February 22, 2024 | Rome, Italy

Letter from an enemy friend

By |2022-03-15T15:15:19+01:00March 15th, 2022|"Foreign Affairs"|
An invasion long in the making with civil war overtones.

first met the Russian national I most respect at a conference regarding the future of Russo-Iberian relations held in Moscow in June 2006. He was at the time a professor of social sciences at Moscow State University. Together, we had long and pleasant discussions, often with his wife Olga and students present. Together we watched Italy defeat France on penalties in that year’s World Cup final.

We remained in touch, albeit occasionally, after my Moscow visit, and in 2011 he moved from Moscow to Sofia, Bulgaria. We had not communicated for nearly four years when the Ukraine war began. A great football fan, he was enraged that FIFA, which usually does not meddle in politics, expelled Russia, all but cutting off any chance Russia had of competing internationally in the immediate future, I replied, explaining why I thought such a move was justified.

My words inspired an intense response, which is paraphrased below. He went on at length about the sanctions directed against Russia and their repercussions, as well as an examination of the ties between Moscow and Kiev over the last century. Its length was such it could not be reproduced, only abridged. But since I had long ago reached a deal with the author to publish his comments in their entirety or not at all, and to keep his identity anonymous, I opted for a compromise: to publish their essence but keep his name to myself.

I do this because I believe his insights deserve a hearing, in particular given the unremitting (and perhaps warranted) hostility directed toward Russia by the West. My Russian colleague always resisted capitalizing West and East, as well as balking at such terms as Iron Curtain, preferring the less hostile word fence. I respect his wishes here. In most cases, I have left his colorful “Russo-English” phrasings intact.

Dear friend,

I hope I still have the luxury of addressing you that way given the events in Eastern Europe (no informed reader will fail to understand the reference).

You are no doubt enraged at my country and at my president, whose names are so well-publicized that I need not mention them. I know that your world, which I have always respected and appreciated, is livid beyond all measure, a response that on the face of things I can full well understand. No sovereign state should face attack and occupation unprovoked. No good people should be made to suffer unnecessarily, a victim of some “lunatic” caprice — and that word, along with madman, has been flung far and wide concerning my country’s leader. So be it.

You know we have debated the sides of this matter before, never reaching an understanding. It was my view that a stern, canny, pseudo-fair figure was all we could manage in this transitional phase in our history, from one entrenched ideology to another. It was yours that a nation should purge itself, overhaul itself, and that a man you labeled a “latter-day tsar” — those were your words at the time — had no business running a large and potent nation in the 21st-century world. Again, so be it.

No effort was made to plumb the scope of the built-up animosities. No attempt was made to understand action andreaction.

On one point and one point only I can agree with you, namely that he has this time gone too far, and the consequences will be grave for us all.

I cannot, however, side with the wall of indignation that has formed against us, as if to seal us off were a form of catharsis in the wake of a paralyzing virus you were helpless to do much about. I can understand the latent fury that was, if you will, in search of a tangible villain. And we have apparently obliged you with one.

I will remind you at the same time of our chats in the early 1990s, when my country was in disarray, and a decade later when yours staged an invasion of its own. The first one, though phrased as a rescue mission on behalf of a suddenly occupied Arab state, which we both agree, has as much to do with assuring the flow of oil as it did any love of an Arab state’s sovereignty. Your nation secured that flow, and once it had accomplished this made no effort to end the reign of the “barbarian” who had engendered the conflict. You merely did what you are doing to us now, attempted to seal him off. Even your leading generals questioned this rescue-oil-only strategy.

Then came yet another invasion, this time of that barbarian’s own state on the pretext he had something to do with awful terrorist attacks on your nation (he did not) and possessed world-threatening weapons (he did not). Most on your side of the picket fence — or the iron one — found this very noble, until the many falsities of the story came to light. Only then did critics jump it.

This leads me to our situation. Our southern friends, once and for many decades a part of our whole, did in fact declare their independence some twenty-five years ago. No one debates that.

But they did so over much national objection and at a time of extreme turmoil, a turmoil that nearly ruined us over the course of a single decade. Their move made no sense to many of us because they were blood. Or more importantly, since you like cold-blooded facts, they held my country’s only functional seaport. If your New York was taken from you, you would still boast countless other ports. We could not.

When the president you now loathe took office he made it clear from the start he had little patience for being betrayed and sealed off. His only antidote, in his effort to play by the rules of the game, was to ensure the new state’s presidents would remain loyal to the mothership, so to speak. And this they did, or they did not, depending on the mood and the president.

But then our southern friends began to make pals out of people who were not our pals. It began, in its independent boldness, to vex if not curse its legacy and the country to which it was once tied and on which it depended.

Even this was tolerated for years in the spirit of the rule of law and because from time to time a president not inimical to us would ascend and rule.

There was just such a president eight years ago, and he was elected in fact. Not only that but he served three years. His defect was to tell those around him he had no intrinsic quarrel with our leader and could in fact work with him.

His movement in that direction, as you know, precipitated what amounted to a coup, preceded by protest among those who decried his sense of friendship to our leader, seen by the protestors as the “old bad bosses.” So out he went.

