Before the pundits start telling you the Romney campaign stepped into a time-warp on the subject of Russia, it’s worth considering what adviser Rich Williamson said and what it means. “They’re trampling civil rights,” and “they’re our foe,” and “they’ve chosen a path of confrontations, not cooperation.” Pierre-Richard Prosper, another campaign adviser, added that “rule of law” has evaporated.
They might also have noted that Russia has staked its position as the guardian and defender of Syria. And that Putin has announced an upgrade in Russia’s nuclear arsenal that caused Poland to consider its own missile defense system. (President Obama canceled plans for interceptors in Poland as part of his early “reset” of relations with Putin.)
Russia is asserting its interests the way large, dictatorial, and resource-rich countries do. The problem for President Obama — which the Romney people can reasonably point out — is that Putin’s definition of Russia’s interests doesn’t correspond with the administration’s desire for “reset.” Jailing rock singers for “hooliganism” and businessmen for “corruption,” stealing elections, murdering journalists and dissidents, eviscerating reliable civil and contract law, and protecting murderous dictators makes it hard for President Obama to claim that the only thing wrong with U.S.-Russian relations was the previous U.S. president.
The Obama administration, unfortunately — like its predecessor — has an ahistorical and rose-colored view of Russia.
In the heady days of the collapse of communism and the liberation of what were called “the captive nations” of Central Europe, the West made a key mistake. The U.S. and its allies generally treated Russia as if it had been one of the victims of communism, like Poland or Estonia, rather than the colonial occupier of the others. Communism was, in fact, the 20th-century iteration of Russian empire — no different for the captives than tsarist Russia’s occupations. Where Czechoslovakia (in those days), Poland, and the Baltic States had histories of capitalism, parliaments, and varied alliances, Russia had decades of Stalinist-designed destruction and famine, and a deal with Hitler to divide Poland. At the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, generations of people remembered life before the post-war Russian occupation. When communism fell in Russia in 1991, far fewer remembered life before 1917 — and the waning days of the tsar were nothing on which to look back fondly.
In the decades since, Central Europe has had some problems adjusting to democratic liberalism (small d, small l), political diversity, and free markets. Czechoslovakia had a civilized divorce, but Yugoslavia’s was gruesome. Hungary and Romania flirt with fascism, as does border-state Austria. But NATO and the EU have provided a strong framework in which to pull toward “Europe whole and free.” How much harder would it be for Russia to adopt the economic and political norms of the West with which it was entirely unfamiliar? And why would it want to?
Russia has moved back toward traditional Russian norms. The rise of the Orthodox Church — and its popularity with young people — is striking. The Russian view of defense, empire, nationalism, and relations with its “near abroad” are throwback positions, as is the oligarchic nature of Russian politics and economics. Russia, rather than becoming more like us, is becoming more like itself.
It might have happened no matter how the West treated post-communist Russia; making democratic systems where none previously existed is clearly an uphill battle (see Iraq, Libya, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan). But the fact that the smallest and most lonely marker in Washington is the Monument to the Victims of Communism (2nd & G Streets, NW in case you’re interested) might also be an indicator that post-communist-era United States has never had a clear picture of the victims and the aggressor in the Cold War.
Maybe another administration will do better.