“I do not reproach the Russians for being what they are, what I blame in them is, their pretending to be what we are.”
– Marquis de Custine, 1839.
About the same time that Alexis de Tocqueville was making his brief trip around the United States, another French aristocrat, the Marquis de Custine, journeyed to Russia. Tocqueville’s journey produced his classic “Democracy in America,” which depicted the opportunities and risks of an egalitarian society. Custine’s “Empire of the Czar: A Journey Through Eternal Russia” revealed the evils of autocracy and described a “classless” society where all social classes were “equally slaves” to the autocratic Czar. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has exposed Russian President Vladimir Putin as “Vlad the Invader,” the reincarnation of the autocratic Czar.
Almost 60 years ago, another autocrat, Nikita Khrushchev, installed medium-range missiles in Cuba; his risk-taking led to a disgraceful ouster from power. Vladimir Putin has taken on a huge risk in Ukraine that will render him a global pariah. But he has accumulated the powers of a Czar as opposed to a Communist Commissar, and there is no Politburo as a possible center for creating opposition to his leadership. Moreover, Putin has surrounded himself with former KGB colleagues at the key positions of Defense Minister, Intelligence Chief, and Security Advisor. Russia’s influential oligarchs will feel the pain of Western sanctions against Russia, but they are no more likely to challenge Putin than Germany’s business class would challenge Adolf Hitler.
Putin’s pathological and paranoid speech on the eve of the invasion was Hitlerian, reminiscent of Nazi justifications for using force in Czechoslovakia, Poland, and the Soviet Union. The delusional references to Ukraine’s “aggressive Russophobia and neo-Naziism,” the “kidnapping [of] Russian citizens,” and the “genocide perpetrated against 14 million people” testify to the madness of Putin’s methods. Once upon a time, it could be argued that the ill-fated decisions of Presidents Clinton and Bush to enlarge the North Atlantic Treaty Organization were responsible for some of Putin’s not unreasonable demands, but today’s exercise in regime change indicates that it was the fear of a Western-style democracy on his sensitive western border that was uppermost. Putin has enormous personal power, unlike his immediate predecessors, with no one, no institution, to restrain him.
Khrushchev’s Cuban missile crisis had a successful diplomatic outcome thanks to the diplomacy and patience of President John F. Kennedy, but the likelihood of a satisfactory diplomatic outcome to the Russian occupation of Ukraine is slim. In the wake of the missile crisis, Kennedy and Khrushchev produced the Partial Test Ban Treaty (over the opposition of our Department of Defense and their Defense Ministry) as well as the creation of the Hot Line to ensure that leaders in Washington and Moscow could communicate as securely and quickly as possible. The crisis itself, Khrushchev’s “capitulation,” and the disarmament treaty led to a total rupture in Sino-Soviet relations that eventually led to fighting on their borders in 1969. (The failure of Kennedy’s “best and brightest” to understand the Sino-Soviet split was responsible for the wrong strategic assumptions that President Johnson cited to justify the Vietnam War.)
The missile crisis was an important turning point in Soviet-American relations with Kennedy’s successors (until George W. Bush) pursuing in one form or another arms control and disarmament with the Soviets and the Russians. The various arms control agreements (Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty; Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty; Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty; and the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty) over a 40-year period not only improved the overall strategic situation, but allowed the development of a Soviet-American detente. Bush and Trump worsened the strategic situation with their abrogation of the ABM and INF treaties, respectively. They brought an end to the arms control and disarmament era, and as a result Putin presumably feels he has nothing to lose in the further deterioration of bilateral relations with Washington.
Khrushchev, who lived in eastern Ukraine until 1929 when he moved to Moscow, was removed from power two years after the missile crisis with Pravda referring to his “harebrained scheming…hasty decisions and actions divorced from reality, bragging and bluster….” A change of leadership in Moscow is unlikely, and Putin has seemingly consolidated his power until 2036, when he will be in his 80s. Unlike the successful aftermath of the Cuban missile crisis, it will be extremely difficult to reestablish a strategic dialogue with Russia that would allow Washington and Moscow to address their mutual interests. In addition to the problems of Covid and climate that require a globalized approach, Moscow and Washington have similar views on reducing strategic forces; preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons (particularly in North Korea and Iran); and addressing the problems of terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism.
If Putin doesn’t reverse course in Ukraine, it will not be possible to resolve these significant geopolitical problems. Like its predecessors, the Biden administration wrongfully assumes that Russia is part of European culture and thinking, and ignores the deep currents in Russian history that separate Russia from Europe. The historian Daniel Boorstein identified these currents as the “Mongolian invasions, the recurrent fears of attacks from the West, the unbroken traditions of autocracy and secrecy, and the absence of any tradition of constitutions, of a legally authorized opposition, of private rights of expression, of free worship.” The only Soviet leader who tried to challenge these currents—Mikhail Gorbachev—was removed from power and remains vilified by the Russian state.
Conversely, the United States cannot ignore Moscow’s legitimate security concerns if it wants to prevent a greater conflict. If Biden can say repeatedly that “we are not going to war in Ukraine,” then it should be possible to state that “we are not seeking NATO membership for Ukraine.” Key West European countries are positioned to block Ukraine’s bid for membership, but Putin needs to hear this from the United States.
At some point, we will have to address the issue of force deployments in East Europe, and Moscow will have to limit its own deployments as well, particularly in the Transnistria and in Kaliningrad. Both sides must agree to advance notification of scaled-back military exercises. It is long past the time to halt the expansion of NATO. U.S. missile bases in Poland and Romania, reportedly addressing a mythical threat from Iran, must be closed in return for reversing Russian missile deployments in Kaliningrad. Russian forces intervened in Transnistria in 1992 to assist a separatist movement, and have remained as a so-called “peacekeeping” force. Former German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned President Bush 14 years ago that NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia was a “red line” to Putin, and of course she was right.
Any progress, of course, is hostage to the extent of Putin’s plans in Ukraine. A puppet regime would lead to a protracted guerrilla struggle in Ukraine, and NATO is not about to revoke Article Five mutual defense guarantees for the former members of the Warsaw Pact who face a greater vulnerability than ever before. If Putin wants to resume control of the former Soviet space, and I don’t believe that he does, he will have created a rogue state of his own. His contempt for the people of Ukraine has shattered once again the illusion of Slavic brotherhood, which suffered an irreparable setback 90 years ago with Stalin’s political famine that killed millions of Ukrainians.
Near-term developments will be decisive, but over the longer term Russia’s economy will suffer; its global status will be harmed; and its leader will become an international pariah. The United States may have even be given an opportunity to create an opening with China, which does not support Putin’s use of military force. It was particularly noteworthy that President Biden was asked about the possibility of an opening to China in last week’s press conference, and he responded that he was “not prepared to comment.”
This curious response suggested that a dialogue may have already begun. We can only hope so.