When, in the 1980s, American President Ronald Reagan defined the Soviet Union as “the empire of evil”, he found very little support in the mass media system: the statement seemed childish in form, wrong in fact (however bad thought of the USSR) and inappropriate because, if taken seriously, it would have closed the door to any negotiations and power agreements with the Kremlin on matters of common interest. With hindsight, we see that the first not to take it seriously was Reagan himself, who is going down in history as a great president also for having negotiated very important disarmament treaties with Moscow and for having improved relations with the Soviets from other points of view as well, while he worked their flanks discreetly and effectively prepared the downfall of their system.
If we compare it with the present, the overall approach of the mass media system towards Russia today appears much more trenchant: today in the newspapers and on TV the rhetoric about Putin as the “new Hitler” and the like does not find that in the West. opposition that aroused thirty years ago the term “empire of evil”, yet the threat of Russia (very narrow in the borders, with a GDP that has fallen to the level of Italy, without a system of alliances and no longer an ideology of global challenge) is only a fraction of what it once was. In the West, the negative (sacrosanct) judgment on Putin’s political system seems to automatically result in the highest possible level of international hostility towards Russia – economic sanctions and political boycott at every level – without considerations on effectiveness, cost / benefit ratio. and on the possible ultimate outcome of this strategy. Perhaps (and we repeat: perhaps) the debate on relations with Russia would benefit a little more articulation, rather than sterile diatribes between alleged pro-Putin and anti-Putin, as if one or the other were the bearers of some intellectual or moral flaw .
What is true for the mass-media system is not true for all the media, and not even for all individual analysts of international politics; with regard to relations with Russia, there is someone who is outside the canons. One scholar who has a very bad opinion of Putin, his regime and his foreign policy is Niall Ferguson, yet the British historian warns that the Western call to arms against Putin’s Russia, raising the risk of 1938 Munich-style capitulations. , for example regarding the Crimea and the Donbass, is wrong and misleading: the real historical parallel that should keep our concerns alive, he warns, is with August 1914, when no one wanted a world war, but everyone made the voice in vain big and the war broke out for acts of badly calculated hostility. According to Ferguson, “the real lesson of history is that relatively small crises, involving portions of non-prominent Eastern European states, can lead to world wars”; and in his opinion, with regard to Ukraine it would be “a grave mistake (…) not to leave Putin with no choice but to bend or fight”. This Ferguson writes despite the fact that he continues not to have the slightest esteem for Putin and does not at all suggest giving him a free hand in all circumstances.
Here it is not a question of arguing that Russia in Georgia or Ukraine is right, although this cause can also be pleaded, in hypothesis, with rational arguments (as for example in America John J. Mearsheimer, and in Italy Eugenio Di Rienzi); the point is another, namely that Russian interests in Georgia or Ukraine or Syria should not be denied or demonized with anathemas against imaginary new Hitlers, they should instead be negotiated. And before that, it should be clarified what the interests of the West are in this regard.
And here comes the dean of international politics, as well as the tutelary deity of the “realist” school of international relations, Henry Kissinger. Who writes against the rhetoric about Putin as the new Hitler: “To understand Putin you have to read Dostoevsky, not the My fight. Putin is aware that Russia today is much weaker than it once was, it has lost 300 years of imperial history with the collapse of the Soviet Union and is now strategically threatened along all its borders ”. Kissinger again: despite its brutal downsizing as a great power, “we must always remember that Russia is an important part of the international system and therefore is useful for resolving all sorts of crises, from nuclear proliferation agreements to Syria. This must prevail over the temptation of tactical escalation on specific issues ”; and the reference is to Ukraine. And Kissinger urges: “There are those who say that we must force Russia to restore international law in Ukraine through sanctions and isolation, and that if Russia collapses because of all this, it would be nothing more than the price it pays. for the aggression. My minority school of thought is that we would probably win a new Cold War, but a new conflict-ridden post-Tito Yugoslavia extending from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok is not in the American national interest. “
Kissinger points out here that his theses are minority (to say the least); we add that his analyzes and prescriptions of international politics deliberately disregard any judgment on Putin and his regime, and are argued solely on the basis of the interests of America and the rest of the West. It would be a catastrophe for America and the rest of the West, Kissinger says, if Russia falls apart. If only because of the nightmare of the uncontrollable dispersion of the Kremlin’s gigantic nuclear arsenal.
“If Russia collapses” is the title of the monographic issue of Limes magazine now on newsstands and in bookstores. Limes as a newspaper does not take a position in the debate on what to do with Russia: it hosts different and contradictory opinions, and this is already unusual in the editorial panorama. In the introductory article, George F. Kennan is cited, the creator in 1947 of the doctrine of containment of the USSR, who then became the most authoritative critic of his creation, because (in his opinion) the USSR was opposed uncritically inflexible and obtuse (he would have liked fewer Korean and Vietnam wars and more Marshall plans). Kennan had a very long life, having died over 100 in 2005; so he had time to see the early years of the Putin era. What would you say about Western policy towards Russia today? We can’t say for sure, but in all his long diplomatic and intellectual career, Kennan has never closed the door to negotiations without preconditions with the Kremlin, and has always opposed economic sanctions, despite never having harbored any illusions or shown the slightest indulgence towards the totalitarian and relentlessly hostile nature of that regime. In the old USSR Kennan has always been considered a visceral anti-Soviet, and he himself liked to quote, almost with coquetry, the medal of having been the only American ambassador in history expelled as a “persona non grata” from Moscow (in 1952). Nonetheless, even in moments of hardest conflict between the US and the USSR, Kennan has always affirmed the need to negotiate between enemies on vital issues such as nuclear disarmament without subordinating the negotiation to other dossiers, not even to that of human rights, to never break the thread of diplomacy, to accept the Soviet Union as it was, as a fact, without deploring its existence and without trying to change its regime, and above all without falling into histrionic hostility; in his opinion, a foreign policy that results in a garrulous and sterile expression of antipathy towards a foreign country, or worse still, the individual person of its leader, represents the lowest intellectual level that can be found in the international arena.
This sustained Kennan all his life, even during the period in which he advocated the containment of Stalin’s USSR in the most uncompromising form; It does not seem difficult to imagine what opinion he would have today (like Ferguson and Kissinger) of Western rhetoric about Putin “the new Hitler”.
Luigi Grassia is the author of the book “Arcana empires. Cold War and geopolitics: George Kennan from Stalin to Putin “, Mimesis Edizioni, pp. 138, 12 euros. Foreword by Domenico Quirico.