Category Archives: Russia

Should the West Have Been Tougher on Russia in the 1990s?

If you ask Russians why they support Vladimir Putin, they often point to the alleged humiliation of Russia in the 1990s. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the argument goes, revanchist Western countries dismantled Russian power because they saw it as a threat, leaving the country weak and poor. A strong leader is therefore needed to confront the West and restore Russia’s rightful place among the great powers.

In a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, the historian and hawkish Eastern Europe commentator Anne Applebaum attacked this narrative. The West didn’t humiliate Russia, she argues, on the contrary: It granted it too much influence.

In 1991, Russia was no longer a great power in either population or economic terms. So why didn’t we recognize reality, reform the United Nations and give a Security Council seat to India, Japan or others? Russia did not transform itself along European lines. Why did we keep pretending that it had? Eventually, our use of the word “democracy” to describe the Russian political system discredited the word in Russia itself.

 The crisis in Ukraine, and the prospect of a further crisis in NATO itself, is not the result of our triumphalism but of our failure to react to Russia’s aggressive rhetoric and its military spending. Why didn’t we move NATO bases eastward a decade ago? Our failure to do so has now led to a terrifying plunge of confidence in Central Europe,” Applebaum writes.

According to Applebaum, Russia should have been denied a seat in the G8 and the UN security council, and NATO should have been expanded more aggressively to protect Eastern Europe from Moscow’s clout.

In light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Applebaum’s argument is compelling – but it is also dangerously ignorant of the realities of geopolitics. There is no doubt that Russia was granted more global and regional influence than the size of its economy warranted. But you could say the same about France and Britain, who are still allowed to play world power even though they effectively lost that status in the 1950s. And by the way, does anyone understand why Canada is in the G7?

The point was never to grant Russia an international status commensurate with its population size and economy, but to ensure geopolitical stability in a volatile time of transition. Historically, a country’s fall from great power status has always carried great dangers. Handling the transition properly is a matter of war and peace for world leaders.

Following World War I, Germany fell from being continental Europe’s largest military and economic power to being an impoverished state with virtually no army or foreign-policy clout. This feeling of humiliation was probably the single biggest factor leading to Hitler’s rise. In hindsight, most historians agree that the Versailles treaty was a colossal mistake – not because Germany didn’t deserver its terms or wasn’t responsible for the outbreak of the war, but because it ignored the psychological toll a sudden fall from power can take on a population. The world would almost certainly have been better off had the allied victors granted Germany a greater power status, one that it’s role as the loser of a war it started technically didn’t warrant.

Following World War II, the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union learned from past mistakes. France and Britain have arguably remained successful, stable democracies in part because they were granted a slow, graceful retirement from world power status in spite of their diminished influence. France has always been prone to anti-Americanism, and it is easy to imagine nationalist demagogues gaining ground had Washington kicked France out of the UN security council or tried to stop it from developing nuclear weapons.

In Russia we are currently seeing the rise of a revanchist dictator in Vladimir Putin. But he is no Hitler. History suggests that the current rise of nationalism in Russia would be far worse if it had been denied the few vestiges of great power status it continued to hold. Keeping the country in the G8 and treating it as a regional power may have been more than its diminished size warranted, but it was nonetheless in everyone’s best interest.

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Why It’s Time to Start Calling Putin a Fascist

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

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has thrown the term “fascist” around a lot lately, especially against pro-Western Ukrainians. To him, Kiev’s government is a “fascist junta,” and Russian (state) TV likes to show them alongside footage of Nazi war criminals.

Needless to say, Putin is using the term more as a swear word than as an accurate description of a political ideology. Ukrainians supporting democracy and European integration are as far away from fascism as you can get.

But let’s remember for a second that fascism isn’t just a swearword, but an actual political movement. A brief look at the core features of fascism shows that Putin shares all of them.

It may be time to start calling Putin a fascist. Doing so would help people around the world understand what kind of a threat they are dealing with.

Fascism started off as a political movement in Italy during World War I and spread across Europe during the 1920s and 1930s. Italy’s Benito Mussolini, Germany’s Adolf Hitler and Spain’s Franco are all considered parts of the fascist movement.

At its core, fascism was a reaction to the spread of Western liberal democracy and its values. While Western democracies in France, Britain or the U.S. were based on individual freedom and small government, fascists emphasized the national collective.

They sought a strong state with a powerful army, headed by a dictator who controlled most aspects of life, including press, arts, and sports. Their nationalist myth was rooted in history. Mussolini saw himself as successor to the Roman emperors, and Hitler to the Germanic leaders and medieval German emperors.

