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Walking in Putin's Shoes UPDATE

Patrick J. Buchanan, you remember him, invites us to consider the current situation in Mittel Europa from Putin's point of view.

"When Putin defended the seizure of Crimea by saying he did not want to visit Russia’s two-century-old naval base at Sevastopol, and be greeted by NATO sailors, did he not have a point?"

Buchanan, the isolationist, has his own point about NATO, etc., but still an interesting note of empathy.

UPDATE:  Two developments of note: 1. One of the leading candidates Vitali Klitschko, a former boxer, has withdrawn his name from the presidential election, arguing that candidates should unite behind Petro Poroshenko a billionaire in order to heal the division in Ukrainian society. This may put pressure on other candidates to stand down, i.e., Yulia  Tymoshenko. Story here.

2. Right Sector, the right-wing of the Maidan protestors, is surrounding the Parliament and demanding the resignation of the Minister of the Interior...these are the right-wingers that Putin has cited as being anti-Russian and fascists. Story here quote after the break.

"In citing extremist action, Mr. Putin sought to capitalize on a tense internal showdown in Kiev. Members of an ultranationalist group, Right Sector, have surrounded the Ukrainian Parliament over the last two days, demanding the resignation of Ukraine’s acting interior minister over the shooting death of one of the group’s leaders earlier this week in western Ukraine.

"The presence of masked, armed demonstrators threatening to storm the Parliament building offered the Russian government an opportunity to bolster its contention that the ouster of President Viktor F. Yanukovych, a Moscow ally, after pro-European street protests last month was an illegal coup carried out by right-wing extremists with Western encouragement." 

About the Author

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages and blogs at dotCommonweal.



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Wallace Stegner several times in different writs quoted or paraphrased Bancroft on the historian's task : "Present a man in his own terms and judge him in yours."  If we are not yet ready for history, Buchanan and many others are working on the "first draft."

The trick with Bancroft's theorem is, as Stegner discovered, that it is usually a good deal harder to present a man in his own terms than it is to say those words.   The background story Buchanan recites is worth consideration, but whether that represents anything much like complete  history, or whether anyone's behavior is determied by history seem to me well worth considering before accepting that Buchanan's version of Putin's underlying narrative amounts to "presenting a man in his own terms."  Where in Buchanan's version, for example, do we see the insights of Hannah Arendt's analysis of nationalism in the rise of totalitarianism  in European history, specifically for Russia?  In what sense does the Russian (and Soviet) narrative of the Great Patriotic War  - earnestly held by generations now of Russians - explain Putin's motivation?  And, dependng on how one answers that, what are the implications for judgment?

Andthat does not even get us to Putin's history in the security apparatus, or the idiosyncracies of his personlity as potentialy pertinent to understandng his actions.

True, we can't know. Buchanan's focus on the geopolitical reminds me how little consciousness our political leaders seem to have about its impact.

Buchanan nails it! Americans just assume that they are not at all in imperialistic, expansionistic entity also bent on world domination. Just watch the respective Democratic and Republican conventions.

The American political class is one thing but the American people quite another. They are, as a collective, shrewd and wise. The resurgence of so called isolationism and even libertarianism is but a corrective to historical excesses of the political class.

Can we all get along, and just solve this together. Here's a piece in the National Interest: "A Way Out of the Ukraine Crisis."

"Leaving aside Crimea, where the situation is already fully resolved, it is obvious that neither Europe, nor the United States, nor Russia, nor even Europe and the U.S. together can save the Ukrainian economy and state on their own from the deep crisis that has overtaken the country. In all likelihood, the only good way out is a trilateral solution...."

Our national ignorance, not only of geopolitics, but also of geography (sensu lato), languages and cultures, and what is available for history, have been major contributors to our poor performance in the world - I mean not only Vietnam and the "GWOT", but our poor reputation more or less across the globe - all my lifetime. 

Of course, our ignorance of our own past and even current conditions is hardly less.  Not one in a thousand of us could explain the orginal meaing of  "a City on a Hill,"  thinking it to be from Ronald Reagan. We subsidize the growing of cotton in the desert while we bemoan water restrictions for our lawns.  Eveyonehas anopinion on poverty, but we have no basis for judgment excpt intuition betweeen Paul Ryan and TNC (or TNC and Chait).  

Bu weall have opinions: mostly "Hooray for our side" (Stephen Stills I think).

City on a Hill. Would that be Boston? Not now. Way back?  Or is it Jerusalem?

