11.2006, Kaarel Kaas
The fundamental convictions of the current Russian leaders and of the West as well as the basic interests deriving therefrom are completely incompatible by now. This is why the West has to redefine its approach to Russia.
In the late evening of February 22, 1946, the telegraph clicked and clacked while transmitting a secret message from the US Embassy in Moscow. The chargé d’affaires in the Soviet Union was sending a telegram to Washington for the Secretary of State. The lines of the embassy near the Red Square were busy for a long time that night. The total length of the communication of George Frost Kennan, the 42-year-old deputy head of the US diplomatic mission, was 8000 words. This memo went down in history as the “long telegram.”
The US foreign policy leaders learned from the telegram that, in principle, their recent war ally Soviet Union considers the West to be its enemy and that Moscow aimed to increase its influence wherever possible as well as to weaken the “capitalist encirclement” of the world, using all available means and engaging everywhere.
In less than two weeks after the dispatch of the long telegram, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill delivered a speech in a small town of Fulton where he said that an iron curtain had descended across Europe. This speech dates the beginning of the Cold War.
The long telegram formed the basis of the article “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” which Kennan published the following year, 1947, in the magazine Foreign Affairs under the pseudonym “X.” This article together with the telegram laid the foundations for the Western paradigm during the Cold War.
Kennan stated in this article: “... the main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.”
By the way, the diplomat himself has made several indignant remarks about the fallacious interpretation of his article, as if he had proposed to oppose the enlargement of the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence with armed forces, thus giving rise to the pointless and strenuous arms race. For example, in an interview to the US non-commercial television station PBS in 1996, Kennan said that, on the contrary, he had intended to have political containment of the Soviet Union.
If the words of Kennan, who passed away last March, had been understood better and more accurately, the nature and course of the Cold War might have been completely different from what is recorded in modern history books. But that is not the most important point.
According to Kennan, the crucial step was to apprehend and recognise the nature, the motives and the logic of the movement the free world was confronted with at the time. This was the first point of the last part of his long telegram. This part contained recommendations for the US administration with regard to shaping its policy towards Russia.
From rival to “one of us”
The fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet empire made most of the Western capitals believe that the entity once again officially known as Russia were Little Red Riding Hood pulled out of the stomach of the Big Bad Wolf or, alternatively, a prisoner liberated from a concentration camp.
The state building, which was temporarily and artificially interrupted by the communist interlude and lured into totalitarianism, could be resumed on its natural and proper course: Russia will be guided along, little by little, probably through suffering and hardship, but still guided to the peaceful sanctuary of Western democracy – this is a short summary of the eastward stance. The Bolsheviks merely hijacked Russia, but now, once again, it will be one of us.
By the way, such reasoning is quite understandable, given the time frame (15-16 years ago). During the Cold War the world was above all a playground of two rival forces – the European-Atlantic block and Moscow – and both of them accepted it. They constituted the magnetic poles, the repulsive and attractive forces of which determined the movement and evolution of the particles between them.
Suddenly, almost overnight, one of the rivals or magnetic forces is deleted from the equation. Here, “overnight” is not a literary exaggeration. For example, Michael Mandelbaum, a respected American political analyst and Senior Fellow at the US Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in his article “Ending the Cold War” (published in the 1989 Spring issue of Foreign Affairs) that the West should not underestimate the USSR’s capacity to reform and to accommodate the West on its claims on Eastern Europe, adding that the Warsaw Pact was unlikely to dissolve.
In the next issue of Foreign Affairs in Summer 1989, Henry Owen, who served as Chairman of the US State Department Policy Planning Council in 1966-1969, and General Edward C. Meyer (retired), who served as US Army Chief of Staff in 1979-1983, claimed in their article “Central European Security” that the threat of an extensive war between NATO and the Warsaw Pact still existed, though it was “lessening,” whereas this threat could be further reduced by the two counterparts, if they restructured their European forces to give them a more defensive character.
