While the West was at first restrained and cautious after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the tone soon turned triumphant. After 1991, the American Right in particular talked of “winning the Cold War,” as if post-Soviet Russia had been defeated.
This rhetoric was unfortunate and provocative, as the Soviet Union was undone as much by the voluntary actions of its leader Mikhail Gorbachev and the irresistible forces of nationalism among the respective Soviet republics, as it was by American and NATO pressure.
Russia’s Dark Decade
The post-Soviet 1990s were a humiliating and disorienting time for Russia, which I witnessed firsthand during a brief visit in the summer of 1996. I was shocked to see very old ladies selling cigarettes at the subway stations, their pensions wiped out by hyperinflation. I also remember the uniformed soldiers put to work fixing potholes in Moscow, and how everyone on the Metro gave money to a legless veteran—presumably of Afghanistan—who was begging person to person. Finally, I’ll never forget the unprovoked assault of a mixed-race couple on the famous Arbat, where I learned from my Russian-speaking friend that the young assailant was screaming, “I used to be a Pioneer! Russia used to be a great country! Now, look at it . . . It’s shit!”
While the 1990s were prosperous and peaceful for America, for Russia it was a chaotic time of economic decline. Idealistic and impractical Western economists from Harvard counseled swift privatization, which resulted in massive fraud and the fleecing of the luckless Russian working class. Reared in the restrictive and predictable routine of socialism, they were untrained in the ways of capitalism and how to maximize the value of their newly minted vouchers giving them stock in newly privatized enterprises. In the meantime, certain former high-up communist officials, who were well connected to foreign capital, bought up the stock for state-owned industries on the cheap and became billionaires.
A construction worker quoted in Svetlana Alexievich’s Secondhand Time captures the mood: “Russia . . . they’ve wiped their feet with it. Anyone who wants to can smack her in the face. They turned it into a Western junkyard full of worn-out rags and expired medicine. Garbage!”
On the foreign policy front, Russia was also substantially weaker after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It had a difficult time subduing Islamic militant separatists in Chechnya, after a decade of inconclusive war against Islamic militants in Afghanistan. While Russia was weak, the West made several steps that Russia perceived as threatening, including extending NATO membership to former members of the Warsaw Pact after promising not to do so. Russia also objected in 1999 to the NATO-led war against its long-standing ally, Serbia. But there was little Russia could do at the time other than protest.
The 1990s loom large in the Russian memory, just as the hyperinflation and decadence of Weimar Germany loom over Germany today, even after the horrors of the Nazi regime and World War II. In both cases, the chaos, weakness, and decadence of those eras remain painful memories and stand as warnings against the costs of national decline.
Putin’s Rise and Resentments
By 2000, many Russians were ready to turn the page and restore the nation’s dignity, power, and self-respect. This is the milieu in which Vladimir Putin rose to power. While initially popular in the West, as he emerged from the liberal circles of Saint Petersburg mayor Anatoly Sobchak, the former KGB officer turned more authoritarian and revisionist over time.
In his telling, these changes were a retaliation against Western provocations including the aforementioned NATO expansion and war against Serbia, as well as western support for the 2014 Maidan coup against Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych and the deployment of anti-ballistic missiles in Eastern Europe. We may find this unpersuasive, but it appears to be the sincere and widely held view of Russia’s leadership.
It used to be common knowledge that the Versailles Treaty, which concluded World War I, had much to do with the rise of Hitler and planted the seeds for World War II. France, angered by its earlier humiliation in the Franco-Prussian War and its staggering losses during World War I, imposed a harsh peace on the Germans, removing key territories from the German state, requiring massive reparations, and significantly limiting the German military. These requirements contributed to the hyperinflation of the 1920s. While Hitler channeled German grievances in a particular and malignant direction—world war and genocidal violence—he found a receptive audience in the disoriented, humiliated, and impoverished German people.
By contrast, at least in the West, the post World War II settlement was generous and fair-minded, as exemplified by the Marshall Plan. Reparations were not part of the equation, in contrast to the earlier Versailles Treaty. Similarly, borders were not significantly changed in the western occupation zones. Perhaps this was realpolitik, as the emerging threat of the Soviet Union compelled the West to rearm itself and include West Germany. But, nonetheless, the overall settlement created a lasting and stable peace among the nations of Western Europe rooted in the rule of law, stability, and democratic values.
With Charity Towards All
Today, the war hawks span both parties, but the neoconservatives are particularly vocal, just as they were during the George W. Bush Administration. They convinced the president to withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2001 and to recognize an independent Kosovo in 2008, as if the United States did not have enough on its plate with its multiple wars aimed at transforming the Middle East.
Many neoconservatives are now calling for expanded weapons sales and even a no-fly zone over Ukraine. Either of these moves could draw American forces and NATO into a war with Russia, one that could unintentionally go nuclear. To justify these risky maneuvers, their rhetoric transforms Russia into the new Nazi Germany with its “madman” leader cast as the new Adolf Hitler. At the same time, the promoters of war posit the absolute innocence of Ukraine, papering over the reality of the last eight years of brutal war against its own people. All of the rhetoric, the maudlin appeals to and from the Congress, the downplaying of the nuclear threat, and the one-sided propaganda are in the service of broader and longstanding policy objectives of the foreign policy establishment.
This approach—one that treats Russia as a pariah state to be hobbled after complete NATO victory—is highly disconnected from the American way of war ranging from Lincoln to Truman, as well as the practical constraints arising from Russia being a major nuclear power.
For neoconservatives, Abraham Lincoln has long been praised as an emblematic figure who went beyond mere positive law and appealed to higher principles of right and justice embedded in our founding documents. But their love of Lincoln seems to ignore another aspect of him, his charitable approach to the defeated South, which he did not intend to punish or humiliate in the aftermath of the Civil War. He did not live to supervise the post-Civil War reconstruction, soon in the hands of “radical” Republicans, whose approach was more aggressive and more vengeful than that advocated by Lincoln.
We already have one recent example of a Carthaginian Peace in international relations, the harsh Versailles Treaty imposed on Germany after World War I. Was it a success? The treatment of Russia after the Cold War was not as harsh, nor is its current mood of revanchism comparable to Nazi Germany’s after Versailles. But there are parallels.
God willing, the conflict in Ukraine will soon end. When that happens, it would be wise for the United States, NATO, and Ukraine not to insist on vindictiveness, planting the seeds for a bigger, more destructive war for the next generation. If Putin and Russia are further humiliated in the post-war settlement of the current Ukraine conflict, what comes next will likely reframe Putin as the comparatively tame kaiser to some future Russian Hitler.