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Vassals or Enemies: Can Putin Actually Lead?

Friday, February 13, 2015

Former U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union George Kennan is famous for observing that Russia can only have "vassals or enemies" at its borders.  With the new peace deal crafted between The Ukraine and Russia, with the help of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, today's news is rich with history.  It is also pregnant with a question: We know Russia can seize territory.  But can Russia escape the gravitational pull of its own history and seize a future of prosperity and wealth?

The biggest part of that history is no less than 20 million Russian deaths during World War II.  It is a number which staggers the imagination, and at least partly explains (geography and military history helps as well) what seems to be a cultural predisposition to paranoia on the part of Russian leaders.

But imagining a future which is exactly like the past - with only vassals or enemies at their borders - is not the answer to what might otherwise be perfectly legitimate Russian geopolitical concerns.  For us in the West - as we watch an exceptional story unfold before us in The Ukraine - there is an opportunity to articulate a decidedly new - and exceptional - view of the future.  And for leaders like Vladimir Putin and Petro Poroshenko there is an opportunity to seize this chance to actually lead Europe away from a geopolitical orientation which history should teach us will only careen from violent confrontation to violent confrontation.

But this has to start with bridging a chasm in understanding between West and East.  I have written here and here in this blog about exactly what I think "American Excpetionalism" means - and how we are seeing the same thing emerge among the people of The Ukraine.  Russia takes exception to this view because they misunderstand it.  I believe it is exceptional in human history for a people to forge a national identity of ideas instead of ethnicity and religion.  In America we have shown that this can succeed.  In fact, we have shown that true prosperity and wealth follows when the first priority of the exercise of power is the securing of the natural rights of minorities in our midst.  This is the exceptional story of our Constitution and the form of government our Founding Fathers pioneered over 200 years ago.

It might also be the story of The Ukraine... and perhaps even of the future of Europe.  If this exceptional life can be understood together by both Putin and Poroshenko, they have an opportunity together to rescue a prosperous future from a violent past.

For Poroshenko, the geopolitical concerns of the Russians offer an opportunity to strike out and carve a path different from the rest of Europe - and to potentially show the rest of Europe a prosperous way forward.  By staying out of the monetary union of the Euro, The Ukraine can chart its own course in sound banking, limited government and true economic freedom.  They can show the rest of the world that wealth is not measured by natural resources, but by innovation and improvement.

For Putin, the self-determination of the people of the Ukraine offers the opportunity to recast the relationship between East and West around prosperity rather than tired ideological rivalries.  But this has to start with the realization that they - Russian leadership broadly speaking - do not even come close to understanding how we in the West view the world around us.  Starting with our understanding of what it means to be exceptional in human history is as good a place as any to address this.

This leaves us with a few observations about where we stand today.  20 million lives lost in WWII is a bell rung awfully loud - and which cannot be "un-rung."  By striking out on a distinctly different path from the rest of Europe, The Ukraine can at least attempt to address Russian geopolitical concerns.

But Russia's own history has taught it a lesson the people of The Ukraine must also take into account - you do not defend your national interests with pieces of paper.  It remains left to be seen whether this latest agreement between The Ukraine and Russia will go the way of similar pre-WWII agreements between Germany and Poland and later Germany and Russia.  Depending on such agreements for security was the direct cause of the loss of 20 million lives.

And so The Ukraine - as far as monetary policy goes - should stay out of the Euro, period.  As for foreign policy they simply have to draw the same conclusions from history as Putin and the Russians have drawn.  This does not need to mean joining NATO.  But it must mean strengthening its defensive capabilities with the help of NATO to keep that option open.  They must make it clear to Russia that they shall be neither a vassal nor an enemy, but shall chart their own exceptional course in history. And we must support them in this respect.

If Putin and Poroshenko can balance these interests and concerns long enough for peaceful commerce to produce lasting prosperity, both can lead the world away from the tired, war-torn ideologies of the 20th century and toward a 21st century of innovation and wealth creation.  And that will - indeed - be a truly exceptional accomplishment.

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