Without Reciprocity

2 May 2014

By Poel Karp

They were still saying there were no Russian soldiers in Crimea, that these were ‘local self-defense forces’, and they had not officially recognized that this was our army, but Mrs Merkel had already hinted that the President of Russia was, so to say, not in his right mind. But he is in the same mindset as he has always been, and a very traditional one. He is behaving like Lenin, who sent an army to bring down the Georgian social-democrats; like Stalin, who refused independence to the Poles; like Khrushchev, who sent rockets to Cuba; and like Brezhnev, who sent an army to Afghanistan. And if people ask by what right all this is happening, as Churkin explained at the UN, the Federation Council permitted it. And who is to blame if no one responded that the Federation Council has the right only to relocate forces on the territory of the Russian Federation?

During the Crimean campaign, a joke made the rounds: ”A son asks his father: ‘Dad, is Crimea Russia?’ And the father responds, ‘Of course, my son! It’s Russia everywhere!’ For Russia’s top officials, Russia is everywhere. But just don’t think that this is a national characteristic of the Russians. This is the characteristic of an empire that, in order to maintain itself, as late as the mid-nineteenth century kept half of all Russians in a state of slavery, a state of slavery that remained the same for peasants forced later into collective farms. The Tsarist gentry and the Soviet nomenklatura, as they ordered Russians around, learned to command the world. Lenin said: ‘Vladivostok is far away, but it’s our city!’ This was not something the imperialist Disraeli or Churchill would have said about Chicago. Britain was also an empire, also a brutal one, but her colonies went their own way. What falls by the wayside, is lost. But Russia doesn’t let anything fall by the wayside.

After the Second World War Russia took over as much territory as she could, not only in Europe, but in Asia, Africa, and South America. It cost a pretty penny. Sometimes the West intervened, and Russia had to step back. During the Berlin blockade, in answer to a question whether the Russians would cut the air bridge, Dulles replied: “Stalin understands that if one plane is brought down, it will be a world war!” Not everything was as simple as it seemed, and there were several dangerous incidents, but the Russians did not bring down a single plane. Our commanders balanced on the edge of war. When they were told plainly of the consequences, they withdrew the rockets from Cuba. But this did not prevent them from taking on new risks in the invasion of Afghanistan. The Americans did not want war, believing that they would win any peaceful competition. The Russians had no such confidence, but after Stalin they did not want a major war either. During Détente they sought to seize territories piecemeal. But the forty-year peace, known as the Cold War, confirmed clearly what lay ahead: a one-sidedly developed country with a population of less than 300m, even with a totalitarian regime, was unable to keep up in an arms race with the developed countries that had 800m inhabitants. The USSR lost the arms race.

The perplexity that seized Merkel and many others, and the fear that a major war would start, both resulted from the failure to understand this. But Putin is not going to commit suicide. He is bolder than Brezhnev or Stalin because for the past 23 years the West has been convincing itself that the new Russia was quite different from the USSR, with a new social structure. But the change in social structure consists merely of the fact that they have taken down the portraits of Marx. (Note that they left the Mausoleum and its contents in situ). And at the head of the shrunken state, instead of the First Secretary of Stavropol Region Party Committee, there was the First Secretary of the Sverdlovsk Region Party Committee, who subsequently passed the reins to a professional from the KGB. And it is the same class that is ruling, having dressed up either in the Chinese fashions of the day, or those of pre-war Italy. But the Bushes and Obamas, the Blairs and Camerons, Sarkosys and Hollandes, Schroeders and Merkels believed that Russia was quite a different country, and entered into relations with her on that basis. They have not just been sending wheat in exchange for raw materials, as before, but also the latest technologies and weapons. Why should Putin be shy with such support? As for the threat of sanctions, they’ll do little more than prevent certain Russian ladies buying their underwear and getting their hair done in the West. Is that what Putin is supposed to fear? It could be said, of course, that the course he has taken is fatal for Russia, that it will bring no good and show many basic truths. But Putin is not bothered about Russia, either in the present or the future. What he is concerned about is maintaining the power of the ruling class.

The problem is that a totalitarian regime and its ruling class are, by their very nature, bound to fall behind. This is shown by the history and collapse of the USSR. The ruling class blames Gorbachev and believes that if the country were to make use of new technologies, the USSR could be resurrected. All the more since the West is ruled by weak politicians: might is right, and who is boldest wins. It is easy enough to expose the weakness of these arguments. But the Russian economy, I fear, is in such a state that apart from banditism there is nothing the authorities can place their faith in.

Over the more than twenty years that have been lost for reform, the regime has become more dangerous than the Soviet Union. But it is not only Yeltsin and Putin who are to blame. The West pushed its friendship too far, without any reciprocity. The limitless trust given to Russia resulted in too many concessions that only served to strengthen her in the thought that she was above all laws. And there arose the belief in the special right to take Crimea, to take Kiev, Warsaw, Berlin, and there is no way of knowing what step will be fatal. It is certainly not pathetic sanctions that are now needed, but a new beginning to the West’s relations with Russia – a fresh start. If Russia’s assumption that it has special prerogatives means that its interest in the West, that so attracted Peter the Great (even if we forget about the Moscow cathedrals built even earlier by the Italians), has gone, then it will be necessary to live apart, as was the case in the past. There will be no economic benefit in this for the West, but security is more valuable than money.

The views expressed in blogs published on Rights in Russia are those of the authors and are not necessarily those of Rights in Russia.