Will They or Won’t They?

It is time for news commentary!


Russia and China have a love-hate relationship. Russia, of course, was highly involved in Manchuria in its imperial days. Communist China would later squabble with Russia over leadership of the international Communist movement and by 1969 the two were having border wars. Detente with the United States only further made China anathema to Russia, but with the end of the Cold War the two giants of the Asian landmass have been snuggling again. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the BRICS partnership are just two examples of a growing relationship. Now, mutual misgivings and desire for regional hegemony lead to frictions and the potential for sour relations, but the United States is forcing both Russia and China back together again. I need not remind readers of how the United States is making Russia uncomfortable, what with Ukraine and sanctions. For those of you unfamiliar with the China situation it is basically this: China is reclaiming land (creating islands) in the South China Sea in order to empower territorial claims and enhance its military potential. The United States has recently called upon China to stop this activity and has declared its intentions to continue protecting freedom of the seas.

Reading the article from Sputnik news (let us remember that this is a state owned venue) it is necessary to comment on a few points.

1-“Partners in the Asia Pacific Region” likely means the members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization: Russia, China, and several Central Asian countries. Most of the Central Asian countries are effectively landlocked, so they have little stake in the South China Sea. If they are being brought in it just symbolizes the growing power of Russia and China over these states in the wake of US intervention and withdrawal. I am interested to see whether Central Asian powers tilt more towards Russia or China…

2-Russia is also planning joint operations with Brunei. Additionally I know Russia is also working with Egypt in this field. Russia is still making friends internationally so do not think that the Ukraine incident has done much to marginalize Russia.

3-Fear of US containment. This was true throughout the Cold War and it still is true now. To be fair the US does have the Asian landmass surrounded. We have presence and influence in Japan, S. Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Australia, Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, and Pakistan, just to name a few places. The Trans-Pacific Partnership is likely just exacerbating the fears of Russia and China. In many ways the Cold War never really stopped; at the very least the same basic strategies remain in play.

4-“Counter-Terrorism” is just the in vogue terminology. You need a joint military exercise justified, just call it a counter-terror operation. It does not matter if you have tanks and submarines and cruise missiles, just call it a counter-terror operation and the superpower you are aiming to bother will have greater trouble in calling you out for it. This is advertising 101.

5-The references of Colour Revolutions is interesting. Russia still thinks that the West played a big role in these revolutions which rattled several former SSRs. Russia also evidently believes that the West was responsible for the Arab Spring. While the West undoubtedly supported these uprisings and may have had some involvement in causing them (I need to do more research), I really do not think it is fair or rational to blame them on Western intervention. The Arab Spring for instance may have been justified by some on the grounds of human rights and may have employed social media, but you would be hard pressed to prove that the West was behind it. I am not sure if Russia actually believes that the West actually was involved in these revolutions, but Russia still remains wary of them and very defensive. Perhaps Russia does not want to believe that spontaneous indigenous revolutions can arise from a frustrated populace. Either way, and in light of the other points, it would behoove the West to take time to understand the Russian position and tread a little more carefully. We may be trying to force both Russia and China into a corner, but it is hard to do this without forcing them into the same corner.


Reductio ad Hitlerum: the Munich Analogy

I saw “breaking” news today. Biden apparently gave a speech about how we need to stand up to Russia. Then some bureaucrats were mentioned and  statements by the General Secretary of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, were played; likewise they were all generally in agreement with Biden. American politicians have been calling for increased aid to Ukraine and a tougher stance against Russia which is blatantly threatening security. I will not pass judgments on any of these here, but I will however challenge an implicit assumption of many who call for action against Russia. The idea that we ought to stand up to Russia may be valid but we need to make sure the a priori assumptions are all in good order first.

You may have heard of a guy named Hitler. Most people have. He was a bad guy. He liked to paint. He was a vegetarian. You should watch out for your vegan art major friends. He also liked to violate the sovereignty of other countries and assimilate various nationalities in with the Fatherland. The worst part is that everyone basically let him. Neville Chamberlain did it at Munich, recognizing various territorial interests in hopes that it would calm Hitler down. Having appeased the tyrant, Neville declared “peace for our time.” Stalin, another bad guy you may have heard of, was alarmed by this. He decided to make a deal with Hitler and split Eastern Europe with Germany. Hitler went to invade Poland and France and England declared war. Chamberlain, unfortunately, miscalculated. The moral of the story is that appeasement is bad. It undermines your credibility while only lending strength to the aggressor. No more Munichs! Munichs are bad! Pride and reputation are actually enormously important for nation-states and the events and consequences of Munich only exacerbated this. We couldn’t appease Moscow in its bid to control the Asian landmass in Korea and Vietnam (even though it did not have much of a bid). We couldn’t appease Saddam and let him take Kuwait.

