[Many thanks to Max who helped put this together.]
Of all the various interpretations Western leaders and commentators have offered for why the president of the Russian Federation has responded the way he has to the events in Ukraine over the course of February and March of 2014—in refusing to acquiesce to the installation of a neo-fascist regime in Kiev, and in upholding the right of Crimea to self-determination—the most striking and illuminating interpretation is that he has gone mad. Striking and illuminating, that is, something in the West itself.
In times past, the international landscape reflected a multipolar order, a multiplicity of competing ideologies, alternative schemes of social and economic organization. Back then the actions of another country could be understood in terms of its alternative ideology. Even extreme figures—Stalin, Hitler, Idi Amin, Pol Pot—calling them crazy was an example of hyperbole, an intensified way of describing the brazenness with which they pursued their rationally set political goals. But when Chancellor Angela Merkel asks whether Putin is living “in another world,” echoing a theme in the narrative presented by Western media, the question seems to imply something quite literal.
We question someone's sanity when we cannot explain their behavior or logic based on a common understanding of consensual reality. They become utterly unpredictable to us, capable of carrying on a normal conversation one moment and lunging at our throats the next. Their actions appear rash and disordered, as if they inhabit a world parallel to but completely different from the one we do. Putin is portrayed as a fiend, and the West acts baffled and scared. The feigned shock with which the West looks on at the developments in Crimea could be seen as a tactic designed to isolate and intimidate Vladimir Putin. The fact that this tactic is not only not working but actually backfiring changes feigned shock into real shock: Western meds aren't working any more—on itself or anyone else.
The West—that is, the United States and the European Union—have played the role of chief psychiatrist in the world insane asylum ever since the USSR fell apart. Prior to 1990 the world was neatly carved up into two competing ideologies locked in a nuclear standoff. But then Mikhail Gorbachev capitulated. He was a champion of “common human values” and wanted to resolve the superpower conflict peacefully, by combining the best of both systems (all the humanistic victories of Soviet socialism plus all the seductive, consumerist prosperity of American capitalism).
But in effect Gorbachev capitulated; the USSR was dismembered and, over the course of the 1990s, Russia itself came close to being destroyed and dismembered. Although in the West, where he is still a popular figure, Gorbachev is credited with orchestrating a peaceful dissolution of the USSR, the chaotic aftermath of the collapse of the USSR was an extremely traumatic event, with massive loss of life. When Putin calls the collapse of the USSR “the largest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” he echoes the feelings of many Russians—who, by the way, like to call Gorbachev “Mishka mécheny” (“Mickey the marked”—marked by the devil, that is.)
During the post-collapse period Russia could offer no competing ideology. In fact, it had no ideology at all, except for an implant of Western liberalism which, given a lack of a viable legal framework or traditions of private property and civil society, quickly turned into a particularly brutal brand of gangsterism. But then Putin came along and, using his experience in the KGB and connections with other post-Soviet “power ministeries,” he crafted a new order, which first decimated and either supplanted or absorbed the gangsters, and then imposed what Putin has termed “the dictatorship of the law.” This is the first important piece of the new Russian ideology: law matters and nobody can be above it—not even the United States.
Now, compare the concept of the “dictatorship of the law,” domestic as well as international, as it is promulgated by Putin, to the sort of law which now prevails in the United States. In the US, there are now two categories of persons. There are those who are above the law: the US government and its agencies, including NSA, FBI, DOD, etc.; Wall Street financiers and shadowy government contractors who are never prosecuted for their crimes; the über-rich who are politically connected and can prevail legally against anyone simply by throwing money at lawyers.
And then there are those who are below the law: everyone else. These are some of the most sheepish people in the world, living in constant fear of getting sued and stripped of their savings—or arrested, intimidated into accepting a plea bargain, and locked up. They can now be detained indefinitely without a charge. They can be kidnapped from anywhere in the world, transported to a “black site” and tortured. They can be put on trial without being informed of the charge and convicted based on evidence that is kept secret from them. Their communities can be placed under martial law without cause. Individually, they can be shot on sight with no provocation of suspicion of wrongdoing. Abroad, when wedding parties and funerals are taken out by misguided drone strikes, that's a war crime—unless Washington is behind it, in which case it is just “collateral damage.”
