What we see in Russia today is not some modern aberration. Russia is pretty much the same with Putin as it was with the tsars.
Stephen Kotkin is one of our most profound and prodigious scholars of Russian history. His masterwork is a biography of Josef Stalin. So far he has published two volumes––“Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928,” which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and “Waiting for Hitler, 1929-1941.” A third volume will take the story through the Second World War; Stalin’s death, in 1953; and the totalitarian legacy that shaped the remainder of the Soviet experience. Taking advantage of long-forbidden archives in Moscow and beyond, Kotkin has written a biography of Stalin that surpasses those by Isaac Deutscher, Robert Conquest, Robert C. Tucker, and countless others.
Kotkin makes the point that, while Russia is one of the great cultures, it keeps putting its control in the hands of despots. Despots whose will for greater power against “the West” always fails.
He makes the point that NATO is not the problem. Without NATO, think where Poland and the Baltics would be right now.
I would even go further. I would say that NATO expansion has put us in a better place to deal with this historical pattern in Russia that we’re seeing again today. Where would we be now if Poland or the Baltic states were not in NATO? They would be in the same limbo, in the same world that Ukraine is in. In fact, Poland’s membership in NATO stiffened NATO’s spine. Unlike some of the other NATO countries, Poland has contested Russia many times over. In fact, you can argue that Russia broke its teeth twice on Poland: first in the nineteenth century, leading up to the twentieth century, and again at the end of the Soviet Union, with Solidarity.
NATO has slowed Russian expansionism under Putin, not enhanced it. Russia has had huge aspirations for 500 years but has seldom organized itself to gain those aspirations. It wastes its energy with incompetencies, kleptocracies and despotic autocracies.
Russia has had some of the greatest scientists of the last 100 years. Yet little of their technology produces much impact on its own economy. Oil is all. There is little place for its brilliant programmers outside of hacking and security. They mostly move elsewhere to make their mark.
Russia has the ability to diversify its economy but is hampered by its organizational structure. One that supports autocrats who simply cannot deal with the complexity of today’s world.
Russia once had the 3rd largest economy. Now it is smaller than Italy and dropping. It’s stock market was worth about $800 billion before the war. It is likely worthless now, If the US markets lost that amount of money, they would still retain 98% of their worth.
Why does this keep happening with Russia? Because, instead of getting the benefits of a diverse population via democracy, they have relied on the narrow views of despots. Despots just are not smart enough to deal with the totality of information in today’s complex world.
It’s why despotism, or even just authoritarianism, is all-powerful and brittle at the same time. Despotism creates the circumstances of its own undermining. The information gets worse. The sycophants get greater in number. The corrective mechanisms become fewer. And the mistakes become much more consequential.
Putin thought Zelensky was a paper leader, a failure who was not liked by the people. Which he was until Putin’s war showed that a leader who is lousy in peace can be a tiger in war. Without Putin’s gross miscalculation, Zelensky would likely have lost the next election. Putin made this mistake because he does not understand why Ukraine is so much more appealing to the West than Russia is.
The West is a series of institutions and values. The West is not a geographical place. Russia is European, but not Western. Japan is Western, but not European. “Western” means rule of law, democracy, private property, open markets, respect for the individual, diversity, pluralism of opinion, and all the other freedoms that we enjoy, which we sometimes take for granted.
Russia has none of that. Until it does, it will always be a lesser power.
[Image: Jean-Pierre Dalbéra]