From USSR to Ursus Redux: The Return of Russian Power

The defiant rise of Russia, after a protracted period of hibernation following the Cold War, should come as no surprise. The West, however, prematurely crowed its alleged “victory” by over confidence and by provocatively touting its superiority at a time when its own system is showing serious cracks.In recent months a lot of people in the West have spoken about a “new cold war” with Russia, after Putin’s undeclared war in and on Ukraine. Even a seasoned and reasonable economic and geopolitical expert like Martin Wolff has redefined the Russian Federation as a dangerous enemy of Europe and the US (“Russia is our most dangerous neighbor”, Financial Times, Comment, September 17). These commentators maintain that the West was the victor in the Cold War and should act firmly with the Russia that has emerged after the collapse of the Soviet system.

First, I am not sure that the dismantling of the Soviet system was a clear-cut victory, like a decisive blow in a classic battleground. When one of two boxers collapses of a stroke in the ring, the other one “wins”, but nobody will say that he won by a knock out. But leaving such quibble aside, and assuming that the collapse of the USSR was a neat defeat, some interpretive caution is in order, based on history. It is important to understand how the defeated peoples see themselves, and rarely is it defeated.

What do the American Civil War, the Franco-Prussian War, and WWI have in common? An intriguing book by the German historian Wolfgang Schivelbusch, titled The Culture of Defeat, argues that the lessons of defeat changed the vanquished, as they grappled with the causes of their defeat. Schivelbusch charts the narratives defeated nations construct and finds remarkable similarities across cultures.

All such nations go through four stages of self-understanding after defeat: a first dream-like stage of hazing, unable to assess the enormity of the event; a second stage of awakening in which they tell themselves that their predicament was not necessarily merited and that things could have turned otherwise, had it not been for the perfidy of others or perhaps sheer bad luck. In a third stage they become more defiant and raise the banner of cultural pride as a sort of compensatory superiority over the victors, and the final stage gives rise to what the French, defeated by the Prussians at Sedan, called “revanchisme.”

It is a process of myth making, fraught with dangerous illusions at each stage, but a good portion of such narratives is true. Moreover, the actions and perceptions of the victors are equally important, and equally fraught with illusions and myth making. Vae victoribus!

The celebration over the collapse of the Soviet Union was accompanied by a fair amount of “dissing” and dismissing Russia itself. There was a fanciful hope, in some quarters, that the immense resources of that country would be better managed by outsiders, through the mechanism, of course, of an open market. But are Western oligarchs automatically superior to Russian ones?
And there was a clumsy attempt at advancing, not retreating, in containment. NATO engaged in a peculiar exercise of “mission creep”: moving closer, gaining new members, and diminishing its own firepower at the same time, hoping to piggy back on American military superiority. That was folly. Such illusions helped the rise of a strong counterpart: a resentful, authoritarian, militarily capable, and defiant petro-state.

We should do well to repeat two well-known phrases by Winston Churchill. The first is: “In war: resolution, in defeat: defiance, in victory: magnanimity, in peace: good will.”

During the Cold War the West showed resolve. In victory however it was not magnanimous, and in the peace that followed it did not always display good will. Little wonder that it provoked defiance on the other side.

The second Churchill quote is: “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” Europe, which faces immense challenges to its own unity and resolve today, should heed that phrase. And it holds true for a confused US as well, which will no longer be the No.1 power when this century ends.

Perhaps pundits like Mr. Wolff are right: Russia has become once again a strong opponent. My question is: Which way forward out of the gutter of mutual recriminations in which Russia and the West are mired? Only a third and common “enemy” can solve the quandary. There are enough challenges in the world today –humanitarian, environmental and economic, that qualify as common enemies. If Russia and the West joined forces in those fights, we should have a measure of hope.

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