Saturday, February 16, 2008

Engaging Russia in the 21st Century

KPLU-FM in Tacoma, one of two local NPR stations serving the Olympia area, carries the Bob Edwards Weekend show, which I heard for the first time this past Saturday. I’ve been a Bob Edwards fan since I first heard him on Morning Edition in 1979. He has a voice that was born for radio and has always impressed me as an interviewer. I’m glad that he found a new venue after NPR dumped him.

The show I heard featured an interview with the Russian/Soviet spy, Sergei Tretyako, and Peter Earley, author of Comrade J, which recounts Tretyako’s role as the head of Russia’s spy network in New York that operated from Russia’s UN mission during the 1990's. Probably the most notable statement he made during the interview was that Americans foolishly believe that the Cold War is over since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

That comment reminded me of an enduring fact of which American’s are largely ignorant, namely that Russia is always Russia, whether its leaders are czars, commissars or technocrats. That was a major lesson I learned in college studying Russian history and following events in that country for the past 40 years. Simply put, Russians have a great sense of their nation’s destiny, a sense that equals anything Americans believe about the United States.

This sense of destiny grows out of the Russian state’s 1,000 year history and has been consistent regardless of which of the two competing strains of thought prevail at any given time. One strain, the Slavophiles, holds that Russian culture and society should base itself on Russian history and experience, that the west and other societies have no relevance to Russia and offer no lessons or models for Russia. Even the Communists, who emerged from the international Marxist movement, were largely Slavophilic despite their internationalist rhetoric. The second strain, the Westernizers, believe that Russia should look to the West for ideas and culture. Peter the Great and Catherine the Great are perhaps the most notable Westernizers. Maybe Gorbachev. The Bolsheviks were no doubt influenced by non-Russian ideas but Stalin ruled as a Slavophile.

Parallel to this sense of destiny is a sense of inferiority, the belief that despite its history and culture, Russia is at a disadvantage in competition with other nations (ie, the west). Given Russians’ belief in their cultural superiority, Russia’s disadvantage can only result from subterfuge or sabotage, thereby further heightening Russians’s sense of encirclement.

What all this means to me is that the demise of the Soviet Union simply changed the format of Russian government and gave various nationalities the opportunity to declare independence (Ukraine, Georgia, Kazakhstan, etc). It did nothing to change Russians sense of destiny. Along with this sense comes paranoia, the fear of alien, non-Russian ideas that can corrupt the national will, something to always guard against. The early post-Soviet years only heightened this fear as Russians saw their empire fragment, economy tank, and corporate oligarchs take control of major industries. In those years, Russia was a carcass, pickings for foreigners and capitalists, a great nation .

A decade later, much has changed. Vladimir Putin, a Slavophile, has reasserted Russian nationalism and is pushing back against western influences and encroachment. This is no surprise to me. Rather, it’s simply Russia being Russia, a nation that believes in its destiny and is now in a position to demand that other nations recognize what Russia considers its vital interests.

Russia has always sought to buffer itself from the west, by embargoing the flow of outside ideas and by surrounding itself with friendly (or at least compliant) states. The czars did it. So did the Soviets. These days Russia is looking at its immediate neighbors and seeing NATO allies. Americans seem to consider Russia a defeated nation, a second rate power in a world of American hegemony. Needless to say, Russians do not share this view.

Therein lies the danger of American policy toward Russia. Expanding NATO to the east, placing missile defense batteries on Russia’s doorstep and dealing with Russia as a second-rate nation plays directly into Russian fear and paranoia. And we are seeing the result of this misguided policy. Now that Russia is emerging as a major energy producer, its leaders are in a position to assert its national interests far more effectively than could the commissars or their immediate successor, Boris Yeltsin.

Mr. Tretyako’s revelations are a reminder that American interests remain at risk to Russian initiatives and policies. The Cold War did not end so much as change one of the competitors. The American belief that we won the Cold War is an illusion. Communism collapsed largely due to its internal contradictions, influenced perhaps by American policy. What did not change was Russia. Russia remains Russia, a culture and society that sets itself apart from the world.

I’m not advocating a return to Cold War truculence and competition so much as I am asking American leaders to look at Russia on its own terms and develop policies that recognize this context. We should have been doing this for the past 60 years. It's not too late to get real now.


Wednesday, February 13, 2008

It Sucks

Read an interesting article by Scott Ritter on the future of Iraq. His predictions are pretty grim: failure of American policy in that country due to wishful thinking and ignorance on the part of Americans and our leaders.

Iraq, far from being a nation on the rebound, retapjormains a mortally wounded shell, the equivalent of a human suffering from a sucking chest wound, its lungs collapsed and its life blood spilling unchecked onto the ground. The “surge” never addressed the underlying reasons for Iraq’s post-Saddam suffering, and as such never sought to heal that which was killing Iraq. Instead, the “surge” offered little more than a cosmetic gesture, covering the wounds of Iraq with a bandage which shielded the true extent of the damage from outside view while doing nothing to save the victim.

The article has much to recommend it; I suggest you read it. What caught my eye, though, was not so much the content, which is very good and knowledgeable, but his language, especially the "sucking chest wound" simile. I first encountered the term in Army first aid training and it has stuck with me ever since. I am happy to say that A sucking chest wound is a hole through the chest into the lung which then sucks air through the opening and prevents the lung from inflating. Treatment includes covering the wound with a bandage that prevents air from entering through the wound. I was fortunate never to encounter a sucking chest wound.

The term conjures up several images for me. On one hand is injury and death. The other is the black humor of combat where we joke about the things we fear most. I don't know that a sucking chest wound is any better or worse than any other comparable injury but in my unit, at least, a sucking chest wound seemed to represent everything that was bad about our situation. Our running joke was that "A sucking chest wound is Nature's way of telling you to slow down." Maybe it was the term "suck" which succinctly summarized the whole business.

Nothing about a sucking chest wound is remotely funny, yet we joked about it. I don't know if the joking was some sort of mantra to ward off injury of just a way of getting past our own fear. Either way the term is burned into my consciousness like the sound of helicopters flying overhead or Claymore mine. It's one of the things that takes me right back to Vietnam.

If Ritter believes the term applies to American policy in Iraq, then the situation is dire, indeed.


Yesterday, 12 February, was the "anniversary" of my first "firefight". Both terms are relative. Anniversary implies something worth celebrating. Firefight implies combat action, which in this case was mostly on our side, firing hundreds of rounds at two Vietnamese who were unlucky enough to run into Alpha Company on 12 February 1971. They got off a few rounds before disappearing into the jungle. All we found were some blood trails but I think we called them in as probable kills.

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Monday, February 11, 2008

Light Blogging Ahead

I'm heading to Phoenix for to finish the move to Olympia, to wrap up the loose ends left unresolved when we left in October. I have no interest in anything that will keep me tied to Phoenix other than Maggie whose family is still there. The real estate market means we'll decouple from the area gradually as the opportunities allow. There are many worse places to invest than Phoenix real estate

Being in Phoenix means being back in the studio for About Face, which is definitely more fun than phoning in. Veterans For Peace will be part of a Homeless Veterans Stand Down this weekend. I'll take time away from my laser focus on decamping to help out for that. The trip will be an opportunity to also see friends I might have missed in my hasty exit.

See ya.