Humiliation as a Tool of Blackmail

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published at The American Interest.

Russia today is a country trying to retain its great power status not by dint of success or dynamism or progress, but by cultivating a sense of grievance and resentment. Perhaps the most ominous expression of this Russian “humiliation syndrome” is to be found in its constant reminders to the world of what the humbling of another great nation after the First World War eventually led to.

But before the world gives in to this humiliation as blackmail, we should address at least a couple of questions: Are Russia’s grievances real, or are they fabricated? And what true motives lie beneath them? Other nations may have solid historical reasons to nurse a sense of resentment. China is the best known example, but its case differs from that of Russia in that Beijing has tried to heal old historical wounds in large part by tackling its domestic problems head on, and by burnishing its credentials as Asia’s “success story.” The Russian elite, by contrast, has turned its focus outward, attempting to use its “humiliation” by the West to distract the nation from domestic challenges and to channel its energy into a crusade against the liberal world. Russia’s grievances and resentment are also becoming an effective tool of extorting the West for “deliverables,” lest the Russian bear grow too wild and unstable.

Russia’s “ humiliation,” the mantra intoned by many both inside and outside of Russia, has become the main justification for the Kremlin’s revisionist stand. Its key points are clear and unequivocal: the West has always underestimated Russia; it refuses to grant Russia its “proper” role in the international arena; it is intentionally trying to undermine Russia and to surround it with all kind of encircling “fences,” from NATO to the Eurozone.

The Russian “Weimar Syndrome”?

Russian pundits have learned this “humiliation” song by heart. Hence Sergei Karaganov has made it his mission to alert the West to the “Weimar syndrome” Western policies have created inside Russia. “The West refused to acknowledge that Russia occupies a place in European and global politics that it considers natural and legitimate,” asserts Karaganov. But what does he mean by “natural place”? Does it entitle Russia to proffer its own interpretations of the global rules of the game? Today Karaganov appears to be satisfied with how the process of overcoming “humiliation” has been proceeding: “Russia was reborn from the ashes…. It has restored its charisma. There is no doubt that Russia is ready for leadership.” Does this mean that the war with Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea, and the containment of the West were the cure-alls for Russia’s “Weimar Syndrome”? If so, we should get ourselves ready for Russia to self-administer another dose of this medicine.

Alexei Arbatov sings the humiliation song by leveling an accusation against the West: “The new world order rested on time bombs: the forcible dismemberment of Yugoslavia and Serbia, [an] illegal invasion in Iraq, neglecting the UN, and arms control (the U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002 and its refusal to ratify the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty). Russia was being treated as a losing power, although it actually dealt the final blow to the Soviet empire and the Cold War.” In short, the West has been driving Russia into a corner, forcing it to lash out, instead of paying it back for ending the Cold War. My question for Arbatov: What price for this payback would satisfy the Russian ego?

This is how Dmitri Trenin explains Moscow’s resentment: “Western leaders showed no real interest in integrating Russia.” Putin has long been trying to accommodate the West, Trenin says. He even dispatched Medvedev as his emissary to “determine what was possible to achieve with the United States and Europe,” but the West would not respond. Moreover, the West showed no respect for Russian interests, including the issues of missile defense, the Libyan conflict, and the war with Georgia; Merkel, for her part, even preferred Medvedev as a candidate for the Russian presidency (how humiliating indeed!). Trenin’s narrative is intended to lead the reader to the conclusion that Putin had legitimate grounds to conclude that “the West has historically been trying to hold Russia down for fear of competition”—a conclusion that is much more easily arrived at if one neglects to mention the devastating consequences of the Kremlin’s policy of demanding satisfaction.

This sort of analysis is meant to justify one of the key verses in the Kremlin Bible: “The centerpiece of the new foreign policy tack has been—and remains—winning full sovereignty for Russia.” This is the conclusion his whole argument builds up to. But wait: Who on earth is threatening Russia’s sovereignty? Facts and names, please!

