“Die for Danzig?” Marcel Deat, “Mourir pour Danzig?” L’Oeuvre, 4 May 1939.

Fighting Russia isn’t a very popular idea. Fighting Russia over Ukraine doesn’t have much support in spite of the obvious Russian intervention in the rebellion in eastern Ukraine. But fighting Russia if it attacks a fellow member of NATO seems like a no-brainer. That’s what a military alliance is all about, right? Well, not necessarily.[1]

Back in 1956, in the midst of the Eisenhower administration and at the height of the Cold War, 82 percent of Americans believed that a Russian attack on one member was an attack on all and that the US should fight, while 8 percent opposed it, and 10 percent weren’t sure. In a recent Pew Research Center poll, 56 percent of Americans supported using force against Russia if it became involved in a “serious military conflict” with another NATO member state, while 37 percent were opposed, and a mere 7 percent weren’t sure. Among some other NATO countries, support then falls off by small steps. Support for fighting slides down through Canada (53), Britain (49), Poland and Spain (48), France (47), Italy (40), and Germany (38).[2] In Germany, 58 percent opposed fighting Russia, while only 4 percent weren’t sure.

With regard to the conflict in Ukraine, Poland (50 percent) and the United States (46 percent) most strongly support sending weapons to the Kiev government. Thereafter, support declines among other NATO members through Canada (44), Britain (42), and France (40), before falling off sharply in Spain (25 percent), Italy (22) and Germany (19). Similarly, 62 percent of Americans favor admitting Ukraine to NATO, but only 36 percent of Germans supported such a move.

One way to think about this is that, in spite of the frequent media references to a revived Cold War, most people in the West aren’t there yet. Still, it may be where we are headed. Favorable opinion about the United States among Russians has fallen from 51 percent in 2013 to 15 percent in June 2015 and favorable opinion about NATO has fallen from 37 percent to 26 percent over the same period. Favorable opinion about Russia in the NATO countries has fallen from 37 percent to 26 percent.

Another way to think about this is that there has been a significant disaggregation within the NATO alliance since the end of the Cold War. The United States and Germany now represent opposite poles on a number of key policy issues. As the creation of the Eurozone and the negotiations over the Greek debt crisis show, Germany has become the dominant power in Europe. Americans demonstrate a resolution (or belligerence) unmatched by the Germans. This is something with which future leaders of both countries will have to wrestle.

Still another way to think about this is that we are witnessing yet another phase in the troubled, tortuous relationship between Germany and Russia. Before the First World War they were two conservative empires in opposed alliances. Between the wars they were ideologically opposed states driven to co-operate by their international pariah status. Since 1945, the partitioned Germanys first clung to their dominant partner, then West Germany’s “Ostpolitik” began opening a road East based on economic complementarity. Vladimir Putin’s assertion of Russian power and interests among the non-NATO former members of the Soviet Union has challenged that relationship. Belarus and Georgia may be next, but people worry that he will not stop at the borders of the Baltic states. Putin’s own moderation—or lack of it–holds the key.

[1] Naftali Bendavid, “Poll Shows West Is Divided On How to Deal With Russia,” WSJ, 10 June 2015.

[2] The Polish stance is worth some thought because Poland is going to provide the most likely battlefield in such a conflict.

Putinium.

Vladimir Putin was born in 1952 in Leningrad. He had impeccable Communist credentials; his father was a manual laborer, his mother was a school teacher. He studied law in university (like Mikhail Gorbachev), then took a job with the KGB. (See: irony.) Here he was an intelligence officer, operating in East Germany. When the USSR began to withdraw its forces from its East European empire Putin came home to Leningrad. Here he worked for a number of politicians in the new democracy. One of these was Boris Yeltsin.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 had not thrilled the Russians. Street crime and white-collar crime exploded, while the economy decayed, and Russia fell from the status of a superpower. People around Yeltsin piled up immense fortunes by seizing control of Russia’s natural resources, banking, and media. Mikhail Khodorkovsky got control of the Yukos oil company, which established a virtual monopoly on Russian oil production and exports. Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky created media empires. Generally, nobody paid taxes. A few people got rich while most suffered.

In 1998 Yeltsin appointed Putin to run the FSB, heir to the KGB. Two years later in 2000, when the ailing Yeltsin left government, Putin ran for President of Russia. During the campaign someone bombed an apartment building in Moscow, killing 200 people. The suspected bombers were Chechen separatists. Putin promised to wipe them out. He won the presidency.

