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writing for godot

Russia's Rational National Interest

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Written by Dana E. Abizaid   
Wednesday, 23 April 2014 13:40
Over the past two months much has been written about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s desire to build a post-Soviet Empire, starting with Crimea and Eastern Ukraine and then annexing northern Kazakhstan. Many journalists have compared him to Stalin, Peter and Catherine the Great, and even Ivan the Terrible. Some have dusted off the racist belief, perpetuated by George Kennan in 1946 and the basis of US Cold War policy, that Russians only understand force. These comparisons betray little understanding of Russian History or Russia’s current crisis in the face of NATO expansion in its former sphere of influence. Hysteria has often taken the place of rational analysis as western journalists repeat hackneyed Cold War era stereotypes to explain Russia’s actions. Such reporting sells papers and confirms western biases but does not provide readers with much insight into why Putin has taken the actions he has, or how the US and European Union might
be able to reach agreement with Russia to avoid wider conflict over Ukraine.

Governments act to further their self-interests, and Putin’s Russia is no different. Just as Stalin needed Poland after WWII as a buffer state against potential German invasion (it happened twice in under 30 years) and growing US expansion in Western and Central Europe, Putin needs Ukraine to stifle NATO’s desire to expand to Russia’s doorstep. Putin also considers US plans for missile defense systems in the Czech Republic and Poland not as a defense against a potential Iranian weapon, but as a missile delivery system to be used against Russia. The US media may present this as extreme Russian xenophobia or the deranged imaginations of a Russian dictator bent on destroying civil society in Russia and neighboring states. But to many Russians who recall the tens of millions lost in WWI and WWII and aggressive US posture in Berlin and Central Europe during the Cold War, Putin’s distrust of the West appears rationale.

Contrary to the view of many experts, Putin is not starting a new Cold War. The Cold War was only put on hold when Russia was weakened to the point of collapse and near civil war in the early 1990s. As long as Russia was ruled by a weak and ineffectual leader like Boris Yeltsin and bullied into accepting western reforms and business deals, the US and its client states were pleased. However, with Yeltsin’s ignominious resignation in 1999 and the rise of a leader like Putin who vowed to instill pride in Russia by building up its military forces and improving its economy, Russia again became a threat to US interests in the region. As an instructor at Moscow State University in 2002, I remember my students telling me that their studies were aimed “at lifting Russia off her knees.” For those with even a rudimentary understanding of Russian history this statement recalls the “time of troubles” in the 17th century, Lenin’s promises in 1917, or
Stalin’s successful plan to industrialize the Soviet Union in 10 years to prepare for war with Nazi Germany. In short, Russia has always had the capacity of rising when it appears weakest.

Traveling through Kazakhstan last week I spoke with many people who view Russia’s moves in Ukraine as justified. Although Kazakhstan, a nation with a large Russian minority and land where many Kazakhs consider Russian their first language, is often cited as Putin’s next target in his rapacious desire for expansion, there is little evidence that indicates an invasion of Kazakhstan would be needed. On the contrary, it is much more likely that Kazakhstan would voluntarily join in union with Russia. As a former nomadic land modernized by the Bolsheviks, Kazakhstan did not have civil and political institutions in place before the October Revolution. Though incorporation of Kazakhstan into the Soviet state was brutal – estimates claim that two million in a population of four million perished during the collectivization famines of the 1930s – many Kazakhs still consider the Soviet era as one of progress. Today, Russian media dominates in Kazakhstan
as a does a feeling of brotherhood with its great neighbor to the north. President Nazarbayev, who as General Secretary of the Kazakh Soviet State in 1991 begged Gorbachev to hold the USSR together, understands that Russia is Kazakhstan’s greatest ally in a neighborhood that includes China and failed states to the south like Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan. In conversations with young Kazakh businessmen, I often heard that given the chance to do business with Russians, Chinese, Turkish, or Americans, they would choose Russians because they understand each other. This extends to the political arena as well.

Consequently, it is important for western media and governments to consider the contemporary and historic motives behinds Putin’s actions rather than reverting to Cold War stereotypes that will produce nothing but misunderstanding and conflict. This would require a critical look at western intentions in Ukraine and Putin’s need to secure Russia’s western borders and business interests in Europe as well as the support Putin receives amongst the citizens of former Soviet states like Kazakhstan. If this approach is taken, Putin’s actions may seem less the irrational moves of a madman and more the measures that any leader interested in his nation’s self-interest and survival would take. Defusing conflict demands that this approach is taken.
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