of it defining a healthy export trade with the advantage of cementing new friends and allies) made a mockery of “consultation, cooperation,” etc.
No wonder Putin’s skepticism and dismissal of rhetoric concerning US-NATO intentions and actions, ample reason for the West’s demonization of him and of Russia for the refusal to knuckle under to superior force. That Putin does not hide his disdain for Obama only drives the latter more determinedly to show the flag, surrounding himself with Brennan-style war hawks, Biden-type sycophants, and the full panoply of repressive agencies, personnel, and practices, as in the domestic war against the American people via massive surveillance, the unleashing of elite paramilitary units adept at assassination acting in their name, and the general climate of approval of global-wide counterrevolution making super-patriots of us all. No, Putin was not the product of immaculate conception, but as his interview in Il Corriere della Sera attests, it is not he and Russia that represent a threat to world security. Why believe him? I can only plead two reasons: the consecutive history of US efforts at overturning the Russian government (now going on 100 years) despite the shamefulness and duplicity in treating with contempt Russia’s sacrifices during World War II, which relieved Hitler’s pressure on the Western front and probably saved England and possibly averted the invasion of the Western Hemisphere—a debt the beneficiaries have not paid, still less acknowledged; also, in tone, word choice, context, he appears cogent and believable, not slick, as in the case of America’s present leader. I may be naïve, but at least I want the reader to be introduced to the man in his own words, not as a substitute for the historical underpinning, but making sense of it.
The paper’s editor, Luciano Fontana, started off the questioning, addressed to Italian-Russian relations, in which he expressed concern that they have “been somewhat marred by the crisis in Ukraine and the sanctions,” to which Putin, taking in the wider relations with the EU, replied: “First, I firmly believe that Russia was not responsible for the deterioration in relations between our country and the EU states. This was not our choice; it was dictated by our partners. It was not we who introduced restrictions on trade and economic activities.” Nevertheless, as between Russia and Italy there has been an “eleven fold” increase in trade over the last two years and—one might forget Putin’s socialist label for he sounds quite admiring of capitalist activity—[t]here are 400 Italian companies operating in Russia. We are cooperating actively in the energy sector, in an array of fields. Italy is the third largest consumer of our energy resources. We have many joint high technology projects, in the space and aircraft industries, and in many other sectors.” 900,000 Russian tourists visited Italy last year, spending “over a billion euro.” Why the unreasoning fear, therefore, the political-cultural lag from the past? I cannot answer that, except to indicate the evident irrationality—or perhaps resentment of competition.
When asked next by Fontana about which Italian prime minister he liked best, Putin cut to the chase—“personal trust,” whomever the person “is certainly a very important factor in our work, in building relations on the interstate level.” Not ideological similarity, but enjoying “trust-based relations in the political sphere,” counts most; the visit of the Italian prime minister, Matteo Renzi, to that end, received widespread notice and approval. Putin seeks a cooperative attitude on the part of others, for which he is “ready to reciprocate” and go still further. He elaborates on the rejection of an ideological litmus test: “I have always sensed a truly sincere interest in building interstate relations irrespective of the domestic political situation. I would like to say in this regard that the attitude people in Russia have developed towards Italy does not depend on which political party is in power.”
The other questioner, Paolo Valentino, noting Putin’s coming attendance for Russian Day at Milan’s Universal Exhibition, sought his response to “the core theme of this year’s exhibition,” namely, “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life,” and specifically, “What is Russia’s contribution to this cause?” Too, “What does this effort mean for relations between states?” Here I find the human, compassionate side, not generally credited, of Putin: “This is one of the major challenges that humanity is facing today. So I can and must acknowledge that the Italian organizers chose one of the key themes for the exhibition.” He continued: The world population is rising, reaching “9 billion people by 2050,” and presently, according to the UN, “850 million people all over the planet are under nourished or starving, and 100 million of them are children.” This is central to an enlightened conception of world order: “Many other issues, seemingly unrelated, will depend on how we deal with it. I am talking about instability among other things, that is political instability of entire regions, terrorism, and so on. All these problems are interrelated.” He speaks of the recent migration of peoples “that has hit Italy and Europe today” as “among these resulting problems.” The context is enlightened, spacious, an orientation of which US policymakers are essentially clueless.
Russia’s contribution of $200M to UN programs complements the Russian effort to expand its agricultural sector, a growth rate of “3.4 3.5 percent” last year, holding steady in the first quarter of the current year, helping to make Russia “the third largest grain exporter in the world.” Then Valentino switches to the perception that Russia “feels betrayed, abandoned by Europe,” and fires off a series of questions: “What are the problems in these relations today? Do you think that Europe has been too dependent on the United States in the Ukrainian crisis? What do you expect from Europe in relation to the sanctions?” We can close with Putin’s answers to these questions, insightful to begin with, although the interview did not end till two in the morning. I shall add sparingly a few choice quotes made at its conclusion.
When Valentino characterized Russia’s situation as being “like a lover abandoned by his mistress,” Putin was quick to say, “We have never viewed Europe as a mistress,” and here he begins a monologue in which an informal framework of political and economic relations specifying Russia’s relations to the rest of Europe is presented:
I am quite serious now. We have always proposed a serious relationship. But now I have the impression that Europe has actually been trying to establish material based relations with us, and solely for its own gain. [“material based” = exploitative, concerned only with advantage, and possibly keeping Russia in a dependent stage of political economy] There is the notorious Third Energy Package and the denial of access for our nuclear energy products to the European market despite all the existing agreements. There is reluctance to acknowledge the legitimacy of our actions and reluctance to cooperate with integration associations in the territory of the former Soviet Union. I am referring to the Customs Union, which we created and which has now grown into the Eurasian Economic Union.
