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Editor’s Introduction

Russia is on our mind again in this issue. How could it not be? Vladimir Putin and his nuclear-armed mafia in the Kremlin have launched the most serious challenge to world order since Leonid Brezhnev’s aggressive efforts to advance Russian totalitarianism into the vacuum created by the paralysis following the US defeat in Vietnam, and possibly since the Munich conference of 1938.

As the brutal Russian incursion into Ukraine drags on, it sometimes seems that the war there has become a trees-and-forest conundrum: If an artillery shell falls on a marketplace in Mariupol, killing a half-dozen shoppers, will a Western diplomat hear the sound of the explosion? The cease-fires come and go; the aggression is forever. Putin is focused on his goals to reassert the Kremlin’s authority at home and abroad, enrich its mafia state, and diminish the transatlantic partnership. And he clearly has a strategy to achieve them. It is evident in the Kremlin’s invasions of Georgia and Ukraine, its aggressive posture toward the Baltic states, the drumbeat of its global information war, and its overt and covert intrigues to diminish the United States and divide Europe. Too many Western leaders ponder and dither, preoccupying themselves with musing over what Putin wants, instead of acknowledging and confronting what he is doing. The real questions we should be asking now are: What, exactly, do we stand for in the West? And what kind of a world do we want? In one of our lead articles, “A Fight for Democracy: Why Ukraine Matters,” Carl Gershman, president of the National Endowment for Democracy, gives the short answer to these questions, which should be more burning than they are: simply because Ukraine’s Maidan uprising “was not only a momentous historical event but also a profoundly democratic one.” And it opposes and gives the lie to the “authoritarian surge” now afflicting the world, with Russia most visibly at its vanguard.

Putin opposes the spirit of the Maidan because of his “seething resentment toward the United States,” in the words of a Washington Post editorial Gershman cites. But Putin also opposes the Maidan and has been willing to cause thousands of deaths in the eastern part of the country simply because of fear that its democratic spirit will make Ukraine “a powerful model for Russia itself.” And this is why the West should redouble its commitment: because “the neo-imperialism that Putin represents will wither if Russia cannot control Ukraine.”

In his piece about the one-year anniversary of the Ukraine revolution, David J. Kramer, formerly an assistant secretary of state and president of Freedom House, stakes out a slightly different position. He believes that the West’s reaction to the invasion has actually been stronger than Putin anticipated, even if it is less than some have advocated. A strong sanctions regime against Russian officials and entities, Kramer believes, has threatened the kleptocratic regime that Putin controls. And therefore he thinks that Secretary of State John Kerry and other Western diplomats should cease the sotto voce discussions about easing sanctions. Rather, they should support other countries in the Russian neighborhood who also feel under the Kremlin’s gun; give Ukraine the arms to defend itself; and most of all, rather than saying in advance what they won’t do, make Putin wonder and worry about the West’s reaction, and thereby give him something to contemplate at night.

In “Bully in the Baltics,” Elizabeth Braw, the European correspondent for Newsweek, looks past Ukraine to the Baltic states—Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania—which worry that they will be collateral damage to Putin’s putsch in Ukraine. (The fears run as far as Sweden, which was deeply unnerved last fall when its coastal security was tested and toyed with by a Russian sub.) These three small countries, which remember vividly the era of Soviet dominion, thought they were safely sheltered under NATO’s umbrella. But they now fear this security has sprung a leak because the US has been so oriented toward the threat of radical Islam rather than the Kremlin’s radical neo-fascism at home and abroad. Now, as Russian bombers and naval forces intrude with increasing provocation into their air and sea space dozens of times a year, their confidence in the European shield has diminished, Braw writes. In a related piece, Zygimantas Pavilionis, Lithuania’s ambassador to the US and Mexico, discusses his nation’s efforts to gain energy independence from Russia, and asks Americans to consider how they can help.