Felt like rationalization, IMO.  If anything, this reinforces the reported comment by Merket about Putin - *he is not in touch with reality*.

Reminds me of what happened at the turn of the 19th to 20th century leading up to World War I....Putin's imagined empire is similar to what we saw with dying and decadent monacharies in Europe  (funny, a number of those royalty have been determined by history to suffer from various mental illnesses).  Many of these now long dead royals also viewed their *empires* in the same way as Putin....and can't think of any reason that we would feel compassion for them much less empathy. 

Putin lives in the past - yes, it may be important to understand his frame of reference but empathy - nope!

And Buchanan's ending paragraph about the US and the Americas is just weird.

I likely do not agree with Buchanan on a host of issues, but, like George D, I think Buchanan "nails it".  Putin aside, are the Russian people themselves supportive of Putin's actions?  I know there have been protests in Moscow against Putin, but do they represent the prevailing sentiment in Russia?  

On the other hand, I'm not convinced that we Americans, as a whole, are "shrewd and wise".  Most Americans, it seems, are ignorant of current issues.  We know the superficial, but we often don't have any real knowledge of issues' underlying ingredients --- culture, history, language, customs of other peoples.  If Americans are leaning toward isolationism, it's because they are tired of military engagements intended, as they see it, to solve other nations' problems.

Over at Paul Elie's blog, he suggests another factor that might be propelling the Russian land-grab in the Crimea:

"A little tablet-friendly history (correct me where I’m wrong): Again and again in the centuries after the schism the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church sought to establish spheres of influence.  Again and again each sought to establish its authority over local rulers and national governments.  Again and again the leader of the Russian nation made local decisions based on a symbolic calculus of where Russia should stand vis-a-vis the West, framing his case for territorial expansion and aggression, Fall-and-Redemption-like, in terms of the restoration of a long-violated original order.  Sound familiar?"

Is the issue most basically just what constitutes Mother Russia?  The people of Russia are supporting Putin.  Magical phrase that, "Mother Russia". Everything That Rises

See:  Holy Father, Help Me Out Here: What the Heck Are We Gonna Do 

In a recent talk that I heard, a retired diplomat faulted the way the NATO expansion took place, starting with Clinton and continued under Bush II. He reminded us that when the USSR went down, Bush I promised Gorbachev essentially that "we will not take advantage of your weakness." Perhaps in once sense the expansion of NATO right up to the borders of the old USSR was not a breaking of that promise, but perhaps in another sense (Putin's, for example) it was. Imagine, he said (reminding us that Kennan had opposed such expansion) what the US reaction would be if Canada were to sign a mutual defense treaty with the People's Republic of China.

None of which means, of course, that Putin is right and we are wrong. Nor does it deny that much of East and Central Europe has eagerly sought both integration within NATO and integration with the EU, understandably anxious to find shelter from the cruelties and exploitations suffered under the Soviet empire (to say nothing of the pre-Soviet Russian empire).

His own guess was that the West and Russia would work out a kind of a neutralization (or Finlandization) of Ukraine (while hanging on to the Crimea with its naval base, of course). As he and others have pointed out, the parallels between today and 1914, to say nothing of 1939 (when Hitler and Stalin swore their undying friendship so they could gobble up Poland) are too horrifying to contemplate.

NATO expansion seems to play a large role in the articles I've been reading about Putin's moves. But that's odd because it appears that NATOs military wherewithal steadily declined after the end of the Cold War. European countries have cut their defense budgets. The U.S. has withdrawn many of its assets and personnel from Europe (in favor of Iraq and Aghanistan). As a reassurance to Eastern European countries, Poland, the Baltics, Czech Republic, Slovakia, etc., it may have worked, but it doesn't sound like NATO is battle ready.

MOS, re: City on a Hill

The phrase comes from Matthew 5:14, "A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden." It enters American history via John Winthrop's 1630 sermon, "A Model of Christian Charity"  on board Arbella en route to the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Winthrop's point,  as one would rightly expect from a Puritan, was certainly *not* to celebrate, but rather to warn his flock that they would be judged by what they did, how they acted in charity.   Peggy Noonan's adaption of this as  theme for modern celebration of "American  Exceptionalism" is perverse historcailly and obtuse theologically.

Mark L.

Peggy Noonan as Reagan speechwriter? Yes well, not the first time she got things wrong, nor the last. And not only her! Trickle Down. Remember that?

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