The USA and Russia: A New Guinea State of Mind
April 12, 2018
By Mencken's Ghost
The dangerous macho posturing between the USA and Russia brings New Guinea to mind.
Until the middle of the 20th century, remote tribes in the jungles of New Guinea were still largely untouched by civilization and living as they always had. That is, they were engaging in tribal warfare, stealing each other's womenfolk, and having each other for dinner—not having each other over for dinner, but having each other as the main course.
Anthropologists couldn't understand the enmity between the tribes, since they didn't need to attack each other to obtain enough food, shelter, or other resources.
When the scientists asked the tribes why they hated each other, each side recounted some recent act of aggression by the other side or some incident passed down through folklore. But to the neutral, objective anthropologists, there was no overarching reason for the enmity, and it was clear to them that all tribes would be better off if they lived in peace. In fact, that's exactly what happened after a New Guinean central government was established that was strong enough to end the tribal conflict.
You know where this is going. Yes, it's going to draw a parallel between the past situation in New Guinea and the self-defeating present situation between the USA and Russia.
Ask Americans why they see Russia as an enemy, and you might hear about the Cold War, the Berlin blockade, Nikita Khrushchev banging his shoe at the United Nations and vowing to bury Americans, the Cuban missile crisis, various proxy wars where Russia supported bad regimes, and more recently, Russia's meddling in the U.S. election, its power play in the Ukraine, its support of Bashar Assad, and its alignment with Iran.
You won't hear much from Americans about how Russians see things. Even if Americans were to know Russian history, they'd be reluctant to show any empathy toward Russians, as they wouldn't want to be seen as unpatriotic, or naïve, or as appeasers. That's understandable. As in New Guinea, or anywhere else for that matter, one has to pick a side, and the side one picks is usually the tribe or country of birth and upbringing. Besides, if a person sides with the enemy, the enemy probably won't become a friend; but the home tribe will probably become an enemy.
Not wanting my home tribe as an enemy, I'm not about to take the side of Russia. But I will give a brief tour of how Russians see the world. Understanding how they see the world is important in knowing how to deal with them and how to align them with us instead of China, an alignment that is in our strategic interests.
First, Russians have an inferiority complex stemming from what they see as humiliation at the hands of the West, especially the USA. They lost the Cold War, the space race, the economic race, and even the race for Olympic gold. Their economy is about the size of California's economy, English is the language of world commerce, American culture has seeped into the motherland, and they have lower life expectancy and per-capita income than Americans.
At the same time, China has risen from the cellar of communism to adopt a quasi-market economy that rivals the American economy, thus accomplishing something that Russia couldn't accomplish.
Russian resentments are intensified by the USA scolding them for siding with despots and meddling in the affairs of other countries—the very same acts done by America, including in Russia's backyard.
One of the countries in Russia's backyard is Iran, where we joined Britain in overthrowing a duly elected president and replaced him with our puppet, the Shah, an overthrow that was in response to Iran nationalizing its oil industry. Then we sold nuclear technology to the Shah, a sale that was understandably concerning to Russia. (Persians and Russians may be allied today in their support of Bashar Assad, but they do so with wariness, given that they have fought each other many times over the centuries.)
We not only meddled in Iran, but we sided with the despot Saddam Hussein and sold him arms, including, as is suspected, materials for chemical weapons, although this has never been conclusively proved. Then we deposed him in the second Iraq war and overthrew his Sunni Baathist party, which in turn resulted in Iraq's Shiites allying with Shiite Iran, in the rise of ISIS and its atrocities in Syria, and in a general disequilibrium in the Middle East.
It was a similar story in Afghanistan. Russia became mired in the godforsaken country after invading it, but instead of letting things play out, we armed bad guys because they were fighting the Russians. Those same bad guys would later fight us.
All of this followed a century of the West not only meddling in the Middle East but also carving up the region into artificial, unstable countries that could only be held together by strongmen. One of these is Syria, where Russia has one of its few warm water naval bases. In fact, it is Russia's only overseas naval base. The base, which is leased from the Syrian government, allows Russia to resupply and maintain its warships without having to take them back to their home base in the Black Sea by traversing the narrow Turkish Straits, a pinch point controlled by NATO. The base is as strategic to Russia as Hawaii and the Philippines are to America.
Which brings us to a subject that Americans have difficulty understanding: the role of geography in shaping Russian thinking and foreign policy.
The USA is blessed with long shorelines and many deep-water ports along the Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf of Mexico. It also has a temperate climate and many navigable rivers that crisscross the country. And it has friendly nations to the north and south. This geography not only facilitates commerce but also facilitates the mobilization of armed forces and the projection of power.
Russia is not as blessed. Its immense size, its climate and its location in the world make it very hard to defend, which is why it has been attacked so many times in its history—primarily from the west. As such, it sees a need to have a large expanse of territory between historically hostile states to the west and Moscow, so that invading armies eventually run out of supplies before getting to the capital, due to having long supply lines.
Based on history, Russia sees its main vulnerability as the North European Plain, which runs thousands of miles from north to south but is only 300 miles wide. Poland is a key entry point across the plain into Russia, and in fact, Russia was invaded by the Poles in 1605. Over the subsequent centuries, the Poles were followed into Russia by the Swedes, the French, and the Germans (twice).
The perceived need to protect its western flank and block the key entry point of Poland was a key reason for Stalin signing the non-aggression pact with Hitler in 1939 and later occupying Poland. Now Russia sees itself as being encircled to the west by NATO countries.
This fear came into play with Ukraine, which Russia saw as an important buffer zone that should remain in the Russian sphere or at least stay neutral. But the western part of Ukraine began responding positively to European and NATO overtures, while the eastern part stayed loyal to Russia. Americans see the issue in terms of Ukrainian independence, while Russians see it in terms of vital national security and in the context of a long and complicated history between the two nations.
Russia's thinking has some parallels to the Monroe Doctrine, named after President James Monroe in the early 19th century. The doctrine formally opposed European powers from establishing any new colonies in America's sphere of influence in North and South America.
Russia also feels hemmed in to the east, across immense Siberia, where Russia shares a long border with China and the Chinese satellite state of Mongolia. Russia's only deep-water port on its east coast is Vladivostok, which is on the Sea of Japan and closed by ice four months of the year. Russian ships transiting the sea have to pass between South Korea and Russia's former enemy, Japan, both of which are of course American allies.
Russia's access to the sea is just as limited to the west. The port of Murmansk freezes for several months in winter, and Russian ships have to skirt the Western nations of Finland, Sweden and Norway.
Is it any wonder why Russia wants to hold on to its naval base in Syria and doesn't want to risk losing it as a result of a regime change in the country?
In any event, the foregoing examples are just a taste of how Russia sees the world differently than Americans.
One wonders how anthropologists from another planet would view the enmity between the USA and Russia. Would they see it the same way that anthropologists saw the enmity between New Guinea tribes—that is, as self-defeating, dangerous, and unnecessary?
Please don't kick me out of the tribe for asking.