On Dec. 25, 1991, at 7:32 p.m., the Soviet flag came down over the Kremlin, and the pre-Revolutionary Russian flag of white, blue and red horizontal stripes took its place. It was a momentous moment, but witnessed by only a handful of foreigners and an irate Soviet war veteran on Red Square.
I know this because the foreigners were my wife and children, who cheered as the new flag went up against the night sky, and marked the time. On that day 30 years ago, Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, gave his valedictory address and resigned — which is why I was not on Red Square with my family.
That evening, for The Times, I wrote an obituary for the Soviet state: “Conceived in utopian promise and born in the violent upheavals of the ‘Great October Revolution’ of 1917, the union heaved its last in the dreary darkness of late December 1991, stripped of ideology, dismembered, bankrupt and hungry — but awe-inspiring even in its fall.”
Like so many Westerners back then, I was personally optimistic that the collapse of Communism would usher in a period of steady democratization — the “end of history,” as Francis Fukuyama so memorably, and so prematurely, proclaimed it. But the Russian voices I heard were less sanguine. “The parting with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics will be long and difficult,” warned the government daily Izvestia. The Soviet state had denied people freedom, but it had given them something else: the pride of superpower — a force, Izvestia wrote, “equal to nationalism” and capable of uniting “millions of fanatical supporters.”
It is doubtful that Vladimir Putin’s government had the anniversary in mind this week when Memorial International, the most prominent human rights group in Russia, was shut down, or when the Kremlin massed troops on the Ukrainian border to blackmail the West into staying clear of Ukraine. But the actions offered a sad confirmation of Izvestia’s foreboding.
Memorial was a product of the hopes of the late 1980s and 1990s, a loosely knit organization that set out to identify and commemorate the millions of victims of the Stalinist purges and labor camps. Originally condoned by the government, then grudgingly tolerated as the Kremlin turned increasingly repressive, it was finally relegated by Mr. Putin to the dustbin of civic organizations now branded “foreign agents” and supporters of “terrorism.” The charges had all the hallmarks of Soviet doublespeak — Memorial was very much a domestic response to the terrorism of Soviet repression.
That Memorial has been closed down at a time of high tension over the massing of Russian forces along the Ukrainian border may not have been deliberate, but was nonetheless hardly coincidental. Over the past two years, Mr. Putin has sharply tightened his grip on power, pushing through a constitutional amendment to stay in power effectively for the rest of his life, imprisoning the opposition gadfly Alexei Navalny and ratcheting up anti-Western rhetoric.
The intensified aggressiveness coincided with the arrival of Joe Biden in the White House — which put an end to the quixotic deference that Donald Trump showed to Mr. Putin — and the exit of Angela Merkel, who had shaped much of Europe’s policy toward Russia.
From the start of 2021, wrote Vladimir Frolov, a former Russian diplomat in Washington, the Kremlin has adopted a new strategy toward the West, which he dubbed, ironically or not, “Détente 2.0.” Writing on the Russian site Colta.ru, Mr. Frolov said the goals of the new policy were to stabilize relations with the West on conditions favorable to Russia — the neutrality of Ukraine was a major objective — and to ensure that Moscow has a geopolitical status equal to that of the United States and the European Union in international affairs.
Behind the change, Mr. Frolov argued, was Mr. Putin’s conviction that efforts to draw closer to the West and to accept Western values of human rights served only to undermine Russian statehood. Moreover, the Kremlin believed that in contrast to 30 years ago, the United States and its allies were now in decline and anxious to pivot to China, and therefore willing to pay a price for détente with Russia. “Our strategy is that Russia is always right,” was the new watchword, Mr. Frolov wrote.
If that is really what Mr. Putin and his coterie believe, they may find themselves in deep error. Today’s Russia is not the Soviet Union. Its economy is far more vulnerable to Western sanctions, and the United States and its allies, whatever their internal troubles, remain capable of doing considerably more economic damage. Russia cannot control information or exposure to the outside world the way the Soviet Union could — like much of the world, Russians now get most of their information from the internet, and they travel with relative freedom.
Mr. Putin’s Russia, moreover, lacks the ideological foundation the Soviet Union offered its leaders for their monopoly on power — he is compelled to cling to democratic norms even as he violates them in a charade most Russians can see through. And however much Russians may share Mr. Putin’s claim of a special fraternal bond with Ukraine, there is no telling how they would react to an overt military incursion into Ukraine.
But the West, too, must recognize that Russia’s threats and demands are not entirely empty, and that having ruled out a military response, it has limited leverage over Russia. Yet there are ways in which the United States could defuse tensions without accepting Russia’s impossible demands for a formal treaty recognizing a Russian sphere of influence over former Soviet territories.
After a 50-minute telephone conversation on Thursday, spokesmen for both President Biden and Mr. Putin said they had reiterated tough threats. But the fact of the call, the second this month, and the plans for U.S.-Russia and Russia-NATO security talks in coming days, are steps in the right direction — channeling the crisis into diplomacy and demonstrating that the West is prepared to take Russian security interests seriously.
Washington could also urge Ukraine to take some steps toward lifting tensions. Samuel Charap of the RAND Corporation has suggested that the United States should nudge Kyiv to take some steps toward meeting its obligations under the six-year-old Minsk II agreement. The agreement called on Ukraine to delegate some powers to rebel-held areas of Eastern Ukraine, effectively recognizing their special status, in exchange for a Russian withdrawal from the border. Ukraine’s resistance to the deal is understandable, but some movement on it could shift the current standoff toward diplomacy.
Superpower, as Izvestia noted three decades ago, is a hard habit to kick, and it is incumbent on the West to disabuse Mr. Putin of his imperial illusions. But calling his bluff on Ukraine would be a dangerous gambit, Mr. Frolov warned, recalling a tenet of the Obama administration that “superpowers don’t bluff.”
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