The main story in the same issue warns the West about passivity, which would enable the Kremlin to define the East-West agenda, and provides extensive and detailed recommendations for the West to change its geopolitical strategy in order to avoid being cornered by the long-term policy and unilateral initiatives of the Soviet Union. It is predicted that “the competitive relationship between the East and the West will not disappear.” The authors of this article were Valéry Giscard d’Estaing (former President of the French Republic), Yasuhiro Nakasone (former Prime Minister of Japan) and Henry A. Kissinger (former US Secretary of State).
A couple of months after the publication of this issue the Berlin Wall was dismantled by protestors and the Moscow-backed regimes collapsed in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, while the Warsaw Pact, still supposedly posing an extensive war threat, was transformed into mere printing ink on the documents filed away and yesterday’s soldiers of the very same organisation welcomed democracy with tears in their eyes.
Per aspera ad astra?
The demise of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union brought on the totally unexpected shattering of the mental models of the policy-makers and analysts in the West. Given the intellectual shock the West had suffered, it was quite logical to assume that Russia will finally emerge as “one of us.” What were the other options? The Soviet regime did not exist any more and liberal democracy was the only option left. Indeed, there was an alternative black scenario that entailed the escalation of the break-up frenzy, which had seized the East European tributary states, finally culminating in the disintegration of Russia – the centre of the Soviet Union – into small principalities, while chaos and anarchy descend on the whole area and thousands of the Soviet Union’s warheads are lost under cover of darkness... This scenario had to be avoided at all costs and the positive involvement of Russia was not just an option: it was a must.
Thus the West began to treat Russia from the per aspera ad astra (through adversity to the stars) perspective which meant that Russia would become a normal Western country, obviously with some Eastern peculiarities. The journey would be tough, but, then again, the road will lead uphill. But soon after the entrance of Vladimir Putin, from the depths of the FSB corridors to the centre stage of the Russian power games, the prevailing attitude was that things were going slightly downhill. The aim – democracy – was still the same, but the direction had temporarily changed. Nevertheless, Western principles were still applicable in Russia. The West concluded from the early days of Putin’s era that sometimes it is wiser to take the longer route, not the shortcut.
Five years ago I met a highly respected general in America. He had served for decades as a top executive of the three intelligence agencies in the US. He was now retired and presumably “well informed.” At the same time, the Kremlin was busy with taking over the media empires of the Russian oligarchs Vladimir Gussinsky and Boris Berezovsky. Gussinsky’s Media-Most concern owned the extremely popular television channel NTV, which had recently started to criticise Putin, and Berezovsky controlled the most important national television channel ORT. Both oligarchs had already escaped from the Russian bear hug and lived in exile. I asked the retired general whether this was a dangerous sign for democracy and freedom of speech in Russia. “Absolutely not!” was the answer. “Any self-respecting country and we, Americans, would do the exactly same thing as Russians did: if people have obtained their wealth illegally or haven’t paid the taxes, they’ll have to answer for it, their illegal fortunes will be confiscated and the outstanding taxes will be collected,” he explained convincingly.
This former intelligence executive presumed that the same fundamental principles, which the West adheres to, are supported in Putin’s Russia, i.e. the officials are guided by law and not vice versa.
By now all Russian television channels are controlled by the Kremlin. Most of the newspapers have suffered the same fate, whereas in comparison with television their influence has been rather insignificant in contemporary Russia. Over the last years, written or audio-visual journalism, as we know it, has become a means for informing the masses, or an instrument for controlling the social and political reality together with the notions of good and evil or truth and falsehood, as perceived by the nation which is demoted to the level of masses. The transformation of the role of journalism coincided with the establishment of central control over the economic sphere (and the ensuing potential political power), the nationwide and local bulldozing of the political sphere and the labelling of NGOs as potential foreign (i.e. beyond the reach of the central authority and hence latently dangerous) agents. All these steps led up to the present day and the result is that Russia is not a democratic country any more. Such developments are not compatible with a temporary relapse. On the contrary, this means that Russia has purposefully and intentionally abandoned its course to democracy.