This is hardly a mere rant, but the studied particularization on the part of Western financial-industrial interests and practices designed to cripple Russia preparatory to regime change or dismemberment, if not worse. Putin is rightfully wary—and sour: “Because it is all right when integration takes place in Europe, but if we do the same in the territory of the former Soviet Union, they try to explain it by Russia’s desire to restore an empire. I don’t understand the reasons for such an approach.” Then the visionary comes out, yet because Russia as author an unacceptable vision: “You see, all of us, including me, have been talking for a long time about the need to establish a common economic space stretching from Lisbon to Vladivostok. In fact, French President Charles de Gaulle said something similar a lot earlier than me. Today nobody objects to it, everybody says: yes, we should aspire to this.” But, yes but. And but again. Putin is not de Gaulle; Russia is not France. Putin can taste the US-EU-NATO animus toward his country and himself.
Dismemberment via the manipulation of energy supplies is an important part of the Western strategy of containment. Hence, he continues: “But what is happening in practice? For example, the Baltic States have joined the European Union. Good, no problem. But today we are being told that these countries, which are part of the energy system of the former Soviet Union and Russia, they must join the European Union’s energy system. We ask: Are there any problems with energy supply or with something else? Why is it necessary?—No, there are no problems, but we have decided that it will be better this way.” A policy of economic strangulation appears operative, or simply putting Russia to large additional expense as a means of inflicting harm. Thus, “What does this mean for us in practical terms? It means that we will be forced to build additional generating capacities in some western regions in Russia. Since electricity transmission lines went through the Baltic States to some Russian regions and vice versa, all of them will now be switched over to Europe, and we will have to build new transmission lines in our country to ensure electricity supply. This will cost us about 2 2.5 billion euro.”
Now, still using energy as the focus, he turns to Ukraine, summing up with two penetrating questions:
Now let’s look at the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement. It does not require that Ukraine becomes part of the European energy system, but it is considered possible. If this happens, we will have to spend not 2 2.5 billion but, probably, about 8 10 billion euro for the same purpose. The question is: why is this necessary if we believe in building a common economic space from Lisbon to Vladivostok? What is the objective of the European Union’s Eastern Partnership? Is it to integrate the whole former Soviet Union into a single space with Europe, I repeat for the third time, from Lisbon to Vladivostok, or to cut something off and establish a new border between modern Russia and the western territories including, say, Ukraine and Moldova?
Putin then asks what no American leader, political or military, has the honesty or courage to ask: “What are the roots of the Ukrainian crisis? Its cause seems to be completely disproportionate to what has become an utter tragedy today claiming many lives in southeast Ukraine. What sparked the crisis?” Yanukovych, as president, is deposed in a coup d’etat, despite wanting more time for discussion about signing the Association Agreement with the EU, rioters in Kiev being “actively supported both by our European and American partners,” the coup, of course, “a totally anti-constitutional act.” The new government would sign and Putin queries, “The question is: what was the coup d’etat for? Why did they need to escalate the situation to a civil war?” He points out that in 2013 Russia was “ready to give Ukraine $15 billion as a state loan supported by a further $5 billion via commercial banks; plus we already gave it $3 billion during the year and promised to cut gas prices by half if they paid regularly.” Then to some the startling admission :”We were not against Ukraine signing an Association Agreement with the European Union,” only that it fulfill its obligations to “the CIS free trade area.” The remainder would take us far afield; suffice it to say, Ukraine received favorable treatment, the unilateral removal of customs duties from the EU, as one example, as it fulfilled the promise of bringing US-NATO forces into closer striking distance of Russia. After further details on the role of outside parties, he concludes, “So, I believe that this crisis was created deliberately and it is the result of our partner’s [US] unprofessional actions. And the coverage of this process has been absolutely unacceptable. I would like to emphasise once more: this was not our choice, we did not seek it, we are simply forced to respond to what is happening.”
On the contrived—or perhaps even real—climate of fear engendered by America and its allies toward Russia, Putin observed: “As for some countries’ concerns about Russia’s possible actions, I think that only an insane person and only in a dream can imagine that Russia would suddenly attack NATO. [I quoted this in a recent CP article.] I think some countries are simply taking advantage of people’s fears with regard to Russia.” In further explanation: “They just want to play the role of front-line countries that should receive some supplementary military, economic, financial or some other aid. Therefore, it is pointless to support this idea; it is absolutely groundless. But some may be interested in fostering such fears. I can only make a conjecture.”
I suggest Putin is right on target, especially here: “For example, the Americans do not want Russia’s rapprochement with Europe. I am not asserting this, it is just a hypothesis. Let’s suppose that the United States would like to maintain its leadership in the Atlantic community. [He underestimates the scope of America’s hegemonic desires]. It needs an external threat, an external enemy to ensure this leadership.” Clearly, not just anyone. For he states, “Iran is clearly not enough—this threat is not very scary or big enough. Who can be frightening? And then suddenly this crisis unfolds in Ukraine. Russia is forced to respond. Perhaps, it was engineered on purpose, I don’t know. But it was not our doing.” Alas, a statement totally foreign to the practiced repertoire of sustained anticommunism, in circulation since Wilson’s time and still with us: “Let me tell you something—there is no need to fear Russia. The world has changed so drastically that people with some common sense cannot even imagine such a large-scale military conflict today. We have other things to think about, I assure you.”
Norman Pollack has written on Populism. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.