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.

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