Fascists despised what they perceived as decadent Western values, including everything from democracy, press freedom over expressionist art to homosexuality. Among Hitler’s most forgotten victims are homosexuals, who were murdered in concentration camps by the thousands.

Following World War II and the mass murders by Hitler and his allies, politicians mostly stopped calling themselves fascists. But that doesn’t mean fascism as an ideology disappeared. In fact, we are currently seeing its resurrection in Putin’s Russia.

Like Hitler and Mussolini, Putin views a strong state headed by a charismatic leader controlling the press and most aspects of social life as superior to Western democracy. Since assuming power in 2000 Putin has rigged elections, bullied NGOs, expanded state-led social organizations, taken control of media and increased the powers of the President to the point where he appoints governors and virtually nothing can be done in Russia without his consent.

Like the fascists of the 1930s, Putin believes in the importance of a strong military and is currently overseeing the largest investments in the Russian army since the fall of the Soviet Union.

He also shares the fascists’ historical myth-making by implicitly putting himself in a line with past rulers like Peter the Great and Stalin, of whom he speaks admiringly. Putin’s nationalism is well documented, and it has recently taken an expansionist turn similar to Hitler’s.

Much like Hitler justified his invasions of Austria and Czechoslovakia with the argument that both regions were once part of the German empire and thus historically German, Putin has employed history to justify his actions in Ukraine. In his May 9th speech on Crimea, he argued that his invasion had “righted a historical wrong,” and he has repeatedly pointed out that large parts of Ukraine were historically part of Russia. His apparent desire to unite all ethnic Russians in the Russian state is equally reminiscent of Hitler’s attitude towards German minority groups in Eastern Europe.

Perhaps the greatest similarity between Putin and the fascists of the 1930s is his hostility towards what he perceives as decadent Western values. His crusade against homosexuals and artists, including Pussy Riot and Pyotr Pavlenski, as well as his touting of “Russian values” as superior to Western ones exhibit a fundamental tenet of fascism: the belief that a strong leader is needed to keep the nation pure and save it from the harmful influence of Western culture.

If Putin shares all major features of fascist ideology, it is about time to start calling him one. He may not refer to himself as a fascist, but neither did Hitler. He may admire the Soviet Union, but he only admires it for its strong state and its fostering of Russian greatness. Whether he would admit it or not, Vladimir Putin is a fascist.

Acknowledging this can help us better understand his appeal. Many separatists in Ukraine don’t merely want to join Russia, they want to join Putin’s Russia with its autocratic state and anti-gay laws.  A surprising number of separatists interviewed by Western media have ranted against the “Euro-gays” in Kiev. This indicated that their separatism isn’t just about nationality, but also about ideology and culture. As in the 1930s, fascism as an explicit alternative to Western values appeals to many.

More importantly, calling Putin a fascist could help dispel the myth that Putin’s ideology is offering something new. A number of Western commentators, including the influential German columnist Georg Diez, have argued that Putin’s Russia is part of a new wave of state-sponsored capitalism spearheaded by China. But while China’s model of authoritarian capitalism under a communist guise is genuinely novel, Putin is merely recycling ideas from the 1930s.

If people understand that Putin is promoting an ideology that has been tried before and led to disaster, they may be less likely to view him as a hero.

I propose that when Western politicians talk about the threat Putin is posing to the West, they should call that threat by its name: fascism. Independent media should start referring to Putin as a fascist much like they refer to David Cameron as a conservative. Unlike Putin’s use of the term, it wouldn’t be mere name-calling. It would simply be a recognition of the facts.


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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.

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Russia Is Stuck in the Brezhnev Trap

It looks like the BRICS have turned into the BICS. A week ago, Russia’s economic minister forecast that the country’s GDP would grow by a mere 2.5% annually through 2030 – well below an expected global growth of 3.5%. This is a huge disappointment for the many Russians who hoped the country could finally escape from relative poverty and take its place among the world’s economic – not just military – superpowers. It also conjures up unwelcome memories of Soviet stagnation in the 1970s and 80s.

Stalinist industrialization in the 1930s created dramatic growth for three decades, with the interruption of World War II. Economic progress in the 1950s and 60s was so impressive that many Western thinkers came to the conclusion that a Soviet-style planned economy was superior to the free market. But with Leonid Brezhnev’s rise to power in the late 1960s, two decades of stagnation set in, culminating in the USSR’s collapse in the late 1980s.

