This week marks the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Soviet Union. Its collapse was inconceivable at the time. The Soviet Union loomed as a stone colossus astride the world, the equal of the United States, and in the minds of some, its superior. In fact, it was built on a base of sand, held together during its hardest times by the secret police. But as the KGB weakened from careerism and corruption, the glue dissolved and the regime collapsed. It was a surprise to the outside world and perhaps even to much of the Politburo. But it couldn’t have been a surprise to the people within the KGB. They knew what was coming and readied themselves to take advantage of the new world.
We now find ourselves in a new confrontation with Russia. For me, this is not a surprise, as I had forecast a resurgence of Russia in a book that was published eight years ago called “The Next 100 Years.” Russia was not going to do the world the favor of remaining in the chaos of privatization that President Boris Yeltsin had presided over. The men who had enriched themselves in the 1990s would emerge as the new elite in the 2000s. Their roots would be in the past, and their wish would be to return Russia to its former greatness, both out of nostalgia and to preserve their positions. Russian culture celebrates strong leaders, and leaders strengthen themselves with this admiration. The issue now is what shall we make of this second confrontation.
Terrible and Magnificent
Karl Marx once wrote that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce. President Vladimir Putin was a member of the KGB and therefore a member of the Communist Party. It is certain that he read Marx’s words. I wonder if he is haunted by them now. He should be because they capture the essence of the re-emergence of Russian power.
There was something terrible and magnificent in the Soviet Union. The terrible we all know about. But among that was also the brutal industrialization of Russia, the 20 million who died to defeat Nazi Germany and the launch of Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin. Even the terror and the purges, shocking and terrible as they were, had a breadth and ambition that scholars have spent their lives trying to comprehend. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote magnificent books, filled with contempt and awe, to chronicle the brutality of the prison camps. The world is well rid of the Soviet Union, but it is a time and place worthy of remembrance.
The Russian Federation today is, in comparison, a banal place. The greatest banality is watching Putin, a former KGB agent, attend Orthodox Church ceremonies. I wonder if he was dishonest about being an atheist in the Communist Party or if he has undergone a conversion, perhaps genuine but certainly convenient. The Russian leader almost a year ago talked about this in a speech in which he remarked, “I cannot say that I was a hard-line advocate of the Communist ideology. Yet my attitude to all this was very delicate.” Delicacy is of the essence. Russia must be led by a magician who can make small things appear large. It isn’t a place for a man of deep beliefs.
Litany of Woes
The litany of Russia’s woes will be familiar to my readers. Russia needs Ukraine to act as a buffer. Before the ousting of President Viktor Yanukovych, Putin had a pro-Russian government in Kiev. It was overthrown and replaced with a pro-Western government. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, where Russia already had forces by treaty, was simply an attempt to demonstrate decisive force, but it turned into an attempt to draw something out of a massive defeat. His goal to foment a rising in eastern Ukraine failed miserably.
In addition, Russia’s economy resembles Saudi Arabia’s. Russia lives and dies by the price of oil, and when oil prices go down, people living outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg don’t get paid.
In all of this, Russia has searched for opportunities to declare a great victory to the world. Its intervention in Syria allowed Putin to save Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Putin could never explain to anyone what benefit he gained from saving Assad. He did it because he could. And because he could, he postured as a global power. More than a year after Russia arrived, Aleppo fell. Now that Aleppo has fallen, how has the hand of history moved forward? During the Cold War, Russia dominated or heavily influenced entire swathes of the Middle East: Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Algeria. Today, Russia controls part of Syria, not even all of it.
The Soviets had tremendous intelligence achievements during the Cold War. You need only think of its operation to steal the secret of the atomic bomb. Today, the Russians’ stunning achievement is hacking into the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and discovering that the chairman of the committee didn’t want Bernie Sanders to win the nomination and that a donation to the Clinton Foundation got a donor a meeting with Hillary Clinton.
The novelist Arthur Koestler wrote during the Stalin years that the Soviet Union had once made history, and now it makes politics. We could add that the Russian Federation today does neither but simply makes gestures that it inflates or allows others to inflate into significant events. The audience for most of these things is Russia itself. The Russian failures have left its people’s paychecks subject to the price of oil. The pain is mounting and Putin can do nothing about it. But hacking into the DNC allows Putin to say, in transparent code, that he made Russia great and influenced the U.S. election, while also denying that he had anything to do with it (wink, wink).
This is not to say that Russia isn’t dangerous. If its leaders go mad, they have many nuclear missiles they can use. If the leadership takes extreme risks, it can attack the Baltics and thereby do the one thing that would reunite NATO. But instead of taking these measures, Putin is increasingly supporting extreme right-wing groups around the world.
This is not new. The KGB spent substantial resources supporting communists and communist-leaning troops around the world. It also had campaigns designed to influence what Lenin referred to as “useful idiots.” These were academics, journalists and politicians who would believe Soviet myths and repeat them endlessly. During the Korean War, the myth was that the U.S. was engaging in germ warfare. The Soviets had a special program just to collect these people, bring them to the Soviet Union and have them go home and write about these myths breathlessly.
The “useful idiots” this time come from the far right. All intelligence organizations are under the illusion that they can conduct psychological warfare – planting stories, recruiting agitators, underwriting a range of movements from political parties to terrorists – and change the course of history. The Soviets managed to convince generations of leftists to despise the U.S. even if they didn’t love the Soviet Union. But the truth was that they influenced few who wouldn’t have believed it without their effort.
Most importantly, for all its efforts to shape Western opinion, the Soviet Union still collapsed. Operationally, it performed well. Each particular operation had a tendency to work. The problem was that from a strategic point of view it was all a terrible waste. The Soviets were fighting the wrong war, but they fought that war because they didn’t want to fight a real one. They convinced themselves that what they could do would be sufficient. Putin is going down the same road, except I doubt he believes it will change strategic realities. He is playing the game he can, collecting “useful idiots” in the hope that something will turn up. It is a matter of some delicacy.
I am not saying that Russia is not a serious country or that it should be seen as an unimportant threat. I was one of the first to argue – to much derision – that the Russians will re-emerge as a threat to the West. Now, I am arguing that overreaction is as dangerous as complacency. When we look at Russian actions closely, they diminish in significance. It would be foolish not to make the small efforts needed to contain the Russians or keep them off balance. They are far more vulnerable than the U.S., and the U.S. has the advantage that they know it. Most importantly, this new edition of what is a very minor cold war must be kept in context. There is the tragedy of the Soviet Union. And then there is the farce of the current episode.