In 1812, his army exhausted and overwhelmed by the Russian steppe, and watching Muscovites desert and burn their city rather than see it handed to his troops, Napoleon was reported to exclaim in desperation about the Russians: “What men they are! They are Scythians!” The reference was to the nomadic horsemen of antiquity whom no one could conquer, reason with, or pressure in any way. Indeed, by the turn of the twentieth-century, the historian Henry Adams observed that the intractable Russia problem had always been the key to modern Europe and that, therefore, “The last and highest triumph of history would…be the bringing of Russia into the Atlantic combine.”
In other words, the West’s struggles, frustrations, failures, and dreams regarding Russia are part of an old story, and one that will continue into the future. Russia’s ability to shape our geopolitical world is not new. It was Russia’s defeat at the hands of Wilhelmine Germany that precipitated the Russian Revolution which, in turn, dramatically altered the twentieth-century. The Soviet Union’s victory at Stalingrad in 1943 led eventually to Hitler’s defeat and the Cold War division of Europe. The Soviet Union, in terms of blood price, was fundamental to the outcome of World War II in a way that the United States clearly was not. It was the Soviet Union’s internal collapse that brought the Cold War to a triumphal conclusion for the West. And it was the West’s failure in the 1990s to aggressively remake a defeated Russia in its own image, politically and economically—a failure that in terms of scale equaled Napoleon’s—that led directly to Vladimir Putin’s revanchist authoritarian regime.
Russia has always proven to be a bridge too far for the designs of the modern West. And that is a point we unfortunately need to accept. To denounce Putin for his human rights abuses constitutes mere decency. But it won’t get us far in terms of confronting the eternal dilemma of Russia. For there is something undeniably Russian—straight out of Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn, in fact—in the way that Putin has treated dissident Alexei Navalny: banishing him to a notorious prison camp outside Moscow, where inmates do manual labor and are forced to stand silent for hours with their hands clasped behind their backs. Putin himself, meanwhile, is in good health and could be in power for years to come. And with longevity comes legitimacy in the amoral world of geopolitics.
The painful truth is that Putin has not only to be deterred and morally denounced, but engaged, since the chances of changing his regime in our own image is as likely as remaking Russia was in the 1990s, or of Napoleon or Hitler adding Russia to their empires.
Russia interlocks with all of the world’s top geopolitical players. To wit, Russia is crucial to Germany, the most powerful state in the European Union. The Germans want to complete the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline from Russia not because it is necessarily critical to the German economy—the Germans could if needed get gas from the emerging Mediterranean pipeline network and also from North America by way of natural gas conversion terminals. Rather, the Germans require Nord Stream 2 because it will both supply them with comparatively cheap and direct energy supplies and stabilize their political relationship with Russia, a country which they view as too big and powerful to change or defeat. The Germans have come to terms with Russia, that is. They have done all they can to support Navalny against Putin, except cancel Nord Stream 2. And that is a strategy that Putin can live with. The Germans know that there are limits to what you can accomplish with Russia, even as they know they face no military threat from it. (As for the fate of the Baltic states and Poland, well, the Germans know the Americans can ultimately defend their eastern neighbors.) German behavior reflects the world’s fundamental tragic reality: public acknowledgment of human rights undergirded by an unspoken and ruthless realpolitik. The Americans, protected by oceans as the Germans are not, have yet to realize such a harsh truth.
Of course, the cyber age compromises oceanic protection, and likewise demonstrates the lethality of Russian aggression. The shrinkage of geography, which reduces America’s margin of error, necessitates not only a vigorous response but a need for engagement regarding Russia.
Americans delude themselves that Russia is a declining power, and so they don’t have to come to terms with it the way the Germans have. There is just enough truth in this American hypothesis to make it believable, even as it is in the final analysis flawed.
Russian power is not to be dismissed. In addition to its demonstrated ability to launch massive cyber-attacks, to interfere in the American electoral process, and to supply much of the world with oil and gas, Russia is also the world’s largest exporter of grain. Moreover, Russia sells at scale nuclear power plants, construction materials, nickel, diamonds, advanced mining equipment, and high-tech weaponry, notes Kathryn E. Stoner, a Russia expert and the deputy director of Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute.
Russia’s entry into the Middle East is a case of a rising great power, not a declining one. The Americans had once assumed that Russia would be chastened by its military involvement in Syria the same way that they themselves had been chastened by Iraq. But the Russians learned a different lesson. They learned that provided one doesn’t insert large numbers of ground troops, the price for military adventurism in this world is actually quite low, with the learning-curve for one’s armed forces constructively steep, and thus usefully applied to future interventions.
Russia is not about to collapse or even be dramatically subdued. Putin will continue to probe wherever he senses opportunities. And even if Putin were to fall ill or leave power, it is dangerous to assume a better regime would necessarily follow. Russia could unravel or fall to fiery nationalists less responsible than the current leader. Putin is the reality.
The situation now between the United States and Russia is particularly unstable: less so because the West expanded the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) throughout the former Warsaw Pact than because it extended membership specifically to the three Baltic states formerly within the Soviet Union itself, whose borders are dangerously close to St. Petersburg and Moscow. That in Putin’s eyes is an historical and geographical provocation that he must continually try to undermine. Then there is the Ukraine-Crimea-Black Sea region where a frozen conflict initiated by Russia potentially interacts with an enhanced NATO naval presence. In general, Russia’s strategy is to regain in some form the borders of the old Soviet Union and its shadow zones. The West’s aim is to dissuade it. But because this will be a long process with no clear-cut winner, diplomacy and compromise have roles to play. For even with a more liberal Russian regime, Moscow would still have a self-interest in expanding its influence beyond its border areas. Remember that Russia has been invaded in the course of history not only by France and Germany, but by Swedes, Lithuanians, Poles, and Teutonic knights. It will always be an insecure and nervous power, given to aggression.
Truly, there is no clean victory to be won in this complex geopolitical chessboard; no regime-change to be enacted by supporting Russian oppositionists, who are weak and divided against each other, even as they are all against Putin.
And let’s not forget that other great power China, whose relationship with Russia is now arguably closer and better coordinated than at any previous historical moment, has been enabled by joint military exercises and China’s purchase of Russian natural gas.
The United States cannot continue to oppose both China and Russia at every level—with moral opprobrium in place of a nuanced strategy borne of diplomacy and economic pressure—without nurturing a Chinese-Russian alliance that holds up for many years and will by itself dissipate American power. When President Richard Nixon and national security advisor Henry Kissinger opened ties with China in order to balance against Russia, and then established a policy of Detente with Russia, the Cultural Revolution was still in progress in China and a vast gulag still operated in Russia. But that did not deter the Nixon Administration. This was neither an outrage nor a contradiction, but the way of the world. A mature policy of engagement now with both authoritarian powers begins with this realization.
Engagement is not appeasement. It is a matter of mixing various forms of pressure and diplomacy to explore areas where Russia and the United States can cooperate to reduce tensions, and to give Russia an incentive to move away from its one-sided alliance with China. Russia itself would benefit from playing the United States off against China. And so would we. Almost anything would be an improvement given the bleak and thoroughly hostile state of United States-Russia relations today.
What Nixon and Kissinger accomplished is now impossible. That was a time when Russia and China were practically at war and thus ripe for American manipulation. But a modest prying-apart over time of the Russia-China alliance might yet be possible. At least that is the direction where we should be headed. Merely holding Russia to account is not a policy. We should learn from Napoleon.