Politics, et Cetera
A publication from The Political Forum, LLC
Tuesday, March 18, 2014
They Said It:
Hitler was always pragmatic. Like Lenin he was a superb opportunist, always ready to seize openings and modify his theory accordingly. This has led some historians to conclude he had no master-programme. In fact, while always adjusting the tactics to suit the moment, he pursued his long-term strategy with a brutal determination which has seldom been equalled in the history of human ambition . . .
There was a general tendency (as with Stalin’s atrocities) to ignore the actual evidence of Hitler’s wickedness, which was plentiful enough, and to dismiss Hitler’s ferocious statements as mere “rhetoric”, which was “intended for home consumption” (The Times, 10 July 1934). Against all the evidence, the stage army persisted in believing that Hitler not only wanted peace but was a factor for it. Temple, the portly primate of York, thought he had made “a great contribution to the secure establishment of peace”. Clifford Allen wrote, “I am convinced he genuinely desires peace.” Keynes’s “Carthaginian peace” argument had so captured the minds of both Left and Right that it was felt that for Hitler to smash the Treaty by force was itself a step to peace. Versailles was “monstrously unjust” (Leonard Woolf), “that wicked treaty” (Clifford Allen). In remilitarizing the Rhineland, said Lothian, the Germans had “done no more than walk into their own backyard”. Shaw agreed: “It was if the British had reoccupied Portsmouth.”
Paul Johnson, Modern Times: A History of the World from the 1920s to the 1980s, 1984.
PUTIN, UKRAINE, AND THE SECOND TIME AS FARCE.
Over the past several weeks, as the crisis in Crimea has worsened and threatened to spill over into other regions of Ukraine, leading to full-scale war between Russia and its neighbor, one thing has remained virtually unchanged; that being the view of the affair that is embraced by the foreign policy establishment, namely that not only is Putin making a mistake by playing the aggressor in Ukraine, but that he is doing so wildly, erratically, and without much consideration for his or his country’s future.
This presumption hinges on two basic notions. The first of these is obvious, namely that it was an uncalculated mistake for Putin to enter Crimea. After all, as we noted three weeks ago, Ukraine is an economic basket case. It has no institutions, no businesses, and very little hope for a brighter near-term future. Therefore, the thinking goes, Putin must be a fool to waste his effort stirring up trouble there and agitating to recreate the old Soviet-era Russian domination of its neighbors. He and his country stand to gain almost nothing, but to lose a great deal, which means that the supposed master “great game” player has, in fact, blundered into a mess. Or, as David Ignatius, the most conventional peddler of conventional foreign policy wisdom working today, put it recently:
Napoleon is said to have cautioned during an 1805 battle: “When the enemy is making a false movement, we must take good care not to interrupt him.” The citation is also sometimes rendered as “Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.” Whatever the precise wording, the admonition is a useful starting point for thinking about the Ukraine situation.
Vladimir Putin has made a mistake invading Crimea, escalating a crisis for Russia that has been brewing for many months. It might have been beneficial if President Obama could have dissuaded him from this error. But Putin’s move into Crimea appeared to spring from a deeper misjudgment about the reversibility of the process that led to the breakup of Soviet Union in 1991. The further Russia wades into this revanchist strategy, the worse its troubles will become . . .
The opportunity for Putin is almost precisely opposite his atavistic vision of restoration. It is only by moving west, toward Europe, that Russia itself can reverse its demographic and political trap. Year by year, the Russian political system becomes more of a corrupt Oriental despotism — with Moscow closer to Almaty than Berlin. The alternative is for Ukraine to encourage Russia to move with it toward the West.
As former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski explained in a 2008 book, “If Ukraine moves to the West, first to the EU, eventually maybe to NATO, the probability that Russia will move towards Europe is far greater. . . . Russians will eventually say, ‘Our future will be safest, our control over the Far East territories will be most assured . . . if there is a kind of Atlantic community that stretches from Lisbon to Vladivostok.’”
