August 23, 2017 | By Ivo H. Daalder

This Week's Reads - The Rise of Nationalism and Nazi Analogies in Russia


We’ve heard quite a lot about Nazis in recent weeks -- and rightly looked to our elected leaders to make clear that there is no room for the Nazi-saluting and flag-waving phalanx of protesters that took over the streets of Charlottesville a few weeks ago. Yet, even as we witnessed a big debate here at home, I'm struck by how different the situation is in Russia, where in recent years those in power have invoked, often unprompted, head-scratching comparisons to the Third Reich.

Earlier this month, at a youth forum of all places, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that if Russia had not intervened in Ukraine in 2014 it would have been akin to surrendering Leningrad to the Nazis in World War II, echoing remarks made earlier by Russian President Vladimir Putin. It is an evocative, though historically dubious, comparison. Yet the analogy was not the end of it. Lavrov added that Ukrainians in 2014 were not just like Nazis; in fact, they were Nazis. “It would have been a crime to surrender Crimea to the Nazis who staged the coup in Kiev, which led to the current Ukrainian leadership,” he said.

Since the ouster of the Kremlin-backed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014, Russian leaders and media have presented to the Russian people the skewed image of a Ukraine overrun by neo-Nazis, fascists, and criminals. Violence has been embellished, even invented, and described to Russians on state-run television as commonplace. Meanwhile, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its support for militants in eastern Ukraine has been cast as a defense of ethnic Russians against hostile, Western-backed fascists. All too often, Russians have been receptive to this fake news. During Lavrov’s recent remarks, for example, he was asked by a Russian citizen why Moscow was not doing more to help the “Russian people from Donbass.” Lavrov defended his country’s actions in Ukraine, saying, “All this also concerns the issue of the Russian nation. We need to remain concerned and preserve our genetic code. . .”

It is this appeal to an ethic Russianness, and the strident nationalism that accompanies it, that has worried Kremlin watchers in recent years. While the whys and hows of the Putin regime’s turn toward nationalism are complex, worthy of book-length analysis, one takeaway is clear. For all of its value to Putin in consolidating power and stifling opposition, nationalism has further isolated his country. In April 2015, the Russian president was asked during one of his periodic televised question-and-answer programs if Russia had any allies in the “struggle against reviving Nazism.” Putin considered the question. Then, bringing up the words of the nineteenth-century Russian Emperor Alexander III, he said, “Russia has only two allies -- its army and navy.”

The United States faces no such limits in its alliances. In the coming weeks Washington will decide how to move forward with Ukraine (Secretary Mattis is in Kiev this week), and it can and should do so in coordination with our allies and partners, not least the 29-member NATO Alliance. As Dina Smeltz and I write in a new op-ed for, seven-in-ten Americans consider NATO “essential” and, for the first time since Russia annexed Crimea and invaded Ukraine, a majority of Americans (52%) support sending US troops to defend Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia if Russia attacked any of these NATO allies.

Read the entire op-ed here. This Week’s Reads includes other interesting pieces on Russia. I hope you find them worth your while. And as always, I welcome your comments and reflections.

Russia’s Election Meddling Backfired -- Big-Time

David Ignatius/The Washington Post

Be careful what you wish for. You just might get it. The big wish behind Russian President Vladimir Putin’s meddling in the 2016 US election was to inject disarray into the liberal global order. In the main, this wish came true. Yet, as David Ignatius writes in the Washington Post, a backlash has been moving against what the Kremlin and its operative might have hoped would follow. New bipartisan sanctions, new methods to identify and combat Internet manipulation, new investigations –- none of it is to Russia’s advantage. “Putin’s problem is that he overreached,” writes Ignatius. “His dislike of Clinton and enthusiasm for Trump led him to violate the cardinal rule of covert action -- namely, make sure it stays covert.”

America and Russia: Same Old, Same Old

Angela Stent/The National Interest

Each new US president since the fall of the Soviet Union has known the secret to fixing US-Russia relations, or so each has thought. Yet each has also come up short, writes Angela Stent in this essay for the National Interest. The true impediments to stronger relations between Washington and Moscow are structural, she explains, and have less to do with the personality or persuasiveness of the person behind the Resolute desk. “Things are unlikely to look so different under a Trump administration from the way they did under the Obama administration,” Stent sums up, “barring some major new revelation about Russian activities during the election campaign last year.”