The Russian elite has felt especially humiliated by being forced to listen to lectures about democracy from former Soviet satellites such as Poland and the Baltic states. “Even I started getting irritated by that,” said the liberal Igor Yurgens. Of course, it is a humiliation of sorts to hear advice from former vassals who have reclaimed their dignity and are proud of the fact.

Among the many variations of the “humiliation” narrative, one in particular strikes a chord in the West, especially among intellectuals on the left: the Russian demand for political equality on the international scene. One can only imagine what “equality” means in this context. Russia enjoys the same rights in international institutions as do other states. What else is needed for equality? To accord Russia with some sort of “special rights,” or to give it a pass on certain accepted international norms, would be to place it above other states. How, exactly, would that correlate with equality? Are some states “more equal” than others?

You can find traces of the “humiliation” concept nearly everywhere in Russian political thought, especially in venues targeted at an audience outside Russia. Russian pundits’ demands for Western accommodation are instantly echoed by their soul mates in the West (indeed as if they were collaborating on them).

At the heart of these demands for accommodation is an admission, conscious or unconscious, that Russia is incapable of following the international rules and cannot change. Hence the advice is to keep the beast satisfied. This is not a policy of respect, but of apprehension and suspicion.

Fyodor Lukyanov advises the West:

Do not tell Moscow that the West has abandoned the zero-sum approach and is formulating its policies based on the common good. First of all, it is not true; each country—or group of countries—regards its own interests as primary. Secondly, no one will believe it anyway, in Russia or in the rest of the world, but will regard it as hypocrisy. A rational conversation about the balance of powers and interests would be much more productive.

But how is “rational conversation” even possible, given what Lukyanov says immediately after this passage?

Do not pay attention to all of the public statements coming out of Moscow. In today’s communication environment, where information flows resemble tsunamis, even diplomats have stopped thinking about what they are saying. What counts is the speed and toughness of the response, which in Internet communication is known as trolling—the art of deliberately, cleverly, and secretly pissing people off.

Or perhaps Lukyanov is ”trolling” us too? As for basing a rational conversation on the “balance of powers” between Russia and the West, that would be a losing proposition for Moscow, given its current power potential.

Lukyanov’s picture of Russian politics is hardly one that would allow us Russians to expect the respect we apparently crave. However, such revelations are useful, because they erase the ground for the “grievances” concept and show that these “grievances” often conceal a disdain for the world .

The Advocates Are Not Humiliated!

One wonders, however, why the advocates of the “humiliation” theory are not themselves humiliated by Russia’s corruption, its pathetic heath care system, and its declining educational and living standards. Instead they lament the lack of respect Russia receives as a “great power” and the West’s unwillingness to recognize Russia’s “legitimate” areas of interests and the “balance of powers.” How could divergence with the West on Yugoslavia or the Libya crisis provoke feelings of humiliation in Russia stronger than Russians’ anxiety about their domestic challenges? Who would believe in this causality?

Another question: why didn’t Russia’s “Weimar syndrome” prevent its elite from personally integrating into Western society over the course of the past twenty years? An elite in a state of submission and inferiority would have never been able to launder trillions of dollars, to build its own Londongrad, to create a formidable self-defense machine composed of Western support groups, or to hire dozens of former (and sometimes current) Western politicians to lobby on behalf of its interests. Let’s ask two of the billionaires on Forbes’s list—Roman Abramovich and Alisher Usmanov—whether they feel the sting of any grievances as they watch their football clubs in England.

Or look at how Russia’s President behaves in the West on his visits with leaderships. He seems perfectly at ease—no sign of being humbled at all! Rather, it is Obama, Merkel, Hollande and Cameron who seem decidedly uncomfortable to be photographed in his company; one wouldn’t say they feel threatened, exactly, but they certainly show no signs of feeling their superiority.

