Streetwise Professor

August 22, 2008

Sense in the New Republic

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 10:39 pm

The proverbial blind hog finds the truffle:

The invasion of Georgia shines an alarming light on the nature of political thinking within the Russian leadership. The Russian leadership is conventionally seen as conforming to a nineteenth-century notion of national interests, together with a mid-twentieth-century style of ethnic solidarity. In the controversy over the separatist regions of Georgia, Russia does face a matter of national interest, if national interest is conceived in the geographical and ethnic styles of the nineteenth and mid-twentieth century. Still, Russia has other interests, too–regional peace and quiet, a continued healthy business atmosphere, the assurance that catastrophic events will not take place. These additional interests ought to outweigh the geographical and ethnic ones, or so you might suppose. To shake up half the world on behalf of two breakaway enclaves smaller even than Schleswig-Holstein does not appear to make sense, in a conventional calculation. And yet, the Russian leadership has decided otherwise. Why?

Today, any time some large group of people behaves in a way that defies a logical calculation of potential gains and losses, the people in question are said to be reacting to “humiliation,” or what used to be called “ressentiment.” Humiliation, though, taken as a political experience, exists only where it has been ideologically constructed, and not otherwise. Germany, having been defeated in World War I, was afterwards said to be undergoing “humiliation”; and yet, after World War II, having been defeated ten times more cruelly, Germany was no longer said to be “humiliated.” That was because the German political doctrines promoting a feeling of “humiliation” disappeared after World War II. It was the doctrines, not the experience of misfortune, that had created “humiliation.”

Russia, having been defeated in the Cold War, is said to be undergoing “humiliation.” But I think mostly the Russian leaders feel something worse, which is fear. The Russian leaders picture their country in a terrifyingly vulnerable position, not unlike how Israel sees itself. Fear, not “humiliation,” led Russia to invade Georgia–a fear of utter destruction facing their own country. Russian diplomats have expressed this fear openly during the last few months. I have heard them to do it–speaking aloud, with hot conviction, about an “existential danger” to Russia, posed by Georgia.

And yet, their fear is entirely doctrinal–which is to say, imaginary. Russia’s situation is not, in fact, like Israel’s. No foreign power since the end of the Cold War has entertained a plan of attacking Russia or destroying Russia’s power and wealth. The Russian fear rests merely on a somewhat paranoid interpretation of world events. Fears based on paranoid interpretations cannot be assuaged. A tacit agreement by the rest of the world to allow Russia to conquer the breakaway regions of Georgia and to install a puppet regime in Tbilisi, and to do likewise in Ukraine, and so forth, will not make the Russian leaders feel any less threatened.

Why do the Russians indulge such an interpretation? It is an archaism. The mystery wrapped in an enigma is a bit of an antique. In any case, the current dominance of this kind of thinking may suggest that Russia is a shakier place than it appears to be. A stable Russia would not have felt existentially threatened by its neighbors in tiny Georgia, nor by NATO.

There are other sensible things in the article which on the whole outweigh the ritualistic and conclusory Bush bashing and the equally ritualistic environmentalist denouement.

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