My experience and knowledge of foreign countries is limited, but I try to understand foreign leaders by putting myself in their place, and imagining what I would do if I were them.
Peter Hitchens, a Briton who was a foreign correspondent in Moscow for many years, invites us to imagine how we would feel if we were Russians, a nation that, unlike the USA, has been invaded not once, but many times, and lost millions, not thousands, of lives to invaders within living memory.
Safety, for Russians, is something to be achieved by neutralizing a danger that is presumed to exist at all times. From this follows a particular attitude to life and government.
If the U.S. had China on the 49th Parallel and Germany on the Rio Grande, and a long land border with the Islamic world where the Pacific Ocean now is, it might be a very different place. There might even be a good excuse for the Patriot Act and the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI.
If Russia’s neighbors were Canada and Mexico, rather than Germany, China, Turkey, and Poland, and if its other flanks were guarded by thousands of miles of open ocean, it might have free institutions and long traditions of free speech and the rule of law. It might also be a lot richer.
As it is, Russia is a strong state with a country, rather than a country with a strong state. If it were otherwise, it would have gone the way of the Lithuanian Empire or, come to that, the Golden Horde.
Source: Peter Hitchens | First Things
That is not to say that life in Vladimir Putin’s Russia is good, or that Putin is a benign ruler. But he is no worse than many of the despots with whom the United States is allied, and life in the Russian Federation is infinitely preferable to live in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republicans.
Far from being a new Hitler, Hitchens wrote, his goal is to keep territories formerly controlled by the USSR from joining anti-Russian alliances. Whatever you think of this, it is not a threat to the United States or any other Western nation.
Perhaps we would understand Russia’s situation better if we imagined that NATO has been dissolved and that the Confederate States and the territories conquered in the Mexican-American War have declared independence.
The U.S. retains a precarious hold on the naval station at San Diego, sharing it with the Mexican Navy on an expensive lease that Mexico regularly threatens to cancel. Americans still living in San Diego are compelled to adopt Spanish names on their drivers’ licenses, and movie theaters are instructed to show films only in Spanish. Schools teach anti-American history.
Quebec has seceded from Canada, and is being wooed by a Russo-Chinese economic union, with a pact including military and political clauses. Russian politicians are in the streets of Montreal, urging on a violent anti-American mob, which eventually succeeds in overthrowing Quebec’s pro-American president and replacing him with a pro-Russian one—violating Quebec’s constitution in the process. This brings military forces aligned with Russia right up to the border with New York, Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont.
Source: Peter Hitchens | First Things
His hypothetical description is an exact parallel with actual events in Ukraine. Whatever you think of Putin’s foreign policy, it is understandable.
Benjamin Nathans, writing a review article in the New York Review of Books, makes the opposite case. He argues that Putin is an autocrat, which he is, but also that Putin is the aggressor in the new cold war, even though Russia is in retreat.
The U.S. government in the Putin era has engaged in unprovoked attacks on nations far more distant from its borders than Ukraine is from Russia, and has allied itself with regimes far more autocratic than Putin’s. Whatever the reason the U.S. government’s opposition to Putin’s policy, it can’t be moral indignation.
The Cold War Is Over by Peter Hitchens for First Things. Excellent. Strongly recommended.
The Real Power of Putin by Benjamin Nathans for New York Review of Books.