On “psychological complexes” towards Russia to Mr Kubilius: let’s learn from the USSR’s demise

Russian dolls, by Beth Macdonald in Unsplash

In this article on “psychological complexes” of the West towards Russia, Mr Kubilius makes a few wrong assumptions and leads to logical mistakes, writes Ilona Sologub, Editor of VoxUkraine, a Ukrainian think tank.

The greatest one is assuming that Russia can both stay within its current borders and become a democracy. It cannot – in the same way as the USSR could not have stayed within its borders and become a democracy (as soon as a little bit of glasnost was allowed, it fell apart). Today we are witnessing the next (hopefully final) stage of the demise of the Russian empire and trying to stop or reverse it is as futile as trying to stop an avalanche.

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This mistake is based on several wrong assumptions that the West has made towards the USSR in the past: (1) treating Russia as a homogeneous people while it is a collection of territories and peoples conquered by Muscovy in different times and held together by fear and repression; (2) assuming that the majority of Russians strive for democracy and that democracy would arise overnight, as soon as Putin’s regime is gone; (3) fearing that Russia’s demise would be “bloody and nuclear”. In fact, after 1991, the world became safer as Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan denuclearized.

Below, I consider “Western beliefs”, which Mr Kubilius’ debunks in more detail and show that, on many occasions, he manipulates.

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First: “Russia is incompatible with democracy”. Mr Kubilius debunks this statement based on the argument that “Putin says this as well”. However, if Putin said that 2+2=4, we would not believe otherwise. In this case, Putin is right – Russia in its current borders (as an empire oppressing some peoples – Chechens, Buryats, Tatars and others) is incompatible with democracy. Only when the Russian Empire falls apart into nation-states may some of these states become democracies. The example of Mongolia would apply to those states because Mongolia is a nation-state. Still, it does not apply to Russia (or China, which also oppresses peoples in the occupied lands, e.g. Uighurs or Tibetans). Freedom of speech and supporting human rights in Russia would inevitably allow national movements to gain strength, as happened in the USSR in the late-1980s.

Second: “Russians as a people are not fit for democracy.” Mr Kubilius correctly states that Russians are brainwashed, but then he starts talking about the “genes”, which is a manipulation. While it is true that not all Russians are racist and imperialist, it is also true that the overwhelming majority of Russians are. Surveys show support for the war close to 80% and similar support for Putin. So while we can be grateful to thousands of Russians who protested against the war and were jailed, tens of millions support the destruction of Ukraine and of the “degradant West”. Hundreds of thousands of “mobilized” people go to war with as simple a motivation as “kill Ukrainians and earn a few thousand dollars”. With these numbers, we cannot talk about democracy in Russia. And the aggressive propaganda is not only on Russian TV. It is everywhere – in schools, popular music, Instagram and Tik Tok etc.

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Moreover, Putin did not start this propaganda. As a Ukrainian who grew up in the USSR, I felt the full extent of Russia’s superiority and disdain for other nations. Mr Kubilius may remember this from his Soviet past as well.

Third: “Ordinary Russians and the opposition do not take up arms against the Kremlin regime”. Mr Kubilius is generally right that protests in the USSR started after people felt that it was more or less safe to protest (although one can easily find counterexamples – thus, there were thousands of protests of Ukrainians in the early 1930s, and protesters were killed in Almaty in 1986, in Tbilisi in 1989, in Baku and Dushanbe in 1990, in Riga and Vilnius in 1991). However, it is again about numbers. When a million people come into the streets, as was in Kyiv in 2013-2014, police cannot do much. And even in much more oppressive regimes, such as Iran, people can protest for values. However, the majority of Russians either support Putin or do not care. Thus, while I agree that it is useless to blame Russians for not protesting, it is also meaningless to expect Russians to protest. It is harmful, however, to separate Russians from Putin’s regime because this regime has either the active or silent support of the overwhelming majority of Russians.

