Can Russia & the West settle their differences?
Hopes for negotiations designed to calm tensions could be thwarted by those desperate to re-fight the Cold War
Russia and the US are locked in a series of negotiations over the crisis around Ukraine and, more fundamentally, the clash between the West’s post-Cold War expansion and Moscow’s insistence on defending its security interests.
Rhetorical fireworks are likely to be on the cards. Some have already led to self-crippling accidents, such as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s gratuitous comment claiming that “one lesson of recent history is that once Russians are in your house, it’s sometimes very difficult to get them to leave.”
That is either very tongue in cheek or very obtuse from the representative of a country literally built on displacing a whole continent of prior inhabitants, and one that also happens to have a long record of pushing regime change by sanctions and war, all the while running the largest global network of military bases in history.
Hysteria and hyperbole
A range of predictions, warnings, and unsolicited opinions have been preferred by journalists and politicians since the latest round of negotiations was announced. The worst of them come with at least one of three major analytical flaws: ‘false historical analogy’, ‘selective non-learning from history’, and ‘weak on present facts’. These bad mental habits exert a real cost – if we don’t abandon them, we cannot resolve conflict through compromise.
The single worst, most popular, and laziest example of false historical analogy falls under Godwin’s Law, which describes the tendency to reduce contemporary problems to deeply misleading comparisons with Nazism. While, after some initial hysteria, commentators with an ounce of common sense and self-respect stay away from moronic comparisons between Nazi leader Adolf Hitler and Russian President Vladimir Putin, another very silly analogy is, unfortunately, still treated as respectable: Pretending that, in essence, any negotiations, give-and-take, or compromise with Russia amount to ‘appeasement’.
Yet the historical yardstick of when to call a foreign policy ‘appeasement’ is the Western strategy of letting the Nazis have whatever they wanted up until their invasion of Poland in the fall of 1939. Only when the German fascists turned their armies in their direction did the West really start fighting back. Thus, the real historical appeasement has always stood for abject policy failure in both moral and practical terms. It was, for instance, morally wrong to sell out Czechoslovakia to Germany, and it was also a practical disaster of shortsightedness, because it gave Hitler access to the Czech armament industry, a major asset for his further campaigns.
Is Ukraine being sold out?
Nothing remotely comparable applies to the tensions between the West and Russia now, which is easy to see if you care about facts. First, if Ukraine had been ‘sold out’ by the West, then there would be no sanctions on Russia, no EU association agreement with Ukraine, no massive financial and yes, also military, Western assistance to Kiev. Last but not least, there would also be no de facto policy of turning two blind eyes to Ukraine’s failures at reform, subversion by the far right, and authoritarian slide.
It is true that Ukrainian politicians and intellectuals often demand even more support, and that is understandable and their right. Moreover, some mistaken observers may also be upset that the West has not been even ‘tougher’, for instance, by already killing the Nord Stream 2 pipeline certification or by bringing into play the threat of excluding Russia from the SWIFT financial transaction system.
But wherever you stand, you owe it to reason to keep a basic sense of proportion. To mistake what the West has actually been doing during the Ukraine crisis for appeasement is either ignorant or dishonest. It also implies, disturbingly, that the only certain way a Western leader – or intellectual, for that matter – can escape the ‘appeaser’ label is by practicing constant rhetorical or, worse, political maximalism: Always signaling support for brinkmanship, risk, and ‘toughness’, at least as much as the next guy. That is an unrealistic as well as self-destructive game of one-upmanship.
Setting the stage for conflict
When it comes to the events that followed the Cold War, the West has massively expanded in eastern Europe, mostly in the form of NATO ‘enlargement’. Almost half of all current NATO members were admitted after the fall of the Soviet Union. At the same time, the US did, despite claims to the contrary, promise Russia it would not seek to expand NATO, in 1990 and in 1993. If you call a steady, historically rapid advance of the Western alliance system in the face of repeated and clear Russian objections that were dealt with by deception not once but twice ‘appeasement’, you need help.