The Soviet experience became a basic lesson of development economics: a centralized, planned economy can be very good at creating growth initially, but beyond a certain point it lacks the capacity to innovate and begins to stagnate.

This lesson seems to be lost on Putin. His economic system is a far cry from Stalinism, where centrally administered five-year plans determined the allocation of virtually all resources. But it has the same tendency to shower large industrial monopolists with funds at the expense of everyone else. Russia’s boom of the early 2000s came on the back of oil and gas exports by the country’s two state-run behemoths Rosneft and Gazprom. Independent companies – faced with corruption, bureaucracy and an underdeveloped banking sector – have had a much harder time.

Unsurprisingly, Russia has been slow to recover from the 2008 recession. Its economy is too dependent on oil and gas prices, which seem likely to go down as fracking expands around the world, and may now be entering a new Brezhnev era.

Several government officials, among them Prime Minister Medvedev, have acknowledged the need to reform the economy. But so far, attempts at change have been too timid.

The problem is that serious reform is incompatible with Putin’s ideal of vertical power. He sees corporations not just as economic actors, but as political tools. In foreign affairs, he has used Gazprom’s gas exports to put political pressure on Ukraine and arms exports to strengthen ties with allies such as Syria. Domestically, he has used Rosneft and Gazprom to delight voters with artificially cheap energy and put loyal supporters into well-paid jobs.

Breaking out of the Brezhnev trap is impossible without curbing the influence of the large state monopolists. Putin is reluctant to do so because it would diminish his power over the private sector. But as long as Russia’s economy stagnates, his government has no future. Sooner or later, Putin may have to accept a small loss of influence over the private sector so as not to lose power altogether.

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Nuclear war was imminent in 1983. Who knew?

Recently declassified documents show a NATO military exercise in 1983 came close to provoking a war with the Soviet Union. Moscow misinterpreted the exercise, called “Able Archer”, as actual preparation for war and responded immediately, The Guardian writes:

“As Able Archer commenced, the Kremlin gave instructions for a dozen aircraft in East Germany and Poland to be fitted with nuclear weapons. In addition, around 70 SS-20 missiles were placed on heightened alert, while Soviet submarines carrying nuclear ballistic missiles were sent under the Arctic ice so that they could avoid detection.”

“The cabinet secretary at the time, Sir Robert Armstrong, briefed Thatcher that the Soviets’ response did not appear to be an exercise because it “took place over a major Soviet holiday, it had the form of actual military activity and alerts, not just war-gaming, and it was limited geographically to the area, central Europe, covered by the Nato exercise which the Soviet Union was monitoring”.”

The episode shows two things. First, Reagan’s aggressive rhetoric against the USSR in the early 1980s was more dangerous than we thought, as it gave Moscow reason to believe an attack was in the works. Second, it shows that the by far the most likely cause of nuclear war is accident or misunderstanding. There is nor rational reason to start a nuclear war, as long as mutual destruction is assured. But false information over an imminent attack can upend this balance from one moment to another. In the words of Peter Burt, director of the Nuclear Information Service (NIS):

“The Cold War is sometimes described as a stable ‘balance of power’ between east and west, but the Able Archer story shows that it was in fact a shockingly dangerous period when the world came to the brink of a nuclear catastrophe on more than one occasion.”

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Russia’s New History Censorship

With all the attention media  (self) censorship in Russia is getting, it is easy to forget about a related practice: history censorship. Today the Moscow daily Kommersant reminded us that Putin’s ambition isn’t merely to control Russia’s present and future, but also its past. The ministry of culture, having denied funding to Alexandr Mindadze’s new film “Dear Hans, Dear Peter”, justified its step as follows:

“We have unanimously decided that, on the 70th anniversary of the victory over Germany, a film that does not conform to our ideas about the war shouldn’t be released. … This film may not express the view veterans of the Great Patriotic War expect. ”

I haven’t seen the screenplay, but according to Kommersant it tells the story of a German engineer who ended up in the Soviet Union in 1940. The film engages critically with some Russian war myths, which was apparently seen as reason enough to deny funding.

The incident shows that any non-heroic depiction of Russia’s past is unacceptable in Putin’s state. This isn’t just the President’s doing. Patriotism has been on the rise since the 1990s and prominent oppositionist Alexei Navalny, for all his virtues, is a worryingly xenophobic Nationalist. As long as the government encourages these sentiments instead of fighting them, Russia is on a dangerous trajectory.