You know what followed: rage on our end, followed by a disciplined move to regain the port, mostly filled with our countrymen. He could then have gone further but did not, very much like your president who stopped short of ousting the barbarian in 1991.

You also know the animosity did not go away and that the resentment merely grew, finally to unsustainable proportions, as our friends in the south made even more friends on your side of the fence and began a campaign of insults, not only toward us but against its eastern citizens (more than a quarter of the country in number) who for some time had made it clear they did not want to be part of this new westward-looking trend. Those people, many of them sincere, were simply labeled fascists, sympathetic to an “autocrat,” and armed by him. No effort was made to plumb the scope of the built-up animosities. No attempt was made to understand action and reaction, as in the effects the provocations would have on a president who, after all, got his training in another era, when no one dared touch us, not after what the Germans had done. And even those same “new” Germans befriended our president and reached deals with him. Others in Europe did the same, rarely speaking a word about the matter of the southerners. That was our matter to resolve.

And that is what our president has done, in the most radical but at least in the most clearly decisive way possible. There is no misunderstanding his intentions this time, and no annexing of one province or another. This is not enough. He wants it all, and given the piteous state of our military it will take great time, effort, and loss of life to achieve that goal.

Is he right to want it? Perhaps. Is he right to have acted as he has? Not by any known law. Are these the casual actions of a tyrant and barbarian? Not in the least. They are those of someone who said, “Enough is enough,” and moved to mute the south once and for all.

Will we suffer as a result? Of course. So did those under siege in Leningrad during the last world war. Will this president capitulate or apologize? I think not. His vision of the region has little in common with those on your side of the fence, and if he must find new allies to the east, he will. I am in fact convinced that my country’s exclusion from all of the west’s benefits and goods will eventually lead to the creation of a far more powerful east in which my country’s ties with China and India and others improve to the point that the planet has two worlds, yours and the new one assembled as a result of the events we are now witnessing. Organizations such as NATO will be of no use and nations all over the world return to fully armed, nation-state status, because the umbrella provided by the 1945 era can no longer cover the fissures and fractures everywhere. Who will come to the aid of the island of Taiwan, and how, should China decide it wishes to be whole on its terms only? Who will fight that war? Your country? No doubt, but it may face more than one adversary should my eastern scenario come to pass, and it is not a vision to be mocked.

Again, is my president a madman? Anything but. He is a man, like your Trump, as opportunistic as he is sentimental for the “old Russia,” and a man who decided to break acknowledged law to emphatically state his claim to what may well be the start of a new world order.

You have, three times over the last thirty years, conducted invasions mostly supported by your own people. You and your allies portrayed yourself as in the right. But when my country invaded, and it did so once in its communist incarnation, it was deemed as appalling and you refused to participate in the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games.

I at times wonder to myself what would have happened if your former president was true to his bluster and attempted to occupy Iran.

Yours were of course “just” campaigns intended to make the world a safer place.

Our president is a Hun for attacking a relatively new nation to his south that, though once a key part of Russia, did little but mock him and attempt to bring itself at all costs into your political fold. So, what you are now witnessing is as much a piece of a longstanding civil war as an invasion. Because to many of our older hierarchy the now-invaded country, despite its independence, remained no more and no less than a former province, and worse still now a border state armed, equipped, and cheered on by those disdainful to and suspicious of our country and its ‘villain” leader — a stacked deck, to use your phrasing. You would not want pro-Mexico militants taking over in the streets of Dallas. This would seem at the very least alarming. I put this in your head as something to ponder. Nor would you be pleased if the likes of the old Castro returned to Cuba or Venezuela’s Chávez came back to life to taunt you, and to influence those around him to do the same.

I do not like war. I make no excuses for war. I believe our president could have accomplished at least some of his aims without sending tanks and jets to ruin the south. I am crestfallen to see this new wave of refugees. No one needed such an event.

At the same time I ask you please to balance your indignation with an understanding of our history and how, only thirty years ago, the now-invaded province was central to our lives, as were others. Our president has made no threats against those countries my country once counted as so-called “satellite states.” It has in fact made few threats. It has instead acted to attempt to solve a regional problem that I believe at one point or another would have induced the kind of open conflict it has done now, all this simply by being an outspoken border state. I do not need to remind you the many wars fought over the allegiance of such states.

You asked me in effect to explain myself, and I have, though very likely in ways that will offend you, since offense is the response adhered to by all states that adhere to democratic thinking even though that thinking, however enlightened, is biased to honor its own vantage point.

I at times wonder to myself what would have happened if your former president was true to his bluster and attempted to occupy Iran. No doubt that, too, would have been justified in terms of “defense of the realm,” or as a vital action to protect the world from unsavory extremists. It would have been yet another act in he name of some elusive greater good.

The only greater good our president considered was his own (first and foremost) and that of his state, increasingly watered down by influences from your side of the world.

Now, my friend, as the result of the “atrocity” we have committed we will have to do without Coca-Cola and Apple. Perhaps there is no worse fate but excuse me if I dissent from that view.

Cordially, I remain,

Your Friend

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