And how does Russia’s “Weimar syndrome” correlate with the decline of the West, which the Kremlin and nearly all Russian experts constantly harp on? Declinism and the Spenglerian End of the West became the key premises of Russia’s foreign policy concept. (“The potential of the historical West is shrinking”—this is the assessment of the official concept.) How can a declining West humiliate Russia?

The “Weimar syndrome” that the Russian propagandists have attempted to inject into the political discussion between Russia and the West is the key ingredient of the Kremlin’s anti-Western campaign. This ‘humiliation” device has dual purpose: it helps legitimate the Kremlin domestically, and it has its uses in foreign policy as well—namely, as a means of blackmailing the West: “If you continue to humiliate Russia, we could find ways to retaliate!” Russia’s ‘humiliation” experts have depicted the Ukraine crisis as one of the means of retaliation at Russia’s disposal.

Why the West Is So Easily Trapped?

The Russian side of the “humiliation” narrative is thus simple to understand. The Western side, however, presents a more curious case. Consider, for instance, how Western pundits promote and justify the “Weimar Syndrome.” They explain it in terms that neatly jibe with those of the Kremlin: “Russia felt surrounded by NATO and the EU and had to respond.” This has been repeated so many times in the West that it has attained the status of indisputable truth. To disagree with this narrative is to brand oneself a Russophobe, a Cold Warrior, a neocon, a hawk. A couple of quotes: “The United States and its allies unknowingly provoked a major crisis over Ukraine” (John Mearsheimer). “Putin did not begin or want this crisis” (Stephen Cohen). Really? What about Putin’s own admission that he ordered the Crimea annexation and was personally in charge of it? Or was this annexation not a sufficient cause for crisis?

Richard Sakwa suggests a more exquisite explanation: the Ukraine crisis followed from the Malta summit in 1989, which yielded the triumph of the Atlantic alliance and the “delegitimation of systemic alternatives” to the West. Sakwa also reminds us of the Yalta Conference of 1945, which endorsed the areas of influence concept. This could mean that he believes that a return to the Yalta order is the solution to our current dilemma. Such a coincidence of dreams with the Kremlin’s inhabitants! But is Sakwa prepared to endorse the only possible mechanism of this proposed solution: the Kremlin’s reconquest of its neighboring states and a return to repressive rule in Russia (because today the “systemic alternative” to democracy is one-man rule, which can only be preserved by raw force)?

Samuel Charap and Jeremy Shapiro write, “The Euro-Atlantic institutional architecture had increasingly become a source of friction between Russia and the West”; NATO and the EU “could never fully integrate Russia.” Poor Russia indeed, excluded from such pleasant company! Those who would blame the West for failing to integrate Russia should ask themselves whether an illiberal state can be integrated into the framework of a liberal civilization. Furthermore, what would have happened to the West if such an attempt had indeed been made?

One of the most popular “humiliation” arguments remains, of course, the possibility of NATO expansion to Ukraine, thus threatening Russia’s security. Since many experts realize the inadequacy of this explanation of the crisis, they have begun to blame “EU expansion” as well. According to Ambassador Tony Brenton, “It is generally accepted . . . that the EU precipitated matters by blundering into the most sensitive part of Russia’s backyard.” His assertion is echoed by John Mearsheimer, who claims that the Association Agreement “sounds like a backdoor to NATO membership.” Andrew Weiss repeats the same mantra, “Europe repeatedly refused to hear Russia’s concerns…. In some ways the E.U. has taken maximalist positions with the Russians.” In their new book, Conflict in Ukraine: The Unwinding of the Post-Cold War Order, Rajan Menon and Eugene Rumer emphasize the inflammatory role of the EU in prompting Russia’s gamble. This chorus nicely repeats Sergei Lavrov’s accusation that the EU implemented in Ukraine “a long-prepared script” motivated by desire for “a free addition to its profits.”

