Many Western commentators have remarked on the similarity of the post-cold war international landscape to that of 1919, the latest being Norman Podhoretz, who writes in the December 1999 Commentary:
". . . there are two things about which I do feel certain. The first is that we are in a situation resembling the one that developed after the end of World War I. In 1919, too, there was no visible enemy to guard against. No one imagined that a defeated and humiliated Germany would rise again so quickly, or that it would submit itself to a leader like Hitler with grandiose plans for conquering the world. Nor did anyone dream that the Bolshevik Revolution, then in its cradle and unpromising in its prospects, would grow into an even more dangerous power with similarly unlimited aims."
For once, I agree with Podhoretz. Of course, for him this means that the US must take a more "active" role in world affairs; this quote is taken from an essay in which he basically endorses the militant vision of "benevolent world hegemony" espoused by Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan the Weekly Standard version of "cane the wogs" Tory imperialism. My own view, suffice to say, is quite different. Yet if we examine the 1919 paradigm simply as a proposition, its persuasive force is virtually irresistible – and what could be more ominous that that?
For we know that the seeds of the second great worldwide conflagration were planted in those crucial years in the immediate aftermath of World War I. Germany, defeated and humiliated by the Treaty of Versailles, was drowning in a sea of inflation, decadence, and political turmoil. The "Allied" hegemons of Europe reigned supreme, and imposed their will on the rest of the world with an arrogant disdain for democracy, ethnicity, and elementary common sense. The "Allies" and the US had imposed Draconian reparations on Germany, and loaned them the money to pay – while US and British bankers made mega-profits on the interest payments. They also insisted that Germany adopt the paraphernalia of "democracy," and saw to it that their handpicked stooges and enforcers occupied positions of power: the left-led "revolution" that seized power in the aftermath of the German defeat received Western support after the Social Democratic government kicked out the Kaiser, abolished the monarchy, and suppressed the Spartacist (Communist) uprising.
Fast-forward to the year 2000. Russia, defeated in the cold war and humiliated by the financial and geopolitical terms set by the victorious West, is drowning in a sea of inflation, criminality, and political turmoil. The hegemons of NATO, the blood of Serbia fresh on their talons, are turning their eyes eastward, to the Caucasus, where the battle for Chechnya rages between Russian troops and Chechen bands. With less of a gross national product than Portugal, the remnant of the once mighty Soviet empire has become a Third World nation – although, as one of his last acts while in office, Boris Yeltsin pointedly reminded President Clinton that Russia has First World armaments, including nuclear weapons. Old Boris was no handpicked stooge, but instead a political survivor and the prototype of the ex-Communist apparatchik, but he nevertheless enjoyed what Ariel P. Cohen, of the Heritage Foundation, testifying in the "Who lost Russia" congressional hearings, described as uncritical support from Washington:
"Partisan support of Boris Yeltsin through thick and thin in the 1993 confrontation with the Parliament, during the Chechen war, and in the 1996 elections, served to convince the majority of the Russian body politic of America’s partisanship. The uncritical endorsement and encouragement of even the most outrageous practices of the Russian government has succeeded in bringing many among the Russian political elites and the population to perceive the United States as a malevolent foe. The Administration made almost no attempt to reach out to those who disagreed with Yeltsin, or to establish a dialogue with them, thus helping to create a situation in which the increasingly unpopular president of Russia now appears in the eyes of many Russians as an American tool."
In the splintered lands of what used to be the Soviet Union a pervasive myth has grown up to explain the sudden implosion of the Russian imperium: the "stab in the back" thesis, in which international bankers, Jews, Freemasons, and Communists are said to have delivered the country up to be dismembered by foreign vultures. The rise of "National Bolsheviks" raises an all-too-familiar voice from the past, and their nationalist, revanchist, and explicitly anti-Semitic ideology is the most Weimarish aspect of today’s Russia, (See Walter Laqueur’s 1993 book, Black Hundred: The Rise of the Extreme Right in Russia.)
