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Dangers of Over-Reach

Dangers of Over-Reach

Thursday, 21 April, 2022 - 09:45
Ramzy Ezzeldin Ramzy
Former Egyptian Ambassador and Senior UN official.

When it comes to conducting international relations the West has a tendency to over-reach, this is particularly true when it is engaged in armed conflict. Included amongst them are the instances where the West over-promised and under-delivered as was the case in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Libya. The results have been counterproductive to the West’s interests and disastrous to the people of the countries involved.

Given the topical issue of the crisis in Ukraine, I will confine myself to Europe and most particularly those cases that involve Russia in one way or the other.

The first over-reach was the humiliation of Germany in the First World War. This unleashed the drive to restore national pride that gave birth to Nazism. The outcome was the Second World War.

The second was again the over-kill of Germany which resulted in its total defeat in the Second World War. The goal was the total obliteration of Germany’s industrial and physical infrastructure. The consequence was the vacuum created in Europe which lead to the emergence of an even more potent adversary: the Soviet Union. This resulted in a forty-year Cold War that diverted the United States and Soviet resources to an unnecessary arms race with worldwide consequences.

In both situations had the total defeat of Germany been avoided and thus sparing it unnecessary humiliation, a strong Europe could have emerged sooner with Germany at its center that would have acted as a counterweight to a formidable ideological adversary, the Soviet Union. I guess we will never know whether such a scenario could have occurred.

In the first case, the rise of Nazism could have been prevented and WWII would have been avoided. In the second case a rapidly recovering Germany would have been at the center of a vibrant new Europe that could have prevented the communist takeover in the eastern part of the continent. Europe would have been a different place and the dynamics between it and both the US and the Soviet Union would have been different.

The third came after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The West's policy was to exploit the weakness of Russia in its early years by creating a fait accompli in which Moscow had to resign itself to accepting a secondary status. Therefore there was the hurried expansion of NATO and the European Union through the absorption of the former Soviet allies in Eastern Europe. At the time, Russia was too weak to resist. What this policy failed to take into account was that Russia was a proud nation possessing a long and illustrious history and strong traditions which gave it a sense of exceptionalism, not dissimilar from that of the United States.

This sense of exceptionalism, again like the United States, is manifested in a missionary zeal. Whereas the United States' mission is to spread freedom and democracy around the world, Russia's divine mission is to provide the world with a superior moral model derived from the Orthodox Church.

The Western political model is based on diffusion of power, a system of checks and balances and a pragmatic outlook. Russia has always known centralized authority and takes pride in its moral purity. Russia faced a dilemma in that it was not entirely accepted by the West, and at the same time it is not entirely comfortable with the Western value system. Had western civilization absorbed Russia, the West would be different from what is today.

Anyone familiar with Russian history cannot overlook the fact that Russian mentality possesses immutable characteristics that are reflected in the political system: the belief in exceptionalism, accepting centralized authority and a security phobia arising from the fact that Russia, over the centuries, has been invaded from all directions.

It is these characteristics that are largely responsible for intermittent rivalry between Russia and the West. However, not all Russians consider the West as their rival. There are those who would like Russia to absorb long the western value system. But there are also Russians who see themselves both as Europeans as well as Asians, and Eurasians. The latter believe that they possess a value system that is morally superior to that of the materialistic West. No one captures Russian nationalism, in its extreme form, better than Alexander Dugin, a Russian political philosopher in his 1997 book “ Foundations of Geopolitics “.

The humiliation Russia suffered during the Yeltsin years would not stand. It was only a matter of time before Russia would force the West to deal with it as a great power and treat it with the respect it deserves.

President Putin in one important aspect draws a historical comparison with former President Gorbachev. Both - as all Russian leaders from the Czars to the communists - strove to ensure Russian greatness. Gorbachev became the leader of the Soviet Union at a time when it was ripe for change. The communist system was no longer sustainable for a variety of reasons. If it were not for Gorbachev, it would have been someone else from his generation who would have attempted to reform the system.

The issue of generation is critical. Lenin and Stalin, who represented the first generation of communist leaders, rode the tide of revolutionary romanticism inculcated in them in the early twentieth century. Their political formation took place before and during the Revolution. Their point of reference was pre- revolutionary Russia where the overwhelmingly majority of the population was living in destitute.

With the Revolution, in spite of the civil war and foreign military interventions and subsequently the famines , the vast majority improved their lot. At least that was how the leadership justified its policies. They succeeded against all odds. Communism would ultimately triumph as the dominant system of government everywhere.

The second generation, represented by both Krushchev and Brezhnev, whose political formation was influenced by both the Second World War and the Bolshevik Revolution. The Soviet Union emerged victorious and Europe was devastated. The economic conditions in the Soviet Union were therefore not worse than the rest of Europe. The Soviet Union was therefore still on its path to greatness. Khrushchev famously announced in 1956 to Western ambassadors in Moscow that

“ We (the Soviet Union) will bury you ( the West) ”.

The third generation was represented by President Gorbachev. This generation was born long after the Bolshevik Revolution and were too young to be politically influenced by the Second World War. Their point of reference was therefore elsewhere. This generation had seen the world shrinking into a global village. It was no longer possible to convince the Soviet people to compromise on the quality of their lives. Their point of reference was no longer the 1917 Revolution or WWII, but the West where the contrast with the standard of living was glaring. The Soviet government had to deliver a better life for its citizens.

In short, all Russian leaders from the Czars to the communists to Putin were driven by a seemingly uncontrollable urge to ensure that Russia be treated with respect as a great and powerful nation.

The need to erase the humiliation that Russia suffered during the Yeltsin years and the overwhelming urge to remind the world of Russian exceptionalism is the historical context in which President Putin came to power.

Similar to the case of Gorbachev, if it were not Putin, it would have been someone else from the same generation who would have pursued policing to redress the humiliation Russia suffered during the Yeltsin years. Maybe he would have gone about matters in a different manner, but he would not have veered from the goal of ensuring that the world would deal with Russia in a respectful manner. This meant respecting Russia’s interests and security concerns.

This is also the context in which the crisis in Ukraine occurred. Russia chose to trigger a crisis in Ukraine to draw the attention of the world to its grievances.

The Russian body politic is not monolithic. There are those who oppose President Putin, the majority of which probably also oppose the war in Ukraine. They are, however, very far from the critical mass that can influence decisions in so far as Ukraine is concerned.

So attributing the crisis in Ukraine solely to Putin and his “Siloviki”

security entourage misses the point. It overlooks Russia’s historical aspirations to be treated as a great nation. The danger is that Russia cannot accept defeat in Ukraine.

Pursuing Russia’s defeat in Ukraine would be another disastrous over-reach on the part of the West. A new formula of co-existence and cooperation between Russia and the West is the only way to avoid a prolonged crisis in which the entire world will suffer.

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