But, wait: didn’t the Brussels bureaucracy prepare this agreement for a number of countries, including Azerbaijan and Armenia, which are neither democratic nor potential NATO members? If the experts had bothered to read the Association Agreement, they would know that it carries not even a hint of a guaranteed path to EU membership, let alone NATO membership. Indeed, the very idea would have been a nightmare for Brussels. The Agreement is deliberately vague to free the EU of any obligations with respect to these countries. Besides, until the fall of 2013, Moscow wasn’t particularly concerned about the Association Agreement—a fact confirmed on numerous occasions by EU leaders. “Putin never raised the issue of Ukraine signing the Agreement!” exclaimed Jose Manuel Barroso, who communicated with Putin at that time and never heard any objections.

Henry Kissinger is fonder than most of repeating the Kremlin’s thesis: “Russian history began in what was called Kievan Rus. The Russian religion spread from there.” Very Puninesque! Here is one more of Kissinger’s revelations. His interviewer for a Spiegel Q&A asks: “But we cannot tell the Ukrainians that they are not free to decide their own future.” Kissinger’s response: “Why not?” It’s the kind of answer one would expect from a Russian imperialist.

Numerous Western attempts to solve the Ukraine crisis boil down to the following formula: no NATO membership for Ukraine; consultations with Russia on the association between Ukraine and the EU; reform of Ukraine’s constitution according to Moscow’s ideas. What does this package mean? One very clear thing: Ukraine has to return into the Russian area of influence.

Do You Guys Understand the Kremlin’s Agenda?

But would this package really be enough for Moscow? Western experts on Russia’s grievances should listen to the Kremlin carefully here. Both Putin and Lavrov have already alerted the West to the next item they have selected from the menu. As Putin admitted, the “Ukraine crisis” is not really about Ukraine at all: “It has emerged in response to the attempts of the USA and its Western allies who considered themselves ‘winners’ of the Cold War to impose their will everywhere.” In Munich this year, Lavrov acknowledged that Ukraine crisis is the instrument that must force the West to agree to “negotiate a new security system on the basis of re-confirming the Helsinki principles.” Did you catch that? In the Kremlin’s view, this means readjusting the global order in such a way as to give Russia a more dignified role in the world—or maybe even the leadership role, as Karaganov says. The problem is that the Kremlin will never find any Western concessions regarding this order satisfactory, because the basis of its survival is the reproduction of its “Weimar Syndrome”, which depends on a constant demand for “deliverables” (the delivery of which must of course always fail to please—in order to keep grievances on the table). The more Russia slides into crisis, the more the Russian elite will need to discuss Russia’s “humiliation” with the world.

Ironically, all of these “grievances” haven’t prevented Moscow from planning to rearrange the world! How very…Russian! As a Russian writer once said of his country’s national character in the 19th century: “While his outhouse is falling apart, a Russian gives advice about how to straighten the Leaning Tower of Pisa!”

Anyway, the West should get ready to play another round of Feed the Beast. I wonder what explanations our experts—both Russian and Western—will invent in order to justify the next phase of Kremlin resentment management.

Do they understand that, by ignoring Russia’s genuine domestic concerns, they only deepen its complexes and help the corrupted elite to preserve its control over the country? If they don’t understand this, then what is their expertise worth? If they do understand what is happening in Russia and the real causes behind the current confrontation, what motives could they have for repeating the Kremlin’s song?

This is not an historically unprecedented phenomenon. During the Stalin period, Western intellectuals demonstrated their support for the Soviet system and its leaders. Among them the famous European writers George Bernard Shaw, Romain Rolland, Lion Feuchtwanger, Herbert Wells, and Andre Gide. To be sure, they were great minds, and they were committed to finding an antithesis to the capitalism they detested. They also had an excuse: they did not know the Soviet reality. And when they were afforded at least a glimpse, they were horrified, like Gide, who after visiting the USSR in 1936 wrote of “spirits being subjugated and terrorized.” Today, however, there are fewer obstacles to surveying the Russian landscape, so naivety and ignorance are less excusable.

Are Russians Doomed?