Now, the idea that anyone, even Ignatius, would cite Brzezinski on Russia is comical. He was, after all, not just any national security advisor but Jimmy Carter’s national security advisor, which means that his incapacity to understand Russia’s national interests is surpassed only by his inability to convince the Russians to see those interests and to do as the West wants. Or . . . well . . . something like that. Brzezinski, we’re afraid, was then and remains today the virtual personification of the “un-proven assumptions” about the Russians that we documented three weeks ago in explaining the need for and the success of the legendary “Team B.” All of which leaves the careful observer with the uncomfortable feeling that if the conventional wisdom about Putin’s “blunder” is based on analyses such as Zbig’s, then you can be certain of one thing: it’s wrong. You’d think, perhaps, that after three-plus decades ol’ Zbig might have figured out that if he thinks it’s a mistake for the Russians to do something, it isn’t. And it certainly doesn’t mean that the Russians will see it that way.
Now, the second premise on which the conventional wisdom about the current Ukraine meltdown is based is the notion that Putin, in addition to being wrong, is also irrational. He is not thinking through the ramifications of his actions. He is acting on emotion, not logic. Or, worse yet, he’s lost his mind. You may recall, for example, that two weeks ago, the New York Times reported the following based on a conversation that German Chancellor Angela Merkel had with Putin on the telephone. “[Merkel] told Mr. Obama by telephone on Sunday that after speaking with Mr. Putin she was not sure he was in touch with reality, people briefed on the call said. ‘In another world,’ she said.”
This past week, Angus Roxburgh, a former BBC Moscow correspondent, expanded on this theme in a piece for London’s Telegraph. Specifically, he wrote:
As Sunday’s referendum, in which the people of Crimea will decide whether to join Russia, approaches, the images on Russian television are astonishing. They are more propagandistic and venomous than anything I can remember even from Soviet times. Breathless presenters whip up hysteria with bloodcurdling stories of atrocities being committed by the “neo-Nazi junta” now governing Ukraine. Overheated “victims” beg Putin to help, kindly Russians offer to give refuge to the terrified people fleeing Ukraine, and menacing music accompanies montages of swastikas, fascist thugs armed with clubs, and black-and-white images of Hitler’s troops and burning villages.
It is all apparently aimed at preparing the public to accept that there may be war, and that Russia will be fighting in a just cause. Yet I have a horrible feeling that President Putin believes all this stuff. He receives his information mainly from his trusted secret services – men like himself, schooled in the dark arts of KGB disinformation. I worked as a media consultant to the Kremlin from 2006 to 2009, close enough to gain a sense of Putin’s growing paranoia. . . .
Putin believes the Ukrainian uprising was fomented entirely by the West. He puts two and two together and gets five. He saw Senator John McCain saluting the Maidan crowds, and heard Victoria Nuland, the US Assistant Secretary of State, discussing on the phone which opposition leaders she would like to see in the new government (and he made sure his spies made the tape of the conversation public). Putin has been convinced ever since the Orange Revolution in 2004, followed by the Moscow protests of late 2011, that there is, in one of his advisers’ words, a “Destroy Russia” project. And he is next on the list.
Given all of this, the solution to the current problem seems simple enough. Putin must be made to see his mistake and made to see that his country’s rational self-interest lies outside of Crimea and outside of Ukraine. In other words, Putin must understand that the West means him no harm but merely wishes to preserve the autonomy of the Ukrainian people. Therefore, the mildest of sanctions should be imposed.
And lo, yesterday Obama announced that a handful of Russians deemed “responsible” for their country’s aggression in Ukraine have had their assets frozen and their international travel restricted. Of course, these “sanctions” are not meant to produce economic hardship in Russia or to create leverage to compel action. They are, rather, merely symbolic, intended simply to alert Vladimir Putin and his comrades to the seriousness with which their actions are viewed by the “global community” and the seriousness with which the global community will, in turn, address the problem, if need be.
And there you have it: a simple solution to a discreet problem.
Needless to say, in order for this “threat” to have any effect at all, the problem at hand must indeed be discreet, which is to say that Putin must indeed be reacting – harshly, quickly, yet foolishly – to the most recent iteration of Ukrainian revolution. Indeed, Putin and Russia must be desperate. They must see their security buffer crumbling. They must view Ukraine’s recent unrest as a rejection of Russian dominion. Most critical of all, they must not have given any thought to any of this before-hand. They must be reacting to events in real-time.
