Friday, March 14, 2014

The Weimarization of Russia

Defeat, not Humiliation

It is critically important to separate practical goals from emotional yearnings. Successful statesmen who advanced their countries' interests have understood that the outcome of conflicts or crises must not only be short-term, tangible gains, but also the amortization of those gains well beyond their time in power. An old rabbinic proverb notes that "he who is wise is he who can see tomorrow". When applied to foreign policy, this principle of far-sighted pragmatism yielded a particular approach: strive to defeat and weaken your enemy, but avoid humiliating him. 

Bismarck largely followed this principle of "defeat, not humiliation" in his and Prussia's ten year struggle to unite Germany. The broader goals of unification, military and popular pressure, and Bismarck's desire to minimize any pretense of doubt as to Germany's viability and long-term position in Europe led him to occasionally swerve toward unnecessary annexations (most notably Alsace-Lorraine along with a five billion franc war indemnity imposed on France after the latter's defeat in the Franco-Prussian War). Successive French parliaments draped the seats of the absent Alsace-Lorraine delegates in black as a sign of mourning and revanchist aspirations to reclaim the lost territories continued through World War One. Yet Bismarck did not force a new government on France, divide it, or regard it as a lesser European nation. He was convinced to the end of his days that France would despise and never forgive Germany for its defeat as well as remain its chief continental rival, but believed that crushing it completely would generate large and unnecessary problems. Therefore, while understanding its continuation as a leading power, Bismarck sought to isolate France by keeping warm relations with her potential allies and prevent a two-front conflict (aided by Britain) from destroying what he spent decades trying to create. As soon as Bismarck reached his narrow war aims, he shifted to preserving his gains and calming the waters. The only empire he cared about was the one in Europe, allegedly pointing at a map in anger when pressed about Germany's miserly colonial possessions. Germany was united, had rapidly surpassed Britain in industrial output and boasted the strongest army in Europe. What more could a country possibly need or want?

Richelieu and Metternich also followed a variant of "defeat, but not humiliation" in their tenures as dominant players in European politics. Richelieu hired a Swedish army to check Hapsburg expansion and put aside the duties of faith for the obligations of national interest. The Peace of Westphalia did not destroy the Hapsburg Empire or put it into a position where it would a) disintegrate or b) shift toward hyper-aggressive machinations that would upset peace and stability. Metternich achieved much the same with France during the Congress of Vienna, where allied territorial gains were balanced by a still viable, relatively strong and politically relevant France in the hands of a restored Bourbon monarch. Defeat in war means loss of prestige and territory, but does not have to mean irrelevance or unnecessary hostility.  

Lessons not Learned

Every grade school student learns what happens when "defeat, not humiliation" is not followed. History has shown two possible outcomes. The first sees the victors engulf or extinguish the losers through territorial absorption or forced disintegration (see Russia, Austria and Prussia in the case of Poland's disappearance in 1795 or Poland's rebirth in 1918 through dissolution of Austria and Russia and forced partition of Germany). The second involves keeping the loser largely in place, but imposing such demeaning sanctions as to make a near-term loss of influence appear permanent; this was most spectacularly on display with the treatment of Germany in the aftermath of World War One. Massive reparations. crippling military restrictions and a hallow government in the form of the Weimar Republic created a dynamic wherein normal post-war development was rendered almost impossible. Germany went from preeminent continental power to chaotic beggar seeking economic salvation from Washington and London. That ultranationalists, Stalinists, Leninists and anarchists thrived in this atmosphere like mosquitoes in a swamp should come as no surprise. The Treaty of Versailles was a humiliation not just because Germany had to accept near sole responsibility for instigating hostilities, but that its consequences rendered it a lesser, former power with no colonies, a capped army of 100,000 and a broken economy.

