And finally, a word on the domestic politics of Russian engagement within the United States. Please read the previous post for a sense of where I’m coming from with respect to US relations with Russia; it provides context useful for this argument.
Russia is a semi-authoritarian country with a government increasingly hostile to civil liberties and the rule of law. Its leadership, while perhaps not “fascist” (a term that has become nearly useless), has built its legitimacy in part around virulent nationalism, combined with conservative spiritualism and a hostility to most conceptions of cosmopolitanism. This government is considerably more hostile to civil rights and civil liberties than any Western country, and also experiences significantly higher corruption. At the same time, the current government has taken major steps to integrate Russia into the world economy on neoliberal terms, including making the country safer for Western investment, and pursuing membership in most of the major multilateral economic organizations. Conservatives might object, but I feel relatively safe in suggesting that this amounts, domestically, to a far right country, residues of state ownership notwithstanding. Russia’s fears of Western encroachment stem in large part (although not entirely) from concerns that foreign influence may lead to revolutionary activity on the part of its population.
Internationally, Russia maintains a strong emphasis on state sovereignty, and is generally hostile to the various expressions of multilateral interventionism that constitute a major element of the global liberal internationalist order. At the same time, Russia eagerly participates in the multilateral institutions that it has become party to, and (as suggested above), has undertaken significant efforts to make its economy compatible with the norms and procedures of global capitalism.
This appreciation of state sovereignty does not extend to Russia’s neighbors. For a variety of reasons, including long-standing security concerns, certain notions of historical and cultural privilege, and the general expectations of primacy that large countries tend to enjoy, Russia does not treat its neighbors as deserving of the same degree of sovereignty as Russia supports in international fora. There seems to be, in context of the course of the Soviet collapse, a widespread belief among Russians that countries like Georgia and Ukraine don’t enjoy genuine nationhood, and need not be treated with even formal equality. I’m not even convinced that the conflict between Russia’s espoused positions on sovereignty and its treatment of its near abroad represents hypocrisy; it’s not obvious that Russian policymakers think of themselves as making exceptions to this rule, so much as they don’t even conceive of Russia’s neighbors as independent, sovereign states.
There’s nothing particularly unusual about this kind of belief in a great power; Russian exceptionalism is pretty unexceptional. However, it does mean that when we say we ought to recognize Russian interests in “a region absolutely essential in Moscow’s view to its national security and even to its civilization,” it means recognizing Russia’s de facto right to intervene in the political and economic affairs of its neighbors, to the extent that Moscow can, when it finds appropriate, simply dismember them.
Russia and the “Left”
If you’re a loose adherent of the realist school of foreign policy (as opposed to the realist school of international relations theory), then none of this matters very much. The US interest in stability, in mobilizing the support Moscow can lend in other areas (such as Iran), and in the uninterrupted flow of fossil fuel surely overwhelms any concern about the political orientation of Russia’s neighbors.
I don’t know that it’s obvious to anyone what a “leftist” foreign policy consists of. I have a better sense of “left liberal” but even on that score I think it’s reasonable to say we get more in terms of critique than construction. I’m pretty sure, however, that there is no construction of a leftist vision of foreign policy of international affairs that can be built around the principle “the strong do as they want, the weak suffer what they must.”
It is clearly possible to write about Ukraine from an authentically leftist position in ways that are deeply critical of US foreign policy without, at the same time, setting aside a Cone of Imperial Domination for Moscow. Sam Kriss contributed a piece for Jacobin that found grounds for critiquing both the West and Ukrainian revolutionaries without simultaneously carving out a space for Russian empire-building. A lot of analysis at Naked Capitalism runs from the bad to the weird, but at least the front-page posters don’t seem to have much sympathy for Russian foreign policy aims. This is unsurprising; if you’re on the left, or the liberal left, it’s hard to see anything to like about Russia, or about the direction that Russian politics are headed.
Not every leftist organ needs to engage in ritual denunciation of Russian policy in Ukraine. For some people, Russia just isn’t very important or worthy of comment. I don’t see value in demanding that Glenn Greenwald renounce the annexation of Crimea (although there’s a better case to be made that he should more aggressively challenge the depredations of the Russian national security state). I would prefer that leftists refrain from engaging in justification of and apology for the worst elements of Russian foreign and domestic policy, up to and including the ritual demonization of anti-Russian forces in Russia’s neighbors, and by and large that’s been the case.
