For some time now, I had been concerned that the growing urge of American elites toward bear-baiting—what I call World War G for its bizarre premise of resurrecting the Cold War over, of all things, gay marriage—was a bad habit.
But as it turned out in Kiev, a street battle attracts a different demographic than does a gay pride parade. The triumph of brave far-right brawlers in Ukraine horrified the Russians into acting like Russians.
Russia has long been a baleful state, the biggest, toughest flatheads out on the Eurasian plain. You always hear about two times Russia was attacked—by Napoleon in 1812 and by Hitler in 1941—but Russia didn’t get that big through diplomacy.
In late czarist times, the Foreign Office commemorated a royal anniversary by commissioning a research project in the archives. In its ceremonial memorandum to the czar, the foreign minister announced that they had reviewed the last 40 wars the state had fought and were proud to declare that Russia had started 38 of them.
This is not to say that Russia is endlessly aggressive, but that it traditionally feels that its vulnerabilities demand its expansiveness. The Crimean peninsula, for example, is one of the rare places with any natural defenses in Eastern Europe, which helped Sevastopol hold out against the Nazi army until July 4, 1942, over a year after the German invasion began. Whether strategically outdated or not, in Russian thinking Crimea looms as a natural fortress threatening the right flank of any hypothetical NATO invasion of Russia through Ukraine.
I certainly don’t know what’s going to happen next in Eastern Europe, but I’d like to sketch out a scenario that is, while admittedly implausible, even less often contemplated.
Russia increasingly resembles another country with similar paranoiac geopolitical attitudes and a culture that is yearly becoming less Northwest European: Israel. A rapprochement between Russia and Israeli nationalists remains unlikely, but the chances are growing.
In the past, Russia has bet heavily on Israel’s Middle Eastern rivals—for Marxist ideological reasons, out of a Soviet trust in Arab quantity having a quality all its own (for example, building populous Egypt its Aswan Dam), for reflexive anti-Americanism, for Stalin’s concern about Jewish dual loyalties, and sometimes out of traditional Orthodox concern for beleaguered Arab Christians.
But a half-century of maneuvering on the Arabs’ side has netted Russia little. For example, although Russia’s grand strategy for centuries has obsessed over asserting naval power to the south so that Russian ships can’t be bottled up in the Black Sea by Turkish control of the Straits, Russia currently possesses only a single, quite modest navy base at Tartus in besieged Syria. Estimates of the number of Russian personnel currently stationed at Tartus range from four to twelve.
In contrast, Israel has boomed economically and demographically as it surges to the right.
From an international-law perspective, Russia’s seizure of Crimea drives it into a position increasingly similar to that of Israel.
Vladimir Putin has a growing problem that is similar to Binyamin Netanyahu’s. For reasons of national pride, he would like to be permitted to legally annex various chunks of territory that were outside the borders of the Russian Republic in the USSR but are now Russian controlled: perhaps South Ossetia and Abkhazia in the Georgian Caucasus, but, now, especially, Crimea.
Sevastopol, the naval port of Crimea, plays a role in Russian national lore rather like Pearl Harbor does in American legend. And like relatively conservative San Diego in California, Sevastopol is an old Navy town largely populated by the nationalist descendants of sailors who decided to settle there because they liked the climate. Russian nationalists would like to proclaim their territory de jure rather than just de facto.
Similarly, Israel conquered much territory in its Six-Day War blitzkrieg in 1967. It traded the Sinai back to Egypt for the Camp David peace deal and withdrew settlers from the Elysium-like slum of the Gaza Strip, but it has hung onto its more appealing conquests in the Golan Heights and the West Bank.
For reasons of national pride, Israel annexed East Jerusalem a generation ago. But only Costa Rica has recognized this, because annexation due to right of conquest has been frowned upon by the international community after 1945.
That was the Year Zero, in which the victorious Stalin redrew Eastern Europe’s geographic and ethnic borders, moving the Soviet Union westward, adding the formerly Polish-ruled city of Lwów in Galicia to Soviet Ukraine. In return, Stalin gave his Polish communist vassals a chunk of Germany. Massive ethnic cleansing accompanied these annexations, so they’ve been relatively noncontroversial since because there’s practically nobody left for irredentists to redeem.
And the international community would like to keep it that way. The absolute nightmare scenario of European statesmen is that a new round of redrawing borders in Eastern Europe sets off a rebirth of German irredentism for the Eastern lands formerly inhabited by the twelve million Germans ethnically cleansed from them in 1945. That’s a sleeping dog the whole world wants to let lie.
Granted, the United States frequently invades foreign countries (Iraq 2003, Afghanistan 2001, Haiti 1994, Panama 1989) or bombs them into regime change (Libya 2011) or engineers coups (Haiti 2004 to overthrow the guy Clinton put in power in his 1994 invasion). And, recklessly, in 1999 the US bombed Yugoslavia into giving up its internationally recognized territory of Kosovo.
We are not considering this possibility [of annexing Crimea]. It’s up to people living in a certain territory, if they can exercise their free will, and determine their future. For example, if Kosovo’s Albanians were allowed to do that, self-determination, which according to U.N. documents is a right, but we will never instigate it, never support such trends. Only the people who live in a certain territory have the right to decide their own future.
