Russia’s National Character

Following the Trump administration’s announcement on February 1st of its intent to withdraw from the INF treaty in six months, Vladimir Putin has made it abundantly clear he will match an eye for eye. Speaking to Russian media on February 20, Putin claimed his country was prepared to initiate another Cuban missile crisis of 1962, this time with boomer submarine launched weapons. Any moves to station missiles closer to Russia would be met with similar deployments of Russian weapons in relation to the continental United States. 

As the Mueller investigation coasts to uneventful and wasteful end and the fog and misinformation shrouding the Russians slowly lifts, has the time come to soberly assess our relationship with our former Cold War adversary? In addition to election meddling and collusion, pundits and politicians consistently cite a litany of abuses ranging from targeted assassinations to human right’s abuses. Russia’s conduct over the last several years has clearly not been up to par with Western standards of democracy and open markets.

Diplomats, intelligence agencies, and the military provide varying degrees of explanations for Russia’s conduct, some simple, some complex. But one dimension of causation is left almost entirely unexplored: national character. 

Despite Winston Churchill’s framing of Russia as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”, examining Russia as a single actor on the world stage, possessing a unique personality akin to a singular human being, formed over many centuries, provides an intriguing and useful result and helps answer the question everyone should really be asking: What is the proper way to approach Russia today and is a better relationship possible?

On the surface national character seems straightforward and easily quantifiable. Each country’s culture is equated with a peculiar and unique form of dress, food, idiosyncrasies, and language. The average tourist can in just a few seconds conjure up visions of what it means to be German, Italian, or Spanish. 

But not only does national character exist in the physical realm, the most important aspect is in the mental and psyche. Each country could be said to have an averaged, singular national consciousness formed by wars, religion, geography, and shared history. 

Since the founding of the United States, America’s patriotic national character has been well documented. When Alexis De Tocqueville visited the United States in the 1830s he discovered something peculiar about the American people. Across multiple cities and geographic regions, De Tocqueville found that as soon as he moved his conversations into the realm of the American experiment in democracy our citizens would hijack the dialogue to make it abundantly clear that the United States was the most indispensable nation, the light of the world. And for the modern Americans who aren’t intimate with our country’s exceptionalism, two words will likely jar the memory: Freedom Fries.

Has a similar measurement been taken in Russia? Fortunately, it has. American reporter Hedrick Smith spent four years in the Soviet Union in the 1970s at the height of Soviet Communism. Totally immersing himself behind the Iron Curtain, he discovered something peculiar about the Russian people who Solzhenitsyn claimed were “living in Communist captivity.” Cataloging his findings in his book, The Russians, Smith cited the “Soviet obsession with overcoming historic Russian backwardness in relation to the West. Like the czars before them, Soviet leaders are driven by a burning sense of inferiority.” Smith claims, “it is almost impossible to exaggerate the importance of this as a clue to Soviet relations with the West.” The Russians don’t want to be second best, they want “to be seen as the equals of their chief rivals.” (Smith’s italics)

How has this inferiority complex formed? In many ways it is due to war: pain retains. Focusing on the modern era alone highlights several examples. Following successfully absorbing Napoleon’s Grande Armee, the Russians were slow to change and on the eve of the Crimean War in 1853, her military was a poorly led and equipped peasant conscript army. As detailed in Orlando Figes’ excellent work, The Crimean War, the “ethos of the army was dominated by 18th century parade-ground culture of the tsarist court.” Following her thrashing by the modernized British and French militaries at a cost of 450,000 dead (for comparison the United States lost a similar number in World War 2), Russia again lost in 1905 to Imperial Japan, and finally her inflexible system came crashing down with another defeat in World War I, ushering in the Revolution. American empathy is difficult to come by, our only experience with physical invasion by a foreign military was brief stint of Redcoats raging in Washington during the War of 1812.