As the interpretation of Russian conduct cannot be successfully based on Western principles, we need a new approach. For we all know that without a point of anchorage you cannot change the world.
Sources of Russian conduct
It is time to return to Kennan’s message compiled 60 years ago. When he dictated the long telegram in Moscow in 1946, he defined the main component which influenced the Soviet policy – it was the belief that the USSR was still living in an antagonistic “capitalist encirclement.”
As an illustrative example, he quoted Stalin who had stated to a delegation of American workers in 1927 that the battle between the capitalist centre (the West) and the socialist centre (Russia) will decide the fate of the entire world. According to Kennan, it was, of course, sheerest nonsense to speak of the possibility of intervention against the USSR, when a year had passed after the end of the World War II. Kennan thought that at the bottom of the Kremlin’s neurotic view of world affairs was the traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity. Originally, this was the insecurity of an agricultural people trying to live in the neighbourhood of fierce nomadic peoples. But when Russia came into contact with the economically advanced West, this insecurity grew into a permanent subconscious fear that afflicted the Russian rulers – a fear of more competent, more powerful and more highly organised foreigners.
Russian rulers have invariably sensed that their rule was relatively archaic in form, fragile in its foundation and thus unable to stand comparison or contact with the Western countries. For this reason they have always feared foreign penetration, feared direct contact between the Western world and their own, feared what would happen, if Russians learned the truth about the world without or if the foreigners learned the truth about the world within. This is why they have learned to seek security only in a deadly struggle for the total destruction of the rival power, never in compromises with it. Their world view is based on dualistic oppositions, the zero-sum logic and the rejection of compromises.
Kennan stated that, due to this world view, it was no coincidence that Marxism, which had smouldered ineffectively for half a century in Europe, caught hold and blazed for the first time in Russia where it took on the Bolshevist form. The Bolshevist regime aimed to wipe out all alternative sources of power on Russian territory and to impose a total dictatorship, which the Bolshevists indeed managed to do at the price of extreme atrocities. The inherent need for confrontation with the outside world was now supplemented by the compulsive opposition stemming from the very nature of the regime and the crimes already committed. Kennan claimed that without the Marxist dogma the Soviets would stand before history, at best, as only the last of that long succession of cruel and wasteful Russian rulers who have relentlessly forced their country on to ever new heights of military power in order to guarantee external security of their internally weak regimes.
Thus the traditional Russian world view, in a new guise of the Soviet ideology, transformed into a dogma which could be compared with the binary system, as it generates a restricted environment where only zeros and ones exist. These zeros and ones are utilised as the all-purpose “building blocks.”
One and a half years later Kennan used the pseudonym “X” to publish an article where he stated that the fictional image of the outside world, opposed to Russia and threatening it, was anchored in the Soviet structure of thought by bonds far greater than those of mere ideology.
This brings us back to the present. The current leaders of Russia represent the very same world view Kennan described. It is likely that today’s leaders perceive themselves similarly to the men who seized power at the beginning of the previous century, or as Mr X put it: “They doubtless believed – and found it easy to believe – that they alone knew what was good for society and that they would accomplish that good once their power was secure and unchallengeable.”
Putin and his comrades have more or less secured their authority inside Russia and now they are moving on to the good which needs to be accomplished. This means the reestablishment of Russia as an influential player in global politics; of Russia who looks after its own interests and does not let itself be tied down to the “foreign” rules of the game, such as representative democracy or practices related to it. At this point we should return to the world view which sets Moscow against the outside world. We should also take account of a Russian characteristic, which Kennan described, namely the profoundly cynical attitude towards objective reality. This attitude transforms all the facts and information into instruments for fulfilling hidden purposes.
The underlying rationale of the dichotomy between the competing global power centres together with the notion of the “cynical” truth manifests itself in the spheres of influence, i.e. a paradigm of two centres, in this case the West and Moscow, who divide most countries between them. As a result, the objective existence of these countries is ignored and they are treated as subjects, client states, tributary states, or just pawns at the mercy of a higher power. The higher power or the dominating centre of Russia’s opponent is the USA.
