Realism is in the air. Not the realism we need—not a clear-eyed appreciation of the dangers facing our hitherto safe, free, and comfortable lives, of own weakness and of the strengths of our adversaries. This is inverted realism—a realism that says that to try to defend ourselves is unrealistic, that our enemies are not really our enemies and our allies not really our allies.
It comes to us from many quarters, on the left (German Social Democrats) and on the populist right (Donald Trump). Perhaps the most lucid recent exposition is a piece in First Things by my friend Peter Hitchens.
Hitchens argues that we have needlessly soured our relations with Russia by expanding into territories that the Kremlin abandoned after the collapse of communism. We have unfairly demonized Vladimir Putin, who though a “sinister tyrant” (Hitchens’s words) is certainly no worse and perhaps better than our supposed allies in Turkey or Saudi Arabia. Russia is not the Soviet Union. Nor is it an expansionist power: Crimea was a justifiable one-off response to Ukrainian (and Western) provocation. So instead of fighting a new cold war, we should recognize the traumas the Russian people have been through and allow them to get on with restoring their “glorious” (his word) Christian and European heritage.
This argument is expressed with formidable eloquence and what looks like expertise. Hitchens is a former Moscow correspondent and knows his European history. Many Russians, and their friends in the West, believe it.
But it is mostly mistaken. For starters, the article is largely attacking a straw man: Those of us who believe we are indeed in a new cold war do not argue that Russia is the Soviet Union or is trying to recreate it. Russia is not a global power in any respect apart from nuclear weapons and land-mass. Its ideology, if one can call it that, is a crude and contradictory mixture of anti-Westernism, nationalist bombast, and Soviet nostalgia. It does not bear comparison with the grim but sophisticated edifice of Marxism-Leninism. The latter involved, for example, the compulsory study over many years of Dialectical Materialism (known unfondly to Soviet-era students as diamat). Nothing of the kind exists in Putin’s Russia.
What Hitchens fails to spot is that the Soviet Union was not just about Communism, or about Russia. It was an empire. One hundred twenty million-plus of the Soviet Union’s two hundred eighty-six-million population were non-Russians. Almost none of them were Soviet by choice, any more than the one hundred million people in the other Warsaw Pact countries wanted to be under Soviet tutelage. To view the collapse of the evil empire solely from a Russian point of view is therefore misleading. It would be like writing about Irish history solely from the point of the view of the British. Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, and other captive nations are real people, too. They have real languages, real histories, real dreams, and memories of statehood.
They suffered real traumas, too, both under Stalin’s repressions and by paying the greatest price in World War II (or the Great Patriotic War, as the Soviets misnamed it, and as modern Russia still does). If we fail to acknowledge the infamy of the Hitler-Stalin pact, which consigned these countries to the meat-grinder, and fail to note that most of the casualties and destruction of World War II involved these countries’ peoples and their territories, then our picture of the Soviet Union is incomplete—and so is our understanding of what happened in 1989–91.
For the Soviet Union and Russia did not “withdraw” from these countries and the Warsaw Pact. The Kremlin’s power collapsed along with its empire. Unlike Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union did not suffer a military defeat. It suffered the ultimate political and economic one: The Russians, the supposed masters of the whole system, revolted against the lies, brutality, and incompetence with which they were being governed. Many of them revolted against the idea of empire, too.
The collapse of empires is always messy and poses great dilemmas. How do you balance the interests of the guiltless victims—the honest, hardworking, conscientious foot-soldiers of the imperial power, whose lives are being upturned—against the former subject peoples, newly freed and yearning for restitution, dignity, and sovereignty? There’s no pleasing everyone. Maximum humiliation of the kind imposed by Versailles on imperial Germany is wrong. But it is also wrong to take the privileges and constraints of imperial days as if they were the natural order of things.
This is the problem we have with Russia. It feels the itch of amputated limbs—Kiev, the Baltics, Berlin, the Caucasus. But what about the limbs themselves? These countries—all smaller than Russia—have their own historical traumas, too. They fear invasion. They crave security. They might even expect modern Russia—the legal successor, by its own choice, of the Soviet Union’s assets and liabilities—to pay compensation, just as Germany paid Israel, Poland, and other victims. In fact, victims of Stalinism both in Russia and abroad died waiting for any sort of real recognition of what they had suffered.
The ex-captive nations’ interests and Russia’s, therefore, are irreconcilable. Somehow they have to be balanced. Nobody is going to be satisfied.
Hitchens does not deal with this dilemma. He dismisses it, by saying that it is “baseless” to liken Russia to the Soviet Union. He takes Russia’s feeling of insecurity, and its fears of the loss of historic trophies such as the Sevastopol naval base in Crimea, at face value. These feelings are real. But there is another side to the story. The Crimean Tatars, who have a better claim to the peninsula than do the Soviet-era military pensioners and dependents who moved there after the war, see Ukraine as their only hope. Ukrainians—who appear only once in Hitchens’s essay, in a dismissive aside—want the same liberty, decency, dignity, and justice in their country that we enjoy in the West. Why shouldn’t they have it? The Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians, Romanians, Bulgarians, and others have been allowed into these Western clubs—and have benefited mightily from it.