We will concede, before moving on, that all of this is at least theoretically possible. After all, the conventional wisdom is the conventional wisdom for a reason, namely because it makes a certain amount of sense. Clearly, Ukraine is important to Russia. Putin did make an economic pitch last fall to keep his neighbors from pledging to join the EU. And he is undoubtedly unhappy that this offer, while accepted by Ukraine’s rulers, has been rejected by its people. The timing of the Crimean invasion, the massing of forces elsewhere along the Ukrainian border, and indeed the overboard justification for the entire episode all could suggest that Putin’s reactions to the events of the last several weeks may indeed be hasty and irrational and that a bracing dose of reality may, in fact, be the solution to all of Russia’s current problems with Crimea and Ukraine more generally.
But then, it may not.
In our humble opinion, far too little consideration is being given to the possibility that Putin is neither irrational nor crazy. Yes, he favors quick action and forcing his opponents’ hands. But that is not necessarily a sign of rashness or thoughtlessness. Rather, it may well be calculated and deliberate, intended to press the advantage that he clearly has over his far richer and far more advanced Western adversaries; that being that he can do what he himself wants to do and he can do it quickly, in sharp contrast to his democratic opponents, who need time to gauge the sense of their nations before doing anything, and who must propose responses that are both appropriate given the nature of the threat and defensible given the nature of their governments.
Putin is, after all, a government unto himself. We’re not sure whether we’d call him a totalitarian or an authoritarian or some other type of “–tarian.” But we do know that his will is the will of Russia, which is to say that lightning-quick responses may not be a sign of his carelessness, but rather the opposite. Putin knows what he wants, and unlike those leaders in the civilized world, he is largely unrestrained by checks and balances in his efforts to get it.
We should clarify here that this is not, as some of President Obama’s defenders might suggest, a celebration of Putin’s superiority over Obama. We’re republicans (with a small-r), after all, which means that we like checks and balances a great deal. Moreover, we’re conservatives, which is to say that we favor prudence and caution in foreign affairs. If we have a beef with Barack Obama’s foreign policy, it has little to do with the speed of his decisions and everything to do with his apparent lack of strategic planning, which we have documented rather exhaustively in the few weeks since the Ukrainian crisis erupted.
In short, we think it is important to concentrate on the “facts on the ground,” so to speak, and how these might affect the global community for a very, very long time. And that involves seriously considering the possibility that Putin’s incursion into Crimea is something more than a one-off event designed on the fly to salvage that which could be salvaged. It is important, we think, to look at the bigger picture here, at the strategies being employed by Putin and his henchmen, and at the way in which Putin has constructed a global role for himself that will, we imagine, make it difficult for his broader geopolitical goals to be stymied by the West.
It is also important to look at Russian history, at the Russian state, at the forces that allowed it to develop and to persist over centuries of hardships and setbacks. All of which can also lead one to the alternative conclusion that Putin’s excursion into Crimea is not a one-off event and, just as importantly, that neither is he; that indeed, in many ways, he is the prototypical Russian ruler, dating back some 11 centuries.
Nearly a quarter century ago, as the Soviet empire crumbled, but as the great “reformer” Mikhail Gorbachev was nonetheless exerting military power on the Baltic States to keep them aligned with Moscow, we published a piece rife with Russian history and explaining in some detail why expansionism is a historical Russian trait. (The piece, titled “Once Upon a Time in Russia, is available in its entirety here.) Among other things, we noted “the constancy with which princes, czars, and Communist dictators alike have all pursued similar violent territorial expansionism in an effort to gain access to seaports and trade routes, and to provide land buffers between Mother Russia and her neighbors.”
Six years later, in an essay for Commentary magazine, the noted Russian historian Richard Pipes (our source for all things Russia these past few weeks), put it a little more eloquently:
Maintaining the most extreme forms of absolutism to the very dawn of the contemporary age, the Russian state rested not on a popular mandate but on force. Because of the highly inequitable distribution of civil rights among its subjects, it could not even appeal to national sentiments. Russia’s impressive record of resistance to foreign invaders must not be confused with patriotism, for the driving motive here was loathing of foreigners rather than affinity with one’s compatriots, and feelings tended to evaporate as soon as Russians were called upon to fight outside their borders.