In power, Putin turned on the “oligarchs” who had risen up during the Yeltsin era. Khodorkovsky went to jail and Yukos Oil was nationalized, Berezovsky and Gusinsky fled abroad. Taxes got collected. Street crime got squashed. Putin’s nationalization of Yukos Oil coincided with a sharp increase in demand for oil around the world. By 2007, Russia was earning about $170 billion a year from oil exports. Prosperity returned to Russia. Putin has distributed favors on a far more prudent basis than Yeltsin ever did. He uses them to build support for himself without harming the interests of the Russian people. At the same time, Putin has been ruthless in dealing with critics: he has used control of the media to prevent opposition candidates from getting out their message; and he is suspected of having prompted the assassination of dissidents Anna Politkovskaya and Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006. In the December 2007 elections voters had to mark the ballots in public view—of soldiers. This is a lot like mid-19th Century elections. Not exactly the Australian ballot. Still, it seemed to work. Public opinion polls showed Putin enjoying a 70 percent favorable rating among ordinary Russians. In December 2007 Putin’s United Russia party won 400 of 450 seats in the Russian parliament (the Duma).

Where is he headed? He appears to be aiming at a restoration of Russian power. He has begun a $200 billion rearmament program. He has tried to block the extension of an American anti-missile system into Eastern Europe. He has challenged the idea of America as the sole super-power. He is still fighting the Chechen war. He turns off the flow of oil to the Ukraine whenever it seems too independent. Then there’s the Crimea.

The question is not whether Russia could have been held down permanently after the collapse of Communism. It could not. But could Russia have become a Western-style democracy? Is a collision inevitable between a reviving Russia and the West?

“Why Russia Loves Putin,” The Week, 21 December 2007, p. 11.

Why the Crimean War mattered

In the middle of the Nineteenth Century there were five “Great Powers” which charted he course of European diplomacy: the Austrian Empire, the German kingdom of Prussia, France, Britain, and Russia.  Of these, Austria held pride of place.  The Austrian Empire dominated both Germany and Italy, and had an alliance with Russia to maintain the international system created at Vienna after the fall of Napoleon.

To the southeast lay the Ottoman Empire.  In those days it included much of the Balkan Peninsula, the future Arab countries of the Middle East, and modern-day Turkey.  Plagued by centuries of sloth and despotism, the Ottoman Empire had been disintegrating for many years.  Europeans expected it to break up, eventually.  When would that time come and who would gather up the bits and pieces?  This last question put Britain, one of whose “lifelines of Empire” ran through the Eastern Mediterranean, at odds with Russia, which shared a long border with the Ottoman Empire.  When Russia and the Ottomans went to war in 1853, Britain and France (which had its own interests in the Middle East) joined the Ottomans in 1854.

The British Army that went to war against Russia suffered from several disabilities.  First of all, it lived in the shadow of its previous successes.  The most recent and most important of these had come under the command of Sir Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington.  Wellington had commanded the British troops fighting against Napoleon’s armies in Spain (1808-1814) and then had defeated Napoleon himself at Waterloo (1815).  Whatever the “Iron Duke” had done was good enough for his successors—even if conditions had change.  The senior ranks of the army were filled with men who had served under the duke in their younger days.  These were now long past, so a virtual living history museum now led the army.  Second, Britain’s subsequent wars had been comparatively small-scale fights in distant India.  Officers drawn from the ranks of the British aristocracy often chose not to accompany British troops to India.  Instead, they allowed professional soldiers from lower social groups to command on foreign duty.  A “European” war against Russia appeared as very different and more acceptable service than did Indian service.  Those with little experience of real war would take command.

The war took place around the edges of the Black Sea, first in the future Rumania, later on the Crimean Peninsula.  The Russians had invaded the Balkan portions of the Ottoman Empire, but had then retreated.  The British and the French decided to invade Russia itself by capturing the port of Sebastopol.  From September 1854 to September 1855 the British and French besieged Sebastopol while other Russian forces tried to raise the siege.  Bloody battles followed at Balaclava, Inkerman, Eupatoria and Tchernaya.  All were defeats for the Russians.  Sebastopol finally surrendered.

The subsequent peace treaty did nothing to solve the problem of Ottoman decadence.  The behavior of the Austrians, who had remained neutral while their Russian ally was beaten, led to Vienna’s isolation when first Italy, then Germany, were united at its expense.  The rise of a powerful Germany, the long-term hostility between Russia and Austria in the Balkans, and the continuing collapse of the Ottoman Empire provided the fuel for the First World War.