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Russians love their children, too - but that alone won't stop a nuclear war

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Back when most of today's Western decision-makers were in college, Sting had a hit song with "Russians." It began:

"In Europe and America, there's a growing feeling of hysteria Conditioned to respond to all the threats In the rhetorical speeches of the Soviets Mr Khrushchev said we will bury you I don't subscribe to this point of view It would be such an ignorant thing to do If the Russians love their children too."

It sometimes seems that most Western analysis of Russia has the sophistication of this song.

The simplicity of the idea that all humans are essentially the same, and that a common understanding is thus always within reach, is seductive. Its appeal stems from the fact that few things are harder than knowing someone whose views of the world are profoundly different from yours. This is why it has been so difficult for a veritable army of Western experts to explain or predict Russian President Vladimir Putin's behavior.

Since Russia annexed Crimea in March, a narrative has emerged in the West that seems to provide a basis for understanding and negotiating with Putin. According to it, Russia is pursuing its strategic interest in keeping Ukraine unallied with the West because it needs a "buffer zone" between itself and members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Some analysts have gone so far as to essentially blame the entire crisis on the West, which, so goes the narrative, ignored Russia for too long. NATO bombed Yugoslavia in 1999 without so much as paying lip service to bringing Russia in on the decision. It expanded in 2004 to include three Baltic states that border Russia, disregarding Russia's express opposition. And when the West reached for Ukraine, the sleeping bear had finally had enough and so it reared up.

This narrative is not without merit. The bombing of Yugoslavia enabled an unprecedented rise in nationalist politics in Russia. And NATO expansion confirmed Russians' worst suspicions about the West. Ukraine's attempted move westward last year terrified the Kremlin, as did everything that has happened in that country since the protests began in Kiev last November.

But the sleeping-bear story is missing two essential components: the role of Ukraine and its people, who have been fighting to choose their own destiny - indeed, this story tends to ignore the existence of Ukrainians altogether - and, ironically, the fact that Putin has his own agenda.

It is tempting to view Putin as merely the embodiment of Russia's reaction to the actions of Western powers. It creates the illusion that he can be managed, or contained. If all he wants is a buffer zone between Russia and NATO, then the way to prevent a large European war is to give it to him, whatever the people of Ukraine might want. Let him keep Crimea, make Ukraine grant significant autonomy to its eastern regions and promise not to enter into any military alliances - and the Nobel Peace Prize is on its way.

The only problem is that portraying Putin as an unlikable but, essentially, Western politician - one who formulates his strategic objectives in a way Western analysts can understand - misses the point entirely. Russia's behavior over the past week of a fragile ceasefire in eastern Ukraine has shown this very clearly. Russia kidnapped an Estonian security officer on Estonian territory - the Russians claim he was arrested on Russian soil while spying - and is holding him in Russia. It has re-opened Soviet-era desertion cases against a large number of Lithuanian men. And Russia has ratcheted up its nuclear saber-rattling.

All this points to the possibility that, rather than the beginning of the end of the conflict, the ceasefire is a stepping stone to the next stage of the crisis. That stage may or may not involve Ukraine, but it will definitely involve the use of force and, as it always happens in warfare, it will be bloodier and even more frightening than what came before.

Most Western analysts have chosen to ignore the many ways Russia has found recently to threaten the world with the potential use of nuclear arms. And even when they have not, they have fallen into the trap of thinking like themselves rather than like the other side. In a recent essay in Foreign Policy, for example, Jeffrey Lewis dusts off the logic of mutually assured destruction to argue that Putin would never actually use nuclear arms. But that argument assumes a lower - Western-politician level - risk threshold. It argues that Putin would not ultimately use nuclear weapons because that would expose him as a naked aggressor.

In reality, though, Putin has no objections to being perceived as an aggressor. His thinking probably goes something like this: "I need to show the world, and my people, that we are not scared of NATO. The way it looks now, any little state - even one that really shouldn't be an independent state, like one of the Baltics - can join NATO and act like it can do and say whatever it wants - right on our border! Well, I could show them. All I have to do is fire a missile. Not a strategic nuclear weapon, and not at Washington, but, say, a nuclear-tipped missile at, say, a Lithuanian city. What's the United States going to do? Start a nuclear war with Russia over that? Like hell they are. Meanwhile, with one tactical strike at one town, I will have called NATO's bluff."

Indeed, if he's right, he would have completed the destruction of the post-WWII world order that began with the annexation of Crimea.

Does that mean Putin will attack the Baltics or use nuclear weapons? No. But it's a lot more likely than it would be if he thought like a Western politician. Of course, one of the reasons Putin does not think like a Western politician is that he doesn't have to: He has dismantled all democratic institutions in Russia, such as they were, and he is answerable to no one.

The Russian elites, an amorphous concept on which Western policymakers have pinned too much hope, are not independent agents who could or would exert pressure on him. The Russian public, subjected to authoritarian rule and state terror for generations, knows that falling in step, especially in times of war, is essential to survival.

In the absence of democratic mechanisms, Putin needs only the most superficial public support for his acts of aggression - and he can most certainly count on it. In part because the Russians love their children, too - and want them to grow up in a great country that the rest of the world fears.

© (c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2014.

©2020 GPlusMedia Inc.

