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Behind the Kremlin walls officials are smirking over German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s appeasement. That’s why Moscow also does not take the European Union and Berlin seriously. The way Russians understand things making concessions, approaching the rival is a sign of weakness and European softness. . . Even if Russia talks about a “multi-polar world order and “respect” in the international arena that applies exclusively to the respect of others for Russia, not the other way around.
Why does Germany grovel? Gas, gas, and gas. Did I mention gas? But is appeasement on NATO enlargement an effective way of obtaining future Russian forebearance on gas pricing, access, or shutoffs? Will its carrying Putin’s water ensure Russia’s future goodwill and the steady, reliable flow of gas at reasonably competitive prices? Not bloody likely. Russia will take Germany’s gift today, and do exactly what is in its economic and political interest tomorrow. So Germany has sold out NATO, stiffed Ukraine and Georgia, and handed Russia a victory, and will be lucky to get a mess of pottage–or borscht–in return. And the Kremlin will figure it rolled Germany once, so it might as well try it again. And again. And again.
Donath also makes a point I’ve emphasized at SWP; Russia’s fears about NATO’s military threat are fantastical. (Stephen Blank has made a similar point.) (One can debate whether they are the result of paranoid delusions, or whether the expressed fears are merely intended to manipulate Russian public opinion.) So why does Russia protest so much?
If NATO expansion does not threaten Russian territory in the slightest, it does sharply constrain Russian freedom of action in Ukraine and Georgia. That is, Russia does not oppose NATO expansion because it legitimately fears that this would threaten the territorial integrity or political independence of Russia; instead it fears NATO expansion because that jeopardizes Russia’s ability to threaten the territorial integrity and political independence of the countries in the near abroad, Ukraine prominent among them.
Russia portrays NATO as aggressively absorbing new states. Its characterization of NATO is analogous to Sparta’s description of the Athenian empire. But NATO does not collect tribute from its members under the threat of force. Georgia, and to a lesser degree Ukraine want to join. Earlier joiners from the old East Bloc–such as the Baltic states, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, and Romania–also wanted to join. They volunteered–and in some cases clamored–to join NATO. NATO did not force them to join.
This should raise the question in Russian minds: why are our former satellites so eager to join what we consider an aggressive alliance? Perhaps the answer lay in centuries of history and very long memories of suffering–and at times, suffering quite cruelly–under Russian domination.
The irony of the situation is that current Russian behavior only reinforces the desire of Eastern European states to deepen their NATO ties, and for Ukraine and Georgia to enter the alliance. The Russians have apparently not learned that (as my grandfather used to say) you catch more flies with sugar than gall. Blustering, bullying, manipulating, supporting breakway provinces, using gas as a political weapon, poisoning presidential candidates etc., is no way to win friends and influence people. But that’s the kind of things the Russians have done consistently in the near abroad, and continue to do today. Like an abusive husband driven to rage by his wife’s attempt to leave home, the chekists’ thuggery only further alienates those it wants to control.
This reflects an attitude that noted American scholar of Russia, James Billington, describes in his book Russia in Search of Itself:
Seeking to preserve unity and maintain control over a vast and exposed territory, the Russian empire was frequently at war with its neighbors. The Russian’s basic understanding of all this recurrent conflict has been diametrically opposite to that of their principal neighbors. Russians have generally seen themselves as perpetual victims of foreign predators, building on the fact that rival empires have invaded their lands from the Mongols and Teutonic Knights to Napoleon and Hitler. Most of Russia’s immediate neighbors however have seen themselves as victims threatened with conquest by the relentless expansion of a much larger power armed with unlimited ideological justification for extending its empire.
The eagerness of former satellites to join NATO provides ample evidence that Russia is still perceived as an aggressive power. Russia’s actions only justify this perception.
To turn around Putin’s insult of the US, the Russian wolf is just doing what wolves do. Its behavior is of a piece with its actions over centuries. The sad thing is that Germany enables this behavior, and like most codependents, will gain nothing for its current humiliation but more humiliation in the future.