Two pieces on Russia for this afternoon that demand to be read in full. The first is a long, terrific, and terrifying story brought to us by David Remnick of the New Yorker. It centers on Michael McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to Russia. It charts his first appearances in the pro-democracy protests surrounding the breakup of the Soviet Union, and brings us to today, where he is a Stanford professor, recently returned from his time as a diplomat. The piece is breathtaking in its scope and attention to detail. Plus the variety of sources here is startling. Remnick has deep contacts in the Russian oligarchy and a good sense of history there. The second is this short commentary on the current state of the country from McFaul himself.
The most troubling fact of this whole situation is not Russia’s capabilities, but that there leadership seems unhinged. They’ve crafted an elegant propaganda machine they all seemed to have bought into, heedless of the consequences. They see Russia as the world’s Conservative (capital-C) bulwark, standing against the decadent, soulless Western civilizations. This is not their predicament, but rather their destiny. Money quotes from Remnick that come to us via two Russian intellectuals:
[Aleksandr] Prokhanov is pleased to conclude that Russia is entering a prolonged war with the West—a cold war, possibly worse. “There is always danger of worse,” he said, “even worse than nuclear war—and that is soulless surrender.”
The world, for [Aleksandr] Dugin, is divided between conservative land powers (Russia) and libertine maritime powers (the U.S. and the U.K.)—Eternal Rome and Eternal Carthage. The maritime powers seek to impose their will, and their decadent materialism, on the rest of the world. This struggle is at the heart of history. For Dugin, Russia must rise from its prolonged post-Soviet depression and reassert itself, this time as the center of a Eurasian empire, against the dark forces of America. And this means war. Dugin rejects the racism of the Nazis, but embraces their sense of hierarchy, their romance of death. “We need a new party,” he has written. “A party of death. A party of the total vertical. God’s party, the Russian analogue to the Hezbollah, which would act according to wholly different rules and contemplate completely different pictures.”
There is a sense of reckoning to be felt here, like we got off easy at the end of the Cold War and this is the real backlash. There are many reasons to be scared, but we shouldn’t be hysterical. As McFaul reminds us, Putin is on his own now (Russia’s posturing only becomes meaningful if China gets involved, but that is highly unlikely). The U.S. is in a far stronger position and enjoys stable relations with both its neighbors and many more countries. Effective deterrence and diplomatic relations kept the mass-murdering tyrant Stalin at bay, and they will do just fine here.