In “Mind Games,” Andrey Tolstoy and Edmund McCaffray take a slightly different approach to understanding the Russian strongman by trying to understand instead the thinking of his chief ideologue, Alexander Dugin. Virtually unknown in the West, Dugin is Putin’s house intellectual, setting the party line particularly on the growing conflict between Russia and the West. At home, Dugin’s writings help organize the nationalist voting bloc that has supported, sometimes fanatically, Putin’s provocations; abroad, Dugin’s work has influenced the development of a paranoid master narrative of “Eurasia’s” encirclement and subordination by Western liberalism that provides a rationale and imperative for Russia’s pumped-up militarism and territorial expansion. 

It is P. J. O’Rourke who provides a sort of summary of our coverage of Putin and Putinism in this issue with his review of Peter Pomerantsev’s Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia. Pomerantsev was born in Russia but grew up in the UK, where his parents emigrated in 1978 when he was an infant. He went back to the mother country after college and spent nine years there, O’Rourke writes, “as a reality TV producer in a place where . . . there isn’t any reality. Or, at least, everyone wishes there weren’t.” O’Rourke details some of the stories Pomerantsev tells of people living under a regime of corruption so grotesque that “Kafkaesque” is an understatement; and then, after shaking his head in bewilderment, gives his own prescription for dealing with the monstrosity Putin has created: “Start with a little bit of George Kennan’s Containment Policy. Leaven that with a large dose of Reagan Doctrine, arming the dickens out of Ukraine, Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and any other sane polity feeling pressure from the Evil Post-Empire. Mix these with the black humor of Peter Pomerantsev’s Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible. And sit back and watch the Putin regime rot.”

 

Stepping away from Europe, the journalists Michael Totten and Terry Glavin call on their time spent in the Middle East to discuss the fate of Iraq and its neighbors, who after decades of turmoil are now staring down the menace of the Islamic State. Totten takes up the question of Iraq’s very existence as a single state, concluding that it doesn’t have much of a future: “If Iraq somehow manages to survive its current conflict in one piece, another will almost certainly follow. Its instability is both devastating and chronic. Far better at this point if Iraq simply terminates itself as a state and lets its various constituent groups peaceably go their own way, as Yugoslavia did after its own catastrophic series of wars in the 1990s.” Glavin then takes a closer look at a central player in this tragedy—the Kurds, a people of perennial misfortune arbitrarily divided to this day throughout Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria. As the lone success story of Saddam Hussein’s demise, the semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurds kept up their northern part of the country relatively well, and hoped to eventually break from Baghdad completely. Kurds throughout the region might have even hoped for a united Kurdistan to emerge, even if competing ambitions made it highly unlikely. “Numbering perhaps twenty-five million,” Glavin writes, “the Kurds are arguably the most populous people on earth without a nation-state to call their own.” Yet at the moment the existential threat of the Islamic State, the Obama administration’s reluctant response to it, and a viper’s nest of conflicting regional interests have decidedly put those dreams on hold once again, leaving the Kurds to intone their old mantra, perhaps with a weary look to old friends in the West, that they have “no friends but the mountains.”

The silver lining of this issue might be Gordon Chang’s essay on Taiwan, where voters last fall handed the long-ruling Kuomintang its worst defeat since Mao Zedong’s Communist Party drove Chiang Kai-shek from the mainland in 1949. The party’s failing? Pushing for closer ties to Beijing, a position the soon-to-be-former President Ma Ying-jeou doubled down on in November by making it a key campaign issue for his party despite strong protests earlier in the year. “The results of the election tell us our reforms were not made fast enough and have yet to meet the expectations of the people,” Ma conceded after the vote. This is Chang’s conclusion as well, and we happily agree. 

Finally, Jordan Michael Smith takes readers on another historical tour, this time through the pivotal years of US foreign policy in the 1970s, as recounted by Daniel J. Sargent’s “masterful” new book, A Superpower Transformed

As always, we welcome your feedback.

— James S. Denton

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