A government that rests on force must, by the logic of its situation, give its people constant proof of its might. One of the ways to do this is by territorial acquisition. Others have built empires, but no country has expanded so relentlessly and held on so tenaciously to its conquests as has Russia. By my calculation, in the 150 years between the middle of the 16th century and the end of the 17th, the Muscovite state year after year acquired territory equivalent in area to modern-day Holland.
True, most of these territories consisted of barren wastes, but even so, their incorporation exerted a powerful influence on the psyche of Russians, enabling them to boast that even if they were not the richest or the most civilized country in the world, they were indisputably the largest. The poet Michael Lermontov, writing at the time Russian armies were conquering the Caucasus, has a Russian tell a Muslim native of the mountains that once he comes under the czar’s rule he will proudly say, “Yes, I am a slave, but a slave of the czar of the universe.”
Russia’s expansionism and the militarism that made it possible had, once again, their parallels in the West, but in Russia the notion of great-power status acquired a very special significance. Both the monarchy and its Communist successor legitimized their authority by projecting an image of invincible power. What better way to inculcate among their own people the sense of futility of resistance than to show that the whole world feared Russia?
There thus arose an intimate link between Russia’s status as a great power and its internal stability.
What this means, then, is that those who think that this particular flexing of Russian muscle is related somehow to Putin’s own insecurities simply haven’t been paying attention. After all, Putin flexed these same muscles six years ago in Georgia and 15 years ago in Chechnya. His predecessor Boris Yeltsin, the “liberal” who stood on the tank, also flexed in Chechnya. Gorbachev, as noted above, was rather aggressive in the Baltics, and he is considered by many on the Left to be the greatest “peacemaker” since Gandhi. Before that Brezhnev invaded Afghanistan and Czechoslovakia. Kruschev invaded Hungary. And Stalin invaded so many countries that it would be easier and quicker to list those he didn’t invade. And all of that is just over the last 100 years. Before that, Russia produced Grand Prince Vladimir I, Grand Prince Ivan III (Ivan the Great), Grand Prince Ivan IV (Ivan the Terrible), Czar Michael I, Czar Theodore III, Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Czar Nicholas I, and Czar Alexander I – ALL of whom fought great wars to expand Russian territory. This notion that Putin is somehow an outlier in Russian history is patently absurd.
It is likewise absurd to assume – based, as far as we can tell, on little more than a handful of anecdotes – that Putin is just winging it in Ukraine. One does not, generally, get to be a KGB colonel, to survive the post-Communist purge, to reemerge as a “democrat,” and to seize power stealthily but completely by “winging it.” We’d guess, in fact, that he has been planning much of his foreign policy since at least 1989 when East Germany fell, with only the timing of specific events to be determined later. We may be wrong about this, of course, but the empirical evidence suggests otherwise.
As we noted two weeks ago, it strikes us that many, if not most of this country’s foreign policy big shots employ nothing more than a little navel gazing and mirror-imaging, insisting that Putin has no long-term strategic foreign policy plan simply because they/the United States has no long-term strategic foreign policy plan. That may be the way to get ahead in official Washington, but the cold hard fact of the matter is that it leaves the nation exposed to the broader plans of serious and aggressive adversaries.
In fairness, we should note that not all of these broader plans are a mystery to EVERYONE in Washington’s foreign policy establishment; that indeed, at least one individual whose opinions matter a great deal has actually identified and articulated some of the more critical components of Putin’s long-term strategy. Unfortunately – and tellingly – once articulated, those comments were withdrawn immediately in the apparent hope that they would disappear down the proverbial memory hole.
We can’t say for certain why this is the case, but it may have to do with the fact that this person is one of the best known and most ambitious political figures in the entire country, if not the world, and that she understands that nothing is more dangerous to an ambitious politician than the occasional slip of the truth.
We are speaking, of course, about the former First Lady of the United States, a former U.S. Senator from New York, a former Secretary of State, and the once and future frontrunner for the Democratic nomination to the office of President. As the Long Beach Telegram reported two weeks ago:
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday compared recent actions by Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Ukraine to those implemented by Adolf Hitler in the late 1930s.
