By now every self-respecting political pundit, columnist, television talking head, and member of Congress has had her say on Russia, Crimea, Ukraine and the ugly face of Russian imperialism.
It’s nice to see the Russians hung out for a change since we Americans get insulted and accused regularly by our critics and opponents all over the world for imperialism, aggrandizement, oil-sucking misbehavior, and violations of everything from trashing the environment to human rights offenses.
However, our major contenders for power and influence in the world, like the Russians and Chinese for example, are no saints. Some of them, as we are witnessing today, like President Vladimir Putin, are blatant in their use of power politics. One would think a former KGB officer would be slightly more subtle, but perhaps it takes a former super patriotic intelligence officer, trained as a true believer, to be so bold.
That some of us may be surprised by Russian aggression is a bit surprising itself. Russia is doing what it has done best for centuries, defend and aggrandize the Russian nation, the Russian people, whether driven by an idea, like Soviet communism for half a century, or other self-interests, like the need to protect or acquire resources (oil, minerals, gas, etc.) or, like in today’s world, defend itself against international terrorists.
Now Ukraine is feeling the weight of the Russian bear, but it is as predictable as the U. S. protecting its interests in the Caribbean so close to home, and so long associated with the U. S. “sphere of interests.” The Ukraine, and especially Crimea, have long been imbedded in Russian history, just as the old Soviet Union discovered back in October, 1962 how really sensitive we could be to the placement of Soviet missiles in Cuba.
While by no means an expert on anything about the Soviet Union or Russia, I learned relatively early in my life what life must have been like for satellite nations swept into the Soviet empire.
My story starts in Durham, North Carolina in the fall of 1960. Navy was visiting Duke for another game in an old storied rivalry (there are other rivalries in the gridiron beyond Alabama and Auburn, believe it or not). In my freshman house there was an older guy, a Hungarian, maybe in his mid-twenties, which of course is not old, but old from the perspective of most of us at the time.
He, or someone, suggested that we kidnap the Navy mascot, a goat, the night before the game and do something neat, like shave big Ds in his side and paint them Duke Blue.
How are we going to do this?
For a Hungarian freedom fighter, this was simple stuff. He had survived a Russian invasion in 1956 which brutally put down an attempt by the Hungarian people to free themselves from the Soviets.
I was not directly involved in the goat-napping, but I’ll claim some credit for remembering it.
Stealing a goat was simple stuff for a guy who had fought the Soviet tanks and battle-hardened troops for dominance of Hungary. The Hungarians lost that revolt and remained under the heel of the Soviets for another thirty years, but we got the goat.
The next day, as the football players streamed onto the field, the Midshipmen came out also, but no goat. They were visibly chagrined. He was delivered at halftime, with shining new Blue Ds on his side, no worse for having been in the hands of our freshman house for a few hours. I believe Duke rallied and went on to beat Navy.
The Soviets, on the other hand, continued to dominate the world they had conquered after the end of World War II.
They stuck their noses and guns and tanks into many sovereign and previously independent countries during the Cold War, and now have pushed with impunity into Crimea, loosely aligned within Ukrainian sovereignty.
The Russians have had their reverses.
In 1979 they invaded Afghanistan and fought a long, protracted war, finally admitting defeat in 1989 after a debilitating campaign financed and directed in a significant way by the CIA. It was sometimes called the Soviet’s Vietnam. If anything, we had learned what a determined resistance could do to a foreign “oppressor”—us– in Vietnam. We helped the Russians learn the same lesson in Afghanistan.
My education continued in 1962. When we weren’t painting blue “Ds” on Navy goats, we also attended classes occasionally, and my “wow” moment with Russia and the old Soviet Union came both in a history classroom and in real time.
I took a course on the history of Russia with a tall, rumpled professor named Warren Lerner. He was a mesmerizing lecturer who knew his field so well that I remember coming out of one lecture a convinced Leninist, so well had Lerner portrayed the Russia of 1917, broken by war against Germany and following the siren call of the Bolsheviks led by Lenin and his slogan of “Bread, Land, and Peace.”
