In a celebrated passage from Democracy in America written in the 1830’s, Alexis de Tocqueville predicted the United States and Russia would become the world’s preeminent powers. For a few decades in the mid-20th century, Tocqueville appeared clairvoyant. But over time, it became increasingly clear Russia’s military might far outstripped its economic clout. And the demise of the Soviet Union undermined any illusion of Russia’s imperial pretension.
Western leaders underestimate how the Russian nation has been humiliated by recent history. We believe the most serious political and military crisis in Europe in decades must be understood as an attempt to reverse this painful trend. Vladimir Putin is determined to take greater risks to restore his country to what he considers its rightful place as a venerated player on the world stage. So identifying the sources of Russia’s humiliation will help us understand the root cause of the current crisis and construe an effective response.
There are three major sources of Russia’s humiliation. Two of them are obvious. First and foremost is the end of the Cold War. In relatively short order, Russia lost its political and military sphere of influence in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. America emerged victorious from the protracted ideological, economic and political struggle to become the world’s only superpower. Secondly, the defeat of the Soviet Army in Afghanistan represented a significant blow to Russia’s military establishment.
The third source of humiliation is powerful and insidious: Russia’s position in the world economy vis-à-vis China. These erstwhile Communist allies underwent a process of economic and political reform over the last few decades. Scholars debate the most effective sequence and pace of these reforms: which should go first, how fast should they proceed? While the debate continues, the contrast between Russia and China has been undeniable and remarkable. In the last 25 years, China emerged as an economic and financial powerhouse, becoming the largest exporter and the second largest importer of manufactured goods in the world, as Russia remained dependent on exploiting its vast energy and natural resources. Fortunately for Russia, increased prices for their commodities resurrected its economy. But Russia’s overall economic progress was greatly eclipsed by China. We believe the divergent paths of these former Communist nations represents a profound humiliation for Russia’s political leadership. An inability to diversify the economy and inferior rates of overall growth pose an enduring challenge.
In this context, Russia’s use of military force in Ukraine must be understood not as a sign of strength, but as a signal of enduring vulnerability, insecurity and weakness. The West faces a greatly injured nation determined to salvage its national pride and self-respect. In other words, Russia’s actions can be summed up in a terse phrase: the best defense is a good offense.
How should the West respond? In the short-term, the effective response involves a measured and credible show of strength. This means presenting a clear message that continued aggressive behavior has disastrous economic consequences. It should not mean reduced cooperation between Russia and NATO. Nor should it mean a blanket demand for Russia to capitulate. This would only exacerbate Russia’s national humiliation. Putin does not want to go to war. But he believes NATO’s push eastward to include Ukraine represents a threat to Russia’s security interests. So over the longer-term, the West must develop a strategy to deepen Europe’s military partnership with Russia. For instance, NATO could take the lead in nuclear disarmament negotiations to encourage Russian reciprocity; coordination of anti-terrorism policy between Europe and Russia could be strengthened; Russia could be enlisted to play a constructive role in the Iranian nuclear standoff. This would enhance Russia’s international stature and reduce its chronic fear of being encircled by hostile military forces, enabling Russia to save face and alleviate its humiliation. Over a decade ago, Putin wanted to join NATO. How absurd that seems today. Yet integrating Russian and Western military and political interests would greatly defuse the current crisis and mitigate future conflicts.
Neal Aponte, Ph.D.
Editor of Delano