That Russian Matter

Trump’s presidency moves an old subject to the top of our time’s priorities: Call it “the Russian Thing”. The topic has a history that, for America, goes back to 1917, when Russia’s experiment with democracy failed. That foretold a similar process in Germany where a “stable” tyranny replaced a “turbulent democracy” – resulting in a system that seeked global domination. Hitler’s defeat and the abandonment of America’s historic neutrality to protect Europe put the US and the USSR on a course of confrontation. With that, American – Russian relations became a key issue of global politics.

The reason is that, the European Union has opted out to play a PC game with imaginary dominoes while enjoying soothing paralysis. Therefore, we live in a word of “three” –America, Russia and China. It might contradict convention, yet the US and Russia is compatible and are, given sound leaders, potentially mutually completing powers. More: They are also countries that have no territorial demands on each other.

The reason for that fit: they share active and potential threats. One of them is the Islamist menace whose primary present target is the USA. The fanatics weaken America, and thus momentarily augment Russia’s global weight. Here one hopes that Putin will avoid Stalin’s error. He underrated Nazism’s consequences for Russia and so he anticipated that a war between Hitler and the Allies will improve his position.

For decades, the US’ means were spent to contain Soviet Communism. With the Cold War ending by a Russian state replacing the Soviet empire, changed systems face each other. Alas, the altered geopolitical situation and Russian national interests have, regardless of Ms. Clinton “reset”, not been exploited.

The American national interest, also global considerations, demand that the novel situation be approached in a new spirit -while remaining cognizant of the past and aware of future worst case scenarios. To restructure relations with Russia old, once justified, baggage must be shed. This writer, from a country that saw Russia as an enemy, also has the experience of fighting the Red Army. Often such factors distort personal perspectives and that can deprive the future of the chance to be more than the mere continuation of the past. Hopefully, the stated background damps the charge that a biased case is presented by Moscow’s hireling.

Any intensified and stable system of US-Russian cooperation has inherited suspicions and enmity to overcome, while it needs to provide proof of sound strategic vision.

In the case of Russia, a problem of long standing exists. With Peter the Great, Russia became, after selectively imitating the more advanced West, a major power wavering between imitation and the resentment pupils can have toward teachers. Beyond the military realm, Russia’s modernization remained incomplete. The differences in living standards, rights, and institutions, have made it easy to govern dictatorially. That prevented her leaders from completing the upgrading adjustment. This made the gaps of underdevelopment to appear as threats -and to view more advanced systems as foes. To cope and to catch up, you might need to become much like your potential enemy. In short, Russia became, for very complicated reasons, an ineffective “cultural learner”.

Getting mired in cast-to-fail projects, and moving against modernization’s one-way traffic, is a result. This is exemplified by the decades of Communism -a trip on a detour to nowhere- that terminated at an abyss. With Marxism, Russia committed to an idea rejected in the region of its origins for being non-workable. Russia’s attraction came from some components of that secular religion. For one, it predicted the collapse of hard-to-imitate advanced systems. It also promised to provide a short-cut for Russia to overtake the rest of the world. Lastly, Marxism contained a global mission that catered to historic expansionism by converting future “occupation” into “liberation”.

This moment presents us with a chance to overcome the past. True, the pattern of Russian-American -and also Western relations- is best described with the word “tense”. However, it is a lesson of history that its mold is not cast in iron. Only the desire for excuses and the lack of fantasy says otherwise. The creative, if blessed with the talent of statesmanship, can break patterns to lay the foundation of new times.

Trump’s and Putin’s rise followed the disintegration of limiting structures. Being unconventional “new men”, who have “changed the rules”, they can benefit of conditions that allow the pursuit of the national interest in new directions. Significantly, both can afford concessions without being accused that their “give” is devoid of a “take”. Nor can one convincingly charge that their accommodation is treason that expresses a lack of love of country.

At this juncture an objection is likely. Nationally oriented leaders are said to be unable to come to terms. Granted, irrational nationalism can be a hindrance. However, country-oriented contracting parties may be able to discover their common denominator –if there is one.  If they agree on that basis, then the deal expresses genuine interests rather than the wishy-washy of numerous treaties that, from the outset, are meant to be circumvented. Concrete substances, clearly stated positions guarantee compliance.

Several positions need to be modified to enable America and Russia to ride a tandem. For instance, America needs to hold back on lectures even though she represents a model that has produced a successful society. In her case, the RX is to learn more about Russia’s achievements without ignoring her errors. A temptation is to exploit, for the sake of local short-term advantage, inherited prejudices to undermine a new foreign policy. Circles that once showed unconditional “understanding” for the USSR, now advocate keeping a distance to Russia. The right, once opposed to communism, but not necessarily to Russia, pleads for a search of mutuality, partnership, and renewal.

The “Russian Thing” is much too important to sacrifice it to make deal-seeking Trump stumble. Additionally, fighting Trump in the press, by fancy challenges in court, and rioters that accept any president as long as it is Hillary, cause much damage. That is the case because, to induce Russia to recast the dice, depends on the reliability of the American contracting partner. “Derail Trump, no matter what” is a bad signal.

The baggage Russia needs to jettison is more voluminous and harder to discard. The enmity of earlier confrontations has been deeper than America’s. Also, the tradition that made size into a compensation for “quality” is strong. So is the old inclination to find security in the domination of neighbors. Some component of the present’s international politics also creates hurdles. Whether, on the tactical level effective confrontational foreign policy stances of Russia serve her strategic interest can be doubted.

For a Russian leader, it is difficult to tell his patriotic public to dare to make the country “less” in return for security guarantees by new, once feared, partners. To come to an arrangement with the world through America, Moscow needs to accept that the dissolution of the crimson empire has not been Putin’s “geopolitical tragedy”. Much rather, releasing annexed lands (the Baltic) and satellites (Eastern Europe) brought benefits. Scaling back means trading domination for a potential system of security where national power is enhanced by international consent. Influence based upon a degree of amity can be worth more than crude might and subservience secured by the burden of relentless subjugation.

The dichotomy of a militarily first world Russia which is economically and socially third world, is a historic condition but not an unalterable force as is, say, gravity. The freedom from the pressure to bind what threatens to break away, and the reduced push of a world made apprehensive by feared challenges, does not result in weakness. If engaged upon, the process could free the nation’s energy to use its means to join the modern world by sharing its way of life.

In the past, the goal of modernization was subjected to the needs of the empire. As a saturated state, Russia can be enabled to rise in hitherto neglected areas while her national identity, security, and leading role is protected. The world is ready to receive one of its great, talented and accomplished nations in the context of a “grand bargain”. Does Russia have the leadership and the courage to accept – this is the question.




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