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Mead’s Warped Understanding of Russia

Walter Russell Mead has a strange definition of what makes a great power:

Post-Soviet Russia is a weak state. Take away its gas and oil resources, nuclear arsenal and Cold War-era intelligence networks, and there is not much of a there there [bold mine-DL]. With an economy the size of Italy’s, an ethnic Russian population in decline, a booming China rising nearby and serious and sustained unrest in the Caucasus, Russia hardly has the look of a great power.

In other words, if we judge Russian power solely by the country’s problems and ignore the things that do make it a great power, then it isn’t really a great power. I’m not sure why we would do that, since it would cause us to underestimate how powerful Russia still is and what is capable of doing, and that is supposedly the failing that Mead wants to criticize. There is no doubt that post-Cold War Russia is comparatively much weaker than the USSR, and relative to the U.S. it is weaker still, but it would be wrong to assume that we should expect the U.S. and our European allies to get the better of Moscow in every crisis. That is what Mead would have us believe, but it isn’t true.

The core of Mead’s argument is that Russia is very weak, but that it has enjoyed diplomatic success in recent months and years primarily because of Western bumbling. He writes:

For Mr. Putin’s razzle-dazzle diplomacy to succeed, he needs one thing above all: for his opponents to make mistakes. So far, the U.S. and the EU have given him all the opportunities he could want. If the West doesn’t get its act together soon, Mr. Putin just might end up with a brace of gold medals.

Mead doesn’t spell out what it would mean for the West to “get its act together,” but Mead seems to think that if only Western governments were more forceful or aggressive in their Syria or Ukraine policies that they would be dealing Russia one setback after another. This fails to take account of whether it makes sense for U.S. and European governments to pursue the goals that Mead prefers. It is often taken for granted that the EU should be competing for influence in Ukraine, but clearly many European governments don’t think this is a high priority for them, which is one reason why the EU remains divided about how to proceed. Russia has been “skating rings” around the competition from the West in Ukraine because most Western governments justifiably don’t care very much about the contest and haven’t made that much of an effort. When the attack on Syria was averted, we heard a lot about how Russia had “won,” but they gained nothing more than providing a pretext for the U.S. to avoid another unnecessary war that most Americans didn’t want. Mead strangely goes out of his way to exaggerate Russian successes while simultaneously overstating Russian weakness. This has the effect of being alarmist on the one hand (Russia is “defeating” the West at every turn) and oddly complacent on the other (Russia is hopelessly weak and in decline), and all of it seems to be designed to blow Western “defeats” out of proportion.

Another huge blind spot in this analysis is the belief that the Kremlin desires to revive the USSR or something very much like it. Mead refers to “the Russian establishment’s dream: to reconstruct the Soviet empire in a postcommunist world.” Obviously, the Soviet empire can’t be reconstructed without communism, since the communist system was integral to that empire, but the misunderstanding here is even deeper than that. The belief that Russia is interested in creating either a neo-Soviet or neo-tsarist empire is a common one, but it gets post-Cold War Russia all wrong. As Dmitri Trenin observed a few years ago, Russia has been remarkably unlike previous imperial powers in how easily it let go of its control of all the other former Soviet republics:

The “Commonwealth of Independent States” (C.I.S.), which many people mistook for a new name for the Soviet Union — and some dubbed “a fresh edition of the Russian empire” — accomplished the mission of making sure that the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. was one of the most peaceful and least violent imperial exits in history.

It was able to do so because the Russian Federation, counterintuitively, did and has done little to attempt to hold on to its “near abroad.” It has had few resources to spare, and no will to subdue.

Elsewhere, Trenin has said, “This is a Russia the world has not known before the start of the 21st century.” Westerners have no ready-made frame of reference for thinking about Russia as something other than an empire. As a result, many of them mistakenly view whatever Russia does now as an attempt to cobble together one of the old empires, and they then conclude that Western powers need to prevent this from happening. Mead isn’t alone in promoting this misunderstanding, but he is one of its most vocal adherents.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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