Kotkin on Russia and the West

A great interview with historian Stephen Kotkin. Kotkin has some some thoughts on the Kennan, Mearsheimer, Kissinger, Hill, Service et al. view that expanding NATO was a precipitating event in the Ukraine-Russia war which are well taken, albeit he fails to think on the margin. Much more important is his full throated defense of the West. Just a few months ago a defense like this would have been branded as right-wing agitprop and the author attacked for not being woke to the evils of capitalism. But Putin has reminded the West of its virtues.

How do you define “the West”?

The West is a series of institutions and values. The West is not a geographical place. Russia is European, but not Western. Japan is Western, but not European. “Western” means rule of law, democracy, private property, open markets, respect for the individual, diversity, pluralism of opinion, and all the other freedoms that we enjoy, which we sometimes take for granted. We sometimes forget where they came from. But that’s what the West is.

And yet, as corrupt as China is, they’ve lifted tens of millions of people out of extreme poverty. Education levels are rising. The Chinese leaders credit themselves with enormous achievements.

Who did that? Did the Chinese regime do that? Or Chinese society? Let’s be careful not to allow the Chinese Communists to expropriate, as it were, the hard labor, the entrepreneurialism, the dynamism of millions and millions of people in that society.

On a kind of natural resource curse:

…in Russia, wealth comes right up out of the ground! The problem for authoritarian regimes is not economic growth. The problem is how to pay the patronage for their élites, how to keep the élites loyal, especially the security services and the upper levels of the officer corps. If money just gushes out of the ground in the form of hydrocarbons or diamonds or other minerals, the oppressors can emancipate themselves from the oppressed. The oppressors can say, we don’t need you. We don’t need your taxes. We don’t need you to vote. We don’t rely on you for anything, because we have oil and gas, palladium and titanium.

On why the stupid get on top:

You have to remember that these regimes practice something called “negative selection.” [In a democracy, AT] You’re going to promote people to be editors, and you’re going to hire writers, because they’re talented; you’re not afraid if they’re geniuses. But, in an authoritarian regime, that’s not what they do. They hire people who are a little bit, as they say in Russian, tupoi, not very bright. They hire them precisely because they won’t be too competent, too clever, to organize a coup against them. Putin surrounds himself with people who are maybe not the sharpest tools in the drawer on purpose.

That does two things. It enables him to feel more secure, through all his paranoia, that they’re not clever enough to take him down. But it also diminishes the power of the Russian state because you have a construction foreman who’s the defense minister [Sergei Shoigu], and he was feeding Putin all sorts of nonsense about what they were going to do in Ukraine. Negative selection does protect the leader, but it also undermines his regime.

On the importance of error correction:

…Finally, you’ve given credit to the Biden Administration for reading out its intelligence about the coming invasion, for sanctions, and for a kind of mature response to what’s happening. What have they gotten wrong?

They’ve done much better than we anticipated based upon what we saw in Afghanistan and the botched run-up on the deal to sell nuclear submarines to the Australians. They’ve learned from their mistakes. That’s the thing about the United States. We have corrective mechanisms. We can learn from our mistakes. We have a political system that punishes mistakes. We have strong institutions. We have a powerful society, a powerful and free media. Administrations that perform badly can learn and get better, which is not the case in Russia or in China. It’s an advantage that we can’t forget.

And most importantly, we need to blaze a path to de-escalation.

The problem now is not that the Biden Administration made mistakes; it’s that it’s hard to figure out how to de-escalate, how to get out of the spiral of mutual maximalism. We keep raising the stakes with more and more sanctions and cancellations. There is pressure on our side to “do something” because the Ukrainians are dying every day while we are sitting on the sidelines, militarily, in some ways. (Although, as I said, we’re supplying them with arms, and we’re doing a lot in cyber.) The pressure is on to be maximalist on our side, but, the more you corner them, the more there’s nothing to lose for Putin, the more he can raise the stakes, unfortunately. He has many tools that he hasn’t used that can hurt us. We need a de-escalation from the maximalist spiral, and we need a little bit of luck and good fortune, perhaps in Moscow, perhaps in Helsinki or Jerusalem, perhaps in Beijing, but certainly in Kyiv.

A great interview. Read the whole thing.


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