The Russian Pride Complex

Standing on a tank in the center of Moscow in 1991, I watched as the Soviet Union collapsed around me. As a recent college graduate who had majored in Soviet, East European Studies, this was an amazing turn of events. As peaceful as it was back then, 20+ years later we are still feeling the impact of those days.

The resulting political, economic, and social instability that permeated Russia and the former Soviet Republics continues today. Without established legal, economic, and political institutions, the countries of the FSU are prone to corruption, inflation, and opportunistic leaders, among other economic and political pitfalls. Ukraine is a great example.

Equally as destabilizing to Eastern Europe was the hit that the Russian psyche absorbed as the loss of the Cold War sunk in. Living in Russia from 1991-1994, I saw firsthand the aid provided by the West, and vividly remember the disdain, embarrassment, and shame that ordinary Russians carried. For years they had been considered the ”other” superpower. Yet, when food lines stretched around the block, hyper-inflation was rampant, and corruption took root, the pride dissipated. Reality set in.

In 1991, Putin himself was working for the progressive Mayor of Leningrad, Anatoly Sobchak. When the Coup of 1991 occurred, he resigned from the state security forces, but his training and affinity to the idea of a strong and powerful Soviet Union, never ceased. Putin has said “The dissolution of the Soviet Union was a national tragedy on a massive scale.”

He, along with many Russians, remained proud of their mother country. In fact, with the economic Union Treaty established with Belarus and Kazakhstan in 2010, it is not surprising that Putin continues to focus on expanding his influence in the hope of creating a type of Eurasian Union.

So, should the West be surprised at his continued push for expanded power. I would argue not. History provides a guide that the idea of pride and nationalism play a critical role in leaders’ ambitions and behaviors.

Parallels to the end of WWI and the German response to the Treaty of Versaille resonate. Distraught and offended by the terms of the treaty, and made worse by the government’s propaganda that they were winning the war, the people of Germany, and ensuing leaders carried around a downtrodden feeling of dismay that energized the country in later years.

This is not to say that Putin is comparable to Hitler, but similarities exist, and the West, in dealing with Putin need to recognize that isolation, repudiation, and incendiary comments can open up powerful wounds.

Putin has broken international law. He has intimidated the people of Ukraine and continues to be unresponsive to the world’s distaste for his actions. While sanctions and being absent from the G8 are options we are now threatening, why not learn from history? Instead of alienating and fist pumping, meet with the man. I understand that this defies diplomatic protocol. Typically the Secretary of State would meet with the Russian Foreign Minister, as is happening. But, does Lavrov even sit in the room when Putin is making decisions? And, if there is one thing I learned while living in Russia is that Russians appreciate hearing from the person in charge. This might be one case where Obama needs to do something unexpected.

Building a relationship with Putin will allow the world to develop a framework to maintain peace. It is critical to find a way to lead together, allow him to maintain some level of pride, and underscore his importance in the world community. After all, we do need his voice when discussing issues of Syria, Iran, and nuclear warhead reductions. Take an approach that leverages historical learnings within the context of his experience, and move forward.

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