An alternate explanation of the logic behind Western opposition to Russia
“Francis Bacon’s warning that man converts his words into idols that darken is understanding, is as pertinent today as it was three centuries ago.”
—Harold L. Wilensky
While the argument against Russian violations of Ukrainian territorial sovereignty is a valid one, those making this argument may not be doing so based on their expressed concern for that sovereignty, but rather because it offers the most legitimate challenge to Russian action. The inconsistency of the Wests past behavior with this argument implies the real logic behind the Western position may not about sovereignty but simply about opposing Russia.
Territorial sovereignty has always been treated as a flexible principle by the U.S. Evidence of this can be seen in the drone strikes in Pakistan which were described by a U.N. investigation as a violation of sovereignty, a raid described by the Libyan congress as “flagrant violation of Libyan sovereignty,” the 2003 Invasion of Iraq which was referred to as “illegal” by the Secretary General of the U.N., the 1994 intervention in Haiti, 1983 invasion of Grenada which the U.N. described as a “flagrant violation of international law,” and the Bay of Pigs Invasion, to use but a few examples. The U.S., like Russia, has generally respected territorial sovereignty when it was beneficial and ignored it when it was not. The U.S. usually seeks U.N. approval, but has not always found it necessary to justify its actions. NATO has acted similarly, especially in its commonly cited intervention in Kosovo. The U.N. itself has had a dizzying relationship with concepts of sovereignty. Since 1960, it has held self-determination as a fundamental right yet subordinated it to territorial sovereignty, but then turned this idea on its head when adopting the philosophy of “sovereignty as responsibility” which enables violations of territory to protect populations.
This “flexibility” has not gone unnoticed by Russia, which equates it with hypocrisy. The West has attempted to defend its criticism of Russia with two relatively frail arguments. The first is the claim that the invasion of Iraq is unlike the situation in Crimea. This is true, but perhaps not for the reasons cited. It could be argued that the Crimean intervention is more justifiable than the Iraq Invasion. The shift of government in Kiev was technically unconstitutional, which some have argued makes it an illegitimate representative of the those who did not consent to the new government’s sovereignty. The new government was also demonstrating behavior that could be interpreted as persecuting ethnic Russians, further de-legitimizing its sovereignty over Crimea. Feeling that Kiev no longer represented but instead resented them, Crimeans requested and welcomed Russian presence. And it was not a bloody invasion, but an occupation that was viewed by the occupied as reaffirming of their safety. Finally, Crimea wholeheartedly voted to join Russia. Crimea was in essence practicing self-determination, assisted by Russia. That Russia has its own interests in providing this assistance is irrelevant to that point.
Contrast this situation with U.S. involvement in Iraq, which was predicated under false pretenses and characterized by a consistent insurgency against the government imposed by the U.S.
Further, while the U.S. has stated that European borders should not be changed by force, NATO did just this in the creation of an independent state in Kosovo. Western officials describe this comparison to Crimea as unfair, however, excusing the redrawing of borders when violence is being committed, as it was by all sides in former Yugoslavia. Ideally, however, change should occur before violence is committed and thus prevent it. Further, killing is only one form of oppression. When the new government assumed power in Ukraine and began passing legislation banning the Russian language, increasing penalties for holding Russian passports, even proposing a bill to ban freedom of the press, specifically targeting Russian media, it was a threatening and foreboding sign to Crimeans. The hate speech directed at Russians from Kiev did nothing to dispel the peninsula’s fears. In the fear and marginalization that resulted from the imposition of a government that did not represent Crimea, separatism was guaranteed.
The U.S. saddled itself with an untenable position from the beginning through its overzealous support of the Pandora’s Box that was Euromaidan. Fueled by the same idealism that assumed the Arab Spring could not possibly have negative consequences, the U.S. eagerly sided with the movement in Kiev despite it being instigated by politicians every bit as corrupt as those it desired to replace. Having sided with this movement, the U.S. would have been dragged into opposition against Russia even if it had not already been pursuing this position for decades.
The defenses posed by the West regarding its interventions do little to obfuscate the fact that it perceives the same, or less even justifiable, actions as legitimate when the West commits them but illegitimate when Russia does. This is clearly demonstrated by western support of the transition in Kiev, but the renouncement of democratic choice in Crimea.
This cognitive dissonance is enabled by the attitude , “We are the good guys, they are the bad guys, so it’s okay when we do it but not when they do.” Russia, as a long-time enemy of the West, and the most significant threat in the recent past, fits conveniently into the role of villain.
It has, after all, played the part before.
Government officials in the U.S. and Europe are increasingly asserting that Russia is viewing the world through a lens of Soviet nostalgia but are not considering the possibility that their own perspective may be influenced by the past. But all too familiar approaches are being recommended, even under the same terms, “containment” for example. Putin, on the other hand, has emphasized less the Cold War and much more the post-Cold War era. Now diplomats have threatened, and the U.S. has implemented, sanctions. Specious reasoning is being employed to escalate fears.
Today Putin and Russia continue to be characterized by analogies to Hitlerand Nazi Germany. But, two years ago, well before the current crisis, the Republican candidate for President characterized Russia as the biggest geopolitical foe of the United States.
These comparisons bring to mind the Manichean Cold War narratives of the “Evil Empire” and the “godless” Soviets. So too, does it conjure up the post-WWII idea espoused by General George S. Patton:
“Russia KNOWS what she wants. WORLD DOMINATION. And she is laying her plans accordingly. The Russians are Mongols. They are Slavs and a lot of them used to be ruled by Ancient Byzantium. From Genghis Kahn to Stalin, they have not changed. They never will, and we will never learn, at least, not until it is too late.”