And that leads us to the Nation. The Nation is now, and has for a long time been, an important organ of the left on foreign and domestic policy. There has certainly been much to critique, from the over-enthusiasm for Stalin in the days of yore, to the employment of the clownish Christopher Hitchens during the period he was clowning on the left. I’ll leave Ace Cockburn for another day; I’ve never found his work of much use, but mileage apparently varies. But under the editorship of Katrina vanden Heuvel, and primarily in the person of Stephen Cohen, the magazine has embarked on a frankly embarrassing project of apology for Russian policy towards Ukraine. This project has moved well beyond a sensible recognition of Russian views with respect to its near abroad to a clear embrace of such views.
Assessment of fault depend on agency. Actors with no options deserve no opprobrium. The Nation’s coverage of the Ukraine has almost singularly avoided discussion of the crisis in terms that grant agency to any country other than the United States. When the US pushes, it creates a Russian reaction; there’s no sense that Russia has several policy options, or that Russia’s decisions made have had destructive consequences, or that the Russian leadership has created a poisonous mess for itself by mismanaging expectations in its own backyard. The Kiev government “inflicts needless devastation;” the Russian government that arms, trains, and supports separatists, that has actually annexed a part of Ukraine, has played no apparent role in the infliction of this needless devastation. The actions of Kiev and Washington have mechanistic effects on Russia; push the wrong button, and Russia annexes Ukraine.
It’s not difficult to re-write this story with a strong focus on Russian agency. Russia’s clear, long-term interest in dominating the political, economic, and social conditions of its near abroad have created resistance movements in Russia’s neighbors that are not only deeply receptive to but often actively seek out assistance from Western powers. Cohen implies that NATO simply imposes membership, which allows him to forget that many of Russia’s neighbors genuinely detest Russian influence. This narrative isn’t entirely satisfying (the United States bears some responsibility for failing to make its priors clear to Russia), but it’s a more useful story than the one Cohen wants to push.
Cohen emphasizes that a small fraction of the Ukrainian coalition government that has fascist leanings ad nauseum, with dire warnings that even small, unpopular group can sometimes manage to seize power. Of course, many more small, relatively unpopular fascist groups fail to take power, but this hardly fits with the narrative. Meanwhile, radical nationalist groups in Russia, with the full support of the Russian security state, infiltrate Ukraine on a regular basis. The imperialist rhetoric that Putin cloaks himself is celebrated, either to the extent that it demonstrates Russia’s historical interest in the area, or that it indicates Putin’s “restraint” in response to the crisis. In short, the fascists of Ukraine pose a critical threat to the securit of Russia, while the virulent, imperialist nationalists of Russia pose no identifiable threat to Ukraine, or to any other of Russia’s neighbors.
Cohen has decided to take the title of “Great American dissident” bestowed on his by Gilbert Doctrow and run with it, now claiming that he and those who agree with him are the only “true American democrats and the real patriots of US national security.” One would imagine HUAC hard upon his heels, were it not for the fact that Cohen remains effectively in control of the Russia coverage of a major, long-standing American magazine. Cohen claims that many in powerful positions share his beliefs, but are afraid to speak out because… of reasons, apparently. In the same magazine, Gilbert Doctorow has determined that the lack of debate over Ukraine in the Russian media indicates not that the media has become supine, but rather that it has united around the justice of the cause in Ukraine. When everyone thinks that you’re wrong, you may indeed be a brave truth teller. It’s also possible that you’re simply wrong.
I fondly remember David Greenberg calling me out as a commie symp for insufficiently celebrating the freedom-tastic-ness of Mikhail Saakashvili. As noted in the earlier post, I think that US support for Ukraine should be careful and measured, and should fall far short of direct military intervention in the conflict. I also appreciate that the Russian government feels genuinely betrayed by the United States. At the same time, I can recognize that Russia has wildly escalated a very manageable crisis (the revolutionary government almost certainly would have collapsed under its own weight, leaving Russia likely in an even stronger position), and that this escalation has taken place largely because Russia believes itself privileged to intervene socially, economically, and militarily in the governance of areas that no longer belong to Russia.
It would be helpful if, the next time the United States determines to embark on a foolish imperial adventure in Africa, South America, or the Middle East, the Nation could coherently argue that it consistently opposes such adventures, that it find the politics of great power privilege abhorrent, and that it places a strong value on the norms of state sovereignty and opposition to violent interference in the affairs of others.
Unfortunately, it can’t do so. Complaining that the New Republic is full of hypocrites is fine and accurate, but doesn’t take you very far.