Hitler is maligned, justifiably so, to the point where he has a tendency to appear in discussions of foreign policy (or discussions of just about anything if you are on the internet). The Munich Analogy gets thrown around a lot. Recently it has been thrown at Russia. Annexing Crimea and (maybe) getting involved in Ukrainian affairs brought up a lot of memories of the 1930s and people of all walks of life love to compare Putin to Hitler. Memories of WWII, and the huge mistakes that led up to it, continue to influence US foreign policy for better and for worse. Many fear a return of Nazi like aggression on the European Continent, and anywhere really, and therefore use the Munich Analogy to call for intervention and aid to be employed.

Yes, the happenings in the last two years bear certain similarities with the events of the 1930s. Yes, the annexing of Crimea is most likely a violation of sovereignty. But in order to fully appraise the situation and form a strong foreign policy the US must be aware of all of the variables. With Russia nothing is black and white; everything is an awkward murky shade of grey.

For starters, Crimea’s history must be taken into account (and I refer to John Gunther for some of this). Stalin purged the peninsula of Crimean Tatars for irrational reasons that unfortunately made sense to him at the time. The Tatars were suspected of helping the Nazis and deported/killed. Crimean Greeks were also purged, although it doesn’t seem like Stalin even had a nonsensical justification for this. Crimea had a degree of autonomy for a while but was welded to Russia. Khrushchev later gave the Peninsula back to Ukraine in 1954. This move meant little since the Kremlin ran everything but many see it as a gesture by Khrushchev, the former head of Ukraine, to honor his former region. Was Crimea truly Ukrainian? Who knows. It does not help our inquiry that many Crimeans speak Russian.

Putin actually used this to justify annexing Crimea. He reiterated on many occasions: there are good Russian speakers there who need to be protected from the aftermath of the Euromaidan. Language is the basis for the so-called “Putin Doctrine.” This Doctrine represents a continuity in Putin’s thinking. In a 2005 address Putin said “above all, we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century. As for the Russian nation, it became a genuine drama. Tens of millions of our co-citizens and compatriots found themselves outside Russian territory. Moreover, the epidemic of disintegration infected Russia itself.” It is easy to see why this reminds some people of Munich. Hitler wanted parts of Czechoslovakia, the Sudetenland, where many German speakers lived. But is the annexation of Crimea really a language based intervention inspired by Hitler?

Turn the clocks back to 1968. Prague (incidentally also in Czechoslovakia) broke out in revolt. Soviet tanks crushed the so-called Prague Spring, and Brezhnev later justified this intervention with the creatively titled Brezhnev Doctrine. Fraternal socialist states, according to the doctrine, have an obligation to continue on the path to Communism and should not be allowed to deviate from this course. This reaffirmed Soviet control over the Eastern Bloc and also made China (also a fraternal socialist country?) sweat profusely. Actually the Brezhnev Doctrine has roots in Khrushchev’s crushing of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 which were done with very similar ideological justifications. Very little was done by the West to stop the Soviet Union from crushing these revolutions. The West likely recognized that it really had little power to exert influence in Eastern Europe without starting WWIII. Similarly, it was Western softness from 1944-1948 that allowed the Soviets to really crush Eastern Europe underfoot in the first place. You would think that having lived through Munich and World War II would have made the West a little more eager to cry Munich at the subjugation of Eastern Europe. Apparently the Analogy is mostly just a disease affecting the judgment of later generations.

