The war in Ukraine is in good part the result of both the West’s serious strategic-historical and serious historical-strategic miscalculations at the Cold War’s end. The former were embedded in a philosophy of history that was eschatologically progressive–what is progressive and therefore just defined in purely Western terms that not coincidentally based on the West’s interests. The latter, the historical-strategic, followed from the strategic-historical mistakes along with a series of assumptions they engendered about the kind of strategy the West would need to ensure it was on ‘the right side of history.’ The West also made a series of mis-assessments of Russia in the context of these miscalculations, helping to produce the Western-Russian security dilemma that is playing out today in the fields, villages, and cities of Ukraine.
THE WEST’S STRATEGIC-HISTORICAL MISCALCULATIONS
(1) The West’s faulty philosophy of history. The first post-Cold War strategic-historical error was rooted in the West’s eschatological and Western-centric philosophy of history. Rather than seeing human history’s development as circular, the West sees it as linear and progressive. The sense – rooted in the Christian eschatology of the Antichrist, apocalypse, Christ’s second coming, humankind’s salvation and the advent of the Heavenly Kingdom at the end of time – is that History is heading to a particular conclusion or outcome. History, in this view, is not a series of repeating cycles of rise and fall, construction and destruction, war and peace. History’s endpoint is being decided in a twilight struggle between good and evil in which the former shall win. Not wanting to be losers in the contest and being no less self-oriented and self-assertive than others, Westerners naturally envisage an end of History in which the Western model, being on the right side of History, triumphs at its end. Those forces that stand in the way of this endpoint are naturally on the ‘wrong side of History’ and ‘evil’. There can be no justification for their actions at home if the violate the stipulations of ‘democracy’ at home and of its expansion across the globe — the spread of the ‘good news’ and Word of universal democratic values globally and coming of the inevitable the only peace that can be: the democratic peace.
(2) Western teleology of History’s end in democratic peace. The second strategic-historical mistake was to fill that historical-philosophical framework with content stipulating that it is not so much the West per se that drives history but its civilizational elements: individual freedoms; republican or, where possible, even democratic government; and free market economies or capitalism. Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History and the Last Man” laid out the argument. After the Cold War and Soviet communist empire’s collapse, capitalist republicanism was the last ideology or model standing. The Western ‘democracies’ (there are few democracies, all Western states are republics) had ostensibly led the fight to rout fascism in Germany, Italy, Japan and, as is often forgotten, Eastern Europe in the 1940s. They then contained and outperformed the other challenger-ideology, communism, leading to the latter’s disillusion with itself and, to a large extent, dissolution of itself. This confirmed the West’s eschatology regarding History’s direction and ultimate end.
Humankind had entered the final stage of history that would lead to a world of free market capitalist, republican states. Since, according to the co-related ‘democratic peace theory’, republics do not go to war with each other, the new world of republican states might soon ring in a heavenly kingdom of eternal peace and prosperity for all. The excitement in certain Western communities or sub-cultures — e.g., neocon circles — was palpable. There was a new anxious energy and intolerant impatience with any objective or subjective resistance. The baggage of hundreds of national histories, hundreds of national memories, hundreds of national cultures, the numerous religions and civilizations they spawned, and, consequently, hundreds of international, intercultural, and inter-confessional scores to settle were left by the wayside in this teleological analysis. Moreover, the analysis had enormous strategic implications for completing republicanism’s march across the globe.
THE WEST’S HISTORICAL STRATEGIC MISCALCULATIONS
(1) Saving History by democracy-promotion and NATO expansion. The religious origins of Westerners’ belief in a capitalist republican end of history does not necessarily preclude human activity to accelerate historical development. Just as some Christian traditions hold that the purification of humankind and of grace on earth can help bring the final salvation closer or as some communists revised Marxism to allow for the coming of communism in largely agrarian states, especially if revolutionary forces could be organized and led by a tightly knit party of professional revolutionaries that could ‘telescope’ or contract the course of historical development between ‘capitalist, bourgeois democratic phase’ and the socialist revolution, so too do humanist believers in the inevitable advance of free republics across the globe endeavor to hasten the coming of a republican global community and democratic peace. This was reflected in the vast expansion of Western, especially American democracy-promotion efforts designed to help nudge less than ripe societies into democratic transition. The infamous color revolutions were sometimes only nurtured rather than directly machinated, but the outcome was the same: the incorporation of the willing and and some of the unwilling in any particular state into Western system for their liberation and salvation from war, poverty, and authoritarianism. Some, like the Russians and Chinese, were consternated over the curious correlation between political and geographical proximity of the West’s ‘target states’, on the one hand, and their allies and neighbors, on the other. Two corollaries to this proselytization was EC expansion in order to expand market-dominated economies to post-Soviet and post-communist worlds and – more disconcertingly for Moscow and Beijing – the expansion of world history’s most powerful military bloc, NATO. The latter expansionist corollary was sold as the enlargement of a purely defensive alliance in smooth accordance with coming democratic peace. NATO members would live in a zone of security and a community of democracies, and others would naturally yearn to join in the peace.
