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Challenges Facing Russia

Excerpts from Dr. Trifkovic’s lecture hosted by the Institute for Public Planning’s Russian Debates program in Moscow on September 25, 2014.

Some commentators have called the events of the past eight months “a new Cold War,” but they are wrong: the Cold War has never ended, as manifested in two rounds of NATO expansion after the collapse of the USSR and the second crisis in Ukraine in a decade. In essence the challenges Russia faces are unrelated to her government’s policies. They reflect a deep odium of the Western political and media elite towards Russia-as-such. That animosity has been developing in its current form roughly since the time of the Crimean War, and it has two key pillars:

  • Geopolitics: the striving of maritime empires (first Britain, then the United States) to contain and if possible control the Eurasian heartland;
  • Cultural antipathy: perception of Russia as the ultimate “other” by the Western elite class, and its subsequent desire not merely to influence Russian policies and behavior, but to effect a regime change in Moscow and fundamentally transform Russia’s identity in the image of the Western postmodernia.

That the U.S. should eventually take over Britain’s mantle did not seem preordained in the infancy of the American Republic. Back then the U.S. was an autarkic continental power pursuing a limited grand strategy. Its rationale was summed up by George Washington, when he warned the United States to preserve her fortunate distance from the affairs of other countries and not to enter into lasting pacts with them. The same strategic vision was echoed a generation later by John Quincy Adams, who noted approvingly that America “has abstained from interference in the concerns of others, even when conflict has been for principles to which she clings… But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.” Washington and Adams were geopolitical realists. They were comfortable with the idea of a U.S. monopoly on power in the Western Hemisphere, but free from the present-day delusion that America is the embodiment of some abstract “principles.”

The conquest of the West and the growth of industrial capitalism created the conditions for a paradigm shift, which was articulated in the strategic vision of Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan at the end of the 19th century. His emphasis on sea power signaled a reinvention of Manifest Destiny in the guise of imperialism. After the war with Spain in 1898, America emerged as the third naval power in the world, with overseas possessions and protectorates, bases and coaling stations. Her grand strategy came to resemble that of Great Britain. The expansion of political, financial, and economic power extended her traditional hemispheric sphere of influence. In addition, in the early years of the 20th century Theodore Roosevelt sowed the seeds of two fatal heresies: the notion that the exportation of American values would have a redeeming effect on the world, and the tendency of the chief executive to bypass Congress while aggressively pursuing his foreign schemes.

At around that same time, in April 1904 Scottish geographer Halford Mackinder articulated a theory based on the notion that control over the Eurasian “World-Island” is the key to global hegemony: “Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island; who rules the World-Island controls the world.” Four decades later Nicholas Spykman wrote that in the nineteenth century Russian pressure from the “heartland” was countered by British naval power in the “great game,” and it was America’s destiny to take over that role once the Second World War was over. For Spykman, the key area was the coastal region bordering the “Heartland” which he called “rimland.” He fine-tuned Mackinder’s formula accordingly: “Who controls the rimland rules Eurasia; who rules Eurasia controls the destinies of the world.”

The importance of this dictum was reflected four years later in Harry Truman’s strategy of containment. Holding on to the “rimland” was the mainstay of America’s Cold War strategy, from Norway across central Europe to Greece and Turkey (NATO), from Turkey across the Middle East to the Indian Ocean (CENTO), and in the Far East in South Korea and along the chain of islands from Hokaido to Formosa. Containment turned into a massive rollback, however, once the Soviet Union disintegrated. In 1996 Bill Clinton violated commitment against NATO’s expansion made by his predecessor, and the Alliance reached Russia’s Czarist borders. In 2004 it expanded almost to the suburbs of St. Petersburg. All along Ukraine had remained the main prize. As Zbigniew Brzezinski readily admitted, it is the key to limiting Russia’s access to the Black Sea and a potential geostrategic knife in her underbelly. The current U.S.-led Drang nach Osten thus makes geopolitical sense. From the point of view of the liberal interventionist-neoconservative duopoly in Washington, there is no better way to ensure U.S. dominance along the European rimland in perpetuity than drawing Europe back into the U.S. security orbit in general, and subverting the Russo-German rapprochement in particular. [ … ]

The Duopoly’s axiomatic notion that “the world stage” demands a “leader” is at odds with the balance-of-power paradigm, which has historically secured the longest periods of peace and prosperity to the civilized world. Today Washington has neither the resources nor the minds for such a role, even if it were called for, but the Duopoly refuses to acknowledge that reality. Subsequently (and inevitably), for the remaining two years of Obama’s term U.S.-initiated global crises will continue as before. Instead of de-escalating the bloody mess to which she has made a hefty contribution, Victoria Nuland will continue encouraging her protégés in Kiev to terminate the ceasefire and seek a military end-game in the East once their devastated forces are rearmed and equipped by NATO. Instead of calming the South China Sea, Obama will continue encouraging his Asian clients to be impertinent to China.

It can hardly be otherwise, considering the Obama Administration’s 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance, which is a rehash of the strategic assumptions of the Bush era: America’s “enduring national interest” is to maintain the unparalleled U.S. military superiority, “ready for the full range of contingencies and threats… across the globe.” The task of the U.S. is to “confront and defeat aggression anywhere in the world.” This administration, like its predecessor, does not recognize the limits of American power and does not correlate that power with America’s security and prosperity. Obama fails to balance military and nonmilitary, short and long-term capabilities. He rejects the fact that the world is becoming multipolar again, while the relative power of the United States vis-à-vis others is in steady decline. He is prone, no less than his predecessor, to equate any stated political objective with America’s vital interests, without ever offering a coherent definition of “vital.” To wit, in December 2011, President Obama thus issued a directive elevating the rights and treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people abroad as “a priority in U.S. foreign policy.”

