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What is wrong with Russia?

by Alex Mironoff Special to the Democrat-Gazette | September 17, 2023 at 1:55 a.m.

There are those on the extreme right and the extreme left in this country who argue we should stop aiding Ukraine in its war of independence from Russia. They seem to believe that Russia has legitimate national interests for wanting to absorb Ukraine into its orbit of docile vassal states and that we should negotiate some sort of neutral status for a shrunken version of Ukraine, thus avoiding further bloodshed and the possibility of nuclear Armageddon.

To be fair, the last concern is specific to extremists on the left; the far right admires Putin's aggressive "nationalism" and seems pleased enough to see Russia roll over any of its neighbors because brute force is the only virtue worth cultivating. Booyah!

What partisans on both ends of the spectrum fail to grasp is that Russia, as currently governed, is a danger to the civilized world. First and foremost, it is an unprincipled state, ready to annihilate any opposition and break all rules to get what it wants.

While every nation, including our own, has resorted to unprincipled tactics at times, there is something unique about the "former" Soviet Union. For the USSR, the absence of moral/ethical principles was not just a transitory lapse; it was the foundation of the Leninist-Stalinist regime model. The Soviet Union was, from its inception, a criminal enterprise. Although the USSR was officially dissolved in 1991, the Soviet mindset continues to dominate.

For proof one need only review Soviet Russia's 20th century record of wantonly murdering over 20 million of its own people, randomly imprisoning millions more, driving millions to take refuge abroad, and treating those left behind to 70-plus years of Soviet-style browbeating and behavior control. Or consider Russia's ongoing campaign of assassinating, jailing or exiling dissenters, shutting down independent news outlets and civic organizations, outlawing peaceful demonstrations, etc.

Then there's Russia's savage behavior in Ukraine. What kind of nation invades a sovereign state whose borders it had explicitly guaranteed, deliberately bombs sheltering civilians, targets hospitals, destroys essential civilian infrastructure, kidnaps children and murders non-combatants? What kind of nation declares open season on grain ships bound for needy neutral countries? What kind of nation threatens the world with nuclear annihilation if it doesn't get its way?

It is a nation in which the ends always justify the means, where truth is irrelevant and raw power trumps all other considerations. It is a nation run by a KGB colonel and a gang of self-dealing oligarchs, and that relies on convicted criminals to force its will on others.

The absolute power of unprincipled authorities to arbitrarily rob anyone of their rights, freedom or life lies at the dark center of everything wrong with Russia. No wonder, then, that those countries and peoples formerly held captive by the USSR have been clamoring to find protection within the European Union and NATO.

What our domestic "useful idiots" (Soviet nomenclature, not mine) who attack Western support for Ukraine in its war of independence can't seem to fathom is that NATO expanded eastward not because it aggressively pursued new member states, but because Russia's former colonies actively sought membership to guarantee their own future freedom. As cogs in the former Soviet Bloc, they knew from painful experience that any guarantees of sovereignty coming from the East are "like pie crust: made to be broken."

One may further ask what set Russia on such a ruinous path. Having skipped the Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment, Russia remained socially and politically mired in a semi-medieval worldview well into the 1800s. Such ideological underdevelopment had two significant effects: It made Russia vulnerable to violent revolution, and it rendered her incapable of creating a civilized political and social order after revolution occurred. This applies as much to 1991 as it did to 1917.

The political and social systems of the West, on the other hand, have had several centuries to mature to a point at which the rights of the individual and the rule of law have become ingrained, Donald Trump and his insurrectionists notwithstanding. I do not claim that our foundational principles have always and everywhere been uniformly adhered to or that they aren't under constant threat of erosion, but what we have in the West is still a damn sight better than the despotic terror that Russia is now imposing both internally and in Ukraine.

In short, there are good guys and bad guys in the current scenario, and dealing with the bad guys as though they are playing by civilized rules (or by any rules at all) is a naïve and fatal strategy. You don't negotiate with parties who, as their first principle, repudiate all other principles.

What's wrong with Russia can be summed up by an old Soviet joke: A KGB operative comes back to the USSR from assignment in Monaco, his suitcases stuffed with cash. His colleague asks him how he got so rich. The agent answers, "Gambling." "What do you know about gambling games?" his buddy asks.

"Well, nothing, but I ran into a British fellow at the casino and he proposed a game of '21.' It's a simple game: The player who draws cards closest in value to 21 without going any higher wins. On the first hand, he declared that he had 21. I demanded to see his cards, but he said, 'As gentlemen, we take each other's word for it.' Well, after that, it was easy."

Alex Mironoff of Fayetteville is a Ph.D. in experimental psychology (UA) with undergraduate and graduate degrees from Harvard with specialization in Russian language/literature and Soviet-era studies. He is retired from the UA College of Engineering.

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