The Bitter Pill
When I was a university student of Russian History in the mid 1980’s, the Iron Curtain was still drawn tightly shut, the Berlin Wall had yet to fall, and the term Eastern Europe referred to a group of countries who were occupied by Soviet troops.
There were two general schools of thought about Russian/Soviet foreign policy when I was at university. The one school held that the Russians were by their very nature expansionist and had always sought to dominate the countries around them out of greed and an arrogant desire to control smaller, weaker nations. The Communist ideology, this first group of scholars argued, only intensified the Russians natural desire to expand. The other school of thought argued that the Russian’s desire for a sphere of influence on particularly their western border stemmed more from a defensive than an offensive mindset. They argued that this mindset was perhaps natural, or at least understandable, in a country that had been invaded repeatedly and disastrously down through the centuries.
I generally supported the second school of thought because it was hard to argue that Russia hadn’t been invaded and it was equally hard to argue that these invasions hadn’t been disasters. It started with the Mongols, of course, who came not from the west but the east. They conquered the fledgling Russian principalities in 1237-40 and did not leave again until 1380 a century-and-half later. It was a time of great stagnation in Russia. Some Russian historians argue that it set their country back two hundred years or more.
The first of the three great “modern” invasions occurred during something called The Great Northern War when in 1708, Charles XII, the Swedish warrior king, with a force of fifty thousand men, invaded Russia and laid waste to the territories he marched through. The Russians finally defeated him in July of 1709 at a place called Poltava. Poltava is in Ukraine.
The next invasion came about a hundred years later in 1812, and for those of you who are shaky on the Napoleonic Wars, may I once again suggest Tolstoy. The French got all the way to Moscow and took possession of it, but what the Russians couldn’t do to the French Army, the Russian winter accomplished for them. The French retreat from Moscow decimated Napoleon’s Army, just as the war had decimated Russia itself.
Then came the invasion that still haunts the Russians, for many reasons, certainly, but not least because there are still people alive in Russia today who experienced it. On July 22, 1941, Hitler sent the German Army east into the Polish lands that Russia had taken in 1939. They didn’t stop there. They didn’t stop, actually, until they got to the Volga River many thousands of miles to the east, to a city called Stalingrad. There, in the winter of 1942, the German Army met something they could not defeat: Russian stoicism and temperatures, that if you are not a Russian, beggar belief.
The invasion of Russia by the Germans was a nasty, brutish business. Estimates range from between 20 and 40 million Russians killed. Many of the deaths were from military operations, many were from liquidations, many were simply from starvation. A former student of mine who had been a child during the war told me he remembered standing in a bread line with a number in the 3000’s.
I can understand that the Russians haven’t forgotten what happened to them in the 1940’s. I can understand how they might still feel vulnerable. During the years of the Cold War they had their Eastern European buffer, a buffer that has now evaporated.
Which brings me to Ukraine.
To us Ukraine is just another country. To the Russians, Ukraine is much more than this. It is not just a country, like Hungary or Rumania, that they happened to overrun in 1945. It’s a country inextricably linked to them over many centuries by religion, blood and marriage.
Which isn’t to say that everything has always been peaceful between them. The animosity and in some cases downright hatred between Ukrainians and Russians that we are now seeing played out on our television screens every evening has a long history. Ukrainian patriots have been fighting for independence from Russia for more than one hundred years.
The Russians, however, like all nations, remember what they want to remember. They remember the Russian blood spiledt to defend Ukraine, but not the Ukrainian blood spilled fighting for its freedom. They remember when German forces swept into Ukraine in 1941, many Ukrainians welcomed them as liberators, but forget the decimation and starvation visited upon Ukraine just a few years earlier by Stalin’s brutal purges and forced collectivization. For these reasons, and for many others, though the Russians claim the Ukrainians as brother Slavs, they have never totally trusted them.
Recent events haven’t helped this historic distrust. Ukraine’s wish to join NATO and the European and American encouragement of this wish certainly didn’t help. It was bad enough that every other country in the old Eastern European buffer had joined NATO: Romania, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Hungary and most notably Poland. The flat Polish plains were the age-old highway into Russia. The Swedes came that way, followed by the French and then the Germans after them. Ukraine is the flat plain that thrusts itself even further east into the soft underbelly of Russia.
Well, so what, we say, Russia doesn’t have the right to feel nervous about other, now independent countries, no matter how inextricably linked their past history, or how perfect their geography might lend itself to a quick tank advance. What exactly is she protecting herself from anyway? The Western Europeans are the good guys. How could the Russians think Germans or Frenchmen might possibly invade them?
But what the West is really saying to Russia is this: you are not a great power anymore. You do not have the right to claim a sphere of influence. The Soviet Union failed. The Russian Empire is gone. Russia is a country like any other with no special rights or privileges.
That’s a bitter pill to swallow. Certainly, Mr. Putin does not want to swallow it. And you have to admit, it’s much easier to prescribe for other people, isn’t it? Would we be willing to swallow the pill? Would we like the taste of our own medicine?