Thinking Like a Russian
March 11, 2014
The rule is as old as human war and conflict: If you are to prevail, you must know the mind of your adversary. Chess masters know this. Winning football coaches know this. Victorious generals know this. Successful diplomats know this. If they did not – if they all ignored this fundamental rule – they simply could not succeed.
The relative virtue or depravity of the opponent is irrelevant. The rule applies to even the most evil of opponents. In World War II, it was essential that the Allies understand the strategic planning of Japan’s Admiral Yamamoto and of Hitler’s general staff. The breaking of the Japanese naval codes turned the tide of the Pacific War at the Battle of Midway. Similarly, the success of the D Day invasion at Normandy turned on the Allies understanding, thanks to the Bletchley Park code-breakers, that they had successfully convinced Hitler that the landing would be at the Pas de Calais.
Similarly, if the current conflict with Russia over Ukraine and Crimea is to end peacefully, both sides must diligently strive to understand the minds and motivations of their opponents.
And yet, as I read and listen to the commentary in the American media regarding this conflict, I find little evidence or interest in seriously inquiring what it is like to think like a Russian. Robert Parry and Stephen Cohen are noteworthy exceptions. One need not agree with, still more justify, the Russian point of view. But at the very least, one must understand it.
So why should the Russians feel compelled to interfere with the internal politics of Ukraine? Why should they respond so militantly to the ouster of a pro-Russian (and legally elected) Ukrainian president by pro-western insurgents?
To understand this, we must, of course, look back at recent history.
Twice in the past century, German troops rolled across the plains of Poland and Ukraine to attack Russia. In the previous century, Napoleon’s army did the same. In the latest of these invasions, as many as twenty-five million Soviet citizens perished, including about ninety percent of the male cohort born from 1920 to 1923. So Russians have good reason for concern about the security of their western border and are eager to establish and support non-threatening regimes along that border, which is precisely what they did by establishing the Warsaw Pact in 1955 to counter NATO.
This is an attitude that citizens of the United States – bordered on the north and south by friendly and unthreatening countries, and on the east and west by vast oceans – are not inclined to appreciate. Less so, when we consider that not a single Nazi bomb fell on American soil, and that for every American life lost in that war, more than fifty Soviet citizens were killed.
Conventional American opinion asserts that the “captive satellite countries” of eastern Europe were part of a grand Soviet scheme to spread communism throughout all of Europe. Surely that thought crossed the minds of Stalin and his Politburo, unquestionably among the most brutal tyrants in human history. But might not the Soviets have been even more motivated to secure political control of the land traversed by Hitler’s Wehrmacht?
The right-wing version of history tells us that an ailing FDR “gave up” eastern Europe to the Soviets at the Yalta conference. They fail to note that all that territory was, at the time of the conference, occupied by the Red Army, having been won at horrendous cost. What was FDR’s, and Churchill’s, alternative? Retake the territory with the American and British armies? Get real!
From this Russian perspective on recent history, a Ukrainian “turn to the West” can not be regarded as a trivial matter.
More history: As we all know, in response to post-war Soviet expansion, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was formed in 1949. When the Soviet Union broke up, the first President Bush reportedly told Soviet President Gorbachev and Foreign Minister Shevardnadze that, in exchange for a unified Germany and the political independence of the Warsaw Pact nations, NATO would not expand to the Russian border. And yet NATO did just that. Through there was no formal agreement, many Russians believe that they were betrayed by NATO and the western powers. And so today, NATO member countries are now at the entire western border of the former Soviet Union, from the Baltic to the Black Seas, and include former Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
“Spheres of Influence” is a long-standing, though usually informal, understanding in international diplomacy, whereby one nation’s incursion into another’s “sphere” is regarded as a provocation which, in extreme cases, can lead to war.
For example, imagine a military alliance between Mexico and Russia, complete with Russian troops and missiles stationed in Mexico. How would the United States react? How should it?
Or imagine such an alliance with Cuba. No wait, this isn’t simply hypothetical! It actually happened in the sixties and very nearly led to a thermonuclear war. And how was it resolved? By a mutual agreement between Moscow and Washington that both sides would withdraw nuclear weapons from each others’ “sphere of influence,” first in Cuba and later in Turkey. (For more about “sphere’s of influence,” see Bernard Weiner’s 2008 essay on the topic).
So when NATO decided to expand to the borders of the former Soviet Union, the Western leaders seemed to believe that this was no big deal. The temptation flaunt their “victory” in the cold war proved to be irresistible. The Russians, on the other hand, who history tells us do not respond kindly to humiliation, were not impressed. It is astonishing what little notice our politicians and media have taken of the Russian attitude regarding this NATO provocation.
So today, when there is talk in Ukraine, well inside of Russia’s “sphere of influence, of joining NATO, should the Russians be alarmed? When the NATO countries tell the Russians that they have no intention of recruiting Ukraine, should the Russians be reassured?
Perhaps they should. But recall, I am not asking what the Russians should think, but what they probably do think, in the light of recent US and NATO behavior. That is the state of the Russian mind that Western diplomats must understand and deal with.
Concerning Crimea: Russian officials will tell us that the Crimea is traditionally Russian territory, and that the majority of Crimeans are ethnic Russians who desire union with the Russian Federation.. The attachment of the Crimea to Ukraine was due to an anomalous decision by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1954. It was regarded as trivial at the time, since in either case the Crimea would be inside the Soviet Union. The very idea that the Soviet Union would disintegrate was, at that time, unthinkable.
And yet it happened: the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. And so now the Crimean government has proposed to settle the issue in a referendum later this month
In response, the Ukrainians insist that the referendum is illegal, and they present a compelling case. But again, what we are seeking here is an understanding of the Russian mind, right or wrong. In any case, the Crimean issue may be moot: if Putin and the Russians want it, they can take it and the Ukrainians can do nothing about it. Such is the opinion, remarkably, of Khrushchev’s granddaughter, Nina Khrushcheva, now a professor of international politics at New York’s New School University.
Press reports tells us that the Russian public is solidly behind Putin in this dispute over Ukraine and Crimea. But, of course, the Russian public is reading and listening to the predominantly government-controlled media. On the other hand, the American public is overwhelmingly supportive of the new Ukrainian government. But that public is “informed” by the corporate media, which means primarily the five corporations that own 80% of the American media – the same media which, at one time, convinced most Americans that Saddam Hussein was threatening all of us with weapons of mass destruction and had a part in the 9/11 attacks.
As for myself, desperate to find some accurate information about this issue, I am inclined to share my compatriots’ condemnation of Putin’s behavior. But there is much to blame on both sides. Neither Yanukovych’s Ukrainian government nor its successor give us much to celebrate. What media sources, if any, are giving us an accurate account of just what is going on in Ukraine and Crimea? We just don’t know. Which means, of course, that we are ill-prepared to make an informed and rational assessment. Such is the sorry state of our media.
Let us hope that our diplomats, and theirs, strive diligently to understand the perspective of their opponents. The Russians have concerns, some legitimate and some not. But both sides share an overarching interest that the conflict not escalate, and that we avoid a reinstatement of the cold war. It is time, in short, for cooler heads to prevail.
Meanwhile, on our side, the neo-con warriors – McCain, Palin, Graham, Bolton, FOX News, etc. – rant on, eagerly supported by the military-industrial complex. Some are even talking of “military assistance” to Ukraine. If this includes “boots on the ground,” that would inevitably lead to a confrontation of US and NATO troops with the Russian military.
The very thought of which conjures in my mind a single word:
Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org). Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: email@example.com.