In the next few lectures, Lerner had us all wondering what fool would have fallen for Lenin and his communist claptrap, imposing a suffocating dictatorship on Russia that would make any tyrant of old blush in comparison.
Then, in 1962, Fidel Castro in Cuba invited the Soviets to plant some missiles on the island aimed at the United States. We were then locked in the middle of a Cold War with the Soviet Union and it suddenly got very hot. President Kennedy told his counterpart in Moscow, Nikita Khrushchev, to pull the missiles out, or else.
We all sat riveted to the television late in October, wondering if the Soviet ships carrying more missiles would turn away when faced with the blockading cruisers and destroyers of our Navy. Those of us in NROTC and AFROTC wondered if the world would be swept up in some kind of conflagration before we got a chance to get in. Such are the thoughts that go through the minds of eighteen and nineteen years old, given to thinking not of the end but of their own immortal lives.
The crisis passed, and we returned to football and foolishness, and also to some good classes I had discovered existed on the Duke campus from my experience in Lerner’s class.
After that (Lerner’s class and the missile crisis) I became an off and on watcher of the Soviet Union. When it collapsed in the early 1990s, Russia rose like the mythical Phoenix out of the old communist empire that had been launched by Lenin.
Today Russia under Putin still sees itself as a defender of the world’s peoples against her old imperialist competitors for empire, like Great Britain for hundreds of years, and the Unites States of late.
It can create some complicated “alliances,” where old antagonisms are swept under the rug to keep the Americans off balance. That today Iran and Russia would see anything for example through the prism of common interests is pure cynicism, given that Russia historically has meddled and sometimes even dominated Iranian affairs much to the disgust and suspicion of the Iranians.
As the old saying goes, politics makes for strange bedfellows.
But, if you get in bed with the Russians, don’t expect a happy relationship. They will try to have their way, always.
Ukraine, for example, is basically divided between an eastern portion that faces Russia, has a substantial Russian-speaking population, and wants to remain closely associated with Russia. The western portion of Ukraine wants to become more like the West, to join the European Union, to move away from Russian domination.
And Crimea has so often been in the paths of invaders and the site of wars, especially between competing empires in the centuries preceding, that to label Putin’s latest takeover a “Russian invasion” is not really so astounding or even necessarily provocative. We did the same thing in April, 1961 when we “invaded” Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, using Cuban exile proxies by and large to try and remove Fidel Castro. That was a disaster.
In the mid-nineteenth century Crimea too became a battleground between empires in the three-year Crimean War. For the English-speaking public, it produced a magnificent poem to gallantry, The Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
“Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley’d and thunder’d;
Storm’d at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.”
The Russians lost that war, but eventually reestablished a strong presence in the city of Sevastopol, long the “warm water” port for their Navy. Sevastapol was deeply scarred by the Nazi invasion of Russia in World War II and the battles around and in it endowed it with a heroic history in that bitter war.
I suggest that armchair pundits and commentators take a good course in Russian history to get started on what makes Russia tick, for there are a lot of common bonds between our peoples. Basic human values drive us all together.
But there are also some chasms in our understanding of how the world should be organized. That a large part of the world would rather the Americans and Russians but out of their business is also true. They invoke the principle of “self-determination,” one of the fourteen principles that emerged after “the war to end all wars,”–remember the one to save the world for democracy—between 1914 and 1918.
But old habits, like imperialism and preserving one’s national self-interests—still weigh heavily in the equation of the relations between the U. S. and Russia.
Crimea and Sevastopol are deeply imbedded in the national psyche of Russia. That the latest Russian “invasion” of Crimea violated Ukrainian sovereignty is transparently true. The American reaction is equally predictable. And the Russian response is nearly as predictable. They will have their way in Crimea, perhaps accommodating a bit to the chorus of international outrage.
How to push aside ideological differences and imperial aspirations and look for the common denominators is the job of governments and their leaders.
And that’s a tough job. Just ask Mr. Obama or Mr. Putin.
This column published in The Port Rail in The Tuscaloosa News as Russian Aggression Not So Surprising, Sunday, March 16, 2014.