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Putin: From Frank Sinatra to Leonid Brezhnev

Putin: From Frank Sinatra to Leonid Brezhnev

Friday, 24 June, 2022 - 05:00
Amir Taheri
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987

As the war in Ukraine drags on many commentators wonder where and when Vladimir Putin might decide to call an end to his current aggressive behavior. Digging into Russian history some may assert that even if he does stop it would be a tactical move of the kind that Lenin described as "one step back, two steps forward."

Putin’s behavior has its roots in the Russian psyche.

From early days of appearing as a distinct people, Russians have always feared that they may become like others while, lacking in natural defenses, their vast territory was vulnerable to foreign invasion.

In his novel "What is to be done?" Nikolai Chernyshevki poses the question whether Russia should become European or Asian or remain itself and make Europe and Asia like itself. For Khomiakov and other pan-Slavists, to perform its duty as the Third Rome and the final standard-bearer of True Christianity, Russia should not allow even a parcel of its soil or soul to be lost to others.

Thus, when Putin says that Ukraine was, is and must re-become Russian he is expressing a deeply-rooted national conceit that any relationship with the outside world is ipso facto conflictual.

Lenin expressed that Old Russian conceit in his own style by using a misunderstood version of Hegelian dialectics.

"We would be safe and our victory would be victory only when our cause succeeds in the entire world," he wrote. He accepted coexistence between Socialism and Capitalist in "a period of transition", but insisted that Russia, in its Bolshevik version at the time, wouldn’t be safe "until our cause conquers the whole world."

"It is inconceivable for the Soviet Republic to exist alongside the imperialist states for any length of time. One or other must triumph in the end," he wrote.

Lenin made two mistakes in his use of dialectics.

First, he assumed that the conflict between thesis and anti-thesis had to be resolved "in the end", an imaginary time-span.

Secondly, he couldn’t see that in Hegelian dialectics the conflict ends with a synthesis that both is and is not the thesis and the synthesis while representing a third and new reality. In other words, the conflict between socialism and capitalism isn’t like a boxing match that is set to end after a predetermined number of rounds with a knockout win for one or the other.

By the late 1950s after Nikita Khrushchev’s boast about "burying the Capitalist world" by the year 2000 had become a sour joke, his successors rehashed the Khomikov-Lenin pseudo-mystical vision of Russia’s role in history by shedding is Christian and Communist aspects and basing it on preserving Russia’s interests and influence as a state.

That gave birth to the Brezhnev Doctrine under which Russia wouldn’t allow any state that had been in Russian influence zone or had a Communist regime to break away and join "the other side."

It was under that doctrine that Russian tanks crushed the Prague Spring and, later, tried to preserve a ramshackle Communist regime in Kabul by invading Afghanistan. The aim was no longer world conquest but hanging on to Russia’s portion of it.

By the time Mikhail Gorbachev had risen to the top in the Kremlin, the Afghan disaster and growing discontent across eastern and central Europe had made the Brezhnev Doctrine redundant.

Gorbachev developed his own mini-doctrine by admitting and, in some cases even helping, the so-called People’s Republics in the Russian zone of influence in Europe could go their own way provided they would not totally exclude Russia.

His subliminal message as that the USSR and the "Capitalist world" could share the booty they had won after the Second World War. A new world order could be built based on "universal values" and "shared interests".

Unlike Lenin, who saw all relationships as conflictual, Gorbachev believed that thesis and anti-thesis could join each other in a global synthetic tango.

Interestingly, Western democracies wanted the USSR to survive as a pillar of stability in Europe. James Baker III, secretary of state under President George WH Bush, insisted that "instability in eastern Europe isn’t in our interests." The US, France and Great Britain were even maneuvering to delay or sabotage German reunification.

In 1989 Gennady Gerasimov, spokesman for the Soviet foreign ministry, repeated what Politburo member Alexander Yakovlev had quipped a few weeks earlier by asserting that the USSR wanted to be part of a world order based on diversity.

"Today, we have replaced the Brezhnev Doctrine with the Sinatra Doctrine, allowing each country to go its way."

The reference, of course, was to American crooner Frank Sinatra’s famous song "I Did It My Way" which Alexander Yakovlev and some other fans of "ole-blue-eyes" in the Politburo loved.

The Sinatra Doctrine remained in force in the Kremlin even after the disintegration of the USSR, keeping alive the hope of finding a proper place for Russia in a new world order free from ideological rivalry, arms race and imperialistic competition for hegemony in the "Third World."

Regardless of who is to blame hopes of finding a proper place for Russia were never fulfilled, partly because Russia always wanted more than it deserved and the Western powers offered less than it merited.

Putin’s jingoistic jargon and Quixotic carpet-bagging in Ukraine is a crude response to that reality. He has certainly buried the Sinatra Doctrine but one cannot be sure whether he has fully reverted to the Brezhnev Doctrine.

Conflicting signals from Moscow indicate that he may end up adopting a more modest version of the Brezhnev Doctrine by settling for annexing another chunk of Ukraine. Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for the Foreign Ministry in Moscow, says Ukraine "as it was with the same shape on the map and boundaries is finished and will never return."

The problem is that if Putin manages to reshape Ukraine into a downsized nation, he might be tempted to revert to the doctrines that, based on their different and yet similar mystical views of Russia’s role in human history, Khomiakov and Lenin advocated.

And that could mean other conflicts and even wars in Europe and, perhaps, even in Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

In a mystical view of human affairs knowing where to start is often easy. It is where to stop that is always difficult.

This is why even a fish-tail end to the war in Ukraine may not be sufficient to restore lasting peace to Europe.

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