A couple of other variations of the “humiliation” concept: Russians can’t live in a normal world (from the Western point of view) and are not ready to live in a rule of law state. “Stop thinking that Russia can be turned into a country that will live by Western rules and notions,” warns Fyodor Lukyanov. Perhaps Lukyanov can’t live “by Western rules,” but does he have the right to speak on my behalf—or that of all Russians?

Regrettably, quite a few respected Western experts agree that Russians have no liberal future. Richard Pipes, historian and author of the terrific books, Russia under the Old Regime and The Russian Revolution, believes that Russians are hopeless and do not want freedom. “Putin is an authoritarian ruler, who returned the country into the past and turned into a state where rules means nothing. But this is what majority of Russians…apparently want. Putin responds to the demand,” says Pipes. What his assessment tells us is that understanding history does not always help us to explain present reality. Thomas Graham, one of the gurus of the accommodationists, joins Pipes: “I agree. What we see now fits the old tradition of the Russian state.” This can be interpreted in only one way: Russians carry a special gene that precludes them from living in a rule of law state that abides by international conventions. This means that we Russians are a predatory nation that can live only by being subjugated by our rulers and by subjugating other nations. If so, this is not merely a condescending way of looking at Russians, but a racist one as well.

One final variation of the “humiliation” approach is to attempt to prove that Russians are ready to sacrifice and endure privation for the sake of their authorities, and that they will rally behind their leaders if the West applies pressure. “Outside pressure gives rise to national pride, even to those who are dissatisfied with the government in place,” sings the choir. Representatives of the Russian liberals deliver a similar line: “What Western policymakers fail to understand is that [sanctions are] less likely to undermine the regime than to cause Russians to close ranks behind it…. Russians have a long tradition of defending their compatriots from outsiders” (Andrei Kolesnikov). This argument fits neatly with the condescension approach.

Russia has indeed failed to reform itself and to defend the dignity of its people, and now it seems further from the rule of law state than at any time after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But are Russians really hopeless? Does it mean that the current state of Russia is its “norm,” as some Russia experts argue? Why then, did Russians over the past twenty years never vote for a Communist or nationalist as their leader? Why did they support Yeltsin and Putin (when they still had freedom of choice), who declared themselves to stand for principles of freedom and change? Why do Russians still take to the streets (admittedly, a minority of them) in order to fight for their rights? And how would other nations react to pervasive propaganda and repressions if the ruling group were to usurp power? These things would pose a severe test even for more developed nations.

Russia is indeed mired in the dark today—not because Russians themselves are unable to live in the rule of law state, but because their elite is unable to rule a free society; because liberals betrayed liberalism by supporting the personalized regime, which has no need to modernize; and because the intellectuals prefer to serve the authorities and not the people. If not for these betrayals, there would be an alternative in Russia now. It is a sad story, but not a unique one in history.

But even demoralized and confused, having no tradition of freedom to draw upon, branded as disloyal and unpatriotic, and now living in a state of war with the liberal world, many Russians still adhere to modern values. Consider these poll numbers: 75 percent of respondents say that “society has to control the authorities” (only 18 percent say that “the authorities should not be controlled by the people”). About 49 percent of Russians would like to see Russia as a country with a “high standard of living,” versus 47 percent who still prefer Russia to be a “great power that is feared by others.” This poll could be a proof that the Kremlin (and the experts who serve it) have not succeeded in brainwashing Russians. Even more reveling is the fact that, despite a relentless anti-Western campaign, 60 percent of Russians want ”rapprochement with the West”—and about 40 percent of respondent would like to restore “friendly relations” with Ukraine. Furthermore, only 16 percent profess a readiness to make sacrifices for the authorities. (All of the above polling figures were taken from a March 2015 survey.) If these results are to be believed, our ”humiliation” experts don’t deserve their pay!

