Monthly Archives: March 2014

Putin’s foreign policy is scarily similar to Stalin’s

Here’s another post I wrote for the World Policy Journal’s blog:

Angela Merkel is right: Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is living in another world. But what world exactly is this? As the Crimean crisis drags on, it is becoming clear that Putin’s thinking is somehow stuck in 1930s Europe. Replace Putin with Stalin and you get a good sense of what Russia’s leader is doing and, more importantly, how he can be stopped.

Much has been written about how the Soviet Union shaped Putin’s thinking. To him, Russia’s immediate past is not just a tool to foster patriotism. It is a model he is hoping to emulate.

Putin has long tried to recreate Soviet greatness by invading neighbors (think Georgia 2008) and building a Eurasian economic union. Along the way, he has also adopted a way of thinking that is strikingly similar to his Soviet predecessors.

In fact, he invaded Crimea for much the same reasons that Stalin invaded eastern Poland in 1939. Comparing the two invasions not only helps us make sense of a complicated situation, but it also offers clues on how Putin’s expansionism can eventually be defeated

After storming the winter palace in 1917, the Bolshevik leaders set out to export communism across the globe. They founded the latest Communist International and supported socialist movements in a number of foreign countries.

But the world revolution never happened. Instead, fascist takeovers in Italy (Mussolini), Germany (Hitler) and Spain (Franco) left the Soviet Union increasingly isolated. This presented its leaders with a monumental conundrum: how could a system whose success seemed to depend on world revolution survive alone amid a hostile world? Stalin, who assumed power in the late 1920s, found an answer. He called it “socialism in one country” – a maxim first put forth in 1924 and then gradually adapted.

Instead of trying in vain to subvert other countries, Stalin argued, the Soviet Union should focus on securing its borders and becoming autarkic. Its best shot at growing more powerful was rapid industrialization at home and gradual growth by annexing territories at its borders.

This philosophy culminated in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939, in which the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany shocked the world by pledging mutual non-aggression. A secret clause divided Poland up between the two states.

Contemporaries saw the pact and eventual Soviet invasion of Eastern Poland, the Baltic States, and Moldova as a sign of Soviet strength. They were wrong. By agreeing to the pact the pact, Stalin gained some territory east of the so-called Molotov-Ribbentrop line, but he also gave up all hope of turning Poland or Germany communist – a hope that had all but faded anyway. The treaty was an acknowledgement of his failure to export the Bolshevik revolution.

Eventually, this failure doomed the Soviet project. Stalin’s autarkic model worked more or less for a few decades, and he won over a number of satellites in Eastern Europe. But the world’s largest economies remained capitalist, and the Soviet Union became more or less isolated from a growing world market. This isolation bred stagnation, decline, and then collapse.

With the benefit of hindsight, we know that Stalin’s autarkic vision was doomed to failure. We can apply this lesson to Putin’s invasion of Crimea.

Putin is no communist, and never wanted to export a revolution. But much like Stalin, his system depends on gaining allies abroad. While Stalin wanted to turn Western European states communist – and then into Soviet satellites – Putin has been working hard at winning over post-Soviet countries.

Surrounded by what he perceives to be a hostile West, Putin’s vision of a powerful Russia centers on the Eurasian Union. So far the economic union set to launch in 2015 only includes Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. Drawing Ukraine into the club was meant to be Putin’s ultimate triumph. After Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych ditched the EU and signed an economic-cooperation agreement with Moscow last fall, it seemed like he had succeeded.

Then protesters chased Yanukovych out of the country, and Putin saw his ideal of Eurasian greatness fall to pieces. Much like Stalin in the 1930s had to accept that Germany wouldn’t become a communist satellite, Putin today understands that Ukraine has fallen out of his orbit for the foreseeable future. He can still exert economic pressure, but a new pro-European government in Kiev will never join his Eurasian Union.

It appears Putin drew the same conclusion Stalin had drawn 80 years earlier: if he couldn’t have it all, he should at least take what he could get. So he invaded Crimea.

Most Western observers have interpreted the invasion as a sign of Putin’s strength. It is in fact a sign of his weakness. By invading Crimea, he may have won some territory, but he also acknowledged that his Ukrainian policy has failed. There is virtually no chance following the invasion that Ukraine will seek closer ties to Moscow anytime soon. Instead, the country is likely to turn west–as it already has.

Like Stalin in the 1930s, Putin has given up an increasingly elusive hope for allies abroad in exchange for modest territorial gains. By doing so, he chose isolation: call it “Putinism in one country.” Even if Russia avoids sanctions, it is now far less likely to attract much-needed foreign investment and has scared off its neighbors, including Ukraine.

Understanding this weakness should guide any Western response to the Crimean crisis. We know from Soviet history that choosing isolation is unlikely to succeed, no matter how many tanks or how much natural gas you have.

Instead of rushing to punish Russia, the West should just let Putinism defeat itself. Investors fleeing Russia in the wake of the invasion have already cost the country dearly.

