The Mafia is not known for its creative use of language beyond terms like ‘hitman,’ ‘go to the mattresses,” ‘living with the fishes’ and suchlike. There are, though, a few pithy sayings that carry enduring wisdom. One concerns honor and revenge: ‘If you are going to humiliate someone publicly in a really crass manner, make sure that he doesn’t survive to take his inevitable revenge.” Violate it at your peril. That enduring truth has been demonstrated by Russia’s actions in the Ukraine which, to a great extent – are the culmination of the numerous humiliations that the West, under American instigation, has inflicted on Russia’s rulers and the country as a whole over the past 30 years.
They have been treated as a sinner sentenced to accept the role of a penitent who clad in sackcloth, marked with ashes, is expected to appear among the nations with head bowed forever. No right to have its own interests, its own security concerns or even its own opinions. Few in the West questioned the viability of such a prescription for a country of 160 million, territorially the biggest in the world, possessing vast resources of critical value to other industrial nations, technologically sophisticated and custodian of 3,000 + nuclear weapons. No mafia don would have been that obtuse. But our rulers are cut from a different cloth even if their strut and conceit often matches that of the capos in important respects.
This is not to say that Russia’s political class has been bent on revenge for a decade or two – like France after its humiliation by Prussia in 1871, like Germany after its humiliation in 1918-1919, or like ‘Bennie from the Bronx’ beaten up in front of his girlfriend by Al Pacino in Carlito’s Way. Quite the opposite, for almost a decade Boris Yeltsin was content to play Falstaff to any American President who came along just for the sake of being accepted into his company (and allowing himself to be robbed blind in the process – economically and diplomatically). The West nostalgically celebrates the Yeltsin years as the Golden Age of Russian Democracy – an age when life expectancy dropped sharply, when alcoholism rose and mental health declined, when the tanking economy threw millions into poverty, when criminality of every kind ravaged society, when celebrity oligarchs strutted their stuff, when the Presidential chauffeur was the most influential man in the country, and when everyone was free to declaim since nobody else heard him in the din of their own voices. You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs – to coin a phrase.
Vladimir Putin, of course, was made of sterner stuff. He put an end to the buffoonery, successfully took on the Herculean task of reconstituting Russia as a viable state, and presented himself as ruler of an equal sovereign in cultivating relations with his neighbors. In addition, he insisted that the civil rights and culture of Russians stranded in the Near Abroad be respected.
Still, he gave no sign by word or deed that he contemplated using coercive means to restore the integration of Russian and Ukraine that had existed for more than 300 years. True, he opposed Western attempts to sever the ties between the two by incorporating Ukraine into their collective institutions – most notably the NATO declaration of 2008 stating that Ukraine (along with Georgia) were in the alliance’s antechamber being readied for entrance. Putin’s restraint contrasted with the audacity of Washington and its European subordinates who instigated the Maidan coup toppling the democratically elected President and promoting an American puppet in his place. In effect, the United States has been Ukraine’s overseer ever since – a sort of absentee landlord.
Putin’s views about the preferred principles of organization and conduct that should govern inter-state relations have been elaborated in a series of speeches and articles over the years. The picture it draws is far different from the cartoonish distortion created and disseminated in the West. It clearly delineates ways and means to constrain and limit the element of conflict, above all military conflict, the requirement for rules-of-the-road that should serve as the systems software, the necessity of recognizing that the future will be more multipolar – yet more multilateral – than it has been since 1991. At the same time, he stresses that every state has its legitimate national interests and the right to promote them as a sovereign entity so long as it does not endanger world peace and stability. Russia has that right on an equal basis with every other state. It also has the right to order its public life as it deems best suits its circumstances.
Western leaders, and political class generally, have not accepted those propositions. Nor have they ever shown a modicum of interest in accepting Moscow’s repeated, open invitation to discuss them. Rather, every attempt by Russia to act in accordance with that logic has been viewed through a glass darkly – interpreted as confirmation of Russia as an outlaw state whose dictatorial leader is bent on restoring a malign Russian influence dedicated to undermining the good works of the Western democracies.
This attitude has progressively lowered the bar on accusation and insult directed at Russia and Putin personally. For Hillary Clinton he was “a new Hitler” as far back as 2016, for Joe Biden he was a ‘killer,’ for Congress members a Satan using a bag of diabolical instruments to corrupt and destroy American democracy. For all of them, a tyrant turning Russia back to the political dark ages after the glowing democratic spring of the Yeltsin years, an assassin – albeit an inept one whose targeted victims somehow survived in unnatural numbers, for the Pentagon a growing menace who moved rapidly up the enemies list – displacing Islamic terrorism by 2017 and vying with China for the top spot ever since.
The obsession with Putin the Evil spread as Washington pushed its allies hard to join in the denunciation. It became the fashion. The grossness of their personal attacks on Putin matched the ever-expanding scope of the accusations. In recent years, no election could be held in Europe without the levelling of charges that the Kremlin was ‘interfering’ by some unspecified means or other – and at Putin’s personal direction. The absence of evidence was irrelevant. Russia became the pinata there to be bashed whenever one felt the urge or saw a domestic political advantage.
None of the above discussion is meant to suggest that Russia’s foreign policy, in particular the invasion of Ukraine, can be personalized or reduced to the level of feelings and emotions. Putin himself constantly displays an exceptional emotional and intellectual discipline. Putin is not a ‘Benny from the Bronx.’ He does not act on impulse nor does he allow his judgment to be clouded by considerations of a purely individual nature. Russia had tangible grounds for concerns about the implications of developments in Ukraine and trends in Eastern Europe generally that jeopardized the country’s security interests. The thinking of Putin and his associates about how to deal with them expressed carefully thought-out analyses and strategies – as surely did the eventual decision to take military action.
Revenge per se was less significant than what Western treatment of Russia since 1991 augured for the future. In other words, the constant reinforcement of hostile images and intentions, as felt by Moscow, via the steady barrage of attacks and accusations colored the way that Russian leaders assayed the prospects for alleviating the threats they saw in Western actions – including their conduct throughout 2022.
The West had a variety of options for addressing the Russia question after 1991. One was to take advantage of its weakness to the fullest and to treat the country as a second-class nation in the American directed world system. That was the strategy we chose. It inescapably meant humiliation. What we didn’t recognize is that in doing so we were planting the seeds of future hostility. Over the years, every sign of a Russia rising from the ashes fed latent, if inchoate, fears of the bear coming out of hibernation. Instead of recognizing that the post-Yeltsin political elite resented the decade of disparagement and humiliation, and taking steps to compensate for it (e.g. carving out a place for Russia in Europe’s post-Cold War political configuration), anxiety led the West down the exact opposite course. Putin’s Russia was painted in ever more frightening caricatures while shunning became the order of the day.
Demonstrations of Russia’s growing self-confidence, and unwillingness to be pushed around – as in southern Ossetia in 2008 and then more stunningly in Syria in 2015, quickly evoked all the old Cold War images and set the pre-primed alarm bells ringing. Ignorance of Russian realities, coupled with the demonization of Putin whose actual thoughts didn’t interest them, Western leaders and pundits fretted that their master plan for an American overseen global system was being jeopardized. Now from the old enemy – Russia, and the new enemy – China. One set of anxieties reinforces the other.
Back in the 1990s, the humiliation of Russia logically could have been followed by the traditional mafia act of termination. Forestall any form of retaliation by killing off the victim. Of course, it is a lot harder to liquidate a country than an individual and his close associates.