Is the dictatorship in Russia the West's fault?

Editorial mistakes can be useful. Just like typos, which can some-times suggest unexpected associations or bring out subconsciously held feelings.

When I fell victim to such a mistake a few days ago, I realized how deep my fears were that some kind of dream about Russia in the minds of Western elites might materialize suddenly and unexpec-tedly, like a black swan that would come unnoticed and change everything.

I came across a text whose title intriguingly combined the charac-ters of George Kennan and Vladimir Putin. The latter needs no in-troduction, and the former is a legendary figure for generations of American diplomats and political scientists. Kennan was renowned as a Sovietologist and diplomat in Moscow during Stalinist times. He was the author of the famous "long cable" from Moscow written in 1946, which was the basis for the policy of containing commu-nism that became known as the Truman Doctrine. Given Kennan's long life, deliberations such as "Did Kennan pre-dict Putin?" have intrigued me. After all, Kennan died when Vla-dimir Vladimirovich had been in power for five years. Like Kissin-ger, Kennan remained intellectually fit even as a 100-year-old. His comments, therefore, could well be based on an analysis of the dictator's actual behavior. Подписывайтесь на наш фейсбук

I found it even more intriguing that this article, published in the il-lustrious American magazine "Foreign Affairs", which is read by everyone interested in international politics, was unsigned -- so-mething unheard of. How significant is this? It depends on what its intended message was. The thesis of the article revolved around Kennan's strong opposition to NATO's expansion in the 1990s, as well as his belief in the "greatness of the Russian nation", that he maintained must finally free itself from dictatorship, because "tota-litarianism is not a natural phenomenon".

These latter formulations were contained in an unsigned article pu-blished in "Foreign Affairs" in 1947. Initially, the text was anony-mous because Kennan was then in the diplomatic service. Knowing this aroused my concern that what I now had before me was more than just an essay by one author, and that the views offered might be endorsed by a larger group of people influential in the American elite. The cliche about the "greatness of the nation" had been used many times to justify concessions to Russia.

A quote (from 1951) cited in the text, referred to the dream of a Russian government that "unlike the one we know now would be communicative, honest and tolerant". The article ended with the reflection that the Russians "one day would begin the process of getting rid of totalitarianism", just as they had done in the early 1990s. "Not everyone in the West shares Kennan's view that totali-tarianism in Russia is also 'our own tragedy.' He may have been wrong on many points, but he was almost certainly right on this one," the author concluded.

At this point I returned to the debates about NATO expansion in the days when Russia had been trying to shed the legacy of com-munism. At the time, the aged Kennan had argued that doing so would be a mistake that would fuel Russia's "nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies"; [that it] would have a ne-gative impact on the development of Russian democracy and would steer Russian policy in a direction unfavorable to us."

It is a model thesis for American realists. Its logical extension is the belief that the invasion of Ukraine was caused by the expansio-nist policy of the West and the belief in Russia that the existential threat it faces stems from this belief. This thesis currently serves to justify the quick need to conclude the peace on terms satisfactory to Russia and to recognize Moscow's sphere of influence as one that NATO should not interfere with. This view is often encounte-red in American journalism, but always in a peripheral role -- never as a dominant discourse or a kind of "manifesto". Despite this, an unsigned text in "Foreign Affairs" carries weight and importance.
"Long cable" by George Kennan, the United States ambassador in Moscow, addressed in 1946 to the US Department of State. The diplomat analyzed in detail the policy and intentions of the then Soviet authorities. Photo: from the exhibition of the Russian Li-brary of Military Historians. Photo Valery Sharifulin / TASS / Fo-rum
After all, the presidential elections are approaching, and with them a time to re-evaluate the policy pursued by the United States in many areas. This includes the most important one for us, keeping in mind that American public opinion increasingly would like to limit US involvement in Ukraine's war with Russia. Donald Trump and Vivek Ramaswamy are bidding high on this issue, so perhaps Joe Biden would also like to stake his bid with a group of intellec-tuals showing the way?

Overwhelmed by these reflections, I refreshed the page and saw with relief that I had fallen victim to an editorial mistake. The au-thor's name finally appeared on the screen. It was a Russian journa-list and analyst, Andrei Kolesnikov, whose by-line often appears in Western magazines. So references to the "greatness of the Russian nation" and the implications that it was the West's aggressive poli-cy that dissuaded Russia from marching towards democracy and that it should correct its mistake, now took on a different perspec-tive. The article was simply one of many voices in the democratic debate -- that of a Russian. Anti-Putinist, yes, but Russian. Clearly, not a manifesto.

The psychological mechanism that made me look for a deeper me-aning in what was a simple, quickly corrected editorial oversight is significant. It shows the Polish and perhaps more general Central European fear of betrayal by the West -- a fear of a sudden polar shift. It is the fear that, in spite of all its crimes and totalitarian ex-cesses, Russia will yet prove to the West that it is a partner to be reckoned with, one whose greatness should be recognized, while we -- who not so long ago watched the arrival of allies with hope -- will now witness their departure, even if only symbolically. An irrational fear, because the process of our integration with the West has gone too far to be easily reversed, but a fear that lies deep in our political DNA.

At the same time, this is a fear rooted in the belief that the West will consider us "not entirely its own", whereas Russia may one day be welcomed as the long-awaited partner, finally awakened from its totalitarian sleep. This sentiment is epitomized by a Strobe Talbott quote cited by Kolesnikov. Strobe Talbott, one of the archi-tects of Washington's eastern policy in post-Soviet times, wrote about Kennan's idea as follows: "the Theory of Containment was not intended as an endless clinch; it was to give the Russians time to stop being Soviet."

