British Historian Max Hastings (pictured), writing in the Guardian, asks . . .
WILL WE HAVE TO FIGHT RUSSIA IN THIS CENTURY?
Two years ago, I was in a party of British fishermen on a charter plane to Russia about to descend at Murmansk. “There will be a slight delay,” the pilot announced over the broadcast system, “because the airport has lost our landing clearance.” Two hours later, he reported: “I’m afraid we shall have to come down in Finland, because the Russians say that unless we leave their airspace immediately, they will send up fighters to escort us out.” When the aged bus which eventually conveyed us from Finland to Murmansk reached the Russian frontier, we endured two hours of torment. No one had told the border guards that the Cold War was over. They pored over our passports. They searched every spool of our fishing tackle. Bitterness and resentment about our expensive possessions and their threadbare poverty oozed from their every pore. At last, grudgingly, stone-faced and without a smile between them, they waved us into their miserable country. Those unhappy petty officials in the forests of the remote Russian north-west embodied the spirit of their president, Vladimir Putin, who on Sunday delivered a brutal broadside against the United States and Britain, avowing his country’s enmity for us.
Some 25 years ago, when the Cold War was still icy, I asked that great historian Sir Michael Howard whether it was inevitable that the Russians would always be our enemies. Yes, he said sadly, “because they will always resent our success and be embittered by their own failure”. That remains as true today as it was in 1982. For all the oil and gas riches of Putin’s country, for all the Russian oligarchs jetting and yachting around the world with their billions, their nation isstill characterised by brooding anger. They feel themselves victims of a huge injustice. They have lost their empire. They have endured 20 years of perceived Western slights and condescension, since the economic collapse of the Soviet Union. They see the Americans preparing to deploy missiles in their former East European satellites. They watch Russian dissidents flaunting their wealth and – as they see it – treachery from the heart of London. And thus it is that they applaud Putin to the rafters for telling the West that he will stand no more of it. They welcome the expulsion of BP and other Western oil companies from Russian drilling sites. They delight in our embarrassments with Islamic extremism, and defeat in Iraq.
They are thrilled to discover that agents of Moscow have found means to kill one of Russia’s more prominent critics in London, and then to escape back to safety at home, in a manner that makes fools of Britain’s James Bonds. For those of us who hoped for the opportunity to build a new relationship with Russia after the end of the Cold War, it is all desperately sad. So much that we interpreted as “progress” under Gorbachev and Yeltsin has crumpled into ashes. The pessimists have been proved right.
The great American diplomat and historian George Kennan, who knew Russia intimately for half a century, wrote bleakly in 1992: “That Russia will ever achieve “democracy”, in the sense of political, social and economic institutions similar to our own, is not to be expected.” Back in 1944, writing from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, it was Kennan likewise who asserted that it was mistaken to think of Stalin as an extreme communist. Rather, he wrote, he was a peasant tsar.
Stalin killed at least as many people as Hitler. In Berlin today, no one would think of displaying publicly an image of the late Fuhrer. Yet in Moscow, it is deemed perfectly acceptable for taxi drivers to stick a picture of Stalin in the corner of their windscreens. “He made Russia great, “I have heard many Russians say. “In Stalin’s day, this country was respected.” They do not care that such respect was forged from terror, by Russia’s ruthless willingness to inflict death wholesale in order to impose its will. They would much prefer that the world should be made to tremble at Russia’s capacity to broadcast fear, rather than acknowledge their abject failure to match the West – and the extraordinary rise of China – in technical imagination, productive power or economic achievement.
Putin is the new tsar, Stalin’s spiritual heir, in a country which has lost all ideological belief, can make nothing work within its frontiers save its cascading flow of oil and gas, and has fallen prey to institutionalised corruption which afflicts everyone from the highest officials to the humblest traffic policeman on point duty. It is hard to overstate the ignorance of the outside world, and even of their own history, which afflicts every Russian from the president downwards. Putin has closed Russia’s archives to western scholars not on security grounds, but because he is disgusted by the horrors which they exposed to researchers in the 1990s. Western historians explored, for instance, the brutal history of Marshal Zhukov. Russia’s most famous general of World War II. Zhukov, we learned, recommended to Stalin in 1942 that the families of all those who allowed themselves to be taken prisoner by the Germans should be shot, to discourage others from surrender. This is the sort of titbit which Putin has determined there should be no more of.
He astonished the world, last year, by telling an interviewer in deadly earnest that the biggest catastrophe of the 20th century was the collapse of the Soviet Union. In truth, of course, the U.S.S.R. was the greatest construction of human misery and economic failure that history has ever seen. Yet Putin’s people love him. They care amazingly little that he has stifled free speech and systematically dismantled the fragile instruments of democracy created by Gorbachev and Yeltsin. They decided, in the shambolic and inflationary days of the 1990s, that one cannot eat votes.
Democracy matters much less to them than bread, order, and foreign respect for their nation. Ordinary Russians today perceive that they live a little better, and thank their president for this rather than soaring energy prices. They applaud the sort of savage harangue which he gave the West on Sunday. We may expect plenty more like it, whether from Putin or whatever successor he chooses to nominate at the end of the year, if indeed he relinquishes office when his appointed term finishes. From a Western standpoint, there are some grounds for hope for the future. For all Putin’s threats of targeting Europe with new missiles, a return to the direct military confrontation of the Cold War is unlikely. Russia today is as dependent upon banking our cheques as we are upon buying its oil and gas.
We should hope that George Bush’s successor as U.S. President is less appallingly clumsy, in provoking Moscow with promised missile deployments a few miles from her border. But the notion of Western friendship with Russia is a dead letter. The best we can look for is grudging accommodation. The bear has shown its claws once more, as so often in its bloody history, and its people enjoy the sensation. We may hope that in the 21st century we shall not be obliged to fight Russia. But it would be foolish to suppose that we shall be able to lie beside this dangerous, emotional beast in safety or tranquillity.