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World History Shows U.S.- Russia Relations Must Move Beyond Fear and Conflict

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In the 2003 documentary The Fog of War, Robert McNamara recalled that during the Cuban Missile Crisis, it was Ambassador Tommy Thompson's personal insight on Khrushchev from his time in Moscow that saved the day and, possibly, human civilization. Challenging JFK's belief that the U.S. would be unable to get the missiles out of Cuba by negotiation, Thompson saw that Khrushchev had bitten off more than he could chew, and would jump at a deal to remove the missiles in exchange for a no invasion pledge from Kennedy.

Such Slavic empathy was in short supply on Sunday's Meet the Press.

David Brooks cited the high Soviet pain threshold demonstrated at Stalingrad to illustrate why mere sanctions over Crimea are no match for the Russian mentality, but then failed to draw the obvious conclusion from Russia's sacrifice: that Putin fears encirclement. Whatever pride Russians take from defeating Hitler's invading armies in 1943, the main lesson which over 25 million dead teaches them is never to allow their country to be surrounded again.

Would the journalistic elite gathered round David Gregory's table see Russia's security concerns through the prism of that blood soaked history? Not quite.

To counter Russian influence in Ukraine, said Brooks, we need not less fear, but more fear. In fact, a veritable "climate of fear" is what the New York Times columnist claimed President Obama must induce to knock Putin back on his heels.

The ancient Greeks had something to say about anxiety in international relations.

One of the oldest conflicts that left a detailed historical record still resonates today because of what it tells us about the psychological motivations that lead states into conflict. The elements present in the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC), fought between the militarized Spartans and the do-gooder Athenians who wanted to expand their influence, have been witnessed again and again over the last two millennia. According to Thucydides, the Athenian general who left us this timeless account, "what made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta." Thucydides saw that a combination of unstable variables including human nature, power, values, and fear guaranteed that history would, if not repeat itself, certainly echo the same melody down the ages.

NYU's Stephen Cohen has argued, à la Thucydides, that part of the reason for the current crisis with Russia over Ukraine and Crimea has been the lack of respect shown by the West to Moscow ever since the breakup of the Soviet Union. The evidence which Cohen cites is the expansion of NATO to the borders of Russia (factually correct), along with a complete disregard on the part of the U.S. for the Russian sense of geographic vulnerability given its monumental sacrifice in World War Two (at least a possibility based on the Meet the Press evidence).

Empathy should cut both ways, though, and much like Henry Kissinger, Professor Cohen is unable to move beyond geopolitics and spheres of influence to consider the wishes and aspirations of the Eastern Europeans who suffered under Soviet domination.

If Poland, the Baltic states and other Eastern European countries jumped at the chance to come under the NATO umbrella when presidents Clinton, and later Bush, dangled the invitation before their eyes, step one for Russia should have been to show a little more tender loving care to its former satellite states. Yet for Putin, who views the collapse of the USSR as the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century, any suggestion that life under Soviet influence might not have been delightful would be as well received as a Pussy Riot church recital.

Nevertheless, while Mr. Putin may be autocratic in the best Russian tradition, he is undeniably popular at home. The West needs to stop threatening, start talking, and try to reconcile Russia's legitimate security concerns with the desire of Ukrainians to chart their own destiny. Negotiations will be challenging, but the alternative of a revived and potentially more unstable version of the Cold War with the added spice of nationalism is no alternative at all. The language of confrontation might make good Sunday morning television in Washington, but in Europe, such sentiment is even scarier than a bare-chested Vladimir Putin on horseback.

The conflict between Athens and Sparta illustrated what happens when states fail to consider the impact that even well-intentioned actions might have on the security of other states. Tensions between the West and Russia will only be diffused when both sides begin displaying the same level of sensitivity to the concerns of the other that Kennedy's team brought to bear in resolving the Cuban Missile Crisis.

That effort to instill a little more empathy and a little less fear into the international system needs to start without delay in Washington and Moscow. Maybe on Meet the Press as well.

Image courtesy of poniblog