Thomas Friedman plays Olympic Judge on the Georgia conflict, and rightly awards Gold to Russian “prime minister” Vladimir Putin in a US Foreign Policy towards Russia NY Times Op Ed. Unfortunately, Friedman also leavens his judiciousness with some errant (if predictable) cause and effect, thus ruining the whole loaf of his argument.
Based on Friedman’s assessment, he awards the Silver to a Georgia’s “bone-headed” President, Mikheil Saakashvili, and in a spirit of bipartisanship, Bronze to the “Clinton and Bush foreign policy teams.”
Friedman wants credit for the prescience of arguing against NATO expansion after the liberation of the Eastern Europe, and the attendant collapse of the Soviet Union. In this, Friedman shares some illustrious company, including foreign policy expert Michael Mandelbaum, Democrat Sen. Sam Nunn, and the State Department forbearer of Containment as America’s response to Russian Communism, George Kennan.
Ordinarily, evidence of aggression, covert manipulations and provocations towards war, and stark renunciation of international agreements, as well as diplomatic norms, would suggest that a Belligerent Nation indeed posed a grave threat to its neighbors. So Russia appeared to clear-eyed observers, following the collapse of their edifice of oppression, without any real demonstration that the underlying causes of Soviet aggression were renounced, nor meaningful amends made.
Not for those who make excuse for killers, bullies and tyrants, always finding the germ of cause for the full grown fruits of evil. For Russian apologists, Russia is the latter day equivalent to Germany after the humiliation of Versailles.
Friedman declares, “The humiliation that NATO expansion bred in Russia was critical in fueling Putin’s rise.” For Friedman, Putin was the aberration in a steady Russian march from darkness towards enlightenment, beginning with Gorbachev and continuing with Boris Yeltsin.
My recollection may be a little dusty some twenty years later, but it seems to me that Soviet (and Russian) strongmen were a steady stream of KGB, with Yeltsin as a populist and very brief interlude, before power devolved back into the hands of the KGB and Mafia bosses. Even Yeltsin seemed packaged for Western consumption as a democracy-embracing street pol, versus the indisputable party boss earlier in life. No Lech Walesa he.
I’m likewise pretty sure that the US was more concerned with Soviet aggression and the enslavement of captive populations and the peoples of Eastern Europe, rather than the democratization of Russia, as Friedman alleges. I don’t know any serious Kremlinologist, Soviet-watcher, or Russophile who thought Russia capable of that great a leap towards democracy. Yet Friedman questions:
Wasn’t that why we fought the cold war — to give young Russians the same chance at freedom and integration with the West as young Czechs, Georgians and Poles? Wasn’t consolidating a democratic Russia more important than bringing the Czech Navy into NATO?
As someone who spent a former career studying aspects of Soviet occupation and oppression of Eastern Europe, I can personally attest to the greater affinity, desire, motivation, and capacity for freedom and democracy among the Czechs, Georgians, and Poles than their Russian counterparts. And the fear of Russian aggression and repression in the absence of a NATO security guarantee.
This line of argument also ignores the very real fact that Strongmen have ruled Russia since its reemergence from the Soviet construct. Old party apparatchiks, Politburo, Military leaders, and of course, the KGB, retained the reins of power throughout. The exterior form changed, not the Oligarchy within.
Shouldn’t recent moves to reassert Regional dominance, revive Russian espionage and instigate covert, proxy warfare represent the very kinds of demonstration that give lie to the pretense of Russian good intentions?
Friedman also insists, “Russia wasn’t about to reinvade Europe.” On the basis of what evidence does he assert this? Because they didn’t? I certainly remember a lot of nervousness about Russian intentions following the end of the Cold War, and many of us who followed Europe and Russia were frankly surprised that Russia seemingly squelched their imperial aims in the years since the fall of the USSR. A strong argument can be made that Western assertiveness in supporting former Russian satellites threatened neighbors are precisely the factors that preempted Russian aggression.
Friedman acknowledged Mandelbaum to make this argument over false premises in US Foreign Policy towards Russia:
“The Clinton and Bush foreign policy teams acted on the basis of two false premises,” said Mandelbaum. “One was that Russia is innately aggressive and that the end of the cold war could not possibly change this, so we had to expand our military alliance up to its borders. Despite all the pious blather about using NATO to promote democracy, the belief in Russia’s eternal aggressiveness is the only basis on which NATO expansion ever made sense — especially when you consider that the Russians were told they could not join. The other premise was that Russia would always be too weak to endanger any new NATO members, so we would never have to commit troops to defend them. It would cost us nothing. They were wrong on both counts.”
This strikes me as both revisionist history, and after the fact excuse making for the Russians. By necessity of his argument, Mandelbaum must conclude that all known and unknown acts of Russian aggression since 1992 can be attributed to the egregious provocation from the US and NATO. Known acts of aggression would include the attempted murder leaders in Eastern Europe, funding and sponsorship of terrorism, political assassinations, and attempted manipulation of democratic elections in neighboring states.
For sure, NATO expansion was predicated on the assumption that past aggressive behavior and imperial intent signaled the likelihood of such behavior and intent in the future. Certainly, many in the West hoped strong support and a muscular defense of now liberated states would help coax Russia away from “aggressiveness,” and a belief that such aggressiveness need not be “eternal.”
Mandelbaum also suggests that NATO promoters considered Russia “too weak to endanger any new NATO members, so we would never have to commit troops to defend them.”
That sounds like a straw man, and the whole point of moves like membership in NATO and participation in missile defense is a well-considered response to a Russia far too strong and still quite capable of violence and aggression towards its neighbors.
Georgia is a nascent free-market democracy, and we can’t just watch it get crushed.
Indeed. Within his Russian apologia masked as even handed criticism, Friedman also consents to a bottom line I can agree with:
If it persists, this behavior will push every Russian neighbor to seek protection from Moscow and will push the Europeans to redouble their efforts to find alternatives to Russian oil and gas. This won’t happen overnight, but in time it will stretch Russia’s defenses and lead it to become more isolated, more insecure and less wealthy.
Friedman ends where Russia’s neighbors have always lived – in nervous vigilance, next to an imperial-minded thug.