Flying above the Russian Siberian permafrost, one sees winding rivers that make their way through plains and forests, and these are scarred by crevices, mountains and rocky outcrops. Further south is a sea of blonde, flaxen, olive, and sepia, stretching across worlds from Manchuria to Moldova; the Eurasian Steppe. As the sun goes behind the Ural Mountains the amber light of dusk takes hold of this land of explorers, nomads, herders and spiritual rites far older than Christianity or Islam.
Astolphe De Custine did not get a chance to take any of that in when he made his journey through the western part of Russia 28 years before the birth of a Wright brother. In his famous Letters from Russia, he judges the Russian landscape to be mostly uninspiring. He could not have known at the time that the unimaginable vastness of that landscape included one-fifth of the world’s fresh water, nearly one-fifth of the world’s coal, and taken together, nearly a third of the world’s natural resources according to academic estimates.
From Custine to McCain, western elites have continued their obsession with Russia as well. They can no longer make any credible claim to ignorance over that countries natural wealth. The extent to which their antagonistic stance is influenced by it remains an issue of great contention; emphatically believed and denied in the Russian and western establishments respectively. Defenders of NATO’s policies towards the Russian Federation will quickly point out the countries track record on democracy and human rights. Critics will counter that western powers pay no attention to other countries with worse and similar records. This is quickly countered by the observation that those countries can’t possibly hope to pose the kind of threat that Russia can.
Indeed, a country like Venezuela, human rights record being what it may, is certainly not in a position where it can pose a credible military threat to the United States and its allies. Needless to say, the U.S. has been in no great hurry to swoop in and confiscate all the oil that the Venezuelan state is in possession of. A complete analysis of modern geopolitics makes it difficult to believe that natural resources are the only thing being factored into the western establishment’s calculus. Legitimate military threat would seem to factor in prominently.
Still, there is nothing typical about the Russian Federation. This place is not only home to a great proportion of all the unclean energy sources that most western leaders wish to phase out, a staggering amount of the Earth’s fresh water, timber, and productive agricultural land is also found here. That undeniable reality coupled with fairly recent history makes it easy to see why some believe that western policies towards Russia are motivated primarily by greed.
Perhaps we can take Napoleon at his word regarding the reasons for marching the Grand Armee into Russia in 1812: The Polish buffer zone had to be defended in order to protect the empire, and the empire was a place where the modern ideals of the enlightenment would thrive. At that point in time, Napoleon had invaded and made war against the German states as well, despite them being long at the forefront of civilized, enlightened modernity.
Over a Century later, as though Ragnarok had come to pass, the Germany of Leibniz, Hegel, and Kant was unrecognizable. No enlightenment ideals were brandished about when Hitler invaded Soviet Russia in 1941. Taken at face value, Napoleon and Hitler were worlds apart in ethos and raison d’etre, and whatever the reasons, they could not have been much concern for the Muscovites who watched as their city was pummeled and razed thanks to invading forces coming from the west.
Custine noted the lengthy, at times comical, at times nerve-wracking process of going through Russian customs in 1839. He paints a vivid picture of a state steeped in paranoia and defensive thinking. That the Germany of philosophers, musicians, poets, and freethinkers would give way to a Germany of brutes and madmen -with aims fixated on Russia- would have done nothing to lessen their paranoia about the outside world.
Perhaps it’s no wonder that Vladimir Putin enjoys high levels of public support in Russia. His supporters must think he’s a fine bulwark against whatever madness the west is going to be afflicted by next. That American military action has likely been a destabilizing force in many recent instances can do nothing to soften the Russian impression of westerners.
Of course, there is more to the west than insane ideas and feral aggression. Doubtlessly, the west has been the champion of human rights and democracy. In these highly novel times that we live in, if the west adopts a combative stance towards Russia, western leaders must search their hearts and ask themselves what their motivation is. Is it freedom and dignity? Or is it wanton greed and avarice?
Reverence for a heart being in the right place is an idea enshrined and sanctified in the western legal tradition. Western leaders must consider this concept with utmost seriousness before considering any bellicosity with Russia.