(2) Transforming Ukraine from a buffer state to security dilemma. The shocking scale of the political overreach and historical blunder of this NATO strategy, particularly as it became increasingly strident and self-interested, was visible to all of the West’s most accomplished strategic thinkers: George Kennan, John Mearsheimer, Michael Mandelbaum, among others (including myself). (Some, such as Zbigniew Brzezinski, saw the light on their death beds.) These seasoned and reasonable men noticed and warned from the start that such a policy would chase Moscow into Beijing’s arms, creating a bulwark of anti-Western strategic power. It is with this historically grave miscalculation that today’s Ukrainian conflict found its genesis, for NATO’s ‘open door policy’ raised the issue of Russia’s border being fully covered with members of the alliance. By attempting to bring Ukraine into NATO – officially since the alliance’s 2007 Budapest summit, unofficially probably since 1991 – the alliance deprived itself of a buffer state between Russia and the West that would have largely precluded conflict with Russia, particularly if a strategy of buffer-building instead of alliance-building were applied to the Baltic, Belarus, and Moldova as well. From the beginning, NATO expansion discredited democracy and Russia’s Westernizers and resuscitated Russia’s traditional security vigilance norm in relation to the West. NATO’s new members had powerful historical grudges and cultural and religious animosities in relation to Russia, and Russia had historically rooted sensitivities about its western neighbors because of a centuries-long pattern political interference, subversion, and interventions, cultural and religious animosities, and military interventions and invasions emanating from the West, by the West, and for the West.
Ukraine was an especially troublesome matter given the common historical, cultural, religious, and ethno-national elements between Russia and Ukraine. The Ukrainian and Russian national identities are inextricably intertwined by common historical experiences and political ties, some of comity, some not so much. By insisting on its right to expand to Ukraine, NATO turned the neutral sign under which post-Soviet Ukraine existed into a negative sign as far as Moscow was concerned. From being a potential buffer state for the West (and Russia), Ukraine became an object of desire between the West and a Moscow already in a state of heightened vigilance as a result of several waves of NATO expansion, including to its borders with the Baltic states. In short, the West replaced a security buffer with security dilemma and high likelihood of conflict with Russia.
Perhaps more importantly, because of the two country’s often common history, Ukraine was a divided state, split along ethic, linguistic, identitarian, geographic, political-historiographical, and socioeconomic lines. NATO’s efforts to expand to Ukraine aggravated tensions between western and southeastern Ukraine where these divisions lay ready to explode like a soldier stepping on a land mine. The Western-backed Maidan revolt was the violent spark that detonated this powder keg.
(3) De-emphasizing conventional warfare, while pushing Russia towards conventional war in Ukraine. At the same time, the last stage of history’s presumption of a democratic peace and other factors helped to produce a new ‘unconventional’ approach to Western military and national security doctrines, the West’s color revolutionism and NATO’s and the EU’s expansionism pushed Russia towards conventional warfare in Ukraine. But the imminent democratic peace seemed at least in the West to mean that the risk of war had subsided and that conventional wars of the kind seen in Europe had come to an end– evidence and harbinger of the coming of democratic peace. Truly great powers were unanimous now about the superiority of capitalist republican political-economic systems; they had together adopted the universal values. For an undecided Russia, post-Cold War weakness, perestroika era arms control agreements, and the ‘insurance policy’ of NATO expansion were reliable guarantees that fears of a Russian threat to Europe were limited if not non-existent. Conventional war and militaries might still emerge in the Third World, but they would be no threat to powerful Western military machines for decades. Democracy outside the West ensured peace with Japan and India, and China was viewed as being on the cusp of a Soviet-like ‘transition to democracy’ of which Tiananmen Square had been a harbinger. Without the threat of major conventional warfare, defense and intelligence spending could be reduced or at least budget increases could be slowed down.
At the same time conventional war fears receded, a new unconventional security threat emerged from jihadi terrorism and counterinsurgencies. The main unconventional threat came from the ‘Third World’. So significant portions of defense and intelligence expenditures were diverted to ‘counterterrorism’, nation-building, and domestic social engineering needs. Тhis shift was particularly robust after 2000, when 9/11 prompted the war against jihadism’s terrorism and guerrilla, insurgency warfare. But meanwhile successive waves of NATO expansion and the resulting return of Russia’s more traditional authoritarianism and security vigilance culture were intensifying tensions with the West, thereby growing Russian military expenditures and increasing the state’s overall concern regarding the perceived growing conventional the West from the Balkans to the Caucasus to Syria to Ukraine and the need for greater focus in state and society on national security. After the color revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine in the mid-2000s and the Georgia-Russia Ossetiyan War of Agust 2008, Russian embarked on an major military reform and modernization effort.