The rise of Vladimir Putin, the "provisional" President and Yeltsin’s heir apparent, as the new Russian strongman who promises to clean up the all-pervasive corruption of Russian life has been buoyed by popular support for the war in Chechnya. This support, in turn, was the result of terrorist bombings in Moscow itself in which hundreds were killed and injured. John C. Gannon, CIA deputy director, warned of "the potential for a terrorist campaign arising from the war in Chechnya" in a 1996 speech to the World Affairs Council in San Francisco:
"Since fighting began late in 1994, Russian forces have occupied all major population, transportation, and economic centers in the region, but they have been unable to end the fighting in the mountains and countryside or even fully secure the places they occupy. Chechnya has become a classic guerilla warfare situation, and the threat of terrorism is increasing. Several instances of hostage-taking have already occurred, with one of them spilling over Russia's borders into Turkey, and another into Central Europe. Even more ominously, some Chechen rebels have warned that they will target Russian nuclear facilities. In an event that was widely publicized in Russia but received little attention in the West, Chechen militants buried a small amount of cesium in a Moscow park last year to demonstrate their ability to carry out a terrorist act in the heart of Russian territory."
Aside from imagining the American response to a similar tragedy in, say, the heart of New York City – isn’t it funny how America’s spooks saw the terrorist attack in the heart of Russia coming so far in advance? Are these really the same guys who couldn’t keep accurate street maps of downtown Belgrade?
The title of a book by the Objectivist philosopher Leonard Peikoff, The Ominous Parallels whose theme is the Weimarization of American intellectual life and the potential for totalitarian subversion of the American republic – sums up what is happening in Russia today in nearly every respect. One example: in 1919, the argument was continually made in Western capitals, including Washington, D.C., that aid to Germany was imperative because otherwise the country would go Bolshevik. The Germans then turned around and utilized the only weapon left at their disposal: inflation, the great friend and ally of all debtors eager to renege on their obligations. The German government inflated the mark so that they could maintain the social entitlements that kept them in power while pretending to pay off their international creditors. The political and social forces unleashed by this convergence of factors produced Hitler, the Holocaust, and the most destructive war in human history.
Today, we have heard the same arguments from the Clinton administration, even as billions in Western aid is discovered in the private Swiss accounts of Russian gangsters and their clients in the nomenklatura. We must support Yeltsin and his successors, or else the Communists will come back. Yeltsin, nuclear-armed but dirt-poor, then fought back with the only weapon at his disposal: inflation. The Russian government inflated the ruble so that they could maintain the social entitlements that kept them in power while promising their Western creditors that they would make good on their obligations – but only if aid continues. It was a house of cards that had to come crashing down, and when it did – what was unleashed? The jury is still out, but if present trends continue on course it looks like history is going to repeat itself the first time as tragedy, and the second as calamity. Imagine Adolf Hitler armed with nuclear weapons.
Putin the Strongman can easily become Vladimir the Vanquished, and his popularity could plummet if – or, rather, when – the war in Chechnya goes badly. Already, the Russian troops have been brought to a virtual standstill at the gate of Grozny; the poorly trained, ill-treated and underpaid Russian conscripts are unenthusiastic about the war, while the fanatic Chechens, who glory in war and violence as a way of life, are in their element. The conflict has all the hallmarks of a classic quagmire. It is clear, even early on, that this war can only end in another Russian humiliation, an occasion for the worldwide display of Moscow's decline. The Russian bear has walked headlong into a trap.
Encircled by NATO, beleaguered by Islamic terrorists, forced to go hat in hand to Western bankers, Weimar Russia is facing a major Western incursion into the Caucasus region: Both Georgia and Azerbaijan are Western proxies in the region, and the Russians have long accused the Georgians of allowing Chechen rebels to smuggle arms over the border. The Russians, in turn, have supported Georgian separatists, notably the Abhazians, and this doesn’t take into account the conflict in nearby Dagestan, where the residents are pro-Russian and the "rebels" are Islamic "internationalists" whose leader is a Jordanian trained in Afghanistan. The last we saw these folks in action was in Bosnia and the Kosovo war, where they also were a great help to their alleged enemy, the American government. Even though we may be in for another bout of Serb-bombing as the result of a civil war in Montenegro, the Balkanization of the former Soviet Union has shifted the focus eastward. The US is openly slavering over the oil-rich Caucasus region. As a perfect mirror of gangster-run Russian state capitalism, the Anglo-American corporatists of the "Third Way" operate on the spoils system: they have staked out regional economic concessions for politically-influential Western corporations, from Azerbaijan to Kazakstan, and dream of turning the Caspian Sea into a Western lake.
