I've been reading books about the last days of the Soviet Union, especially David Remnick's magisterial Lenin's Tomb, but also Serhii Plokhiy's The Last Empire, which is particularly insightful about Ukraine's critical role in the breakup.
The more I learn, the more Boris Yeltsin emerges as a giant in the burial of the totalitarian regime and birth of a democracy for the first time in Russia's thousand-year history. The vast importance of the "saint" Andrei Sakharov and the courageous priest Alexander Men. And the smaller Mikhail Gorbachev becomes: naive, overtaken by the reforms he began, ultimately captured by the reactionaries. Yesterday's man.
Vladimir Putin, former KGB officer, is no doubt a bad guy. But a new Stalin? Hardly. Stalin murdered at least 30 million people. Indeed, Sakharov believed that the KGB contained the seeds of potential reformers because its agents were more educated and had seen more of the world than the communist nomenklatura.
While brings us to Russia bombing in Syria and the proto-hysterical reaction of the American media. For example, the Washington Post's David Ignatius implies that President Obama has lost Syria to the Russians. As if Syria was ours to lose.
If Putin wants to get bogged down in the uber quagmire of the Middle East...knock yourself out. To the extent that he is supporting the Assad regime, he is backing a longtime client state in the region. We know something about that, in our unquestioning support for Israel no matter what it does.
We might also have learned from our costly adventures of the past decade or more that strongmen in this riven part of the world are better than bungled attempts at Jeffersonian Democracy. Does anyone think Iraq is better off than it would have been had Saddam Hussein been left in power?
I am baffled by Washington's desire to antagonize Russia. Bill Clinton's extension of NATO to Russia's borders — when he and George H.W. Bush had assured Yeltsin we would not do so — was a colossal blunder. Americans don't remember yesterday but Russians remember invasions by Hitler, Napoleon and even the Mongols.
Similarly, Ukraine, which for centuries was a Russian province, occupies a singular place in the Russian psyche. It is the birthplace of Kievan Rus. Moscow has legitimate national interests there. Yet Washington helped destabilize a democratically elected government and the EU — a free-rider on our defense budget — short-circuited Putin's hopes to include Kiev in a customs union.
Maybe Russia wasn't ours to lose, either. But we haven't been angels in this drama.
Henry Kissinger gave a fascinating interview to the National Interest and sized up the situation this way:
The relationship between Ukraine and Russia will always have a special character in the Russian mind. It can never be limited to a relationship of two traditional sovereign states, not from the Russian point of view, maybe not even from Ukraine’s. So, what happens in Ukraine cannot be put into a simple formula of applying principles that worked in Western Europe, not that close to Stalingrad and Moscow. In that context, one has to analyze how the Ukraine crisis occurred. It is not conceivable that Putin spends sixty billion euros on turning a summer resort into a winter Olympic village in order to start a military crisis the week after a concluding ceremony that depicted Russia as a part of Western civilization.
(Putin) offered fifteen billion dollars to draw Ukraine into his Eurasian Union. In all of this, America was passive. There was no significant political discussion with Russia or the EU of what was in the making. Each side acted sort of rationally based on its misconception of the other, while Ukraine slid into the Maidan uprising right in the middle of what Putin had spent ten years building as a recognition of Russia’s status. No doubt in Moscow this looked as if the West was exploiting what had been conceived as a Russian festival to move Ukraine out of the Russian orbit. Then Putin started acting like a Russian czar—like Nicholas I over a century ago. I am not excusing the tactics, only setting them in context.
Think of Kissinger what you will over Vietnam, but on this he is more right than John Kerry, much less the chickenhawks among the Republicans.
We're not the world police. Our nation is falling further behind, our economy — which makes our military power possible — is troubled, infrastructure is stuck in 1971, extremists in the GOP have made governing almost impossible, and inequality is wrecking our future. Then there's climate change. All this should worry us more than Russia in Syria.