Putin’s desire to protect minority Russians in Ukraine is reminiscent of Hitler’s actions to protect ethnic Germans outside Germany, she said.
Putin has been on a campaign to give Russian passports to anyone who has Russian connections, Clinton said . . . .
Clinton made her comments at a private event benefiting the Boys & Girls Clubs of Long Beach.
“Now if this sounds familiar, it’s what Hitler did back in the 30s,” she said. “All the Germans that were .. . the ethnic Germans, the Germans by ancestry who were in places like Czechoslovakia and Romania and other places, Hitler kept saying they’re not being treated right. I must go and protect my people and that’s what’s gotten everybody so nervous.”
As noted above, we suspect that Hillary realized, even as the words were leaving her mouth, that she had made a “Kinsley gaffe,” so named for the journalist Michael Kinsley, who once wrote that “A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth – some obvious truth he isn’t supposed to say.”
You see, the crimes committed by Hitler were, as everyone seems to agree, so heinous and so barbaric that even today, most politicians acknowledge that it is beyond the bounds of civil discussion to compare anyone – other than, say, George W. Bush – to the mass-murdering German despot.
Additionally, we suspect that Hillary knew that comparing Putin to Hitler would put her in an awkward position relative to others on the political spectrum, namely Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney, both of whom were excoriated and mocked by official Washington for having the temerity to suggest that Russia could ever again be a serious geopolitical threat. Recall how clever Obama and his media toadies thought he was when he said to Romney during the 2012 presidential debates that “the 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back.”
Lastly, and most relevantly, Hillary retracted her analogy, we suspect, because it reflected poorly on her old boss and on the foreign policy community of which she was once the official government head. After all, if Putin is Hitler, then somebody has to Chamberlain. And who might that be other than Barack Obama, who Republicans have noted of late is forever declaring that he has secured “peace for our time.” Hillary certainly doesn’t want to encourage these comparisons, since if Putin is Hitler and Obama is Chamberlain that would make her a sad facsimile of Anthony Eden, the befuddled and bewildered British Foreign Secretary who resigned from Chamberlain’s cabinet in the wake of the Munich Agreement.
In any case, whatever her reasoning, Hillary decided that she had broken one of American politics’ greatest taboos, which is too bad, since she was absolutely right. Putin is, in many ways reading from Hitler’s playbook. Worse yet, he’s doing so with stunning effectiveness.
It is easy to forget, we think, that Hitler’s accomplishments – if that’s what you want to call them – went beyond the mass slaughter of Europe’s Jews. He also damn near conquered all of Europe, and he did so by claiming, as Putin is now, that he was a liberator rather that a despot, “protecting” his fellow countrymen. Moreover, he moved quickly, knowing full well that his unrivaled authority gave him an advantage over his democratic adversaries. He rallied his people to the cause using the imagery of the former “empire” and the “stab in the back” that stole their country’s greatness. And, perhaps most importantly, he capitalized on the war-weariness of the West to depict himself as a man of peace seeking only small concessions, rather than a man of war seeking regional, if not global hegemony.
This past weekend, Walter Russell Mead, who has been far more insightful and far more prescient than most other analysts over the course of this Ukraine crisis, offered his own thoughts on the matter. And he, like we, sees far more strategy in Putin’s actions than do most of his contemporaries and is unafraid of bringing Hitler into the mix. To wit:
Putin is no Hitler, and from the standpoint of power he isn’t even a Brezhnev. Still, his actions in Ukraine have been following Adolf’s playbook pretty closely. Adolf wanted to tear up the Treaty of Versailles. Putin is attempting to rip up the post-Cold War settlement in Europe and Central Asia.
Like Hitler’s Germany, Putin’s Russia is much weaker than its opponents, so it can’t achieve its goal through a direct military challenge against its primary enemies. Like Hitler’s Germany, Putin’s Russia must be clever until it grows strong, and it must play on its enemies’ hesitations, divisions and weaknesses until and unless it is ready to take them on head to head.
“Keep them guessing” is rule number one. Nobody was better than Hitler at playing with his enemies’ minds. For every warlike speech, there was an invitation to a peace conference. For every uncompromising demand, there was a promise of lasting tranquility once that last little troublesome problem had been negotiated safely away. He was so successful at it (and Stalin, too was good at this game) in part because his opponents so desperately wanted peace. French politicians like Leon Blum and British leaders like Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain were as hungry for peace (it was the Depression after all, and both countries had suffered immensely in World War One) as Barack Obama and Francois Hollande are today . . . .