With the collapse of the USSR a new era opened for engagement with Russia. The administration of President George H.W. Bush wisely chose to give the bear its space. In exchange for German membership in NATO, promises were made to not move NATO’s eastern border “one inch closer” to Russia. This promise did not last long. In 1999 Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic were added. And then in 2004 seven more countries, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Bulgaria were added. These decisions shifted the eastern border of NATO to 100 miles from St. Petersburg. During the Cold War it was 1,000 miles. Were these choices prudent given Russia’s inferiority complex? Her neighbors soon found out.

Despite vehement Russian and Western European objections, in 2008 Georgia and Ukraine were considered for NATO’s Membership Action Plan (MAP). The supercharged neoconservative Bush administration, eager to push the Freedom Agenda right up to the bear’s den, could not take no for an answer. Thinking the Americans had their backs, the Georgians under now imprisoned Saakashvili went up to the den and started poking. The bear had enough and swiped back, both in Georgia and then in Ukraine and Crimea in 2014. How would the United States feel if the President of Mexico invited Russian troops to drill in the Baja peninsula a few dozen miles from the Naval Base of San Diego?

Filtered through the Russian inferiority complex, recent Russian actions are more “clear”. In TAC-recommended The Limits of Partnership, Angela Stent examines post-Cold War US-Russian relations. In 2012 the Obama administration passed the Sergei Magnitsky Accountability and Rule of Law Act to address the questionable death of Mr. Magnitsky, a lawyer investigating embezzlement attributed to Russian law and tax enforcement officials. The bill created a visa ban list for individuals connected to his death and left open the possibility of adding more names of those deemed guilty of human rights abuses. 

The Russian reaction reportedly “surprised American officials.” The Duma passed the Dima Yakovlev Law, banning future adoptions of Russian children by Americans. Additionally, the “Kremlin announced that it had its own blacklist of U.S. officials guilty of violating human rights who could not enter Russia.” Was this list legitimate? Likely not, but through the prism of inferiority their retaliation doesn’t seem out of bounds. The Russians felt compelled to meet an eye for an eye, to be “seen as equal.”

This complex became abundantly clear in the wake of the Ukrainian crisis. Crimea had been culturally Russian since 1783 after Catherine the Great annexed the territory following a war with the Ottoman Turks. Only in 1954 did Nikita Khrushchev return the peninsula in an act of goodwill. Sevastopol remained on lease for the Russian Navy, being only one of two warm water ports (the other being Tartus in Syria), a clearly vital strategic interest. Following the election of Russian leaning Viktor Yanukovych in 2010, the lease on the port was extended from 2017 through 2042. However after Yanukovych fled in the February 2014 revolution, the rights to Sevastopol were in jeopardy and Russia had no other strategic option than to act. Launching a hybrid war of “little green men”, the Crimea was seized and a separatist conflict in Eastern Ukraine erupted. Following the downing of MH17, the United States enacted sanctions that “sharply restricted access for Russian state banks to Western capital markets, their biggest source of foreign lending.”

The Russian response to sanctions? They had to shoot back, even if it was into their own foot. They “banned food imports from all the countries that had joined the U.S.-EU sanctions.” As stores and restaurants became barren and dysfunctional, ordinary Russians sarcastically decided their new gourmet dish would be “oysters from Belarus.”

Running as an outsider, President Trump saw Russia as a possible ally and today should still be duly considered. Russia will strike back over every US attempt at encroachment or sanction. It is simply in their nature and cannot be wished away through intimidation or sanction. It is who they are. This is independent of the personal psychology of Vladimir Putin.

A better US position would be to demonstrate goodwill and move first with de-escalation of tensions in Ukraine and Syria and discuss concrete steps to find common ground in possible future security or economic cooperation. Give Russia something great to live up to and let them rise to meet it. Because as former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Schultz have said, “isolating Russia is not a sustainable long-range policy.”

Can any Russian provocation be labeled a first move? It is hard to find one example in the last two decades. America First will never get off the ground with nuclear superpowers conveniently lined up as dragons to be slain.