But really though Russian behavior has nothing to do with Munich. Before Munich the Soviets were willing to crush national rebellions. They did not hesitate to stop Chechen revolts that happened in the first decade of Soviet control. The Soviet Union was dominated by Russia. Union or not, the fact remains that the various SSRs were held in line by the iron will and power of Russia. Stalin actually chaired a committee on nationalities and worked to create state issued identities to various groups around the USSR, complete with Cyrillic alphabets. In this way the USSR was not much different than the Tsarist Government which pushed an agenda of Russification on nationalities within and without Russia. Decades, even centuries before Munich, the Tsarist government was looking for ways to expand. Manchuria, Lithuania, Poland, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Ukraine, the list goes on. At the time there was no concept of the Munich Analogy and no efforts made at appeasement. This was just Russian foreign policy (or, if you prefer, Great Power politics).

So whether or not expansionism and a drive for regional hegemony are ingrained into the Russian soul, or whether Russia just never gave up on the great power politics of old, please stop comparing Putin to Hitler. Hitler does not need the ego boost. Putin is the simply carrying on a Russian legacy. Now, with this in mind, we can begin to talk about what the West should do…

I sometimes wonder what Israel thinks of the Putin Doctrine since Israel has a significant Russian speaking population. I really can’t see Russia invading Israel to protect Russian-Jewish emigres. This point, I think, only further illustrates that Putin’s worldview is not an isolated phenomenon but rather a continuity of the past.

Book Review: John Gunther’s “Inside Russia Today”

A few years ago I visited a secondhand book store in Delaware and picked up a few books. Naturally they were about Russia; what did you expect when you came here? Now I love a stuffy academic book as much as the next guy but I think you can learn a lot more from a book written in a certain time period. Gunther’s Inside Russia Today is an account of contemporary Russia affairs-or, at least, it was in 1957. A healthy fusion of popular history, investigative journalism, travel writing, and sociological analysis, Inside Russia Today is a comprehensive look into Russian affairs at a critical juncture in history.

Nikita Khrushchev, the bouncy, boisterous, and, occasionally bumbling General Secretary of the Soviet Union was quite busy. After Stalin’s death in 1953 Khrushchev was one of the leading members of the collective leadership scheme that emerged. By 1955 Khrushchev was effectively in control, although for a time he still valued collective leadership. In late February of the following year Khrushchev undertook a radical step by denouncing Stalin at the 20th Party Congress. Tearing down Stalin and the Cult of Personality surrounding him was an enormous risk since it effectively undercut a system that prevailed for decades and which was being imposed as a method for controlling satellite states. Hungary broke out in a popular revolt later that year and Soviet forces had to move in to re-establish order. In 1957 Khrushchev survived an attempt by his old allies, Molotov, Kaganovich, and Malenkov, to remove him from power for having opened Pandora’s Box. The launching of Sputnik later that same year would shock the world and advertise Soviet might for all to see.

The death of Stalin was a rebirth for the Soviet Union, and the 1950s were a dynamic and key juncture for the Soviet superpower. John Gunther had an uncanny knack for being in the right place at the right time; an earlier entry into his Inside series provided a detailed sketch of Europe in 1937 before the arrival of war there. He also really enjoys using semicolons; any student looking to employ the often misunderstood semicolon should look to Gunther as a guide. Anyhow, Gunther does justice to the dynamism, contradictions, and questions of 1957. More importantly, he remained untainted by fears of monolithic Communism that prevailed throughout the time period (more on this later). His assessment of the Soviet Union is fair, sober, and shows a critical attention to detail. I got the feeling that he read translations of Pravda more than most Soviet citizens did.

There are times when he goes native like Kurtz. He gushed at length over Soviet achievements in education, which not only eradicated illiteracy but produced enough STEM students to even put 1950s America to shame (actually the Soviets had a copious lack of engineers according to Gunther). He was rather fond of Soviet soup. He actually met Khrushchev and most other CPSU leaders at one of many vodka fueled parties which the Politburo often held/attended. Gunther fully admitted that the Soviet system is potent, lively, and full of potential, but he also was wholly aware of the inadequacies of the system. Political and intellectual life were becoming more free but creativity was still suppressed. Modern art movements were shunned in favor of Socialist Realism, a state enforced style that effectively makes art subservient to life. While the USSR led the world in ICBMs it could scarcely create adequate housing or quality consumer products. Despite having achieved Socialism, the Soviet Union had enormous disparity in wealth. Gunther’s main critique of the Soviet Union is simply that it is not free. He predicted that the Soviet Union would either have to liberalize at some point or else fall apart. The system as he saw it was wound too tight to adequately take advantage of its potential and be a superpower in an increasingly globalized age. Incidentally he ended up being right, and the promise of the 1950s evaporated in the 60s and 70s as the economy stalled and fatigue set in.


