Dec. 3, 2014 by Darius
[Earlier this week, I attended a talk by Russia expert and Princeton professor Stephen Kotkin about the first volume of his exhaustive biography of Joseph Stalin. Kotkin spoke both about Stalin and his era and about contemporary Russia. Yesterday, I shared his comments on Stalin; today is dedicated to Kotkin’s remarks on contemporary Russia.]
According to Kotkin, there is a pervasive narrative in Russia that the West cheats, mistreats, and otherwise humiliates Russia, leaving Russia with no choice but to invade its neighbors. This narrative popped up under the tsars and again during the time of the Soviet Union, and it is reemerging today. Russian leaders also promote a very strong brand of Russian exceptionalism—that Russia is a country with its own unique culture and God-given mission. This exceptionalist streak, according to Kotkin, is incompatible with a Western identity.
Kotkin also discussed an important pattern throughout history: when circumstances require a great power to sign an agreement when it is at its weakest, that power will try to revise the agreement when it is stronger. Although the classic example Germany after the Treaty of Versailles, the treaty signed on the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 is another example. Russia was at its weakest then; it is no surprise that as Russia has rebounded in power, it has chafed against the treaty.
Kotkin described the Russian military as 30,000 to 50,000 elite world-class soldiers along with as many as 800,000 more soldiers who are beaten to a pulp by their comrades and eat dog food for rations. Just the competent core, though, gives Russia a military force that none of its neighbors can match. That means that only outside powers can match Russian military power. Are outside powers willing to intervene and bleed for Russia’s neighbors?
Why has the US applied economic sanctions to Russia? In short, because it can. The US doesn’t have economic relations with Russia such that the US will feel any significant pain from the sanctions and sanctions are a more feasible alternative than armed conflict.
Commenting on Ukraine, Kotkin felt that as unpleasant as it might be, the only good outcome will come via negotiation. Western powers have made it clear that they won’t be intervening militarily. History indicates that sanctions cannot remain in place forever. That leaves negotiation as the only path forward. The alternative, of course, is to extend the status quo indefinitely—a status quo that sees millions of Ukrainians in a war zone without basic services. Kotkin also pointed out that Russia certainly has the capability to destabilize all of Ukraine to a degree the West can neither stop nor match.
Kotkin said Russian leaders would love to be a “Fortress Russia” with few relations with the West. Though the desire goes back decades or centuries, Russia cannot and never has been able to do without Western technology. During the early years of Stalin’s socialist experiments, the USSR wanted Western steel plant technology. Today, it’s oil drilling technology.
Much has been made of Russia’s demographic decline. According to Kotkin, though, over the last two years, Russia’s population has naturally increased. Life expectancy went up as well. Even if the trend doesn’t last, the precipitous demographic decline has been arrested (as Kotkin quipped, along with everything else in Russia). Russia remains, though, a country whose economy is underpinned and sustained by immigration.