The country that emerged from the rubble was one of sporadic economic crises, a loss of hope among swaths of traditional citizens, boredom among others seeking faster changes and a new generation that saw Germany as one scene in a larger, international struggle. A nominally social-democratic government sprinkled with nationalist politicians and monarchist war veterans oversaw this madness. What was supposed to be a republic turned quickly into a de facto dictatorship of Friedrich Ebert and his nationalist allies against the more radical movements trying to govern by street protest. Then came Hindenburg, 1929 and this

Could the above, and the horrors which were to come just two decades later, have been prevented? John Maynard Keynes, the scion of interventionist economics, warned the British government against imposing crippling damages on Germany in 1919. But the allies at the time were burying their dead and staring at empty treasuries. Germany would be punished and taught a lesson by being partially partitioned and rendered a lesser power. Instead of pragmatic, sustained engagement to create a stable, peaceful and politically healthy Germany that would remain viable in a post-war environment, its foes left it to rot on the vine and went back to tending their gardens. Only emergency, discrete American-led cash infusions stopped Germany's economy, ravaged by hyperinflation, from imploding in the middle 1920s.

Wherefore Mr. Putin 

Yegor Gaidar, closet student of Adam Smith and editor of the Communist (a leading anti-soviet establishment newspaper), presented several proposals for economic reform to Yuri Andropov's Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party in the early 1980s which envisioned a steady process of price liberalization, elimination of trade barriers and restoration of, if not rights, at least privileges to property. The reformers believed the window on a Chinese or Hungarian option for the Soviet Union was not yet closed. 

In the style of relics who neither wanted to know or could not reconcile themselves to the realities of the situation, Andropov and his Politburo sent the academics back to their institutes and shelved their ideas. Ten years later, as the Soviet Union ceased to exist and a new, bankrupt Russia faced starvation and civil war, the reformers would out of necessity do in days what should have been done in years or even decades. The Soviet Union did not attend a conference or sign a treaty, nor was its army defeated in battle and cities razed. The country simply crumbled like a knight whose armor was kept together by a single bolt. Foreign credit was gone, oil prices had plummeted and the soviet army settled for blankets and boots from West Germany (in the form of humanitarian assistance) to keep warm. 

As the Russian economic liberals took emergency steps to keep food on the shelves, ordinary consumers saw prices increase twelve-fold. The same prices that stayed flat for decades now enveloped savings and basic incomes. Pensions, backed by nothing but political smoke, evaporated. The security and political establishment in the Russian Supreme Soviet demanded Gaidar's dismissal and the end of reforms. Nationalists started wandering the streets making Nazi salutes, a National Bolshevik party was founded and the Communists, eager to regain a toehold, fought to a majority in parliament and stood poised to remove President Boris Yeltsin and the reformers from power. 

And what was the West doing as the aforementioned was unfolding? In short, next to nothing. Gaidar and the liberals wanted strong American and European financial support for at least the first year of reform. At least, it was hoped Russia might receive some debt relief and not be held responsible as successor in interest to all of the Soviet Union's obligations. Noone seriously believed a Marshall Plan was in the offing, but western-oriented figures in Russia needed a clear signal that the country would not be left to fend for itself, would be accepted as a European state in a post-Cold War economic, security and diplomatic system and retain its respect as a leading international player. Instead, in an age of peace dividends, they received NATO expansion into Eastern Europe, a sustained bombing campaign of Serbia and forced relinquishment of Kosovo and arrangements to curb Russia's deterrent power. The United States and the anti-Soviet coalition went with euphoria in place of "defeat, not humiliation". Charles Krauthammer wrote about America's unipolar moment, President Clinton busied himself with removing barriers to global trade and Tony Blair urged western governments to use force to aid oppressed peoples as part of a new doctrine of humanitarian intervention. In the Post-Cold War world, there was no need to worry about stability, power politics and simmering resentments. 

Meanwhile, Boris Yeltsin was rapidly being perceived in Russia the way Paul Hindenberg was in Weimar Germany (old, disconnected from the people, a pawn in the hands of seemingly elusive domestic and foreign power-brokers and a symbol of what Russia would rather not be). The default of 1998 and Moscow bombings a year later effectively finished off the liberals. Yeltsin caved, brought reactionaries from the security services in and sent yesterday's rising stars home. As the decade closed, the Russian masses turned to a young, former KGB colonel who offered a simple program of safety, stability and renewed national vigor. Fourteen years later he is still there and the global powers continue to pretend like nothing happened or they are just spectators in a drama in which they played no part — it is too late. The Weimarization of Russia had taken its course.

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