A introduction

Diatribe on Russia from the Romanovs, Mikael Gorbachev to Vladimir Putin and the failure to learn from the bitter fruits of our common European history.

During the last seventy years, our world has often been influenced by American and Russian exceptionalism. The USA has long been the leading power among the free nations and instrumental in the creation of international organizations like the UN, NATO, the IMF and the World Bank. During the period behind us the US and Western Europe were committed to freedom and liberal values.

It is a world in which international relationships are based on laws. The relationship between the EU, Russia and US, for instance, was influenced by the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, the post-Cold War settlement and the 1990 Paris Charter for a New Europe.

It is also a world in which there were fundamental differences between the main powers, China, Europe, Russia and the USA. The European Union and the USA were founded on certain values, like human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, as a way to coexist in peace and prosperity.

In the 1980’s Russia and our world order was greatly changed by Mikael Gorbachev (1985- 1991). He attempted to reduce Cold War tensions and reform Russia with his policies of Glasnost (openness) and Perestroika (restructuring) with aspirations of democratic governance, freely organised civil society and rule of law.

Since the fall of Berlin wall, the subsequent unification of Germany, the dissolution of the Soviet Union and great technological advancements have resulted in fundamental changes to society and the world as a whole.

For our American friends, this event confirmed the victory of capitalism over communism and for Europeans this meant moving forward with the completion of our European house of which Russia as history shows is politically an integral part.

For our Russian friends, the dissolution of the former Soviet Union left deep emotional wounds and a national feeling of humiliation. These have continued to stoke the forces of resentment, revenge and revanchism within the Russian security establishment.

Germany’s reunification resulted in a Russian spring, but the flame of liberty and freedom was soon smothered,  followed by a return to the winter of authoritarianism with the choice of totalitarianism over individualism.

With former East Bloc countries in transformation and improving their lot on its periphery, Russia, in 2010, turned away from the European Union and is now seeking to undermine – and even destroy – it.

But in hindsight, the moment Russia turned away from Europe was actually when Vladimir Putin was elected president in 2000 on a platform that welcomed foreign investment but rejected Western Liberal democracy, since these values do not correspond with Russian values.

Today Vladimir Putin is seeking the destruction of the EU. But he is wrong when he claims that the free Liberal order is absolute, just as wrong as the fascists were in the 1930’s, when they pronounced the era of the liberal democracy to be over.

The same can be said about the outstanding American Diplomat George Kennan, who, in 1938, proposed the US should take the path of constitutional change to  become an authoritarian state. Fascism during the 1930’s was quite a threat, even in the USA. Important people like Charles Lindbergh and many others did not hide his Nazi sympathies using the slogan “America First.”

As with Leonid Brezhnev, the decadent west returned after the first two terms of Vladimir Putin as a useful distraction of his inability or unwillingness to reform the country and as the convenient permanent enemy confirming the historic tendency of Russia to blame the outside for its own failures.

“The delusion of Russian greatness has not helped its integration into Europe,” author Ivan Turgenev observed in the nineteenth century.

In recent times, the war in Iraq and the Russian invasion in Ukraine uncovered the differences that exist within the international community. At the same time, inequality in Russia and the US increased together with the influence of the affluent “rule by the wealthy few,” which have led to an oligarchy, reducing the influence of the majority.

In all of this, Vladimir Putin, the opportunistic leader of Russia is also seen as the “redeemer” by many in his country. He uses religious fascism and fictious outside threats to bind Russia together and has managed to influence events on a global scale.

Russia is an amalgam of authoritarianism, corruption and nationalism, with an ideology and policies can count on elite and popular support, despite the stagnant economy and significant repression of civil society.

Russian insecurity, disappointment and distrust of the liberal order have led to Russian attacks on international law and states’ sovereignty, which have reached an unacceptable level of aggressiveness. The same goes for attacks by the Putin government or its proxies against American and European democracies, attacks that seek to divide by means of weaponizing information and cyberspace.

To understand Vladimir Putin one has to look at his favourite philosophers, Nikolai Berdyaev, Vladimir Solovyov and Ivan Ilyin, leading fascist thinkers, and at his background and experiences as an officer in the KGB before and after the unification of Germany. Add to that the disintegration of the former Soviet Union, whereby the oft-quoted perceived humiliation of Russia by the US and Europe is a matter of perspective.

Also, the Russian claim that after the Cold War the United States took advantage of Russia’s weaknesses to expand NATO, bomb Serbia, invade Iraq, and provide assistance to Georgia and Ukraine has great merit.

In all of this, the West has misunderstood and underestimated the events in Russia since the election of Vladimir Putin in 2000. It also neglected to protect the legal order. The weaknesses of the west have also contributed to the invasion of Ukraine and changes in the Middle East.

The sanctions against Russian interests, although giving President Barack Obama his “feel good” moment,  have certainly worsened rather than improved a very serious crisis. The failure to recognize Russia will hardly change, not with or after Vladimir Putin.

Blaming Russia for the breakdown in U.S.-Russian relations has been popular among American politicians across the political spectrum – including, Hillary Clinton, John Bolton, and the late John McCain, among others. But I am young enough to remember the Cuba crisis which brought the world on the brink of WWIII as a result of events in which was considered the U.S. sphere of interests.

