Editor’s Introduction

In this issue, we feature several takes on the new international (dis)order being manufactured by Vladimir Putin’s increasingly authoritarian, belligerent, militaristic, and expansive regime, which has so far had its way in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, while a divided and impotent Europe and America scold him weakly from afar.

Aurel Braun of the University of Toronto argues that Putin’s invasion in Ukraine “may seem self-contained, but there is actually a great deal at stake politically, economically, and strategically for the international community [and] the window for effective action, moreover, is quickly closing.” Jeff Gedmin of Georgetown (and a contributing editor of this journal) agrees and notes that while Putin, in beginning what is tantamount to a new Cold War, “clearly knows what he wants,” the larger question is, “Do we?” Noting that one of the remorseless lessons of history is that a nation either has an agenda or it becomes the victim of the agendas of others, Gedmin argues that it is urgent to “reset the ‘reset policy’ toward Russia” with a new strategy of containment.

It would be reassuring to know that the architects of the reset’s reset, if it comes, will have read all the pieces on this subject in this issue of World Affairs. Elena Servettaz, for instance, a Russian-French journalist at Radio France Internationale, delves into the details of sanctions and shows that Putin’s cavalier dismissal of their efficacy may be a form of whistling past the graveyard, since a more muscular application of this tool might add his own name to the targeted list and freeze his own fortune of an estimated $40 billion in Swiss banks.

For Nina Khrushcheva, the political is personal. She is a professor at the New School in New York and also the great-granddaughter of Nikita Khrushchev, which gives a special piquancy to her exploration of the mind of Putin. She sees him as defined by a sense of victimization and paranoia that manifests itself in slightly loony obsession with restoring Russia’s lost empire. Such fantasies reveal what Khrushcheva calls, speaking of Russians, “the Gulag of our own minds.” “Even if his regime succeeded in becoming the new Byzantium by patriotically ignoring the isolation falling like night all around it,” she laments, “the result would mean the end of Russia as we know it.” Perhaps glancing back at how American resolve made her own great-grandfather blink, Khrushcheva concludes, “It is time to dust off George Kennan’s 1946 views on how to deal with the Soviet Union and apply them to the new Russia, the militant yet victimized Un-West that the country has mutated into in the Putin years. But this will be a challenge unless the United States, too, returns to what Kennan called ‘the American principles,’ to what has always been America’s strength—‘the power of example.’”

Rutgers political scientist Alexander Motyl, who has written for some years in World Affairs about the calamity that the Yanukovych and Putin regimes would inevitably bring to Ukraine, considers what lies ahead now that “Putin has maneuvered himself, and Russia, into a position of Zugzwang—a chess term denoting a condition in which one’s king has to move, but cannot, because any move would result in check.” Motyl examines various possible outcomes with his trademark precision—cold war? cold peace? hot war? hot peace?—and concludes that because it’s impossible to gauge what Putin might do next, outside powers must be vigilant enough to prepare contingencies for any of these outcomes. In the short term, the next move will likely be determined by Putin and at best mitigated by the West. There could be a more favorable longer term, however, as the ongoing fear of Russian aggression spurs Kyiv to develop “a vigorous democracy with a strong economy and a strong army.”

Given that Putin, like many dictators before him, justifies his nearly naked invasion of Ukraine on his obligation to protect the “endangered” ethnic Russians who live there, we asked Katja Koort, a lecturer at Tallinn University, to explain the position of the Russian minority in her country, Estonia—a NATO ally located just below Finland (with which it shares language and culture) and perched precariously on the northwest border of Russia (with which it shares a bruising history of occupation and tension). Of Estonia’s 1.26 million people, three hundred thousand are ethnic Russians—a legacy of the Kremlin’s efforts to colonize and Russifiy the country after forcibly incorporating it into the USSR in 1940. The political is personal for Koort, too, herself an ethnic Russian whose parents migrated from the capital city of Tallinn in the 1960s to the country’s industrial northeast “to help build the socialist future.” Being a stakeholder in Estonian history allows Koort to offer discerning insights into the still evolving postwar relationship between the country’s natives and its Russians, who once enjoyed a privileged status but whose fortunes and status have declined since Estonia regained its independence following the death of the Soviet Union. Old divisions have resurfaced and taken on a new relevance in the wake of Putin’s invasion of Crimea, as the Kremlin’s propaganda has targeted the less integrated of the country’s ethnic Russians, who comprise about half of the total. “Nevertheless,” Koort writes, “as surveys show, local Russians largely disagree with Russian troops going into Estonia under the label of ‘protection of their compatriots.’ . . . Most of us are convinced that instead of ‘helping’ compatriots outside the motherland borders, Russian authorities should deal with numerous human rights issues inside their own country. Here in Estonia, we do not need to be saved.”


