The extraordinary Russian scholar, Georgy Mirsky, passed away on January 26, 2016. He was an exceptionally warm human being, and also a relentlessly honest observer of Moscow’s foreign policy and international affairs broadly. I first became acquainted with his work while working on my dissertation at the beginning of the 1980’s. I remember thinking then that unlike so much Soviet writing that portrayed the world in very simple, ideological terms, Mirsky understood and sought to explain the world in all its complexity.
I first met him, thanks to my colleague Karen Dawisha, in Moscow in 1986. I met with him on numerous occasions afterward, including in Washington, Moscow, Tehran, and elsewhere. He once came to George Mason University to speak to one of my classes.
I last met him at his apartment in Moscow on May 28, 2014. He was not well, but he had several things about the “present situation” that he wanted to convey, and he insisted that I take notes. I am posting these notes here as a remembrance to him and the way in which he thought.
There are four reasons why Putin is acting as he has done in Ukraine: 1) age-old Russian complexes; 2) Soviet mentality; 3) KGB conspiracy; and 4) Putin’s fear of being humiliated.
Russian complexes regarding the West consist of: 1) the view that life is better in the West than in Russia; and 2) the belief that despite this, Russians are more warm-hearted, open, hospitable, and spiritual than Westerners. Thus, while Russians have an inferiority complex vis-à-vis the West, they console themselves with the idea that Russian people are better than Western people. Russians want to visit the West, but Russians have long believed that the West is hostile to Russia.
In the 19th century, there was in Russia wide distrust of Queen Victoria. In Soviet times, the West was seen as besieging Russia. There is, then, an age-old distrust of the West in Russia. Russians believe that the West will harm Russia if it can.
The USSR collapsed, but Soviet mentality has remained. Inside the Soviet mentality is an inbuilt mechanism for anti-Western, anti-American feelings. This only disappeared for four years during World War II. On Victory Day in May 1945 (which Mirsky described from personal experience), American were genuinely popular in Red Square.
Putin does not see the possibility of war with the West. He is not afraid of war occurring. But Putin and his supporters believe that America and the West want to hurt Russian interests wherever they can. They feel strangled by NATO expansion. Russians see NATO expansion as NATO coming closer to Russia, making the situation for Russia more dangerous.
But what, Mirsky asked, is the actual danger to Russia? Who cares if Poland and the Baltic states belong to NATO? The answer is not clear, but Putin sees their belonging to NATO as bad.
The NATO bombing of Serbia in the 1990’s negatively affected Putin’s and Russian attitudes toward America. Mirsky was in Princeton when this occurred. When he returned to Moscow, he saw what damage this war had done. Serbs were seen as fellow Slavs. Bombing them was seen as part of a plan for aggression against Russia. “Yesterday Belgrade, today Baghdad, tomorrow Moscow,” was a common view after the U.S. intervened in Iraq.
Many saw the heat wave that occurred in Russia in 2010 as being due to deliberate American efforts at climate change (America had been blamed in the past as being somehow responsible for Soviet agricultural shortfalls). One third of Russian people that that it was possible that the U.S. introduced AIDS into Russia in order to harm it. This was the sort of thinking that the KGB fostered among Russians, and succeeded in getting them used to.
Anti-Americanism in Russia is a popular, spontaneous sentiment resulting from the loss of superpower status and feeling of humiliation that Russia had been pushed out of world situations everywhere. Russia was feared in the past, but disrespected now. This view is similar to anti-Americanism in Europe and Asia. In fact, this form of anti-Americanism is universal, like anti-Semitism. Even Israelis have this sort of anti-Americanism. The only people who do not are Poles and Iraqi Kurds.
Putin exploits these feelings. After the Beslan attacks in 2004, Putin said that “certain forces” who were unhappy that Russia was still a nuclear power were responsible. He also said that “some forces” want a part of Russian territory. This, of course, must be the Americans.
Putin’s fear of being humiliated is based on his belief that American leaders have betrayed him. Putin supported Bush after 9/11, but Putin expected reciprocity from the U.S. Putin thought Bush had double-crossed him when he strengthened U.S. forces in Europe and pulled out of the ABM Treaty.
Putin took all this badly. He saw the U.S. as deceiving him and Russia. Putin was further upset by the 2004 “color revolution” in Ukraine. (Mirsky noted that this was not a real revolution in the Marxist sense.)
The Arab Spring was seen by Putin as a color revolution, as an American scheme to instigate color revolutions to weaken Russia. Especially after Bolotnaya (anti-Putin demonstrations in Moscow in May 2012 at the time Putin resumed the presidency), Putin and his supporters were upset and apprehensive. When Medvedev was president (2008-2012), Putin saw his popularity decline. He saw this as part of an American plot to bring color revolution to Russia. This contributed to his bad feelings toward the West.
The capture of Crimea in early 2014 was not planned in advance. The pro-Russian Ukrainian president, Yanukovich, had disappointed Putin. But Putin feared what would happen after he fled and a pro-Western government came to power in Kiev. Even though it belonged to Ukraine, Crimea was the home of the Russian Navy. Putin wanted to eliminate the possibility that the Russian Navy based in Crimea would be taken over.
Putin is a Russian nationalist. He described the breakup of the USSR in 1991 as a geopolitical disaster, but he also regarded the 1917 revolution and the subsequent federalization of the Russian Empire into separate union republics as a disaster too. Putin saw turmoil in Kiev as giving Russia the chance to recapture Crimea for Russia.
After Ukrainians voted for independence in December 1991, Ukrainians were seen as untrustworthy. The recapture of Crimea, then, was seen as justified. Putin denied that Russian troops were involved in this, but of course they were.
On February 21, 2014, an agreement had been signed between Yanukovich and the Ukrainian opposition on elections to be held in Ukraine. But the next day, the agreement collapsed and Yanukovich fled. At this point, Putin saw acquiescing to the rise of a pro-Western government in Kiev as being a sign of weakness. In his view, Yanukovich’s oppnents saw him as weak for signing the agreement, and so they pressed further.
Putin saw Russia as about to lose Ukraine, and believed that the West had double-crossed him yet again. The agreement had simply been a Western ruse. He thought that after Crimea, the West would try to take the rest of Ukraine. Putin hadn’t yet decided on annexation; Crimea could have been made into an independent state. But once Yanukovich fled, Putin decided on annexation.
Eastern Ukraine: Putin was unhappy that the pro-Western Poroshenko won the Ukrainian presidency. Putin then hoped Poroshenko would compromise regarding secessionist eastern Ukraine, with its large Russian population. But Poroshenko decided to crush the pro-Russian rebels there instead. Putin felt compelled to help “the people” in eastern Ukraine resist this.
But according to Mirsky, the Russian public isn’t really as concerned about eastern Ukraine as it is about Crimea. Crimea and eastern Ukraine were not regarded as the same by them. But if Poroshenko succeeded in retaking eastern Ukraine, this would make Putin look bad. And Putin did not want to look weak.
By this time, Russian relations with the West had deteriorated badly. The West was surprised and disappointed by Putin’s actions in Ukraine. The West had expectations that Putin would play by Western rules, but these proved false.
In the short term, Putin has won. His ratings are high, and he hopes to be president for life.
Syria: Putin can’t be seen as backing down under Western pressure. Thus, Putin is stuck with Assad. If Putin stopped supporting Assad, he fears that he would be seen as a loser.
Putin is popular in Russia, but he has lost most of Ukraine for Russia. Putin is not afraid in the short-term, but what he has done will result in a long-term loss for Russia.
RIP, Georgy Mirsky.