A Russian Lesson For American Power

05/25/2011 01:05 pm ET
  • Kit Gallant High school French teacher in Jackson, Mississippi

Since the Five-Day War between Russia and Georgia in August, what many Europeans and Americans like to describe as "the West" has started to realize that Russia is back on the global stage. Perhaps more importantly, "Westerners" have started also to understand that post-Soviet Russia, like the USSR before it, is indeed not part of "the West."

This newfound awareness means a lot to Russians and the Russian state, much of whose internal history has been a strained and often violent relationship between Slavophilism and Westernization. Since Putin became President in 2000, and as he continues to play the role of the new president's puppeteer, the shift toward Slavophilism has become increasingly evident. Putin is a centrist in the context of Russian politics, but he is more significantly an unreserved nationalist who places a strong emphasis on his ideological estrangement from the west. Politically, this stance has been immensely successful because many Russians share in the sentiment that "'our people did not accomplish three revolutions, bear the brunt of a world and a civil war, survive the burdens of collectivization and industrialization, in order to end up under the heel of the West...'" After the fall of the Soviet Union, this neurosis became even more severe. Even by the time Putin became president in 2000, the embarrassment of Afghanistan, too, still lingered in the hearts of Russian nationalists.

But, in reality, Putin has been and continues to be immensely popular not primarily because of his skillful lip service to ideological lodestars. No, rather, Putin's politics are successful because he has vindicated them; he has done an excellent job, one far better than nearly anyone expected, of making good on the "cogent appeals to tangible interests" that won him the beleaguered Russian presidency in the first place.

To that end, Putin has employed a broad range of approaches for accomplishing his and Russia's nationalist, reconstructive goals. One particular element of Russia's political, economic, and military rebirth, however, requires immediate American attention. That is Russia's re-discovered military prowess, put on fine display in the Five-Day War.

It is a misconceived discussion of the Five-Day War that gazes through a lens of fault, guilt, or international law, all of which have already very little and increasingly less political purchase in the former Soviet-bloc. So, regardless of who shot at whom first, the important fact is that Russia conducted a military campaign that worked extraordinarily well, in both military and political terms. When was the last time that happened for Russia, or any other state for that matter? Not for at least the last twenty years or so.

Yet, according to one Pentagon official, the Five-Day War was not fought by "'the Russian army from the humiliation of Afghanistan, and it's not the Russian military that had to flatten Chechnya to save it..." (Shanker, August 17 2008: New York Times) To wit, the Russian army, an erstwhile source of pride in Russia (where World War II is referred to as the "Great Patriotic War") has once again become a force with which to be reckoned. In fact, Putin personally directed the Russian military effort in the Five-Day War from the nearby Russian city Vladikavkaz, which indicates the importance that the regime placed on the conflict. Furthermore, the "images of hapless South Ossetians on Russian [state-run] T.V." (King, Nov/Dec 2008 Foreign Affairs: pg 2) reflected what was according to one Pentagon official, "'a level of coordination in the Russian government...that we are striving for today.'" (Shanker, August 17, 2008: New York Times).

Russia set itself to the very limited military goal of destroying Georgia's army in order to discredit Mikhail Saakashvilli's passably democratic and pro-American government; the campaign was within those very limited parameters extremely successful. Western governments found themselves incapable even of reaction; France's President, Nicholas Sarkozy, was able to broker a ceasefire only once the Russian army had concluded its bloody, rubble-strewn lesson.

One conclusive fact of 20th century American history is that military responses to geopolitical conflicts turned out time and again to be rather analogous to hammering a square peg into a round hole. Our military isn't nearly as useful or effective as American military spending would suggest. Naturally, the political demands of national self-knowledge and the apolitical imperative of national security require both Russia and the United States to maintain an expeditionary military (Indeed, it is only because the United States does so that most European governments, including the EU itself, don't feel the need).

But, in terms of overall size and effectiveness, and most importantly in terms of a realistic and honest appreciation of the uses and capabilities of a modern military, the Russian Federation got the post-Cold War geopolitical scene right and we got it decidedly wrong. There is no need, except an arguable economic one, for an army the size of ours. So our first Russian lesson for American power is that, when it comes to the post-Cold War role of militaries, limited and attainable goals (e.g. not "Nation building") are optimal.

It would be wise for American policy makers and the new administration to take to heart this Russian lesson. For it would be beyond any doubt greater for American power itself to gain from the knowledge of another world power's success than that it continue to march myopically and unilaterally forward, into an uncertain and multi-polar future.