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Leo Tolstoy famously wrote an essay on why Shakespeare was overrated, and while the ‘People’s Count’ still appears frequently on top-ten lists of authors the world over, in critiquing the Bard, he obviously didn’t ‘get it.’ Admittedly, something may have been lost in translation. English versions of Dostoyevsky convey a man just weird enough to be a genius; in Russian he comes across as more personable. Russian culture is of course ‘great,’ whether it’s literature, music or art. It just needs to be put in perspective. When set alongside that of any Western European country – even a fairly small one – Russia’s cultural ‘greatness’ is more that of a peer than a superior.
In politics, sadly, Russia sinks to inferior. When Vladimir Putin speaks of ‘parity’ for his country internationally, a casual observer might take this to mean he expects ‘equal’ treatment in bilateral relations. But in reality, Putin exhibits a characteristically Russian, out-of-proportion perception of his own state as the ‘peer’ of many countries combined. In his warped worldview, Russia (or what he calls the ‘Russian World’) should have ‘strategic parity’ with the whole West despite having an economy the size of Italy’s and sparse indoor plumbing across its vast expanse.
Putin’s distorted vision is nowhere more evident than in his March 2014 decision to formally annex Crimea, which his country (along with every other) had hitherto recognized as part of Ukraine. Putin admirers tend to defend the land grab on the grounds that, after all, America has changed international borders, so Russia is entitled to do likewise. Besides, Crimea had a ‘referendum.’ Ninety-seven percent of voters opted for union with Russia. So it’s legal. So there.
And yet, while many have had doubts about US-led ‘state-building’ in places like Kosovo, where not even the West was unanimous on creating a new country after NATO’s intervention in 1999, we also accept that such events aren’t properly analogous to the Crimean Anschluss. However daft some of Washington’s military adventures have been over the last two decades, they generally exhibit a sincere (even desperate) effort to be ‘multilateral.’ America assembles ‘teams,’ however flimsy, for invasions to avoid looking ‘rogue,’ and there is much to be said for the collective approach. Since unilateralism is part of any definition of ‘rogue state,’ Russia is either comfortable with its rogue statehood or else (again) doesn’t ‘get it.’
On a policy as monumental as unilaterally redrawing European borders, one might think a bit of domestic dissent would be tolerated. Instead, out of 450 MPs in Russia’s State Duma, only one voted against affirming the legality of annexation. He was quickly branded a ‘national traitor’ on a huge Moscow billboard, faced criminal prosecution and eventually fled abroad. Should we perform intellectual acrobatics to rationalize this barbarism? Or, in the wake of Brexit and Trump, would that just be replacing one offensive form of ‘political correctness’ with another?
As if the first unilateral annexation in Europe since WWII weren’t reason enough to be wary of Putin, surely Russian ties to Islamic State-related terror are. A year ago, Russia’s government reported that thousands of Russian citizens – far out of proportion to any other non-Muslim-majority country – had joined ISIS. While this admits of no deliberate Russian government policy to export terror, it does suggest that the Kremlin should focus more on preventing the exodus of jihadists from its own soil. Russia’s main response to ISIS so far has been to bomb Syria, and though few Westerners lament the destruction of jihadists anywhere, shouldn’t Moscow put its own house in order before leaping into another country’s civil war? Yet Putin feels that, to be a player equal to the West, he must be seen and feared abroad. His military must ‘shock and awe’ Syria’s jihadists.
The New Year’s Eve nightclub shooting in Istanbul that killed 39 may have been carried out – it is emerging – by an ISIS recruit from Russia. The Istanbul airport bombing in 2016, similarly, involved at least one Russian citizen. Two immigrants from Russia pulled off the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013. Russia’s security services probably have a hard time keeping track of all these people, especially when migrant laborers from Muslim-majority ex-Soviet republics add to the stream of potential ISIS recruits inside Russia proper.
The ‘Islamic gauleiter’ regime in Russia’s Caucasus probably isn’t helping much. Chechnya’s upstart president, Ramzan Kadyrov, surrounds himself with blood-relative heavies (including suspected hit men), basking in tasteless wealth while feigning Muslim piety. Kadyrov has defended honor killings, described women as their husbands’ ‘property’ and staged a ‘Million Muslim March’ to protest the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, opining that Western secret services organized the massacre at the French magazine’s offices. How does Kadyrov influence disaffected Russian Muslims in search of a cause?