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“People, Russia, Putin”

Those who suspect that Vladimir Putin is trying to become a modern Tsar can hardly have been surprised by the language used at last week’s re-inauguration of the Russian Popular Front in Moscow. The Front is a political movement created by Putin and evidently intended to emancipate the President from his immensely unpopular party United Russia. When Putin entered the room, the crowd let out the pre-fabricated chant “People, Russia, Putin”. The slogan was quite obviously derived from the Tsarist motto “Autocracy, Orthodoxy and Nationality”, which outlined the system of political legitimacy back in the day.

Autocracy is now replaced with Putin, signalling who is boss. Nationality is replaced with the more exclusive and definite term Russia. This is evidence of the fact that Russia is trying to become more of a nation state for Russians and less of a multinational country. These two terms thus seem to indicate that the form of legitimacy Putin is seeking may not be fundamentally different from Tsarist times.

However, the replacement of Orthodoxy with People shows the crucial difference between Putin and the Tsars. While the old rulers could claim that they were appointed by God and had a right to rule no matter they did, Putin’s legitimacy is still based on whether he is perceived to promote the interests of the people. His approval ratings will be high only as long as things seem to be improving.

This is a huge problem for Putin. He has created a system that is very successful at maintaining vertical power structures and keeping the opposition down. But is corrupt, inefficient, and will never be able to deliver the progress Russians are demanding in the long term. Perhaps his crusade against Pussy Riot and his blasphemy laws are first attempts to use religion the way Tsars did. But unless he somehow manages to convince Russians that he is appointed by God, his rule will soon lose its legitimacy.

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Jews in the Red Army – NYTimes

A large number of Jews fought againts Hitler as Soviet soldiers. In light of postwar-antisemitism in the USSR, it is easy to forget the Red Army was the only fighting force in Eastern Europe that welcomed Jews into its ranks as equals (at least in theory). It is quite tragic that those Jews who risked their lives for the Soviet cause in World War II ended up being driven out of their homeland by discriminatory policies after 1945. Here’s a short but intriguing piece on Soviet-Jewish veterans of World War II in the US:

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On Not Blaming Putin

Throughout his three terms as Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin has always found clever ways to use media coverage for his advantage. Whether he is shown wrestling, hunting tigers or riding with his shirt off, everything is done to leave Russians with the impression that their President is a strong and fearless leader. About ten days ago, the following news reached the US-press:

In a video that was putatively leaked, posted on a pro-government website and later shown on a state television news channel, Mr. Putin was shown berating the ministers in harsh language, saying they must do more to fulfill his election pledges on social policy. “If we fail to do it, it means that either I’m ineffective or you are, and I tend to believe the latter,” he said.” (WSJ, April 17)

It is fairly obvious that the video was planted rather than leaked, and intended to bolster Putin’s popularity. The message is clear: The President is doing all he can and has everyone’s best interest at heart. If things are going wrong, it has to be the fault of incompetent bureaucrats. What makes this message so effective is that it builds on a tendency to not blame leaders for government failure that has been fostered in Russian collective consciousness for hundreds of years.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Tsar was revered by large parts of the peasant population as god-like. Any crises and hated government policies were generally attributed to evil advisers and ministers. After all, the thinking went, the Tsar himself wanted only the best for his people and surely had no idea what policies ministers maliciously implemented in his name.

Stalin built on this tradition in the 1930s. Whenever one of his policies backfired, he swiftly blamed it on overzealous followers or supposed foreign agents in the state apparatus. Most famously, he had Nikolai Ezhov, head of the Secret Service during the great purges, tried and executed, claiming that the mass killings were entirely his doing. They weren’t, Stalin had signed off on them, but blaming unpopular policies on someone else worked. Many letters from the time testify that people honestly believed that Stalin had no idea about the horror going on in the country. The purges themselves were officially justified by arguing that Stalin’s wise policies had been sabotaged by foreign agents, who had to be removed.

Today Putin is following the pattern and surveys show that people are buying his message. While his party is highly unpopular and generally blamed for the sluggish progress in the still impoverished country, Putin’s approval ratings are comparatively high.

In most Western states, people tend to blame their heads of government for almost everything that goes wrong, often even for those things that are beyond her or his control. In Russia, a large part of the population does the opposite. Rather than blaming Putin for his terrible record, they prefer to believe in their strong leader and instead see his party and the bureaucracy as the problem. This is not to say that this state of mind is universal. Many Russians criticise Putin for his failures, as the protests of late 2011 show. Yeltsin and Gorbachev have been blamed by many for their ill-fated reforms and few people today think Stalin was completely innocent. And yet, there is a certain popular tendency to adore a leader while despising his ministers. The explanation for this can be found in Russian history.

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