THE WEST’S MISCALCULATIONS OF RUSSIA AND THE NEW RUSSIAN CALCULUS
The West’s strategic misreading was perhaps even more evident when it came to developing its relations with post-Soviet Russia. Historical and strategic miscalculations led to a condescending attitude towards Russia, an underestimation of Russia’s historically persistent great power status, an overestimation of the endurance of post-Soviet Russian weakness, a tendency to ignore Russian national interests and sense of honor, and a complete misunderstanding of Russia’s, not just Putin’s determination to thwart the emergence of a military threat on its borders. Great powers do not permit this kind of development, and Russia is determined to preserve its great power status for reasons of history, security, tradition, and honor. Numerous Western scholars have noted that if Ukraine were to join the Western camp and lose its foothold in the Black Sea through its fleet based in Crimea, Russia would be exceedingly hard-pressed to maintain great power status.
The already mentioned return of Russia’s security vigilance culture and her rejection of democratization resulting from democracy-promotion revolutionism and democracy-promotion’s militarization by dint of NATO expansion is directly related also to the West’s complete misreading of the Soviet collapse and post-Soviet Russia in general. The West misinterpreted the fall of the Soviet communist regime either as a revolution from below or as a ‘democratic transition’. It was neither. In the case of the former, political elites were inclined to believe in the myth of a broad-based, societal ‘people’s revolution’ from below because that was the political teleology dictated by the ‘end of history’ model. Meanwhile, academics plugged the Russian case into the popular theory of the period: transition theory. In fact, the Soviet/Russian regime transformation was primarily a revolution from above with secondary elements of a nascent revolution from below and ‘transition pacting’ or regime-opposition negotiations towards a democratic transformation, but these latter elements were aborted almost immediately after the failed August 1991 coup (see Gordon M. Hahn, Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition, and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction Publishers, 2002, Routledge, 2017]
This meant that rather than a broad mass of republican revolutionaries rising up to change the regime and seizing power as in a revolution from below or sharing power and remaining politically vigilant relevant after a negotiated transition from the ancien regime, the revolution was led from above, inside the state by Party-state actors, who had a limited if any commitment to or understanding of real republican rule and market economies. Such actors dominated the leadership and state apparatus across the board in the ‘new’ Russia after 1991. The fact that some of the Russian leadership and bureaucracy and some in society had a such commitment made a complete transformation to market republican rule possible but also an extremely difficult task. But since the West assumed a larger social foundation of the revolution there was less urgency to provide what was then absolutely critical economic assistance. Instead, such assistance came too little too late. Worse yet, the West began discussing and then implementing NATO expansion, undermining the pro-Western, pro-republican, pro-free market forces. Russian pro-republican revolution from above then went on life support, with color revolutions and successive waves of NATO and EU expansion in the offing (Hahn, Russia’s Revolution from Above, Chapter 11). Thus, by the early 2000s Russia’s pro-republican revolution from above was dead.
Westerners were aware, though perhaps underestimated that the revolution bore the complex, multifaceted burden in the Soviet communist legacy of totalitarian politics, hyper-centralized economics, and an anti-Western, anti-capitalist, and anti-liberty ideology, culture, and political. But they did not see coming the revival of Russia’s still usable traditionalist pre-Soviet past. That development was a direct result of overburdening the Russian revolution from above’s weak social and democratic base with NATO expansion. As Russia’s republicans faded in influence as a result, the Russian political and intellectual elite began to search for a new path in the country’s past. Pre-Soviet Russian culture, thought, history and politics were the obvious alternative to a communist revanche in response to Western encroachment behind the expanding NATO and EU. In the Russian Religious Renaissance and Silver Age during the Imperial twilight era in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Russian culture and discourse reflected not just those ideas that fed the flood of revolution and the communist takeover: proletarian communism, agrarian socialism, revolutionary utopianism, and communist internationalism. Equally influential were ideas of Orthodox universalism and communalism, Russian messianism, Slavophile anarchy and agrarian ‘communalism’, pan-Slavism, Christian liberalism, Western liberalism, anti-bourgeois sentiment—in sum, various forms of non-Western and/or utopian conservatism. Politics under Imperial Russia’s autocracy were authoritarian but liberal by Soviet standards and occasionally further liberalized, constituting a soft-to-hard authoritarianism by today’s standards, but they were not totalitarian and so responded to the Russians’ desire for significant freedoms in the wake of the Soviet experience. At the same time, they coincided with Russians’ distrust of the West and their country’s status as a great power.