Russia is now demanding, in essence, a comprehensive new security settlement. Nobody in the West has suggested – or would ever be likely – to simply concede everything or even most of what Russia wants, as outlined in the two draft treaties presented by Moscow. And, of course, the Kremlin knows this, robust rhetoric notwithstanding. What Russia does insist on, in reality, is genuine negotiations with urgency, which makes sense because they are overdue.
It is puzzling, then, to once again hear laments over appeasement. In sum, the label seems to be entirely polemical now. Its only real function is to denounce any search for compromise by slandering the necessary work of diplomacy with a comparison from the history of Nazism. A form of rhetorical bullying really. How cheap, how stupid.
Hearing only what they want to hear
The second Cold War Re-Enactor fallacy, cherry-picking from history, usually involves, not the Nazis, but the Cold War. In a recent example, Anne Applebaum, an influential opinion publicist and prolific producer of popular history with a contemporary political slant, has once again insisted that the lesson of the Cold War is to rely on deterrence.
Yet the only way to really learn from history – as opposed to misusing it as a mere rhetorical arsenal – is to focus on those parts that do not correspond to your ideological predilections: In this case, on the fact that the Cold War also featured plenty of negotiations and compromise. Thus, the West’s Berlin airlift of 1948-49 was a compromise between doing nothing and the (insane) option of breaking through by force on the ground.
Once the wall went up in the same city in 1961, the compromise, again, was to accept it de facto until it fell in 1989, due to changes in Moscow, not in the West. The Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, when the world was a hairbreadth away from all-out nuclear war, was settled, again, by a compromise. In all three cases, more muscular options were on the table or easily imaginable – and fortunately, better ideas prevailed.
The third fallacy is perhaps the simplest one to correct: In a tense situation, there is no need to make things even worse by getting your facts wrong, especially by uncritical over-reliance on biased and interested sources. Applebaum writes that “on New Year’s Eve, the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti tweeted a prediction: ‘Russia will destroy Ukraine within 10 minutes.’”
That’s only true in a strictly literal sense, but misleading in effect. What RIA Novosti did tweet was that the former top Ukrainian (no, not Russian) official – and currently member of parliament – Oleg Voloshin, had made that prediction, and on a Ukrainian media channel. Applebaum may dislike Voloshin’s politics since he is a member of the anti-government ‘Opposition Party – For Life’, but she will hopefully not pretend that he is not an elected representative of the Ukrainian electorate. Applebaum, in any case, leaves her readers with the false impression that the dire prediction originated in Russia.
One has to wonder about two things: Basic fact-checking at The Atlantic, and how Applebaum can get it so obviously wrong, especially since it takes about five minutes to check the real RIA Novosti story. She seems to have relied on Sergey Sumlenny, a journalist in Ukraine who summarized the RIA Novosti tweet in English as if the prediction about Ukraine’s rapid ‘destruction’ came from RIA Novosti itself.
Thus, a Ukrainian lawmaker went on Ukrainian media with the pessimistic forecast that in a large-scale war with Russia, Ukraine would be destroyed quickly. A Russian news agency reported this statement correctly, with a full and clear attribution to its author. Then two journalists with a clear dislike of Russia transformed that factual Russian news item into a “proud” (Sumlenny’s term) threat coming somehow from Russia.
Need to talk
Yes, deterrence was crucial in the Cold War; it helped keep both sides, East and West, in check. But if piling up arms had been the only policy, we’d probably be dead. What allowed humanity to survive the Cold War – if at terrible cost to the less privileged in the Global South, where it was all too often hot – was only the fact that compromise, explicit and tacit, was practiced no less than deterrence. Indeed, a great compromise, initiated by Moscow, was how the Cold War ended peacefully, perhaps against all probability.
And to find viable compromise – which has nothing to do with appeasement – requires negotiating. In an environment of ‘information war’ – again, by no means only by one side – that, in turn, presupposes cutting out the ideological noise, even when it comes from your ‘own’ side.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.