11 Comments
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Well it would have a heck of a lot more chance of stopping a nuclear war if Russia were a democracy. I think the scary thing is only two of the CCP politburo members have kids. One wonders what will happen to the world if the others have a bad day...

0 ( +3 / -3 )

Putin scares his own people. As the Russian mothers who were told their sons had died fighting alongside Ukrainian rebels whether their nationalism is on the rise?

0 ( +3 / -3 )

Let's just hope he doesn't get drunk on Vodka one day

-1 ( +2 / -3 )

a very nicely researched and written piece- and the comments have not had any of the political hacks from the great bear pollute it yet. they will soon...

this piece is quite correct- the appeasement that is being used by the west- the way every county has removed any real support from the Ukraine - i'll bet they are sorry they decided to declare themselves neutral

Russia will actually not be happy with just eastern Ukraine- that is just a start- but instead the west puts it's head in the sand and worries about the Scottish vote and Islamic State- even though both do not have what it takes to affect directly people in the EU and USA- like Russia does.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

But the sleeping-bear story is missing two essential components: the role of Ukraine and its people, who have been fighting to choose their own destiny - indeed, this story tends to ignore the existence of Ukrainians altogether

A very different people living in West and East Ukraine

Usually only opinion of West Ukraine taking in account : result - civil war

In East Ukraine living more then 10 millions Russian

With its OWN history - they are NOT " Ukrainian people"

Russia kidnapped an Estonian security officer on Estonian territory - the Russians claim he was arrested on Russian soil while spying - and is holding him in Russia.

Sorry - it was military invasion in Estonia ?

Spy activity is a crime in Russia as in all other countries

So nothing special

But that argument assumes a lower - Western-politician level - risk threshold

It's a joke ?

Masah is US citizen -

And US diplomacy has only one decision - military

Masah Hessen - is not Russian-American journalist

She is American journalist who write about Russia for US reader

By the way - she well known and not respected in Russia

For Russian people she is an enemy

Like Zbigniew Brzezinski

1 ( +1 / -0 )

the appeasement that is being used by the west- the way every county has removed any real support from the Ukraine

Meddling your way right up to Russia's borders is appeasement?

Of course to some people all diplomacy is weakness and only might makes right.

The simple fact is that there are a lot of ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine and if they want to leave Ukraine and take their very own lands with them, its their natural right to do so. Giving western Ukraine the means to pummel them into submission would be an affront to basic principles of self-determination.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

No one is threatening Russia, the problem is the crook Putin's attempts to invade and steal parts of neighbouring countries. Based on his logic he shouldn't be surprised when China invades eastern Russia to "protect" its citizens living there.

This kind of aggression cannot be allowed to continue. One solution would be to expel all Russian citizens from other countries, taking away the crook Putin's excuse for intervention. But first, sanctions should be imposed on Russia to cripple the economy.

-2 ( +1 / -3 )

The say that history repeats itself once as Tragedy, once as comedy and lastly as farce. The Crisis in the Crimea is nothing new and this is the second war in the conflict between Russia and the Western World (Eastern Europe and the US). In the first war it was to support the Ottoman Empire against the Russian intrusion into the Ukraine; now we want to support an independent Ukraine and aid in the total break up of the old Soviet Empire. In the recently forgotten Soviet-Afghan war were we supported the Mujahedeen (the great Freedom Fighters), in which Bin Laden was a major commander, and we defeated the Soviets and fought for Freedom. Now that the Freedom fighters have become world enemy number 1, ahead of the evil soviets; what will the Ukraine Freedom Fighters, headed by the National Socialist, become in the near future. I am no fan of Putin. I am less of a fan of a government that has an organization that prides itself as a reincarnation of the National Socialist Party of Germany as its role model.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

@Kristianna Well thankfully your imaginings of NSDAP members in Ukraine are a complete fiction. Also, they are not muslim, so terrorism is unlikely and it really will be a win-win for the west. The breakup of the Soviet Union was one of the shining moments of the last century.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

scipantheist @Kristianna Well thankfully your imaginings of NSDAP members in Ukraine are a complete fiction.

It's a very sad story : lot of Ukrainian nationalists served during WW2 to A Hitler

They are heroes for modern Ukrainian nationalists because they have fought against Russian

And this modern Ukrainian nationalists used by some western politicians

Of course not because they love Nazi but because these guys can be used against Russia

The same thing during WW2 Hitler despised Ukrainian nationalists but used them

0 ( +0 / -0 )

It expanded in 2004 to include three Baltic states that border Russia, disregarding Russia’s express opposition. And when the West reached for Ukraine, the sleeping bear had finally had enough and so it reared up.

Back in 1962, Russia tried to install the missile base in Cuba which is the door step of US. President J F Kennedy boiled with temper and retaliated with anger. There was an almost missiles exchange between two giants. Two US planes were shot down.

Thanks to UN General Secretary U Thant (Myanmar wise and smart man), thing was settled. If US does not want to be cornered inside the ring, Russia does not want it too. Expanding the NATO base touching the Russia border was nothing different from Cuban missiles crisis.

If there is another Cuban crisis, Ban Ki Moon is not capable of finding the solution as U Thant. It is doubtful he is up to the his job. New UN Chief should be the man in action with solution.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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