So a few days ago on Twitter this former British diplomat left some faint praise about my article The Loser Carousel. I don’t want to reveal his identity so we’ll just call him Lord Chucklehead. Anyway, he left a criticism that seemed a bit odd, and when he attempted to clarify by posting an article he’d written, I was a bit split on the matter. On one hand, this is a man with some terrible ideas. On the other hand, I think he was addressing a valid issue.
Essentially he was refuting the suggestion of a certain writer that the West bears responsibility for Putin’s Russia today. My problem with the right honourable Lord Chucklehead’s attitude, among other things, was that he seems to want to absolve the West of all blame for what Russia became, which I’m totally against. That being said, there are some apologists out there who want to put all the blame for Putin’s behavior on the West, and that is something that really should be laid to rest as soon as possible.
First of all, claims about “broken promises” regarding NATO expansion can be dismissed outright. No evidence has ever been provided to back up these claims of a secret promise, and the very idea is ludicrous seeing as how Warsaw Pact still existed at the time this promise “not to expand an inch” was supposedly made. It has also been claimed that Putin suggested that Russia could join NATO, but was snubbed. I’ve done some digging into this claim and it seems that the main evidence for this is some musings on the subject by Putin in an interview. I’ve read one claim that Russia did seriously discuss NATO membership, but its leaders wanted it to have unilateral veto power, i.e. more authority than other NATO members. If true, one can speculate as to whether they sincerely wanted to join, or if they didn’t purposely make an impossible demand to give the appearance that NATO was being unreasonable. Whatever the case, in my mind this simply isn’t enough for another indictment against the West.
Taking a page from Mark Ames, what about the 1990’s? Lord Chucklehead disagrees, mainly because he wasn’t an ordinary Russian citizen of course, but the West certainly bears a great deal of responsibility for what happened in Russia during that turbulent period, and what followed as a result. There were both sins of commission and omission. Western advisers and leaders pushed bad economic advice and looked the other way while Yeltsin used tanks against his own people and then against the people of Chechnya. They then helped Yeltsin win another term in an almost certainly unfair election, and of course it was Yeltsin who handpicked Putin as his replacement. Western banks were happy to take dirty Russian money while realtors were happy to sell property to the “New Russians.”
Of course sometimes the West got as good as it gave. Investors got ripped off, huge projects were written off, and in more colorful cases business partners were run out of Russia by threats of bodily harm. The West accepted dirty money and looked the other way when it came to Yeltsin’s crimes, but it didn’t make Russians sell each other out or turn to conspiracy theories and scapegoats as a substitute for solving their political and social problems. The Ames-style treatment of 90’s Russia infantilizes the country, reducing them to stock native characters who are unacquainted with thievery, corruption, and vice until the colonists show up and sow destruction among them.
Personally I think that if you’re going to put justified blame on the West for Putin you have to look at the period in the mid-2000’s, when oil prices were high and the Russian economy was booming. That was the time when Western leaders, particularly in Europe, were buddy-buddy with Putin. Meanwhile investors, bankers, and realtors were awash in more dirty Russian money than ever before. This is when Russia actually managed to slip tentacles into Europe, and the latter was happy to oblige. At the same time, the US, UK, and some of their allies engaged in a number of ridiculous military adventures that Putin and co. were no doubt looking at as IOU’s they could cash in later, when it was time for them to start launching their own military ventures. The “anti-Russian” think tank experts love equating Putin’s Russia with the Soviet Union because their bosses revile anything associated with socialism, but in reality Putin and his corrupt elite got to where they are because they understand capitalism. We live in a world where the market decides everything, and our leaders constantly remind us that this must be the case. In the mid-2000’s, the market decided in favor of Russia, and the rotten core in Moscow took full advantage of neo-liberal capitalism’s amorality.
As with so many Russia-related topics, what we have here is a spectrum. Respectable Putin apologists, the kind who don’t want to appear as outright cheerleaders, are likely to favor a narrative that puts all the blame on the West. On the other hand you have the various think tank experts in the West who seek to let their countries off the hook entirely. They want everyone to believe that this whole crisis is happening because Putin is a bad man. While they tout that line, they slip in all the other, wholly unnecessary political messages that suit the agenda of their bosses, i.e. rich assholes.
Is it even important to accurately apportion all the blame? I think so. My dealings with some Ukrainians have taught me this. Some of them are naive and still curse the West for “betraying” them, while others still wait and wonder why NATO is treating Moscow with kid gloves. They deserve to know the truth, which is that the reason why the EU and US are tiptoeing around and trying to find a way to appease Putin is because Russia is a massive market for them and they want to get back to mutually beneficial relationship they had with Russia a few years ago. When I say mutually beneficial, I of course mean that the beneficiary on the Russian side is Putin and his circle of oligarchs. Regardless of that, however, Russia just holds so much more economic potential for the West than Ukraine, and thus they’re going to keep going soft on Putin. Convinced that Russia is nothing but a continuation of the Soviet Union, and believing capitalism, indeed Reaganism and Thatcherism to be the polar opposite of Soviet socialism, many Ukrainians are in for a very rude awakening. If they were more aware of the relationship between Russia, Putin, and the West, they might realize how important it is for Ukraine to rely on itself and to seek out economic alternatives that make this possible instead of trusting NATO to come to the rescue.
Obviously that example could lead to a very long discussion and debate so I’ll cut it short here. That is merely one example of why properly apportioning blame is important. Ukrainians, Russian oppositionists, and others need to have a sober view of their problems and the West. They need to know who they can trust, and it’s generally a bad idea to trust governments who made all kinds of deals with your enemies or turned a blind eye to some of their most egregious actions.
Also, Westerners cannot allow the aggressive actions of Russia distract us from the problems in our own countries. When our leaders point their fingers at Russia, we might not want to engage in false equivalencies or whataboutery, but this doesn’t mean we can’t point out their responsibility for the way Russia’s government behaves. Instead of “What about Iraq,” we might ask: “Where was all this concern when Western corporations were dumping money into Russia by the boatload and corrupt Russian oligarchs were packing your banks to the brim with dirty, stolen money?” It was their “end of history,” cash-uber-alles policies that made things like Putin’s Russia possible, and no one should ever forget this.
At the same time, we can’t let the Putin fan club pull the “Look what the West made us do” canard. Fairy tales about broken promises and sob stories about snubs don’t justify what the Kremlin has done to Ukraine, nor what it’s doing to the people of Russia.
There’s more than enough blame to go around. Let’s just make sure we sort it out correctly and everyone gets their fair share.