The power afforded this ‘loyalist’ is part and parcel of Russia’s own ‘political correctness’ vis-à-vis Islamism. In the Second Russo-Chechen War, Russia’s federal government bombed the Chechen capital, Grozny, until it resembled Dresden after the Allied fire-bombing of WWII. In 2009, as if latently guilt-ridden, Putin announced with great fanfare the opening of an ‘Islamic university’ there, a tribute to the city’s postwar reconstruction to go with the ‘Heart of Chechnya Mosque.’ Though one of the largest ‘Islamic universities’ outside the Islamic world, Grozny’s is not the biggest. That honor apparently goes to one in Russia’s Tatarstan.
If Russia has created its own, homegrown Islamist terror problem, it should set about fixing it, because it doesn’t deserve treatment as an ‘equal’ until it tidies up its own mess. It can start by removing its forces from eastern Ukraine and restoring peace to the Russo-Ukrainian border. Western sanctions should remain, however, as a reminder that rogue behavior isn’t cost-free.
Sanctions are actually compassionate, as they’ve forced Russia to develop its agricultural potential, long overdue for such a gigantic country. According to some I spoke with in Armenia recently, up until sanctions were imposed, Russia was actually importing potatoes from the tiny Caucasus country. We should not lose sight of the fact that Russia manufactures nothing anyone else wants except vodka, and boycotting Russian vodka would still leave us with plenty of fine Polish, Ukrainian and other brands. Russia must diversify its economy and overcome the widespread perception that it is – to quote US Senator John McCain – a ‘gas station with nuclear missiles.’
Russians – whose ‘great state’ still has no convertible currency a quarter-century after the USSR’s collapse – are fond of blaming everything wrong at home and abroad on America. A black man in the Oval Office makes this easier, because for Russian society, racist mockery is a big part of running America down. Russians do come to America, earn income they could only dream of in their motherland, go shopping for things their motherland doesn’t make, live unmolested by local political authorities, and freely express disdain for the country that has welcomed them to its shores. This holds true even for many who opt for US citizenship: they remain immensely proud of Putin, defending him ardently while exercising their freedom to deride American society. It all feels oddly inconsistent with their collective clamber to get their hands on the latest American gadget. A survey of Russians with iPhones and Apple Watches might turn up surprising numbers. One can’t help but sense that Obama showed restraint in only expelling 35 of them.
In 2015, one could still hope Donald Trump’s claim he would ‘get along very well’ with Putin actually meant successfully putting his Muscovite counterpart in his place. Yet Trump has since exhibited no inclination to acknowledge Russia as any sort of threat at all, tweeting shortly after his election victory that Putin’s congratulatory letter showed how ‘correct’ the Russian’s thinking was. Even now he compliments Putin on his supposedly remarkable intellect.
The rise of Trump was partly due to a pledge to upgrade America’s outdated infrastructure, and renewed attention to domestic affairs should, rightly, lead to a more ‘conservative’ (less interventionist) foreign policy. But none of this means exchanging friendship rings with Putin. America’s system of interstate highways is no longer the envy of the world, but Russia still has not a single continuously paved road connecting Moscow to the far east. A few months after the Crimean annexation, it was reported that billions of rubles allocated to repair Siberia’s Kolyma Highway – or ‘Road of Bones’ – had been diverted to the newly stolen territory, yet Crimea is now even more run-down than it was three years ago, just as the islands Stalin seized illegally from Japan are in appalling shape. Does Trump see nothing wrong with the picture?
The West needs a new policy of containing and further distancing itself, politically and economically, from Moscow. Freeze bank accounts, sever access to hard currency and generally hold the Russians to higher standards until they sort themselves out. Whatever Trump thinks, there is no reason to get into bed with a rogue state that is making mischief abroad in an attempt to break out of economic isolation. Whether by design or incompetence, the Russian regime is a menace. Sooner or later, Western democracies are going to have to wake up.
Chad Nagle is an attorney and freelance writer based in the Washington, DC area.