Kirsten Gillibrand’s #MeToo Origin Story

With the announcement of New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s 2020 Presidential bid, the field of candidates for the Democratic Party continues to expand in all directions. Senator Gillibrand, who served shortly from 2006 to 2008 in her state’s 20th Congressional district before ascending to the New York Senate seat left vacant by Hillary Clinton’s selection for Secretary of State in the Obama administration, will undoubtedly have her hands full against a star-studded cast vying for the chance to engage in mortal combat with President Trump in 2020.

Winning election in 2006 in traditionally center-Right upstate New York, Senator Gillibrand entered the political stage conforming to her constituents. As reported by TAC in 2009, her campaign came out against amnesty and illegal immigration, sounded off for fiscal restraint and responsibility, and even held the line on gun rights. Today, however, the same cannot be said of her initial political persuasions. Her race to wokeness has been nothing short of alarming, or depending on who you ask, inspiring. Consider a Tweet from December 4th that generated significant buzz, the Senator declaring “The future is: Female, Intersectional, Powered by our belief in one another. And we are just getting started.” 

While diving into her past political contradictions is a worthy project, one position she has held resolutely over the last decade has been with respect to sexual assault and the #MeToo movement. Beginning around summer 2017, the #MeToo movement rose quickly into the national spotlight, snaring high level figures in Hollywood like Kevin Spacey and Harvey Weinstein, politicians like Al Franken, and even funnymen like Louis C.K. But unbeknownst to the average civilian, the #MeToo movement has been festering in the military for quite a few years, with military men of all ranks fighting like lions to save their names and careers, and Senator Gillibrand has been leading the charge since her first days as a Senator.

Her work began as a member of the Senate Armed Services committee, introducing the Military Justice improvement Act (S1752) in 2013 and then, after it failed to gain traction, again in 2014. What was the gist of these bills? After sorting through the mountains of data her office rolls out, and arcane language the military is now intimately familiar with like restricted and unrestricted reporting and retaliation, the Senator’s main point of contention was this: adjudication authority. From her 2014 Bases Report, the “military system allows a commander, who could be in the direct chain of command of the accused and have minimal legal or criminal behavior expertise, to decide whether or not to prosecute.” And from her bill, the “reform moves the decision over whether to prosecute serious crimes to independent, trained, professional military prosecutors.”

What is the logic behind these bills and is it a sound, accurate depiction of how the military justice system operates? As Senator Gillibrand notes, there is a large disconnect between accusations of sexual misconduct and one, those that go to a trial for prosecution, and two, convictions for those cases which have their day in court. For example, in the 2014 Bases Report, which analyzed 329 cases across four major military installations, “just 22% of the 329 cases went to trial. Of those, only about 10% of these 329 sexual assault suspects were convicted of a sexual assault crime.” Note the language of the report. Just 22%, only 10%. It’s almost as if the report is insinuating that to be accused of sexual misconduct implies guilt of sexual misconduct. Sound familiar? 

And digging further into the 2012 Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO) report, there were a total of 26,000 estimated cases of Unwanted Sexual Contact (USC) across the Pentagon. This estimation was calculated by analyzing the results of the 2012 Workplace and Gender Relations Survey of Active Duty Members (WGRA). USC can range from inappropriate touching all the way up to and including rape. Gillibrand’s Senate page highlights that this represents around 6% of the female force and 1.2% of the male force. Not wanting to blaspheme the #MeToo gospel mystery that only women are victims and only men are guilty, Gillibrand omitted what the Washington Times noted concerning the 2012 SAPRO report. With an active duty male force of 1.2 million men and 200,000 women, these stats translate to 14,000 men and 12,000 women being victims of USC. Also in the 2012 report, which consists of hundreds of pages of slides and pie charts, only 3,374 total reports were filed, 302 went to trial, and of those 238 were convicted of a crime. So Senator Gillibrand’s reasoning is if there are so many allegations but few reports and almost no convictions, surely something must be wrong with the military justice system, which must be altered. The goal is results, convictions, to hell with due process.

