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Out with the new, in with the old?
Looking back, and looking around, in three conversations
We need to talk.
I started this newsletter back in June, full of high hopes — for the newsletter, not the state of the world. It’s been a while since TL;DRussia has graced your inbox, though. Of course, if your inbox is anything like mine, that may not be a bad thing. But, well, things didn’t exactly go to plan — and by things, I mean more or less everything: the last few weeks, the last few months, pretty much all of 2021.
But like I said, we need to talk — or, rather, we need to talk a little bit differently. A little bit more slowly. A little bit more carefully.
Late in 2021 — back when we were primarily concerned about Iraqi refugees on the Belarusian border and Russian troops on the Ukrainian border — I had a chance to do just that: to talk, carefully and slowly, and put things in perspective. One of those conversations was with my King’s College London colleagues Ruth Deyermond and Natasha Kuhrt, the occasion being the 30th anniversary of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Listening again to that podcast, I’m struck in particular by a point that Ruth made:
I don’t think you can really, properly understand how the relationship between Russia and what still 30 years after the end of the Cold War we refer to as the West develops without understanding that really radical difference of perception about how the Soviet Union collapsed. In the 1990s and later, if you look at the way that the Western media, Western politicians talk about the collapse of the Soviet Union, it’s understood as part of the end of the Cold War, as part of the triumph of liberal democracy, capitalism, and the defeat of the Soviet Union, and therefore the defeat of the political elites of the Soviet Union as well. But actually the perception in the 1990s, certainly in parts of the Russian government like the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and related branches, was, well, we ended communism, we helped you — you, the West, and us together, we ended communism, we ended the Cold War. We triumphed as well. And therefore we should be partners.
Why that partnership failed — why it never really materialized — is a subject of analysis and debate that I’m not going to deal with here. But the part that struck me in Ruth’s comments was this divergence of perception, the basic inability of both Western and Russian leaders to understand how the other side was seeing the world, and the ways in which that inability deepened in the ensuing decades. Now, 30 years later, that inability has become something worse: the absolute certainty that we know exactly what the other side is thinking.
That kind of certitude — whether it is the Kremlin’s certitude or our own — is damaging. That was the subject of the second conversation I got to have, with my long-suffering co-author Graeme Robertson. In a piece for the Washington Post back in December, we argued that the best way to handle the threat of war with Russia over Ukraine was to back away from our more facile assumptions about the other side’s intentions:
More than at any other time since modern Russia emerged from the debris of the Soviet Union 30 years ago this month, Western policymakers need a clear-eyed view of how and why the Kremlin makes political decisions — which makes it all the more troubling that so much of the debate about the summit and the troops ignores the things we do know, focusing instead on things we cannot know.
The unknowable, of course, is exactly what many American and European pundits seem surest about: the real intentions of Vladimir Putin. In this, they share a kind of delusion with many Russian pundits, who know precisely — and have known for decades — that America’s only aim is the dissolution of Russia itself.
When something is unknowable, we have two options: we can guess, or we can accept that it is unknowable and shift our focus instead to the things we can actually observe and analyze. I prefer the latter, which was the subject of my third conversation, with my old classmate Thibault Muzergues, who now hosts the .thinkAtlantic podcast. In that discussion — focusing, like the other podcast, on the aftermath of the end of the USSR — Thibault asked me about Putin’s views of the Soviet past. My answer?
I don’t have a clue and I don’t really care what Putin’s views actually are about the Soviet past. My take on Putin is, he’s a politician, and like most other politicians, he’s going to pick and choose what he says for the purpose of securing and maintaining his own power.
For the implications of that, have a listen to the podcast. That’s not the point here. The point is that I’m not interested — and I don’t think any of us should be interested — in dwelling on the unknowable. Fixating on those black boxes makes analysis impossible. Worse, it transforms analysis into mythology, as we tell ourselves stories about the unobservable parts of the world and then reinterpret everything we actually can observe in light of our assumptions about the things we can’t.
A bit more analytical humility changes the way we think about politics in Russia, about what Russia is doing in and around Ukraine, and about what’s going on in Kazakhstan — about which more on another day. Analytical humility makes our models messier and more contingent, yes, but also a closer approximation of the real world. That has to be a good thing.