In Ukraine Russia faces the greatest challenge of the past quarter-century, and Moscow has not responded to that challenge with sufficient vigor. Russia’s intelligence and security services had failed to anticipate and counter the Maidan scenario. This was surprising considering that we had Maidan’s dress rehearsal with the “Orange Revolution” a decade ago. That mistake needs to be rectified. Moscow will never gain Western acceptance that Russia has legitimate interests in her “near abroad,” so it needs to pursue its interests in full awareness that more sanctions and more demonization may follow regardless of what Russia does or does not do. If Moscow fails to prevent Ukraine’s transformation into a viscerally Russophobic Banderistan, the return of the Crimea will prove to be scant compensation for the overall weakening of Russia’s geopolitical position. The outcome could be comparable to the map of Eastern Europe after the Treaty of Brest Litovsk. [ … ]

The U.S.-Russian relations since the fall of the Berlin Wall – the antiballistic-missile shield, the pipeline games, the demands for Black Sea NATO expansion, designs in Central Asia, recognition of Kosovo, allegations of human-rights violations and “backtracking on democracy” inside Russia etc. – reveals a major reversal of the two countries’ historical roles. The Soviet Union came into being as a revolutionary state that challenged any given status quo in principle. Some of its subsequent actions could be explained in light of “traditional” Russian motives, such as the need for security; at root, however, there was an ideology unlimited in ambition and global in scope. The United States responded with containment (1947), and spent the next four decades building and maintaining mechanisms designed to prevent changes in the global balance.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, however, Russia has been trying to rearticulate her goals and define her policies in terms of classic national interests: stable domestic institutions, secure borders and neighbors. Naïve attempts by Boris Yeltsin to forge a “partnership” with the U.S. naturally failed, because – by contrast – the 1990’s witnessed the blossoming of America’s strident bid to assert her status as the only global “hyperpower.” This ambition was inherently inimical to post-Soviet stabilization. The justification for the new U.S. project was as ideological, and the implications were as revolutionary as anything concocted by Zinoviev or Trotsky in their heyday. The rationale for NATO’s continued existence was thus found in the nebulous and revolutionary concept of “humanitarian intervention” used against the Serbs in 1999.

The collapse of Russia’s state institutions and social infrastructure under Yeltsin, the hyperinflation that reduced the middle class and pensioners to penury, was a trauma of far greater magnitude than the Great Depression in the U.S. Yet its architects, Anatoly Chubais, Yegor Gaidar, Boris Nemtsov, Vladimir Ryzhkov… were hailed in Washington and their political factions and media outlets were duly supported by the U.S. taxpayers, by way of a network of quasi-NGOs. The wholesale robbery of Russian resources by the oligarchs and the fire sale of drilling concessions to their Western cohorts became a contentious issue in U.S.-Russian relations only a decade later, with the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky. While never missing an opportunity to hector Russia on democracy and criticize her human-rights record, the United States has been notably silent on the discriminatory treatment of large Russian minorities in the former Soviet republics. As Anatol Lieven of the New America Foundation has warned, Latvia and Estonia “have been allowed by the West flagrantly to break promises made before independence.”

Washington’s view of Russia as a state with limited sovereignty even within her post-Soviet borders was on display over Chechnya. It routinely condemned Russian “human rights violations” while demanding “dialogue” and studiously refraining from designating the Chechen child-slayers and plane-bombers as “terrorists”; but no other aspect of Russia’s domestic policies, from education and immigration to “gay rights” and jurisprudence, has escaped scathing criticism. The moving spirit was defined by George Soros, who has asserted that “a strong central government in Russia cannot be democratic” by definition, and that “Russia’s general public must accept the ideology of an open society.” “Democracy” thus defined depends on one’s status in the ideological pecking order, not on the expressed will of the electorate. This meshes nicely with V.I. Lenin’s dictum that the moral value of any action is determined by its contribution to the march of history. [ … ]

Both sides of the Washingtonian Duopoly view all permanent values and institutions with hostility. Both reject any political tradition based on the desirability of limited government at home and nonintervention in foreign affairs. Both claim to favor the “market” but advocate a state capitalism managed by the transnational apparatus of global financial and regulatory institutions. Far from being “patriotic” in any conventional sense, they both reject the real, historic America in favor of a propositional monstrosity devoid of all organic bonds and collective memories. The two sects’ distaste for the traditional societies, regimes, and religion of Europe is manifested in their disdain for the family, sovereign nationhood, historical memory, and the Christian faith. They have joined forces in creating and funding parties and NGOs that promote the entire spectrum of postmodern isms that have ravaged America for decades, with political homosexualism topping the list. From Bratislava to Bucharest to Belgrade, the acceptance of deviancy, perversion, and morbidity is the litmus test of an aspirant’s “Western” clubbability.

The global power of the neoliberal-neoconservative regime is unlikely to be broken incrementally by the Duopoly gradually coming to her senses. It will indeed be broken, but possibly at a great cost to everyone. In the end we cannot know what will be the theme of events like this one in Moscow’s smart hotels fifty or a hundred years hence, but we do know it will not be the global grandeur of the liberal-democratic-capitalist Pax Americana

Srdja Trifkovic

Srdja Trifkovic

Dr. Srdja Trifkovic, Foreign Affairs Editor of Chronicles, is the author of The Sword of the Prophet and Defeating Jihad.

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