Here is one more argument that should raise our doubts that the Russian genetic code includes genes for total loyalty to the powers-that-be: the Kremlin’s shift toward more repressive regime and the containment model. Why would the Kremlin do this, bringing along a host of unpleasant effects for itself, such as the marginalization of Russia and a threat to the well-being of rent-seeking elites? Why did Putin not choose to continue to rule as a soft authoritarian, imitating integration with the West? If someone were to describe Putin and his team as reckless, I would object: they are not suicidal. I would argue that the Kremlin regime understood that a tide of anger, dissatisfaction, and longing for new life was approaching for which they had to prepare. Clearly, the Kremlin itself does not believe that Russians lack a yearning for freedom in their DNA.

More on that: the very fact that the Kremlin is turning to the past and to old war victories to find new legitimation is one more piece of evidence that the system is losing its steam and has probably entered its agony. The combination of the memory of past victories and injection of a humiliation narrative into the public psyche could produce an explosive mixture. What is the Kremlin going to do when it runs out of “victory cards” and overdoes the humiliation ingredient? What will the authorities do when people understand the depth of a real rather than fabricated defeat? The Kremlin will be forced to raise the temperature of conflict with the West, and the current list of remedies will not be enough. I wonder what the adepts of the “humiliation” school will say when their construct goes down in flames?

Do You Trust the Kremlin Propaganda?

Regarding the Western observers, I think they are too eager to trust their Russian counterparts, who as a rule are chosen from within Kremlin circles. Can’t the Western observers understand what kind of message they will get? In “Russia and America: Stumbling to War” Graham Alison and Dimitri Simes shared the message they received from their Russian interlocutors in Moscow, which boils down to this: “Russia’s political environment, at both elite and public levels, encourages Putin to escalate demands rather than make concessions”; if the West continues its sanctions, begins to arm Ukraine, and rejects Moscow’s claims to its spheres of interest, “Putin will be tempted to respond not by retreating, but by ending all cooperation with the West and mobilizing his people against a new and ‘apocalyptic’ threat to Mother Russia.” This is exactly the message the Kremlin wanted these respected experts to convey to the audience in Washington, DC.

One of the authors admitted that he “saw a powerful example of these emotions while watching a Russian talk show discussion about Ukraine before a live audience,” and that the speaker Vyacheslav Nikonov received “thunderous applause” for his declaration, “Our cause is just and we will prevail.” If the authors are basing their assessments on the emotions expressed on Russian television, then this is certainly a case in which propaganda spending has paid off.

It’s clear that conformism is a powerful driver of the Russian expert community’s support of the “resentment” concept. But there is another, more interesting question: Why do Western experts accept “humiliation” theory? Because of their naivety? Because they are unaware of the Russian elites’ survival mechanism? Or is it due to other motives, or to fear of Kremlin blackmail? If the latter is true, then the West is trapped, because every concession to the blackmailer usually raises the level of his next demand for “deliverables.”

I will offer one more explanation (not exclusive of the others): Perhaps this is how some in the Western elite deal with their own complexes. Since they are unable to be authoritarian and expansionist themselves, they satisfy their cravings vicariously. Or the Russian “humiliation” concept and the attempt to present the Kremlin model as an alternative allows various Western forces to criticize Western reality. Thus, Germany’s pro-Russian emotions are often a reflection of its anti-American feelings. The same thing is happening with the European right and left, who, by turning to pro Kremlin rhetoric, demonstrate their anti EU, anti-American, and anti-capitalist bona fides. Does Marine Le Pen care about Russia’s grievances? Of course not! She uses the “Russia argument” for her own purposes: to get Russian funding. Thus, the Russian “humiliation” narrative can be used for so many non-Russian purposes.

The whole “humiliation” concept, with all its mushrooming variations, demonstrates an inferiority complex and an inability to live in a more diverse, competitive, and free world. In the end we are dealing with the insecurity and loneliness of living in a system stuck in time and space, and an elite that is desperately trying to use this stasis for its own benefit, dragging the West down with it.

What does this say about the West, and about those in the West who believe in Russia’s “Weimar syndrome”, promote it, and base policy on it?