Thanks to the relentless NSA surveillance, we now have no privacy and can keep no secrets. For example, German Chancellor Merkel is definitely “below the law.” When, thanks to Edward Snowden, she discovered that the NSA was listening in on her cell phone conversations, she was outraged and complained bitterly. The NSA stopped listening in on her phone and... started listening in on the phones of everyone she talks to! Now, isn't that cute? Notice, however, how Frau Merkel has stopped complaining. Unlike Putin, she isn't “mad”: she is a willing participant in a consensual reality in which what Washington says is the law, and what she says is just noise, for the benefit of maintaining the illusion of German sovereignty. For her benefit, let's ask her in her native German: “Frau Merkel, glauben Sie wirklich dass die amerikanischen Politiker Übermenschen und die Deutschen und Russen und Ukrainer Untertanen sind?”
Putin's second innovation is what he calls “sovereign democracy.” It is a system of representative democracy that is completely impervious to foreign political manipultion. Well, not completely impervious: just as it's good to have a low-level inflammation somehwere once in a while to keep the immune system humming along, it's considered healthy to have Moscow's and St. Petersburg's hipsters—many of whom, in their youthful folly, still worship the West—to go and get themselves roughed up by the riot police periodically. The worship appears mutual, and watching Wetern media worship a bunch of nobodys whose idea of public art is going into supermarkets and stuffing frozen chickens in their vaginas (“Pussy Riot,” that is) provides much-needed comic relief. But the firewall of Russian conservatism remains impervious to Western advances. (As Prof. Cohen recently pointed out, prior to Americans' gay rights agitation, Russian gays used to be called “faggots”; now they are being called “American faggots,” and gay rights in Russia have taken a giant leap back.)
Again, let's compare it to the state of affairs that now prevails in the US, where President Obama announced during this year's state of the union address that, since Congress won't cooperate with him, he plans to rule by decree (“executive order,” in American bureaucratese). In response, Congress is now drafting legislation that aims to compel the Obama administration to enforce acts of Congress. Apparently, they misplaced all their copies of the US constitution, which already describes this very process in considerable detail. Their studied appearance of endless legislative gridlock appears to be a veil designed to obscure the real work of distributing misappropriated funds among their campaign donors—funds that now run into trillions of dollars a year. Add to this the fact that half of US Congress has pledged allegiance to Israel. In Russian eyes, the US is neither sovereign nor a democracy; it is the festering corpse of a democracy being fed on by the world's fattest vultures.
In contemporary Russian understanding, Ukraine is not sovereign either (it is open to blatant foreign manipulation) and therefore its government is illegitimate. The December 1991 referendum which gave Ukraine its independence was conducted in violation of the constutition that was in effect at that time, and Ukrainian independence is therefore illegitimate as well. Since the recent armed overthrow of Ukraine's government was likewise contrary to the Ukrainian constitution, Ukraine no longer has a constitution at all. The Crimean referendum, on the other hand, is a legitimate expression of the will of the people in absence of any legitimate central authority, and therefore provides a solid legal basis for moving forward. The fact that the US government, and others following its lead, have declared the Crimean referendum illegal is neither here nor there: they do not have the power to invent laws on Russia's behalf, and they are walled off from Russia's internal politics.
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One could mark the ascension of the US to the role world psychiatrist from around the end of the cold war. The Berlin Wall came down, and Western Capitalism, Democracy and Liberalism appeared to have won. The unified Western view of the way the world works, of what moves society forward, of what is the best and most productive form of economic, social, and political organization had prevailed over the entire planet. Francis Fukuyama published his inadvertently hilarious treatise on “The End of History.” In this context, in denying the Russian Federation the courtesy of allowing it to have a coherent alternative view, the US is attempting to claw back the illusion of its unquestioned supremacy, its absolute hegemony, its role as chief moralizer and arbiter of what counts as normal and abnormal in thought and behavior. Because either the world must have gone mad, or Putin must have. Prior diagnosis appears to have been faulty: “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. We had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul; a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country,” said George W. Bush of President Putin at the Slovenia Summit in 2001. The patient expertly deceived the psychiatrist, making him believe that he is sane. And now the patient is running amok, and the West is desperately trying to drag him back into the asylum.
Some sympathy for the wardens of this insane asylum is also due. The developments in Ukraine and Crimea are especially troubling for the West because they violate the West's linear conception of history. On this account, the advanced first world Western nations are ahead of the pack, and trying, simply out of their great compassion, to encourage stragglers like Ukraine along the path toward EU and NATO membership, monetary union and a slow-moving, controlled national bankruptcy in the hands of the IMF. The fall of the Soviet Union was a key psychological breakthrough in this story they tell themselves. They thrive on this story, for it defines them and gives them their sense of meaning and purpose. Anything that undermines its basic premises and foundations is deeply disturbing. However, many examples of unmitigated failure in the 21st century have been hard to ignore and have made this narrative sound increasingly shaky. With highlights like 9/11, the fiasco in Afghanistan, the ongoing Iraqi civil war, the global financial meltdown of 2008, intractable unemployment and economic stagnation plaguing the West in these first 15 years of the 21st century, and then the serial fiascos in Libya, Syria, Egypt and now Ukraine, and it becomes easy to see the special significance that this particular confrontation with Vladimir Putin has for the fragile Western psyche.