With the discrediting of communism and socialism by the late Soviet era and that of capitalism and republicanism in the depression of the wild 90s’, it was these pre-Soviet Russian conservatisms that emerged from the sediment of the national memory uncovered after the liberalization of the Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika and Boris Yeltsin’s weak democracy, which though afforded a very free public discourse on Russian past, present, and future. Soft authoritarianism with considerable popular support and anti-capitalism or at least anti-bourgeois sentiments returned, Russian Orthodox universalism and communalism, semi-universalist neo-Eurasianism, Russian state (not ethnic) nationalism, and the preference for national solidarity over political pluralism rose to the fore again in Russian culture– political, economic, and strategic. This traditionalist Russian alternative was missed by dint of the West’s ignoring or never taking it seriously. After all, the end of history drafted by Western thinkers saw a future moving away from such traditions.
Moreover, the recent Russian revival has seen a return of a semi-messianic, neo-Eurasinianist vision in which Russia is seen as a main, if not the leading force in a Great Eurasian-centric alternative to the West, in which Russian and China should rally the ‘Rest’ against the West in order to: defend religion against secularism; traditional family values over radical feminism, genderism, transgenderism, and transhumanism; communalism over individualism, and the national and civilizational over the global. Each civilization, in this view, is free to determine what kind of political and economic system it should live with. Thus, India and various African and Latin American democracies are integrating with several of the Sino-Russian alternative’s various international organizations, from BRICS to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Eurasian Economic Union, and One Belt One Road. The emerging new Russian messianism — one also rooted Christian-inspired eschatology and teleology — holds that Holy Russia has a speciall mission in world affairs. That mission at present is confined to that embodied in the neo-Eurasianist strategy presently part of the Sino-Russian partnership as envisaged by Moscow.
In terms of military and security affairs, Russia again is going its own way. Despite the Chechen wars and the rise of the Caucasus Emirate, both tied to Al Qa`ida and then ISIS, Russians never really got the memo on abandoning conventional warfare, certainly the Russian military did not. To be sure, in the depressed 1990s Russian civilian leaders were forced to cut defense budgets, and Caucasus jihadism required diverting scarce funding to counterterrorism and counter-insurgency. But this was only on the margins and driven by necessity, unlike in the West where the new doctrines were embraced with enthusiasm and rooted in its peculiar philosophy of history’s end.
Returning to 2022, we see that the West led, even dragged Ukraine into a catastrophe. With membership in NATO and the West writ large dangled before it for two decades, Washington and Brussels engaged Ukraine in the kind of social engineering it often inflicts on its own populations nowadays but on a far grander scale. Governments were overthrown, politics and economics were redesigned, ultra-nationalism, neo-fascism and most dangerously anti-Russianism were not just tolerated but in many ways encouraged by the West in Ukraine. The West created a test tube ‘anti-Russia’, in Putin’s terminology, on Russia’s borders while its stoked security fears in Russia most of all through a NATO expansion that remained behind the scenes temporarily fictional for Ukraine but publicly was made all too real for Russia, given its historical memory of Western interference, intervention, and invasion going back eight centuries. Russia never made the kind of large-scale transition from a manufacturing economy to a virtual one as in the West. This and Russia’s preservation of conventional war know-how and capability is telling in the war the West’s republican messianism and historical teleology brought.
The West’s numerous miscalculations drove the Russian black bear into the Chinese Panda’s embrace. Much of the Rest is ready to embrace the bears in response to Western hegemony, color revolutionism, NATO expansion now to Asia, the West’s Ukraine war sanctions’ demands, IMF and World Bank heavy-handedness. In Ukraine, Russia’s new conservative neo-Eurasian messianism is seeking to protect its rear in the West as it turns east. In its hubris, the West not only ‘lost Russia’ but it is about to lose Ukraine and perhaps much else. Its miscalculations have created a new world but not the market republican utopia it envisioned coming over the horizon three decades ago. In overlooking the permanence of conflict in History, the West revived both conflict and History and did so in ways it may come to regret.
EUROPE BOOKS, 2022
MCFARLAND BOOKS, 2021
MCFARLAND BOOKS, 2018
About the Author –
Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics, www.canalyt.com. Websites: Russian and Eurasian Politics, gordonhahn.com and gordonhahn.academia.edu
Dr. Hahn is the author of the new book: Russian Tselostnost’: Wholeness in Russian Thought, Culture, History, and Politics (Europe Books, 2022). He has authored five previous, well-received books: The Russian Dilemma: Security, Vigilance, and Relations with the West from Ivan III to Putin (McFarland, 2021); Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the “New Cold War” (McFarland, 2018); The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.
Dr. Hahn taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and was a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group.