Hitchens sees just one power bloc expanding into the area another bloc has vacated. But this view fundamentally mischaracterizes the enlargement of NATO and the EU. The member countries of these blocs joined by choice. They had to argue hard to be let in; initially, they were regarded by many in Brussels as too backward and volatile. To equate the Russian pull-out from the Baltic states, say, with those countries’ subsequent membership in the EU and NATO is to regard kidnapping and marriage as fundamentally the same thing.
In addition to ignoring the non-Russian point of view, Hitchens sentimentalizes Russia itself. He downplays the growth of a secret-police state in Russia, the return of Soviet-style coercive psychiatry, the rising numbers of political prisoners, the falsification of history, the loss of academic freedom, the ubiquitous hate machine, the use of beatings and assassinations. He hankers for a return of pre-revolutionary Russia’s “glorious” past. Yet for many people in the years before 1917, the Russian empire was anything but glorious. The appalling rule of the Romanovs, the grotesque privileges of the aristocrats, the obscurantism of the church, the harshness of the courts, the systematic attempts to wipe out other languages and cultures—none of that seems very encouraging. True, other places may be worse. But we don’t live next door to them.
In particular, Hitchens underplays Russian foreign policy and the threat it poses to its neighbors. Of course the geopolitics of the post–Soviet Union is complicated. But it is clear that from the early 1990s onwards, Russia has taken upon itself the role of protector and arbiter in conflicts across the former empire. This is not the dark fantasy of an old cold warrior. It is stated again and again by senior Russians, who use terms such as “the near abroad” and “sphere of privileged interests.”
Russia did not have to adopt this revisionist, revanchist approach. It could have decided that its top foreign-policy priority was good relations with the former captive nations. That is the way Germany has treated countries such as the Netherlands, Denmark, Poland, and France. It has worked rather well. But Russia—it soon became clear in the 1990s to anyone who was paying attention—was approaching its former empire differently. It did not regard these “former Soviet republics” (as it termed them) as real countries. It blasted them with propaganda, twisted their arms with energy supplies, channelled money into their politics, and sponsored subversion. We in the West had to decide whether we were going to acquiesce in this or try to prevent it by accepting these countries’ desires for closer integration. Fortunately, we chose the latter course, accepting Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania into the European Union and NATO, along with the former Warsaw Pact countries of central Europe and two of the ex-Yugoslav republics.
This was not a reckless or ill-considered move. It was made in full knowledge that Russia would not like it—but was also, therefore, accompanied by careful diplomacy meant to alleviate, as far as possible, Russian worries. Russia was brought into the heart of NATO, through the NATO-Russia founding act and the NATO-Russia council. It was, officially, a partner and a friend.
Had Russia wanted, it could have had close and friendly ties with NATO. It was certainly able to see, at the time both big rounds of expansion were happening, that the alliance was not putting extra troops in the new frontline states, nor holding warlike exercises in these countries. Moreover, NATO was so eager to show that it did not regard Russia as an adversary that it explicitly excluded Russia from its threat assessment and it did not even make contingency plans for defending its member countries from a Russian attack.
For years, this approach worked. Russia did not welcome NATO enlargement, but it accepted it. NATO enlargement became an issue only with Putin’s Munich speech of 2007, when Russia suddenly started claiming that promises had been broken and the West was expanding an aggressive military alliance to its borders.
In truth, NATO has always been on those borders—Turkey bordered the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and Norway borders Russia to this day. More importantly, it was only in April 2009, under pressure from President Barack Obama, that NATO decided to make even outline reinforcement plans for the Baltic states and Poland. Even now, NATO does not have a standing defense plan—the core of its deterrent against the Soviet Union.
Hitchens privileges big countries over small ones, and he assumes that all big countries have equal moral weight. Just as the United States would not like it if Canada became friendly to China, so Russians don’t like it that Ukraine is friendly with the West. But these arguments cut both ways: If the US had been a bloodthirsty dictatorship and had treated Canada the way Russia has (for centuries) treated Ukraine, then freedom-loving Canadians, given the chance, might indeed seek a friendly and democratic protector against American revanchism.
Hitchens is quite right that some of our allies are unpleasant. We had this problem during the Cold War, too, when fascist Spain and Portugal, and militarily-ruled Greece and Turkey, were members of NATO. Far worse things happened in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. This is nasty, but not new. Is China a worse threat than Russia? Maybe, but it is farther away. The main thing about a war is not to lose it. That was our guiding principle in Europe during the Cold War. It remains a good one now.
Hitchens writes: “Nobody who understands history, geography, or, come to that, arithmetic can possibly accept” the portrayal of Russia as expansionist. It is true that Russia does not want to recreate the Soviet empire by military conquest. But Russia can and does pose other kinds of threats. The old cold war is indeed over. But Hitchens’s thinking is frozen in that era. The new cold war—the title of a book I wrote amid considerable skepticism in 2007—is fought on different fronts, for different aims. Russia uses money, propaganda, cyber-subversion, and other tactics to disrupt and weaken its neighbors and the West generally.
Many people are aware of this. They include millions in the countries concerned, and many (I would venture now, most) seasoned Russia-watchers in Britain, America, the Nordic states, and increasingly Germany. We are worried about, even frightened of, Russia. We may be wrong—facts and arguments, please—but we are not “nobody.”
Edward Lucas writes for the Economist. He is also senior vice-president at the Center for European Policy Analysis, a think-tank in Warsaw and Washington, D.C.