Is the US constantly misreading Russia

Is the US constantly misreading Russia

Although US President Joe Biden’s “shock” pronouncements declaring that he wants Vladimir Putin out and both a regime change and prosecuting Russian leaders for crimes against humanity have become scarcer, these statements reflect a misunderstanding of what led to the conflict in Ukraine and what can be done to stop the war.

I know of only one US observer, the late Irving Kristol, with whom I was in touch during the early 1990s about Russia, who forecast then the sequence of events that led to the present conflict. He concluded that “watchful waiting is what we need more in our foreign policy,” rather than impetuous military aid and interventions. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed on February 11, 1994, he explained how he reached this conclusion.

He wrote that “the notion of a cordon sanitaire of East European nations integrated into NATO is not and never will be acceptable to any Russian regime. Fortunately, it is also not acceptable to the nations of Western Europe and the US, which have no intention of blithely issuing ‘security guarantees’ to the newly liberated countries of Eastern Europe.”

Russia, he continued, “always has had a limited imperial dimension.” Since the fall of the Soviet Union, these ambitions focused on the 14 of so “nation states” that emerged after the fall. Kristol noted that none of them were either economically or politically viable (singling out Ukraine as having been particularly corrupt), and concluded that – like it or not – they would end up being semi-protectorates of Russia, though with more autonomy than before.

He was painfully insightful about both Russia and Ukraine.

“Back in 1954,” Kristol wrote, “Nikita Khrushchev blandly gave the Crimean Peninsula to the Republic of Ukraine, then a Soviet puppet. But the majority of the population of Crimea is Russian, and they just voted in a referendum to dissociate themselves from Ukraine.” This was 1994.  

Crimean authorities held that three-part referendum on March 27, 1994, though the Ukrainian president at the time, Leonid Kravchuk, declared it illegal. This referendum was based on the 1992 decision of the Crimean Supreme Council that declared independence, based on what would be the outcome of a referendum that August. 

That did not take place until 1994, when 80% of Crimeans voted for the 1992 proposals of negotiating for independence. This was five years  before Putin appeared on the horizon.      

Kristol added that subsequently the Ukrainian government miscalculated and provoked the very large Russian minority in eastern Ukraine. And so, he concluded, “a Russian-Ukrainian showdown looms, one that Russia is bound to win.” 

That win would mean Russia conferring “something of protectorate status on those 14 new nations (Ukraine included).… Only Russia is in a position to prevent a dozen new Bosnias, which could threaten its own multiethnic condition,” and would do so.  

What then can the US and the West do now to stop the conflict? The vast majority of economists’ suggestion over decades, that there is nothing wrong with the Russian kind of massive centralization of power, led to misjudging the impact of centralizing policies everywhere, in both domestic matters and concerning Russia’s foreign policy. 

Folly of ‘shock treatments’

Kristol warned against overly activist policies and suggested managing the situation when there is no other solution in sight. I would only add that to achieve a more rapid ceasefire, the West should give Ukraine enough support to increase its negotiating power (and forget about Crimea and some of its eastern territories), but also take further steps to induce Russia to come more quickly to the negotiating table.  

This is not the first time that the US has made the mistake of announcing “shock treatments” to Russia. It did so 40-plus years ago too, with nothing good coming out of it. As I played a minor part at the time in the debate, here is the background of why I was even asked to give my take on this issue, and the sequence of events that led to my discussions with the late Yegor Gaidar, Russia’s acting prime minister at the time.

Having passed the first 15 years of my life under communism, with both my parents arrested without any charge (luckily they were released relatively quickly), I was astonished to find that the most popular textbook on economics in Western universities (for some 50 years, translated into dozens of languages) was by Paul Samuelson, who noted that “it is a vulgar mistake to think that most people” under communism were miserable. 

A revision in the 11th edition omitted the word “vulgar.” The 12th edition in 1985 dropped the sentence, substituting with the question: “Were economic gains under communism worth the political repression?” – a euphemism for the tens of millions killed and starved.

Lacking all insight into human nature or proper governance, Samuelson, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, got the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1970 for his pompously titled Fundamentals of Economic Analysis, which was nothing more than first-semester calculus in a decent math department.  

I did not know in the early 1990s when I noted the above in my books, what an October 8, 2021, New Yorker article (“Is It Time for a New Economics Curriculum?”) now reveals. Many warned MIT not to use Samuelson’s writings because they were neither “objective nor mature,” and that he was more a political hack than a scientist. 

To his credit, Samuelson made no secret that this is indeed what he was: In 1990 he admitted, “I don’t care who writes a nation’s laws – or crafts its advanced treaties – if I can write its economics textbooks.” 

MIT let him, and politicians put him in the limelight, implicitly suggesting that centralization and government being the solution to every problem – domestic or foreign – has “scientific” foundations. Recent events in the Virginia education system wanting to prevent teaching about gulags and Mao Zedong’s starvation marches had precedents.

If Samuelson’s impact had been only in ivory towers, it would not be of particular interest. But as the debate about Ukraine suggests, those involved with treaties concerning foreign affairs in both the US and Western Europe have been influenced and have seriously misread Russian politics. 

Russia is as centralized now as it was under the “communist” label. Top party members continue to rule with the secret police; only the words changed: They bestowed favors to oligarchs rather than to party bureaucrats, who now have been labeled “managers.”   

I saw that when Gaidar invited a small group of which I was member to discuss immature US academics’ suggestions of “shock therapy.” We said it made no sense, as Russia lacked institutions to administer such shock (details are in my 1994 book Labyrinths of Prosperity), but did not manage to convince him. Some gradual changes might have worked – but shocks, no.  Not then, not now.

Briefly, labels changed, but Russia is pretty much as it was under the czars, then “communism,” and now under Putin: Regimes have been discarded, but centralization and the Motherland’s ambitions remained.

Unfortunately, Western perceptions were mistaken repeatedly: that Russia can be changed quickly; that the West can force it to change with one shock or another; or – as bad a mistake as the previous two – that, as the Samuelson teaching went, there was nothing wrong with Russia’s traditional centralization of powers. 

This article draws on Reuven Brenner’s Labyrinths of Prosperity (1994) and Force of Finance (2002).