On ‘Russian Assertiveness’ in Foreign Policy (Vladimir Brovkin)

Political Scientists like to explain reality in terms of familiar mental constructs, such as search for legitimacy, priority of domestic policy, newly found military strength, etc. And so what we have in these articles is a standard traditional application of those to contemporary Russian foreign policy. What is wrong with this is that it misses the emotional side of things, the gut feeling, the sense of pride and national injury.

Most Russians today, as demonstrated by numerous public opinion polls, believe that the West has encroached on their traditional territory and in the case of Ukraine that the West usurped what many believe is a part of the nation, one nation. Yes many including Lavrov said that Ukraine and Russian are one nation.  Western oriented, democracy loving intelligentsia types, who in 1989 chanted For Your Freedom and Ours, hailing independence of Baltic states from the Soviet Union, let alone common folks believe that the West took advantage of them, they feel betrayed, that instead of embracing Russia is one European democratic community after 1991, the West took what was Russia’s by right and history and included in into its sphere of influence economically and militarily. To an Russian intellectual who had always regarded Russia as a part of Europe, the idea that Ukraine can be a part of Europe and Russia is not is a preposterous insult. Moreover, after WWII the idea that Berlin and Washington make decisions for the Ukrainian government causes rage, anger, and desire to put an end to it now.

President Putin’s foreign policy is still a desperate attempt to hold on to the spirit of 2003- 2005 when Russia, France and Germany together opposed the US war in Iraq.  He still nostalgically remembers when Russia and major powers of Western Europe charted a course of creating one Europe from Portugal to Vladivostok in 2005. Putin still does not want to let go of this dream. Hence the Minsk accords and very feeble reaction to NATO arrogance.

That is why he has been reacting to Western offensive, as Stephen Cohen has pointed out numerous times. Putin was reacting to Western takeover of Ukraine by very feeble response of safeguarding  Crimea and Russian military base there and providing lukewarm support to Donbass, always seeking a way to restore normal relations with Western Europe.

This course, this feeble assertiveness has encountered a growing opposition lately. In public debates on channel One one can hear open criticism of Lavrov for the lack of defense of Donbas. Some openly argue for a march sterner approach.

Let me tell you what an assertive Russian policy would have looked like. On Georgia, Russia would not have stopped after liberating South Ossetia and would have marched into Tbilisi and installed a friendly regime actually as the US had done numerous times in what it called its backyard in Central America.

On Ukraine, Russia could have refused to recognize a Maidan government as illegitimate, a product of a coup d’etat and sent in the troops to support legitimate government of duly elected President Yanukovych. Some participants in the numerous channel one debates advocated creating a Ukrainian Liberation Army, that would have been openly not secretly supported by the Russian army.

That army they argued should have driven the Maidan Bandera scum out of Kiev, allowed them to secede in Western Ukraine, their hub and declared to the West that West Ukraine its protectorate, a no fly zone for NATO.

This is just for starters. You want to continue OK Here is some more assertive policy.

In response to missiles in Romania Russia should install medium range missiles in Transnistria region targeting American missiles.

That, my dear friends, would have been an assertive foreign policy. Moreover if you listen to debates on channel one of Russia TV you will learn that that kind of policy including possible stern action in regard to Poland,Lithuania and others whom they call taitors, would have looked like.

So President Putin is a Westernizer, a Petersburg Europe friendly leader. If you think he is aggressive, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

Vladimir Brovkin taught at Harvard University for 9 years and at Urals University in Russia for 5 years. He holds a PhD in History from Princeton.

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