Dualistic world view in 2006
The Russian elite perceives the world through a dualistic prism and, as it has developed in a closed and homogenous environment, it projects its own mentality onto everyone else. Seen through this schizophrenic prism, the spread of liberal democracy, or the Western way of life with the potential enlargement of the EU and NATO, mutates into a geopolitical attack directed at Russia. It does not matter what the Westerners or the candidate countries say; that it is not supposed to be an attack on anyone; that it only serves the best interests of the people who are willing to join the Western position, such as a fairer and in the long term more stable government system, a better life, a broader world...
Switch over to the television channels controlled by the Kremlin and you will see how a straightforward fact, for example the fact that Russia’s neighbours are integrating with the West, which could be seen as a passive process, is automatically regarded as an active step aimed at harming Russia.
This is why the relations between Russia and the West have been converted to a silent opposition under the surface of diplomatic discretion. The process started at the end of 2003 and, despite its ups and downs, has intensified steadily. Moscow treated Georgia’s Rose Revolution in 2003 as a provocative act by the West (i.e. the USA) which was designed to harm Russia and to consolidate Western influence in Transcaucasus. The occurrence of similar events in the countries surrounding Russia, especially in Ukraine, was explained with the existence of a coordinated plan to close in on Moscow and, eventually, to overpower Russia. Putin does not believe in coincidences.
So, first of all, the Russian leaders, who knew what was “good” for the nation, had to put an end to these events. Then they had to find a way to return to the status quo. Indeed, the revolutionary wave has been receding, partly because of Moscow and partly for other reasons. The colour revolution failed in Azerbaijan; it was suppressed in Belarus; the situation in Kyrgyzstan is volatile; in Ukraine the Orange Revolutionaries have split up and given Viktor Yanukovych an opportunity to get into power and start leaning towards Russia, instead of the West. The Kremlin believes that the “regaining” of Georgia could reverse the domino effect, thus curbing the Western influence in the former Soviet Union from Lithuania to Mongolia.
At the same time Moscow is applying the doctrine, which Kennan described, in all the existing and potential hot spots around the world. The doctrine dictates that Russia has to do everything possible to extend its power and to take full advantage of every opportunity to inhibit or dilute the power of its opponent. This involves the intentional and flexible pursuit of policies confronting the USA and the West: giving support to the Hamas, while the West is trying to isolate it; public cooperation with the intelligence agencies of Syria and plans to build a major naval base for the Russian Black Sea Fleet in a Syrian port (to protect the base, it is planned to install an air defence system which would also provide cover for the Syrian air space); nuclear cooperation with Iran and supplying Tehran with anti-aircraft missiles and other military equipment; playing diplomatic hide-and-seek with the West, when the question of North Korea or Iran is raised. All these activities have a two-fold effect. On the one hand, Moscow prevents the USA and the West from solving these problems, while constantly undermining their image and authority all around the world. On the other hand, it gives Russia more clout with the problematic regimes, thus making Russia seemingly indispensable to the West in overcoming the difficulties.
Furthermore, Russia sees international organisations and treaties through the same prism as the truth. The organisations and treaties are cynically used in the interests of Russia, i.e. in order to extend its power. According to Kennan: “Moscow sees in UNO [the United Nations] not the mechanism for a permanent and stable world society founded on the mutual interests and aims of all nations, but an arena in which aims just mentioned can be favorably pursued.” The “aims just mentioned” were the extension of the Soviet power and the inhibition of the power of others.
By now the fundamental convictions of the current Russian leaders and of the West as well as the basic interests deriving therefrom are completely incompatible. This is why the West has to redefine its approach to Russia. 60 years ago it was essential to recognise the nature, the motives and the logic of the opponent. It is still essential, if we want to develop an adequate Russian policy.
Moreover, when this policy has been formulated, it must be made public.
Unfortunately, at least some European politicians are right now acting as if they had gas containers for brains.