Putin is using another one of Hitler’s favorite methods in Ukraine: turn your ethnic minorities in other countries into a Trojan horse — whether or not that is what those people actually want. Hitler did this with the Sudeten Germans in what is now the Czech Republic. The FT again:
Russia said on Saturday it was looking at requests for help from civilians in Ukraine, a statement which appeared to resemble those made two weeks ago in justification of its military incursion into Crimea.
“Russia is receiving numerous requests for protecting civilians. These requests will be given consideration,” the foreign ministry said. It added a string of claims that Ukrainian militants and mercenaries were threatening civilians, which could not immediately be verified.
There is nothing here that couldn’t have been taken directly out of Adolf’s Guide for Aspiring Hegemons . . . .
This is why the latest news from eastern Ukraine is so ominous: in the Adolf Hitler playbook, stirring up ethnic strife is something you do when the time has come to intervene. If Putin’s plan antagonism was to send troops into eastern Ukraine, we’d see Russian speakers in the streets protesting, sometimes with violence, and demanding ‘protection’. “Defending Russian nationals from fascist mobs when the Ukrainian government is unwilling or unable to do so” is just the kind of fig leaf Putin needs; as of today, he’s got it.
We can be grateful, we suppose, that Mead is right and that “Putin is no Hitler.” On the other hand, Putin is potentially even more dangerous because he has leverage that Hitler didn’t. You see, Roosevelt didn’t need Hitler, whereas Obama desperately needs Putin, if he and his foreign policy “strategy” – if you can call it that – are to appear even semi-respectable.
Above, we noted that our biggest tangible beef with Barack Obama on the question of foreign policy is his manifest lack of strategic thinking, which for the record, we believe is the byproduct both of a general disinterest in the subject and, even more importantly, of a deep antagonism to the historical goals of American foreign policy.
In any case, Obama’s most visible and arguably most important foreign policy goal has been the use of negotiation to prevent the Mullahs of Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Most realists think that this is foolish at best, and more likely disastrous. What makes the policy potentially calamitous, though, is that it is impossible to justify, even hypothetically, if Vladimir Putin cannot be trusted. Putin is the go-between between the Iranians and the Americans, the man on whom the whole fantastical deal hinges. If it turns out that Putin is a scheming, strategic warrior, then Obama’s entire Iranian pipedream becomes contingent on Russia’s national interest, not America’s.
The same, of course, can be said about Obama’s policy for dealing with the civil war between al Qaeda and the Baathists in Syria. As with Iran, Obama farmed his responsibilities out to Putin, who is now entirely free to decide the future of American foreign policy based on Russian national interests.
We think it goes without saying that this puts the United States, its allies in Europe, and indeed the entire world in a very precarious spot. The American President has put himself in a position in which he has an enormous vested personal interest in accepting the conventional wisdom that says that Vladimir Putin is an otherwise honorable man who has, for a variety of reasons, miscalculated with respect to Ukraine, reacting foolishly and emotionally, putting himself in an untenable position. Once again, for emphasis: Barack Obama CANNOT allow himself to believe, even for a second that Vladimir Putin is operating rationally and purposefully in Ukraine, because to do so would mean that he has outsourced American foreign policy to a man whose goal is to rebuild Russian global power, especially at American expense.
We shudder to think of the potential implications of all of this. Barack Obama, you see, is a contemporary reincarnation of Tennessee Williams’s Blanche DuBois, always relying on the kindness of strangers. Tragically, those strangers are not at all kind, though President DuBois appears not to have noticed. All of which is to say that the world will be exceptionally unsettled going forward, continuing to overwhelm our already greatly overwhelmed President.
Obviously, we believe that Vladimir Putin is a very cunning and very dangerous geopolitical operator, which is to say that we believe that the simple, static portrayal of him offered by the foreign policy establishment is not just wrong, but ridiculously so. You would, we’re sure, be hard-pressed to find an instance over the last 20-plus years in which we wished more fervently to be wrong.