Gillibrand is correct that military judges are not the ones making the adjudication decision, a yea or nay, it rests with military commanders, whose occupational training focuses on something outside of law like infantry, logistics, or aviation. She claims that only military judges should decide, not those untrained in legal matters. In the Marines when a command is gathering information and evidence for a sexual misconduct case, the O-6 or Colonel level commander decides whether to adjudicate a case. The decision is made with the advice and counsel of Marine lawyers known as Judge Advocate Generals, or JAGs, who also review and examine the preliminary findings. Gillibrand is under the delusion that a Marine pilot or infantry officer, ignorant of criminal law, is single handedly reviewing and deciding the fate of thousands of sexual assault cases. This would indeed be troubling, but her summary of the issue is a gross misrepresentation of the truth. These commanders draw on the advice and recommendation of military lawyers who have reviewed the cases, and then they decide. Why is there such a disconnect between accusations and adjudication and conviction then? Well, as in any criminal case, evidence is required. Without witnesses, corroboration, a he-said-she-said case cannot expect to survive in court. As noted above, of the 302 cases in 2012 that did receive a trial, 238 were convicted of a crime, indicating that a strong majority of cases referred for prosecution were legally sound. 

Of all the blessings of English law bestowed upon our country by our Founding Fathers, surely one of the most sacred and underappreciated is the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. If you are accused of a crime–any crime–your character, your employment, your personal life, and your good name should be left completely intact until found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. And well before the national soap opera of Kavanaugh v. Ford, countless other military men were starring in similar movies to defend their names. Men like Major Mark Thompson, an instructor at the Naval Academy, who in 2013 was found not guilty of sexual assault, guilty of five lesser offenses such as conduct unbecoming an officer and fraternization, only to have all the charges dropped at a subsequent military board of inquiry that was initially setup to discharge him from the service entirely. Or consider the case of Trent Cromartie, a West Point cadet who was charged with sexual assault of a fellow cadet, found not guilty, but then expelled anyway, his military career evaporating before his eyes. What about these men’s lives? Does anyone care for their situation?

Senator Gillibrand never misses the chance to voice her outrage at this “crisis”, and more recently she publicly flayed the Commandant of the Marine Corps over a nude photo sharing scandal that rocked the service. All allegations of USC should be taken seriously, because it is a serious matter. But should she and her fellow justice warriors really be surprised that allegations of USC are higher in the military compared to the civilian world? After all, in her book Off the Sidelines, she reminisces about her time in an all-girls high school, “as for boys, I was distracted enough just thinking about them.” Do readers really need reminded of the differences between the male and female sexes when it comes to hormones? The military recruits young, usually single, aggressive men to fight and win the country’s wars. If you think you can mix those men among a similar age group of women and expect saintly conduct you are naïve, especially when recruits are drawn from a culture that encourages sexual liberation. Or as General Mattis said in 2015, “when you mix arrows, and you mix affection for one another that could be manifested sexually, I don’t care where you go (in) history, you will not find where this has worked”. But then again, progressives usually aren’t fans of history, the hypothetical future is where they always look for answers.

The military has been watching the #MeToo movie for several years but with the crucifixion of Brett Kavanaugh, an inflection point has been reached. And now the boomerang is coming back. As Senator Gillibrand said during the Kavanaugh hearings in reference to Christine Blasely Ford, “I believe her.” That’s all well and good, one can believe in God, but belief isn’t evidence, and belief isn’t proof. And in English law, thank God, evidence and proof are required. The Presidential candidacy of Senator Gillibrand will be a public trial for the #MeToo movement, and hopefully the populace will bring the gavel down forcefully against this movement for the good names it has so shamelessly attacked and defamed in its race for “justice”.

Read Jeff Groom’s satirical memoir about his time in the Marine Corps: American Cobra Pilot: A Marine Remembers a Dog and Pony Show.