Gunther was prophetic, or at least astute, in many other ways as well. While he lumped China, N. Korea, and N. Vietnam in with the Communist camp he never referenced monolithic Communism. “Russia and China resemble to a degree a husband and wife who get along pretty well, bound up by the same essential interests, but who have sharp disagreements on how to spend money and bring up the children.” Mao ultimately had too much prestige, and China too much self-sufficiency, to be puppets of Moscow. Gunther even suggested that the USSR was intentionally trying to weaken China and make it dependent, perhaps not realizing just how correct he actually was and how this would result in the Sino-Soviet split. The area of the world where the USSR is actually strongest, he argued, is in the Middle East. It is here where anti-Imperial sentiment was (and is) the strongest and where the Soviet Union had the greatest potential to create trouble for the west. Far from being the staging ground for World War III, Gunther labeled Eastern Europe as the Achilles Heel of the Soviet Union. The Soviets, he believed, would have to maintain a careful balancing act to exert continued influence over this region, especially in the wake of the Hungarian Revolution. At times Gunther returned to the same sober analysis of Kennan’s Long Telegram. The Soviet Union ultimately did not really wish to expand, but simply desired security. Communism drove  the USSR to create token problems where it could, but for the most part the Soviet Union desired peace (or at least the avoidance of war). Khrushchev was confident enough in the Soviet system to have made a blasé remark that Japan is free to do what it wants. Why bother taking risks to expand global Communism when it will triumph on its own, right? On a related note Gunther avoided the temptation of dismissing Khrushchev as a fool. Gunther candidly acknowledged Khrushchev to be a brilliant leader with great knowledge, skill, and sense. Incidentally, Gunther in no way predicted Khrushchev’s removal from power in 1964. Brezhnev gets a nod here and there, but he is largely absent and a reader in 1957 would have no reason to believe that Brezhnev would assume power in 1964.

I have no clue how popular or well known Gunther was. It seems like he had a decent cult following. One of his memoirs was made into a TV movie at one point apparently. Judging by how the Cold War progressed I do not think many people read him. Gunther was neither paranoid nor worried about the Soviet Union. The only thing we had to fear from them was their irrational perceptions of reality, but Gunther believed that caution would be sufficient to avoid misunderstanding. He has a great chapter, “What has Russia Got?,” that details all of the great and terrifying achievements of the Soviet Union. He ends the chapter by stating glibly that Russia lacks freedom, a simple political fact which renders all of its “achievements” untenable and hollow. Asking if Russia will conquer the world, Gunther delivers another great answer: “Perhaps. It is possible. It depends on how stupid we are.” Gunther supports containment and continued solidarity in the face of the Soviet Union, but he emphasizes moderation and rationality. Fight the Cold War, but try not to get carried away. Unfortunately both the Soviets and the West got a little carried away as we all know. It was still interesting to see a sober analysis of the Cold War at a time when it reached its fever pitch.

There are several parts of Gunther’s work that resonate especially well today. His review of Ukraine and Crimea only paint the recent events in a more harrowing, human, and tragic light. Gunther wrote that the USSR was especially paranoid of NATO encirclement, a fear which continues to define Russia’s foreign policy in the present. Most importantly, Gunther highlighted the humanity of Soviet citizens. They are all people, they have hopes, dreams, fears, and beliefs. They were not ardent Communists; they were just proud of their country and its achievements. The Soviet era was not a curse on the Russian people or a blight on their development, but rather just a stepping stone, a transition. Even if totalitarian, Gunther notes that the Russian people in the 1950s, for the first time in history perhaps, felt that the government was made for them. Regardless of how we interpret Russia, we must remember that the government and people are separate and we must be careful not to judge them together.

Gunther’s book provides an important, albeit dated, perspective. Whether travelling to Russia, studying history, or just reading for pleasure, his book will definitely alter your perspectives of both past and present. We cannot travel back in time to 1950s Russia. You can still see it for yourself though, you just need to look in a book store (or Amazon). Plane tickets are expensive, old books like this are not.

Gunther, John. 1957. Inside Russia Today. New York: Harper Publishing.