Demands on Russian Foreign Policy and Its Drivers: Looking out Five Years

Dmitri Trenin/Carnegie Moscow Center

Russia has been “essentially muddling through” since its 2014 annexation of Crimea and its incursion into eastern Ukraine, writes Dimitri Trenin, the director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. Yet the muddle, he adds, will continue. “Russia’s principal foreign policy priorities,” Trenin says, “as evidenced by its actions in Ukraine and Syria, are checking any further advance of NATO in Eastern Europe and confirming Russia’s status as a great power outside the post-Soviet space.” This essay is a smart and detailed look ahead by one of the most knowledge Kremlin watchers at work today.

Talk of ‘Preventive War’ Rises in White House over North Korea

David E. Sanger/The New York Times

There are echoes of 2002 in the White House as Trump’s administration debates the efficacy of “preventive war,” writes David E. Sanger in the New York Times. But the country in question is no longer Iraq; it’s North Korea. The piece is a sobering look at the active debate in the West Wing about whether the United States could systematically wipe out North Korean launch sites before missiles were fired against the United States or its allies South Korea and Japan. The final word is given to Bruce Bennett, a North Korea expert at the RAND Corporation: “There is no such thing as a surgical strike against North Korea.”

Soften the Tone and Harden Our Defenses

Mark Helprin/Wall Street Journal

If the adage “speak softly and carry a big stick” still holds, then now is a good time for the United States to invest in a bigger and better stick, explains Mark Helprin in the Wall Street Journal. “The president can switch from tough-guy talk to going before a joint session of Congress to ask for an emergency increase in funding to correct the longstanding degradation of American military power,” he explains. Helprin’s wish list includes new fortified shelters for bombers, new F-22 aircraft, new coastal anti-shipping missiles -- it all adds up to a hefty price tag. Yet Helprin says it is ultimately cheaper than going into a future war in Asia underprepared.

Playing Chicken with China

Graham T. Allison/Wall Street Journal

We expect leaders to act like adults, not like teenagers. Yet the latter is precisely the image Harvard’s Graham Allison uses to describe the recent brinksmanship between Washington and Pyongyang. The two countries are like thrill-seeking teenagers driving toward one another in a game of chicken. The difference, Allison notes, is that Beijing can take the wheel from Pyongyang to avert a catastrophe -- that is, if Beijing believes Washington won’t swerve first. It is a bewilderingly risky strategy, but President Trump convincing the Chinese leadership that he would attack North Korea is the best chance of compelling Beijing to exert its full economic and diplomatic pressure on Pyongyang, Allison writes.

A New, Winning Strategy for Trump in Afghanistan

Stephen J. Hadley/The Washington Post

After 16 years of war, there remains one big unanswered question in Afghanistan, writes President George W. Bush’s national security advisor in the Washington Post. What to do about the Taliban? The answer, Stephen J. Hadley says, is to give peace talks a chance. “Defeating terrorist groups that threaten the United States does not include or require defeating the Taliban,” he explains. An important takeaway from this piece, apart from its recommendations regarding the Taliban, is the large role US diplomacy will undoubtedly play going forward in negotiations with the Afghan government, as well as with Pakistan, India, and other key players.

Jeff Flake: We Need Immigrants with Skills. But Working Hard Is a Skill.

Jeff Flake/The New York Times

Senator Jeff Flake has been in the spotlight recently for his new book and for his pointed critique of the president’s commitment to conservatism. Yet here, in this op-ed for the New York Times, the Republican senator from Arizona aims the spotlight on another individual. Manuel Chaidez, an immigrant to the United States from Mexico, and others like him are underappreciated for their tireless work, Flake writes. As Washington seeks to retool the US immigration system to favor high-skilled and high-credentialed workers, the senator explains, “there must always be a place in America for those whose only initial credentials are a strong back and an eagerness to use it.”

Hezbollah Is Running Rings around U.N. Monitors in Lebanon

Danny Danon/Wall Street Journal

The U.N. force tasked with ensuring peace and security in southern Lebanon is not fulfilling its mandate, writes Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations in this Wall Street Journal op-ed. The U.N. Interim Force has turned a blind eye to installations along the Lebanese border with Israel that have become strongholds for Hezbollah to cache arms, collect intelligence, and launch attacks. Yet there is a solution, Danon explains. When the mandate next comes before the U.N. Security Council, it can be revised to increase the force’s presence on the ground and to strengthen its ability to investigate suspected Hezbollah strongholds.


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