But the US hasn’t permanently annexed its conquests in a long time. For example, the US gave Iwo Jima, acquired in 1945 at the cost of 6,800 dead Americans, back to Japan in 1968. Indeed, the motto of the Iraq invasion could be “War for no oil.” Generally speaking, internationally acceptable border changes these days make countries smaller (such as Sudan splitting), not larger, as adding Crimea to Russia or the West Bank to Israel would.
Israel’s expansion beyond the paltry boundaries of its 1947 UN mandate in 1948 had been accepted as more or less a late battle of WWII. But its 1967 conquests remain technically unvalidated by most of the world community.
Israel has been settling the West Bank for over 45 years, so it’s unlikely to go anywhere. In fact, Israel appears to enjoy the global squabbling its West Bank policy ignites because uniting to offend foreigners keeps Israelis from clawing each other’s eyes out. As Henry Kissinger cynically concluded after endless frustrations negotiating with Israeli leaders who paid more attention to opinion polls: “Israel has no foreign policy, only domestic politics.”
Nonetheless, any Israeli leader would enjoy the symbolic triumph of more international recognition for its conquests. Thus, Israel and Russia potentially have something to trade.
An Israel-Russia alliance would have strong bases in each other’s domestic politics. About 15 percent of voters in Israel speak Russian at home. These Russian-born Israelis, familiar with traditional Russian logic about get-big-or-get-conquered, typically want to hold onto all of Israel’s conquests. Israeli journalist Lily Galili says:
They come from this huge empire to this tiny Israel and they say: “Is that all, is that the country? And what, you want to give back the territories? Who gives up territory in the first place! And in this small country. You must be kidding!”
Russian-speaking Israelis mostly support the hardline Likud Beiteinu party formed by Netanyahu’s current foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman. As a Putin admirer who was born in the Soviet city of Kishinev (now the capital of Romanian-speaking Moldova), Lieberman would be a natural interlocutor between the two regimes.
Conversely, Putin commands the support of several billionaires who are dual citizens of Russia and Israel.
The widespread assumption among American Jews that Putin is anti-Semitic is a persecution fantasy derived from ancestral tales of the czar whipping up pogroms. Putin’s renewal of strong rule in Russia automatically triggers Jewish anti-czarist neuroses, even though some of them are based on dubious tales spread by William Randolph Hearst’s yellow press. (Steven Zipperstein, Stanford professor of Jewish culture and history, has discovered that the universal attribution to czarist malevolence of the legendary 1903 pogrom in Lieberman’s home town of Kishinev is based on an anti-czarist forgery.)
To see how well Jews have done in Putin’s Russia, take a look of Forbes’s 2013 list of Russian billionaires. Judging from surnames, about 21 Russian billionaires are Jewish. Another 20 are Central Asian or Middle Eastern (e.g., Armenians, Georgians, Kazakhs, etc.), and 69 are Eastern European. (Russia, by the way, has a ridiculous number of billionaires. Poland, a better-governed country, only has four.) So people with Jewish surnames making up 19 percent of Forbes‘s list of Russian billionaires is pretty good when they number something like 0.13 percent of Russia’s population.
It’s only compared to the glory days of the Yeltsin years that Jews have reason for complaint. As Amy Chua of the Yale Law School had the courage to point out in 2003: After a decade of advice from American economists, five of the seven top Russian oligarchs were wholly of Jewish descent and another was half-Jewish. Putin, in contrast, has succeeded in making Russia’s oligarchs look more like Russia, bringing diversity to the ranks of billionaires, thus defusing a major incitement to anti-Semitism.
That bizarre level of disparate impact had gone utterly unspoken in the American media in the 1990s and remains almost unmentionable today. And that’s why it would make sense for Russia to woo nationalist Israelis: to get better treatment from the global media.
This was the strategy of Rupert Murdoch: You don’t need all the Jews in New York on your side, but you do need some of them. Richard Nixon and his chief domestic adviser Daniel Patrick Moynihan came to the same conclusion in 1969 and thus sponsored the launching of neoconservatism.
Russia has been following the course Israel has been on toward the right for decades. Make friends with the Israeli right, and that buys you a lot of friends in New York and Washington: not a majority, but enough to get a hearing.
Putin must realize he can’t possibly win an arms race with the American military, much less a narrative race with the American media. He has to lower the temperature on the conservative side of America by reducing the ancient animus felt by American Jews toward anybody acting the czar. The road to conservative American Christian hearts runs through Jerusalem.
In the very long run, Russia’s adoption of the nationalist Zionist cause would likely lead the declining fraction of liberal Israelis to turn toward their enlightened cultural cousins, the natural rivals of the Russians, the richest and the most latently powerful country in Europe, the Germans. When the world went to war exactly 100 years ago, liberal Jews largely sympathized with Germany, the home of their ancestral language Yiddish and their enlightened culture.
Therefore, perhaps, Russia and the Israel nationalist majority will espouse 19th-century Romantic nationalism, while Germany will use late 20th-century European Union postnationalism and their Jewish friends as the mild mask for German domination of Europe.
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