Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
Excerpts from the JRL E-Mail Community :: Founded and Edited by David Johnson

#16 - JRL 8485 - JRL Home
Moscow Times
December 6, 2004
Ukraine and the Lessons of History
By Alexei Bayer
Alexei Bayer, a New York-based economist, writes the Globalist column in Vedomosti on alternate weeks. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.

The post-election standoff between the government of Ukraine and the opposition may be decided not at the negotiating table or in the streets of Kiev, but 800 kilometers to the northeast, in Moscow. This is because the Ukrainian political crisis was engineered by Russia. As a result, whether it ends with a compromise, degenerates into violence or triggers a breakup of Ukraine may well depend on President Vladimir Putin's next move.

How far Putin is prepared to go, and how the West, especially Washington, reacts if Russia intervenes directly, could reshape the global political map for a long time to come. Perhaps in a less dramatic fashion, U.S. foreign policy may be facing in Ukraine its greatest challenge since the Cuban missile crisis four decades ago.

And yet, Moscow's direct intervention in Ukraine would merely mean completing a full circle since the fall of communism and the breakup of the Soviet Union into 15 new nations in 1991. The U.S.S.R. was soundly defeated in the Cold War, but its defeat was eerily reminiscent of the capitulation of the Central Powers at the end of World War I. Just like Germany and Austria-Hungary, post-communist Russia lost its colonial possessions and, in a much-reduced state, was bounced from the ranks of great powers.

But in neither case did surrender come as a result of a decisive battle. Neither the Central Powers nor the Soviet Union suffered serious military destruction or endured occupation, nor did they see the full horrors of the wars their leaders had helped to unleash. True, by 1918 Germany and Austria were too exhausted to fight fresh U.S. forces pouring onto the Western front and, moreover, they faced growing unrest at home. Nevertheless, although surrender was inevitable, it eventually gave rise to the myth of "a stab in the back," which facilitated the rise to power by the Nazis.

In Russia during the 1990s, the sellout myth was also remarkably prominent. Mikhail Gorbachev, the great Soviet reformer, remains unpopular to this day, and a surprisingly large number of Russians blame him for undermining the Soviet Union on orders from Washington. Similar accusations against Boris Yeltsin, Russia's first post-communist president, have been standard fare on the Russian Internet for the past decade.

There were frightening similarities between Yeltsin's Russia and the post-World War I Weimar Republic in Germany. Both suffered a bout of hyperinflation when they were first established, which decimated private savings and undermined popular support for democracy. Both regimes were corrupt and inefficient, and characterized by poverty and hardship at one end of the income spectrum and conspicuous consumption at the other. Both ended up giving democracy a bad name: In Russia, it has received a derisive moniker, dermokratiya, which can be rendered in English as "democrapcy."

As a consequence, when after an economic cataclysm -- the Great Depression in one case and default and ruble devaluation in the other -- anti-democratic forces came to power in Germany in 1933 and in Russia in 2000, few supporters in either country were willing to defend democracy. Worse, plenty of people welcomed "strong" regimes and their crackdown on "capitalist bloodsuckers" -- Jewish department store owners in Germany and (mainly Jewish) oligarchs in Russia.

Adolf Hitler had been a corporal during World War I, whereas Putin rose to the rank of KGB colonel in the Cold War. Despite the obvious disparity in military rank, they were both frontline soldiers who had fought in a lost war. From their standpoint, their side had not been defeated. They had lost because they were betrayed by corrupt politicians back home. Hitler harbored a deep resentment of Czechoslovakia and Poland, which he considered mongrel states carved out of German and Austrian territories at Versailles. He was determined to wipe them off the map -- even if it meant unleashing World War II. Putin, too, seems to have difficulty accepting the independence of former Soviet republics. His administration was notoriously virulent about the popular uprising in Georgia in November 2003, which brought to power a young pro-American reformer, Mikheil Saakashvili. To undermine his government, Russia has spent the past year fomenting separatist troubles in Georgia.

Post-World War I borders left millions of ethnic Germans inside newly created nation-states. Similarly, millions of ethnic Russians have been trapped in former republics, providing a rallying cry for Russian nationalists as well as a convenient pretext for the Kremlin to meddle in the affairs of its neighbors. Actually, some 22 percent of Ukraine's 50 million people identify themselves as ethnic Russians. Former Soviet territories are still commonly referred to in Russia as the "near abroad," implying a qualitative difference from genuinely foreign lands.

Historic parallels can be taken too far, of course. The current Russian regime is certainly nowhere near as murderous as the Nazis were from the start of their rule, and it also lacks a virulent racist creed. Moreover, members of Putin's entourage, though mainly ex-members of Soviet security forces and Cold War veterans, seem to be chiefly concerned with lining their own pockets and appropriating juicy assets, such as Yukos. If Russia gets tangled in Ukraine, the resultant conflict with the West may greatly hamper such highly lucrative efforts.

Nevertheless, history suggests that Russia is likely to assert its dominance in the post-Soviet space, which it regards as its own backyard -- and it may do so with force of arms. In this case, the West needs to be prepared to stand up to Putin and his regime. This is what learning a 60-year-old European history lesson really means.