Monday, March 24, 2014

Talleyrand, Metternich, and Churchill; Chortling in the Corner Table

One of the few positives to come out of the last month or so of Russia being, well, Russia, has been the sure and certain knowledge that there are a cohort of ignored, unloved, largely thought an anachronistic side-shows known as "Russian Experts" who for the first time in decades perhaps, are getting up in the AM with a little verve.

Ignored and having their desk moved every few months closer and closer to the basement, all of a sudden they are getting calls, emails, and even invitations to brief people.

Of course, there were some "Russia Experts" and professional thinkers who were getting all the invitations to the right parties by the right people for the last few decades, invited to conferences, given book deals, and generally given plenty of attention. These where the transformatinalist Russia experts who were ahistorical in their analysis, but coo'd nice sounding things in to ears that let everyone think that all was well and not worthy of worry about that decayed, post-Soviet, demographic meltdown, extraction economy, "R in the BRIC" nation known as Russia. A nation that slowly we can turn in to the West's friend and partner.

How's that working out for 'ya?

As usual, the transfortmationalists were wrong (though they'll be back). Popular, but wrong. Russia is, was, and will always be; Russia. Just ask a neighbor or crack a history book;
"Russia is never as strong as she looks; Russia is never as weak as she looks." This quotation, or ones similar to it, have been attributed to Talleyrand, Metternich, and Churchill. In May 2002, Putin pronounced a modified version of it (which he attributed to Churchill): "Russia was never so strong as it wants to be and never so weak as it is thought to be." 
What is of interest here, though, is neither the exact quote nor even who said it, but the enduring truth of the notion that Russia is neither as strong nor as weak as it seems. This is the result of Russia being composed of both strengths and weaknesses in the past, the present, and probably well into the future.
For those needing to catch up, Mark Katz's bit above is worth a read. That isn't my favorite Churchill quote.
"Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma."
That brings us to Ross Douthat's article in the NYT, Russia Without Illusions;
SINCE the end of the Cold War, America’s policy toward Russia has been shaped by two dangerous illusions.

The first was the conceit that with the right incentives, eyes-to-soul presidential connections and diplomatic reset buttons, Russia could become what we think of, in our cheerfully solipsistic way, as a “normal country” — at peace with the basic architecture of an American-led world order, invested in international norms and institutions, content with its borders and focused primarily on its G.D.P. Not the old Russian bear, and not an “Upper Volta with rockets” basket case, but a stable, solid-enough global citizen — Poland with an Asian hinterland, Italy with nukes.

The second illusion was the idea that with the Cold War over, we could treat Russia’s near abroad as a Western sphere of influence in the making — with NATO expanding ever eastward, traditional Russian satellites swinging into our orbit, and Moscow isolated or acquiescent. As went the Baltic States, in this theory, so eventually would go Ukraine and Georgia, until everything west and south of Russia was one military alliance, and its western neighbors were all folded into the European Union as well.

On the surface, these ideas were in tension: One was internationalist and the other neoconservative; one sought partnership with Russia and the other to effectively encircle it. But there was also a deep congruity, insofar as both assumed that limitations on Western influence had fallen away, and a post-Cold War program could advance smoothly whether the Russians decided to get with it or not.

Now both ideas should be abandoned.
Exceptionally solid and clear-eyed policy bit. His recommendations are spot on - and as a quasi-neo-realists - I can say with fair confidence that I am about 90% aligned with his thinking.
But no to sudden overcommitments that would give Putin exactly what his domestic propaganda effort needs — evidence of encirclement, justifications for aggression. Unless we expect an immediate Russian invasion of Estonia, for instance, we probably don’t need a sweeping NATO redeployment from Germany to the Baltics. Unless we’re prepared to escalate significantly over the fate of eastern Ukraine, we shouldn’t contemplate sending arms and military advisers to the unsteady government in Kiev. Unless we’re prepared to go to war for Abkhazia and South Ossetia, we shouldn’t fast-track Georgia’s NATO membership.

And unless the European Union wants to make its current problems that much worse, its economic accord with Ukraine shouldn’t be a prelude to any kind of further integration.

The key here is balance — recognizing that Russia is weak and dangerous at once, that the West has been both too na├»ve about Putin’s intentions and too incautious in its own commitments, and that a new containment need not require a new Cold War.

When illusions are shattered, it’s easy to become reckless, easy to hand-wring and retrench. What we need instead is realism: to use the powers we have, without pretending to powers that we lack.
We should all hope that someone like-minded is sitting in the seats behind Kerry and Obama slipping them notes.

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