The attempted conquest of Chechnya can never succeed for the simple reason that the Chechens are unassimilable. They are ethnically, religiously, and temperamentally unsuited to live in a single state alongside Russians; their anarchic social structure is completely alien to the Russian mir or collective, and is best suited to the life of nomadic clans. The best solution, as Russian "isolationists" such as General Alexander Lebed have long argued, is separation: build up Russia’s border defenses, but let Chechnya go.
However, the terrorist attacks on major Russian cities have changed the equation. In the perfervid world of Russian politics, where conspiracy theories are the conventional wisdom, the speculation is rife that Putin and his cohorts had a hand in the attacks, or at least knew about them in advance. In any case, the battle for Chechnya is no longer a question of preserving the Russian empire; it is a matter of preserving the physical safety and integrity of Russian citizens, on Russian soil, and that is why the nation has rallied behind Putin: reformists, nationalists, Communists, the nomenklatura and the gangsters, as well as ordinary people. And so the scene is complete, and the actors are ready to appear on the stage: Putin, the Hindenberg of Weimar Russia, is the bridge between the Russian military and the reformists. Faced with defeat in Chechnya, Putin will fall as quickly as he rose – and the vast power vacuum could be filled by anyone.
The Western media swoons at the sight of Russian fascists, such as Pamyat, and thrills to the bizarre exploits of Zhirinovsky and his misnamed "Liberal Democratic Party." They are sure to give the rise of Russian nationalism banner headlines. Certainly, after all those phony Hitler sightings over the years – Noriega, Saddam Hussein, Milosevic, all, you’ll remember, were given the "he’s another Hitler" treatment – journalists will gasp and even thrill at the sight of the real thing. At last – they will think an enemy worth fighting! Finally a morally unambiguous battle, a replication of the one our parents fought with honor: now we can redeem ourselves for the sin of obstructing the war effort during the Vietnam era. It will be the final expiation of the baby boom generation, and mark their ultimate transformation. While remaining true to their leftie "ideals," in the end they wind up as replicas of their parents, antifascists all.
The Western media has already imagined the rise of Russian "fascism" – in 1998 particularly, just as the Russian economy was melting down – but portrays this as somehow endemic to the Russian "soul," and not at all the result of Western intervention. The Chechen war is, in large part, a Russian response to Western incursions into the former Soviet republics in the Caucuasus. Without Chechnya, which occupies a strategic strip of land between Georgia, Russia, and Azerbaijan, Russia loses its last foothold in the southern tier of the region and acquires a permanent irritant. And remember that, for years, Western governments have subsidized the Russian campaign with loans and loan guarantees and all sorts of other goodies and special privileges. We are expected to believe that, now, suddenly, the West has been stricken with an attack of conscience, and "discovered" that they were propping up gangsters.
If and when the Russian Right takes power and the cold war is back on again, please review the following paragraph from the 1998 Congressional Research Office report on NATO expansion and don’t say you weren’t warned:
"The key U.S. interest in Europe is ensuring Russia's continued democratization and integration into the community of nations. Enlargement will humiliate Moscow and create a 'Weimar Russia,' vulnerable to Russian nationalists hostile to the west who believe that the country's interests are being sacrificed by weak leadership."
Russia is no threat to the US, or to our vital national interests. As long as we leave the Russian bear in his den, he is harmless, because he is almost mortally wounded. As Alexander Konovalov, a historian and political analyst on Russia’s influential ORT television network, put it, not only has Russia lost the cold war but it has also, like Germany in 1919, "lost its dignity, and tried to become a democracy under the worst possible conditions." Russia, he points out, has "lost huge amounts of territory, one half of its domestic product, and 10 years of male life expectancy." It is a lot to lose, and the revanchist dream is a powerful one. That it has been US policy to stoke those embers, like a fire at the heart of the Russian collapse and to set out plenty of kindling is fated to become one of the great mysteries of American diplomatic history the answer to which we will not learn until long after it is irrelevant to anyone but historians.
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