This view of the Russian people, familiar to anyone who grew up during the Cold War, paints them not as human beings worthy of empathy but as almost alien beings with a completely incompatible moral code. It is the same kind of thinking that allowed leaders to seriously consider eradicating another population through nuclear means.
Where this view has risen above applying such characterizations to the mass population, it has simply done so at the governmental level. Rather than viewing counterparts as representing a nation with its own interests, leadership has been characterized as irrational, villainous and evil. There is a refusal to acknowledge that all nations seek to achieve greater capability for independent action and that some, like China or Russia, may have regional ambitions while others, like U.S., have global ones. Instead, any such action on the part of Russia is typically interpreted in the most diabolical manner possible.
One of the most common examples of this is the idea that Putin is seeking to restore the Soviet Empire, proven by an alleged quote that, “The breakup of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century.” Even if it were true, it could hardly be considered proof of a plan to recreate Soviet imperialism. Are there not many Britons who view their “time in the sun” as a golden age? But the quote itself is actually inaccurate. What Putin said was, “Above all, we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century. As for the Russian nation, it became a genuine drama. Tens of millions of our co-citizens and co-patriots found themselves outside Russian territory. Moreover, the epidemic of disintegration infected Russia itself.” He was not talking about imperial ambition but about the societal division and economic collapse that accompanied the breakup and the hardships those incurred.
Further, the West views Putin’s actions without any thought to its own influence on them, but looking at the past through Russia’s point of view can be sobering. Ivan Eland points out that,
“From the Russian perspective, Napoleon and Adolf Hitler invaded Russia and the nation lost 40 million people in the two World Wars…The collapse of Russia’s Warsaw Pact buffer zone was exacerbated by expansion of a hostile military bloc — NATO — through inducting those former Warsaw Pact nations into that swelling alliance. That expansion has continued right up to Russia’s borders. Even prior to the current crisis in Crimea, U.S. fighters were patrolling the border between Russia and NATO-member Baltic states…After the Cold War ended, instead of doing away with NATO and including Russia in the larger European community, Russia was excluded from Europe. Moreover, to get Soviet agreement to reunite Germany, President George H. W. Bush promised then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would not expand; since then, that promise has been repeatedly broken. A humiliated and nationalistic Russia, with a chauvinistic Putin leading it, is a direct outcome of such prior U.S. policies.”
But this refusal to acknowledge Russia as anything other than an aggressive, bloodthirsty, expansionist bully with imperial designs is not the result of the Cold War. It is actually the a continuation of a narrative that is centuries older.
In a war that began 160 years ago yesterday, which would be fought in Crimea (among other places), Russophobia was one of the primary forces that brought about the conflict. Even earlier than that war, the idea of the “Russian Menace” (the 200 year precursor to the 50s era term “Red Menace”) was well entrenched. Much of the fuel for this idea was “The Testament” of Peter the Great, which Orlando Figes described as declaring Russia’s mission to
“…expand on the Baltic and Black Seas, to ally with the Austrians to expel the Turks from Europe, to ‘conquer the Levant’ and to control the trade of the Indies, to sow dissent and confusion in Europe and become master of the European Continent.”
Figes notes that the document itself, however, was a forgery which was created in the early eighteenth century by “various Polish, Hungarian, and Ukrainian figures connected to France and the Ottomans, and it went through several drafts before the finished version ended up in the French Foreign Ministry archives in the 1760s.”
The French published the document in 1812, the year they invaded Russia, and its resulting circulation has forever tainted perception of Russia’s ambitions. Figes notes that it has been republished
“on the eve of every war involving Russia on the European Continent — in 1854, 1878, 1914, and 1941 — and was cited during the Cold War to explain the aggressive intentions of the Soviet Union. On the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 it was cited in Christian Science Monitor, Time magazine and the British House of Commons as an explanation of the origins of Moscow’s aims.”
The endurance of this portrayal is an attestation to its efficacy.
What Russophobia truly represents is a real-world example of Orwell’s “Two Minutes Hate” and serves the same purpose — that of rousing the democratic populace against an enemy. J.F.C Fuller noted that democracy, far from being a restraint against war, often makes war more vicious and brutal, as the hatred of the population must be mobilized to free politicians to go to war. Fuller reaches back to Herbert Spencer who explained human nature’s dual codes of benevolence to the in-group and animosity to outsiders. Fuller notes that these are exhibited in the extremes when democratic nations war, explaining that, “The motive force of democracy is not love of others, it is the hate of all outside the tribe, faction, party or nation. The ‘general will’ predicates total war, and hate is the most puissant of recruiters.” Fuller was writing with two world wars of absolute nature in mind but, despite the rise of more limited war since, the methods of swaying the populace have remained the same — identifying the villain and directing hatred toward him.
As effective as the approach remains, this type of thinking prevents one from seriously considering and understanding an adversary’s position and intentions. For all the talk about “knowing one’s enemy,” political leaders often instead impose a politically-expedient narrative upon the enemy and confirmation bias does the rest. With a process designed specifically to appeal to emotion it is only natural that it might result in less realistic assessments of the enemy. Reckless courses of action disconnected from reality become feasible due value-laden beliefs which are held beyond question.
And this perhaps this is the real danger — overreacting to an overestimated threat based not on realistic understanding of Russian intentions and capabilities, but rather on the West’s long standing and deep-seated distrust and fear of Russia.
It is doubtful that Russia will execute a conventional invasion of western Ukraine, and we should question where the hysteria caused by claims that it is planning to do so might be leading us.
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Header Image: Soviet Reunion (The Onion)