This brings to mind a story I recently watched of a young murderer who killed a woman and a nine-year-old child in his village, was tried, released from prison to join Wagner's mercenaries, survived the prescribed six months on the front line, regained his freedom as per the agreement, and returned to his village hoping to live nor-mally. He smiles at the reporter and tells her: "Please don't be afra-id of me, I'm a nice man." Perhaps my overreaction to the editorial oversight in "Foreign Affairs" was due to a subconscious fear of being under the same roof as this mysteriously smiling young man? And also to the fact that, as a regular reader of the magazine, I have never seen it feature an article by a Polish author offering the world the perspective of a nation freed from Russian oppression. Yet, I have often encountered texts by Russian authors, Kolesnikov being a case in point, that interpreted the world from the perspective of the "great Russian nation"? Such interpretations, of course, described Russian offenses in detail and exhaustively, but usually -- in the name of analytical honesty -- they would add a few puzzling remarks about the West's responsi-bility for what was happening in Russian minds. Clearly, echoes of Kennan attributing the blame for NATO enlargement on the growth of totalitarian tendencies in Russia can be found in une-xpected places.

A few months after the invasion of Ukraine began, the European People's Party think tank -- the Wilfred Marten Center for Europe-an Studies -- published a paper on what Europe's future relations with Russia should look like after the fall of Putin. Its authors quite rightly stated that if the dictatorship in Russia collapsed and chan-ges led to the creation of some form of transitional government paving the way to democracy, the European Union should be ready and should follow the previously agreed plan. The report's authors did not or simply could not explain why the political situation in Russia should evolve towards democracy. Like Kolesnikov and so many other political scientists, they simply projected their hopes onto reality.

They also used the metaphor of the "black swan" that would enter the picture unexpectedly and change everything in a way that no one could predict. Wańkowicz [Melchior, the Polish writer and jo-urnalist] rightly called this "wishful thinking". It cannot be denied that those who would seek to equip politicians with useful tools in the event that developments move in a favorable direction for Eu-rope would be happy to benefit from the influence gained, however small, over such matters. The most important thing here is not de-liberation about the probability of democracy coming to Russia, but once again -- as in Kennan's work -- the analysis of the causes of Russia's current political decline.

Well, according to the article's analysis, the European Union should play a decisive role in stabilizing democracy in Russia, be-cause among others -- attention! – it can be blamed partly for the country's departure from democracy two decades ago. The exact quote reads as follows: "The relatively quick path of accession to the European Union and NATO offered to the countries of Eastern Europe contrasted with the fact that no such path had been clearly defined for Russia."
In the early 2000s, Russia's possible accession to the EU and NATO was still being debated at the highest levels. The fact that her neighbors joined the European Union relatively quickly and that there was no "special European integration plan" for Russia (even in the absence of formal accession to the EU and NATO) en-abled Putin to build up anti-European sentiments and to represent the integration of former non-communist countries as contributing to new division "directed against Russia."

Mindful of this historical guilt from three decades ago, Europeans should now present Russian society with a clear perspective of the benefits it can derive from peaceful cooperation with the European Union and the free world. Then the Russians, crushed by the eco-nomic crisis and defeat in the war in Ukraine, will certainly decide that democracy is preferable to empire building, just as Germany and Japan did after their severe defeat in World War II. Among the tools that could be offered Russians are the free trade treaty and ac-cession to the Schengen system. Of course, the offer would be con-ditional -- e.g. including respect for the territorial integrity of neighboring countries. I am not aware of any of these proposals having been raised in Eu-ropean political practice over the past year, but documents such as these usually prove useful in times of crisis. If the dictatorship ac-tually fell and there was an opportunity to build something like a democracy in Russia, its existence would probably be remembered quickly. Then the European Union could start building a "common European home", benefiting that pleasantly smiling young man who the Wagner Group gave a chance to start a second life, when sending him to the front to kill Ukrainians.

It is worth noting that the measures proposed in the above-mentioned document come exclusively from the repertoire of "Wandel durch Handel" [i.e. "change through trade" -- a term refer-ring to the political and economic notion, mostly associated with German foreign policy, of increasing trade with authoritarian re-gimes in an effort to induce political change]. This is based on the believe that the free flow of people and goods can change societies. However, the policy makes no mention of the fact that this young man should first be re-socialized. There is nothing about forcing Russia to revise school textbooks and curricula, imposing a "berufsverbot"["professional ban"] on Putin's propagandists -- in other words, emulating much that was done in Germany after the war. To express it Kisiel-style [Stefan Kisielewski, the Polsh writer and publicist] "to get them by the short and curlies and introduce liberalism." Why? Because without this, no democratization will succeed. Instead, it will be taken over by those who played first fiddle in the previous regime.

The life story of Polish journalist Jerzy Urban is very instructive here, and there are thousands of such Urbans in Russia. Why did the authors of the European think tank not decide to discuss this topic? I suspect there are two reasons. One lies in a kind of "demo-cratic delicacy", i.e. the belief that democracy will defend itself and should not be imposed. The second is that the "great Russian na-tion" might feel offended and react negatively, plunging, for exam-ple, into imperial madness once more -- which again would be the West's fault.

– Robert Bogdański

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– Translated by Agnieszka Rakoczy
Main photo: Presidential elections in Russia in 2008. Counting votes at the poll-ing station in Podolsk. Photo: PAP/EPA/YURI KOCHETKOV
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