The U.S. and EU should support Ukraine and other post-Soviet states fed up with Putin, drawing them closer to the West. An already weakened Putin will be left with nothing but a peninsula and the isolation he chose. It will breed stagnation, decline, and eventual collapse.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Will pogroms make their return in Ukraine?

Here’s a new post I wrote for the World Policy blog:

Could Europe witness its first pogrom against Jews since the 1940s? As Ukraine inches closer to civil war, the country’s Jewish population is growing anxious. Late last month, a Kiev rabbi made headlines when he urged his co-religionists to leave the country. A Ukrainian-born member of the U.S. Jewish advocacy group UJA Federation recently told me that his organization is monitoring the situation in Ukraine with great concern.
Cause for the anxiety is the rise of the Right Sector, a nationalist militant group crucial to President Viktor Yanukovych’s overthrow that now appears to hold great sway over the fragile Ukrainian government. Some members of the Right Sector are overt anti-Semites. Isolated beatings of Jews around Kiev’s independence square have already been reported. This weekend, the Right Sector called for its members to mobilize against a Russian intervention. The prospect of an armed, anti-Semitic mob in a largely lawless country should give everyone cause for alarm.

To Westerners, fighting for freedom and attacking Jews seem like an anachronism. But anti-Semitism has always existed alongside the Ukrainian independence movement. Throughout the 20th century, every uprising or civil war in Ukraine was accompanied by mass murder of Jews. The parallels to today are disturbing.

The first violent struggle for Ukrainian independence took place during the Russian civil war between 1918 and 1920. Following the collapse of the Tsarist Empire, Ukrainian nationalists declared an independent Ukraine, and tried to defend it against the Red Army and White troops. Anti-Semitism was widespread at the time, and all warring parties on the territory of today’s Ukraine committed pogroms. But the nationalists of the Ukrainian Directorate were especially brutal.

Nationalist troops murdered thousands of Jews – at least partially because they associated all Jews with the hated Bolsheviks. Jews were strongly represented in the Bolshevik leadership (the commander of the Red Army, Leon Trotsky, was a Jew), and nationalists often spoke of the “Jew-Bolshevik” as their enemy. Killing Jewish people was justified as a means of fighting against Bolshevik collaborators. In fact only very few Ukrainian Jews had ties to the Bolsheviks, but that did little to dispel the myth of their collaboration.

During World War II, certain Ukrainian nationalists once again targeted Jews as alleged agents of Bolshevik rule. Following the Nazi invasion in 1941, Ukrainians killed a large number of Jews in pogroms with the help and at the instigation of the Germans. The pogroms would never have happened without German encouragement, and they pale in comparison to the subsequent mass murder at the hands of SS and Wehrmacht. But they are nevertheless continuation of Ukrainian nationalist anti-Semitism.

As historian Timothy Snyder writes in his book “Bloodlands”, the Nazis were able to recruit Ukrainians en-masse because they played on the popular belief that Jews were responsible for the hated Soviet power, which had killed millions of Ukrainians through famine and terror in the 1930s.

Today’s militant Ukrainian nationalists trace their roots back to the nationalists who fought Bolshevik power during the civil war and in the 1940s. They also employ a very similar brand of anti-Semitism as some of their predecessors.

In 2004 Oleh Tyahnybok, leader of the nationalist Svoboda party and one of the three signatories of last month’s interim peace deal with Yanukovych (along with Vitali Klichko and Arseniy Yatsenyuk), alleged that a “Jewish-Muscovite Mafia” is ruling Ukraine. By replacing the term “Jew-Bolshevik” with “Jew-Muscovite,” Tyahnybok continued the tradition of blaming Jews for supposed Russian aggression. That Jews were attacked during the protests against Yanukovych seems to indicate that others think like him.

In 1919, 1941 and today, the suggestion that Ukraine’s Jews are somehow collaborating with Moscow is ludicrous. Moreover, then as now only a small minority of Ukrainian nationalists is anti-Semitic. But Ukraine’s history shows that a radical minority can cause devastating violence and discredit an entire freedom movement.

In many ways, the situation of Ukraine’s Jews is much more secure today than in 1919 or 1941. It is still far from clear if a civil war will break out. And even if the country succumbs to violence, Jews are less likely to suffer. Ukrainian nationalists today are far more dependent on public opinion and support from the West, and would hopefully be loath to jeopardize this by attacking Jews.

But anti-Semitism is never entirely rational, and the West needs to brace for the possibility that a few radical Ukrainian nationalists could attack Jews even if it runs counter to their own interests. To prevent this, the U.S., the E.U., and the Ukrainian government need to make it clear to Svoboda and the Right Sector that any violence against Jews will turn them into pariahs and cause them to lose any potential support. This is not only in the interest of Ukrainian Jews, but of all Ukrainians who hope for closer ties to the E.U. After all, anti-Semitic violence could discredit the Maidan revolution and do more damage to the Ukrainian struggle for independence from Moscow than Putin ever could.

Putin’s invasion of Crimea has already thrown Eastern Europe back into the dark days of 20th century imperialism. Now it is up to Western leaders to make sure anti-Semitic violence doesn’t also make its comeback.

Leave a comment

Filed under Europe, Russia