The West's ascendant trip through linear history appears to be over. The paradox underneath this confrontation is that a situation with such low stakes—Crimea and the political leanings of a minor failed state—has taken on such vast proportions, and this suggests a deeper significance. The political turmoil that has taken root in the fertile soil dividing West and East, in Ukraine, which literally translates as the “borderland,” functions as a powerful symbol of the declining hegemony of the West. This confrontation continues to cast shadows of historical proportions because the authority of the world psychiatrist and world policeman is being openly challenged. The brief illusion of the triumph of the West is cracking. We have not entered into some post-historic phase, some fundamentally new future. The inmates are breaking free, and it looks as if the psychiatrist was the crazy one all along.
Consider the asymmetry. What is Ukraine to the West but an impoverished Eastern European political pawn on the geopolitical chessboard, one that has to be prevented from joining up with Russia in line with the overall trend? But to Russia Ukraine is a historic part of itself, the place of the earliest Russian capital of Kievan Rus (from whence it was moved, eventually, to Moscow, then to St. Petersburg, then to Moscow again). It is a region with which Russia has eleven centuries of joint linguistic, cultural and political history. Half of Ukraine consists of Russian lands capriciously adjoined to it by Lenin and Khrushchev. I grew up thinking Kharkov was Russian (because it is) and was at one point amazed to discover that I would now need a visa to go there—because it got stuck on the wrong side of the border and renamed Kharkiv. (In case you are wondering, to convert to Ukrainian, you take Russian and replace ‘y’, ‘o’ and ‘e’ with ‘i’, ‘i’ with ‘y’, and ‘g’ with ‘h’. To convert back—you ask a Russian.) As of last December, the Russians in Kharkov and other Russian regions of Ukraine have been stuck on the wrong side of the border, as subjects of an unstable, dysfunctional and remarkably corrupt governent, for 22 years. It is little wonder that they are now waving Russian flags with wild abandon.
Even the muddle-headed John Kerry was recently heard to concede that Russia has “legitimate interests” in Ukraine. In challenging Russia over Ukraine the West isn't just crossing some imaginary “red line” that Obama is so fond of proclaiming again and again. In installing a neo-fascist, rabidly anti-Russian regime in Kiev, it has crossed the double-yellow, guaranteeing a head-on collision. Question is, which side will survive that collision: the Russian tank column, or John Kerry's limo? The West's opening gambit is to deny visas and freeze accounts of certain Russian officials and businessmen, who either don't have bank accounts in the West or have already pulled the money out last Friday (to the tune of a couple hundred billion dollars) and aren't planning to travel to the US.
Russia promised to respond “symmetrically.” In its arsenal is: popping the huge financial bubble and causing a resumption of the financial collapse of 2008 by any number of means, from requiring gold instead of fiat currency as payment for oil and gas, to dumping US dollar reserves (in concert with China), to putting the EU on a fast track to economic collapse by giving the natural gas valve a slight clockwise twist, to leaving US and NATO troops in Afghanistan (who are about to start evacuating) stranded and without resupply by declaring force majeure on the cooperative arrangement currently in effect, where much of their resupply route is allowed to pass through Russian territory. That's if Russia chose to act decisively. But Russia could also choose to do little or nothing, and then just the financial contagion from Ukraine's forthcoming bond default and financial jitters over Ukrainian chaos disrupting natural gas deliveries to Europe could be enough to topple the West's teetering financial house of cards.
So what remains of Western global hegemony and of the West's right to play the world's psychiatrist? Make of it what you will, but some lessons seem quite clear. First, it now appears that, from Russia's point of view, having good relations with Washington is quite optional, but that Ukraine is quite a bit more important. All Russia really needs from Washington is that Washington stop its meddling in world affairs. America is dispensable. Washington, on the other hand, needs Russian cooperation if it wants to pull its troops out of Afghanistan in one piece, or if it wants to keep visiting the International Space Station, and even if it just wants to save face after its endless blunders in places like Syria and Iran.
Second, the EU isn't being asked to choose a new master, but slavish obedience to Washington's dictates has led to mischief and may leave it shivering in the dark come next winter through no fault of Moscow's, so the EU should start acting in accordance with its obvious self-interest rather than against it.