Today with NATO troops within two hours from Moscow and St Petersburg, this is to Russian citizen similar to the perspective American citizen had during the Cuba crisis, when missiles were installed on Cuba to be pointed at the U.S. Obviously the west played its part in this deteriorating relationship and is not blameless. Early on, it left Mikhail Gorbachev to his own designs and placed Russia on the periphery, an ineffective strategy.

In fact, after the period of Glasnost and Perestroika, Russia was unwisely marginalized within most international institutions and in the decision-making process on major global and regional issues. This, and the bemoaned lack of respect by the West, have left its traces.

It has been instrumental in the collapse of democracy in Russia and the decision by Vladimir Putin to turn the country into a “theocratic nationalist autocracy” with the help of the Orthodox church. Together, they chose collectivism over individualism, lies over truth, oligarchy over equality.

These choices have played a major role in exploiting the weaknesses that exist in western democracies in the European Union and in the US, as evidenced by the election of Donald Trump, Brexit and the support for a number of extreme right-wing populists who have risen to power in the European Union, such as Viktor Orbán in Hungary and Jarosław Kaczyński in Poland.

Contrary to the hopes we had at the turn of the new millennium, the old differences have returned and Vladimir Putin, growing more isolated than ever, both internationally as internally, has distanced himself from people who supported him earlier. As a consequence, his dependence on the security apparatus is growing. This in turn seems to be limiting his view of the world at large and the day to day realities in Russia.

In this regard Russia has become a growing threat to Europe as the killing of  Litvinenko and the failed assassinations of Skripal, Gebrev and lately, Navalny and the destabilization attempts in Moldova, Montenegro and elsewhere show.

Alexei Navalny is the latest target in a long line of victims, from diplomats, bankers, defectors, and doctors, to crime and corruption fighters. All have shown themselves to be inconvenient to the regime, a regime that is showing more weakness than strength and confirms the increasingly lawless character of the regime.  But these practices also testify to the high level of sophistication in poisoning opponents that are perceived as damaging the interests of the state.

But there are also several more serious weaknesses in the system, namely the presidency for life and the absence of a successor without any mechanism to transfer power and secure continuity of Putin’s policy.

In addition, there is a level of dysfunction that is pushing the country in the wrong direction, due to stagnation of the economy, military adventures, the corona pandemic, sanctions, and its self-imposed isolation. This is often the case with autocracies.

The dependence on the oil and gas sector is also a high-risk factor. The low and unstable oil prices have affected the country’s financial reserves, which are now far lower than the nation’s total foreign debt.

The highly sophisticated poisons that have been used and cost the lives of many is also a personal security threat to Putin. In fact, the sword lying in front of  him definitely has two edges.

This diatribe which expresses my personal views and observations is divided into four sections:

1.         Russia, a remarkable, but incomprehensible and mysterious country

2.         Russia, Vladimir Putin, and the bitter bruits of history

3.         Russia, Ukraine, Crimea, Europe and the echoes of history

4.         The European Union and Russia’s geopolitical goals

February 19th, 2021

William J J Houtzager

Editor Marton Radkai

Referenced Books / Articles

Madeleine AlbrightFascism
Zbigniew Brezezinski / Brent ScowcroftStrategic Vision
Orlando FigesThe Crimean War
 The Europeans
Francis FukuyamaEven Russia is Liberal in many aspects
Mikhail GorbachevThe New Russia
Benjamin Haddad /Alina PolyakovaDon’t rehabilitate Obama on Russia
Fiona HillRussia’s foreign policy and security challenges
Igor IvanovRussia and Europe: From romanticism to pragmatism
Henry A. KissingerDiplomacy
 Vision for US-Russia relations
Stephen Kotkin   The resistible rise of Vladimir Putin
Andrei KozyrevThe Firebird
Alexei KudrinThe influence of Oil and Gas revenues on Russia
Alexei Kudrin / Oleg SergienkoEffects of the crisis and Russia’s Socio-Economic outlooks
Katrina vanden Heuvel     Time for common sense and realism in Ukraine
Stefan Hedlund -Uppsala university Russian Path Dependence
Jack Matlock Jr.The U.S. has treated Russia like a loser since the end of the Cold War
 Autopsy on an Empire
Evgeny MinchenkoMethodological basis of the Politburo 2.0 report series.
Simon Sebag Montefiore The Romanovs
Timothy SnyderThe road to unfreedom
 On Tyranny
Nikolay Petrov / Maria Lipman Henry HaleThree dilemmas of hybrid regime governance Russia from Putin to Putin
Eugene RumerThe Primakov (Not Gerasimov) Doctrine in Action
 Etched in stone: Russian Strategic Culture and the Future of Transatlantic   
Dimitri TreninRussia, should we fear Russia
William TraubmanGorbachev, his live and times
Grigory YavlinskyThe Putin system. An opposing view
Rizopoules Yorgos / Sergakis DimitriosCorruption and Economic Nationalism
Fareed ZakariaThe Self-Destruction of American Power           Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World
Ref. Books / Artickes

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