Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Always Russia

I've been reading a lot of Russian history lately, and there were two articles today that fell right in line with some of the recurring themes of that history.

Russia might not be pleased for the United States to leave Afghanistan. It's hard for us Americans to understand just how difficult it is to maintain a large country that has boundaries with not-necessarily-friendly countries around it. So if America is willing to distract the troublemakers in one of them, so much the better for the Russians.

That continental geography has been an enormous influence in Russian history and thinking. The Russians set out in the nineteenth century to bring the natives to the east under control, as did the Americans to the west. But the Russian spaces are much more immense and climatically unforgiving. It's the kind of thing that seems logical to secure the borders but turns out to have its own kind of revenge. On the south, Russia has a bunch of people, many of them Muslim, who don't want to be part of the empire. To the east, they have cold lands that are mostly good for pumping oil and harvesting lumber when you can avoid being mired in the mud.

But that immense stretch of geography, with its natural resources, is the basis for a strong country if those pluses can overcome the drain of building infrastructure, dealing with the locals, and defending against invasions. Russia, as the Soviet Union, became a great power in the last half of the twentieth century via a heavy military buildup, including nuclear weapons. Russia has always wanted recognition of its resources and, all too often, potential capabilities, and never quite received that recognition the way it wanted.

So one might think that John Boehner is an astute student of history in wanting to use that recognition as a lever with Russia. But I suspect that his inclination is more a reflexively Cold War thing, or just that feeling that so many conservatives seem to have that bestowal of recognition is a boon that America grants only to the deserving, and we decide who's deserving. Just as stereotyped and counterproductive as that Russian longing for proper recognition.

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