A Riddle in a Can of Vodka
In 1939, Winston Churchill said, “I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in mystery inside of an enigma.” It was more bewilderment than sneer, although he was as famously as anti-Bolshevik as pro-American. President Roosevelt liked Churchill, but not enough to keep him from throwing the man over for Russian politics the he thought he understood, and a practical reality that he absolutely didn’t. If FDR was the first president to be blindsided by the Russians, it is too early to tell if Joe Biden will be the latest.
Last week Biden took a European tour to meet with the G7, NATO and the EU to “make it clear to Putin and China that Europe and the United States are tight.” The main event was always the meeting with Vladimir Putin in Geneva, and it was always going to be a tricky brief: the EU and the last three US administrations have spent this century letting the man do whatever he wants hasn’t helped.
As anyone who was ever forced to wade through The Brothers Karamazov can attest, the Russian mystery goes back a whole lot further than the Soviets. And anyone who has done battle with Gulag Archipelago (just what was your major?), knows that communism only made it worse. What in the hell are we supposed to make of the Russians? Chess is a spectator sport, full-contact politics, and a something as staid as a diplomatic dinner goes absolutely legless in endless rounds of toasts. Off the clock, they drink vodka out of 12 oz cans.
In 1946, when George Keenan, an American diplomat in Moscow, outlined a Soviet Union policy in “The Long Telegram”, he recommended containment rather than confrontation. Being a diplomat, Keenan didn’t actually say “God only knows what these maniacs will get up to next – so let’s just keep them on the other side of the fence until they collapse under the weight of their own crapulence.” He had been to enough diplomatic dinners to be thinking something to that effect. Given the way some most of our 20th century run-ins with the Red Menace turned out – Korea, Operation AJAX in Tehran, Vietnam and couple of generations of trying to tamp out Marxist dictators in Latin America – we should have stuck with Keenan’s original program. But as with drinking, dieting, parenting and diplomacy, sometimes the hardest thing is to do is… nothing.
In the aftermath of the Korea, Dwight Eisenhower and Nikita Khrushchev met for the first US/USSR summit in 1955 and settled absolutely nothing. In 1986, in ReykjavíK, Iceland, Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan met to the same effect, with the added insult of having actually coming close to achieving something. A summit the next year actually did reduce the missiles positioned in, and pointed at, Europe. Four years later the USSR collapsed and took all of Ukraine’s nukes. Still, a win is a win.
President Joe Biden was 12 during the first summit, and a senator in his early 40s for the next round, but a study of those earlier meetings might not be so instructive. His opposite number in that vodka-soaked riddle is not the head of the superpower, nor is Russia driven by an ideology like the old Soviet Union. Unlike his predecessors, Putin is the product of a collapsed society, a powerful and autocratic crime boss who scrambled to the top during the economic shocks and violent disorder of the Yeltsin era.
Churchill, back in 1939, went on to say that perhaps the key to the riddle was “Russian national interest.” And in the run up to an ideological war, he was right. Now that key is bent because there really isn’t anything we’d call Russian national interest. In a totalitarian cult of personality, it is only the interests of the personality that matter. Putin sell it as a reborn Russian empire, but personal show. He may profess to be after stability, but chaos got him to the top, and it is chaos that will keep him there.
At home it is a kleptocracy kept in power by ruthless suppression. Abroad, both the interests and rules are his own, and Putin needs a lively foreign policy as a distraction at home. The US and Europe need him to cut it out: According to British intelligence services, Moscow has as many spooks in Britain today as it did in the peak of the Cold War. Russian intelligence services alarmingly good at pestering cyber-assaults that are just short of war. Therein lies the enigma of dealing with Putin: He has to keep it up as a domestic distraction while not actually pushing the US into a hot war.
In the end, however prickly, it is essentially a European problem. The EU are increasingly dependent on Russian exported oil, gas and grains, and well as fearful of invasion. Neither is a threat to the United States. The UK is aggressively investing in a “Future Combat System” with Sweden and Italy to share and coordinate military technology. The French military, currently preparing for a ‘degraded’ war (read: Russia invades and the lights go out), and has entered into a similar agreement with Germany and Spain. All of which may be enough to hold the equilibrium. Russia’s army is really only capable of small, smash and grab tactics. European forces may not be ready to fight their own wars quite yet, but with American support, Putin knows he can’t win. And that’s the good news.
The bad news is that regime is unstable and inching closer to collapse, making it more dangerous in the short run. Likely the most important part of Biden’s sit-down with Putin came earlier in the week, with a “tight” alliance between US and Europe – which needs to decide what it will but up with. If there is a key to this Russian mystery, in is likely in Brussels, not Moscow. And certainly not with some diplomat attempting a lobotomy via vodka.
Given the EU’s reluctance for a preemptive strike on Russian aggression may be a repeat the lost opportunity of quick victory in 1940.