Vladimir Putin plays a supporting role in yet another essay in this issue, this one by veteran Vatican correspondent Roland Flamini, who analyzes the Russian dimension of the enigmatic world of papal foreign policy. Pope Francis raised eyebrows last September when he made a pacifist appeal to Putin as world leaders debated military action in Syria. The Russian president, having since used the pontiff’s support to buttress his infamous New York Times op-ed on the “meaning” of Syria, picked up the relationship in a visit to the Vatican two months later. Flamini’s conclusion? “The tenor of Francis’s dealings with Putin is one sign that the non-European pope is shaping his own foreign policy course. Unlike the two pontiffs he canonized in April, he does not come from a world where the Vatican was strategically aligned with the West in the struggle against communism—a communism that Pope John XXIII (1958–63) tried to deal with, and Pope John Paul II (1978–2005) helped destroy.” As a new chill settles over Europe, that swath of Cold War history is worth exploring again in all of its complexity, and Flamini proves an apt guide.

Moving away from Russia and the menacing shadow it has cast over world affairs these past months, Michael Totten, another journalist whose thoughts about the Middle East are featured frequently in these pages, steps back and assesses the Arab Spring in its fourth year. His report card is characteristically lean and honest—Tunisia proved the pessimists wrong; Egypt proved the optimists wrong; Libya “went from totalitarianism to anarchy”; Syria looks like the Yugoslavia of 1993 and might wind up looking more like Afghanistan under the Taliban before it’s all over; and Morocco, with its monarch leading slow but steady reforms, might well be a surprising model for Arab progress.

Moving south and west, two essays touch on problems in a pair of South American countries. The first is the authoritarian socialism bequeathed to Venezuela at the death of Hugo Chávez last year. Maria Werlau, director of the Cuba Archive, catalogues the ways in which Marxist theories of class warfare, as mediated by Castroism, have led not only to strong ties between Havana and Caracas but also the training of Venezuelan criminal gangs and paramilitary groups in Cuba. Faced with protests earlier this year, the Venezuelan regime seemed happy to turn a blind eye to these thugs who have been documented “killing and beating protesters, destroying vehicles, sacking homes and businesses, and apparently also attacking pro-government forces, presumably in an effort to tarnish the image of peaceful demonstrators, escalate the conflict, and justify strong-arm tactics.”

Next door, Colombians have come under attack from a more intimate form of violence—acid attacks, more than three-fourths of them perpetrated by men against women. Jessica Weiss, a journalist based in the Colombian capital, introduces readers to the recent and all too brief history of women’s rights in the country, and to the activists struggling to educate Colombians about the severity of crimes, like acid attacks, designed to halt this progress by degrading and disfiguring women and diminishing their standing in society.

In the troubled years ahead, as America’s relationship with rogue regimes in this hemisphere and elsewhere in the world worsens, it is likely that “engagement” will continue to be the preferred lever used by the US government to tamp down on hostilities. Michael Rubin wonders if diplomacy is the panacea Washington, with a naïveté that springs eternal, believes it is. Citing various misguided diplomatic enterprises of past administrations, Rubin cautions the current and future presidents intent on dialogue: “Whether in Moscow, Tehran, Damascus, or Pyongyang, rogues view the outstretched hand of American presidents with disdain. That is not to say they are unwilling to talk, but American administrations, especially Obama’s, consistently confuse dialogue with sincerity.”

As for the famous Chinese curse that says, “May you live in interesting times”—interesting being the opposite of peaceful and tranquil—the pieces in this issue show that those of us trying to make sense of the world today really have no choice.

As always, we want to know what you think.

— James S. Denton

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