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Fourth: “all Russians are collectively guilty of the war against Ukraine, and the opposition must be punished”. This statement is a manipulation. Collective guilt is not equal to punishing the opposition. But the main thing is that the Russian opposition is opposing Putin. They are not opposing the war. They are talking about corruption in Russia, not about the genocide of Ukrainians. They are still saying that Ukrainians and Russians are “one people”, denying Ukraine its agency. They still apply the Soviet term “Pribaltika” to the Baltic states. As a more specific example, Khodorkovsky, although he opposes Putin, still believes that “Chechnya is Russia”. However, Chechnya was conquered by Russia in the 19th century and never stopped fighting for its independence.

Perhaps talking about “collective guilt” is counterproductive because it is too abstract. But we should speak of punishing Russian war criminals – from Putin to ordinary soldiers (and, of course, including propaganda workers) and Russia paying compensations and reparations to Ukraine. Another specific and achievable goal should be denuclearization of Russia which should closely follow Russia’s military defeat.

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Fifth: “Democracy in Russia could be dangerous for us because Russia will again gain strength”. I believe no one in the West would disagree that having a democratic Russia would be good. The thing is that Russia, in its current borders (and with its imperialistic ambitions), is incompatible with democracy.

One of the critical elements of democracy is decentralization. Yeltsin announced it in the early 1990s. However, as soon as Chechnya tried to use this opportunity and regain its independence, it was drowned in blood. In parallel, any freedoms in Russia were severely restrained – the Russian government understood too well that democracy means disintegration. Thus, the Russian people had very little (if any) exposure to democracy. And democracy is a thing which cannot be established overnight – it is a long process when people learn to control their government and take responsibility. The Baltic states could switch to democracy relatively easily because they had the experience of nation-building in the 1920s-1939. This process has been much longer and much more painful for Ukraine, and it still lasts.

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It is not the West that contains the Russian movement to democracy (as Mr Kubilius suggests). In fact, the West invested billions of dollars into supporting democratic activities in Russia – with little to no effect.

Mr Kubilius also writes, “Many of us know that Russia, with the authoritarian Putin at its head, is getting weaker and weaker politically, economically and technologically. Putin also understands this, which is one of the main reasons for his aggression.” However, this is not true – the main reason for Russia’s aggression is ideological – the wrong belief that “Russia lost its historical lands after the demise of the USSR and has to regain it”. On the contrary, the current war is revenge for Russia’s defeat in the Cold War.

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Discussing the Versailles treaty and reparations levied on Germany after WWI as the main reason for WWII is way too simplistic and overlooks many vital things. First, one of the main Hitler’s goals in WWII was getting “Lebensraum”, i.e. new lands (compare this to Putin announcing “gaining new territories as a significant result” of the war). Second, this statement overlooks cooperation between the USSR and Nazi Germany that enabled Hitler actually to pursue his plans. The Versailles treaty was not flawless (e.g. it did not recognize the Ukrainian nation), but if the West is anything to blame – it is for trying to “contain” Hitler by letting him occupy Czechoslovakia and Poland (the same mistake was made with regards to Putin when the West turned a blind eye of him occupying parts of Georgia in 2008 and of Ukraine in 2014). It is not reparations that led to WWII but the impunity that signalled to the aggressor that he could move on.

Furthermore, when discussing the Morgenthau plan vs the Marshall plan, Mr Kubilius overlooks essential parts of the Marshall plan – occupation and denazification of Germany (the latter was limited to its Western part). It is important to remember that denazification was not voluntary – Germans were forced to recognize the crimes which they actively or silently supported. The area of Russia is 48 times larger than the area of Germany and 68 times larger than the area of Western Germany, so its occupation is obviously not feasible. Thus, the Marshall plan template is not fit for Russia.

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Moreover, Germany recognized its mistakes, e.g. Willy Brandt apologized for Holocaust. On the other hand, neither the Russian government nor the Russian opposition recognized any of the USSR’s mistakes – for example, they kept denying the Great Famine in Ukraine. Have they already apologized for the occupation of Lithuania? Or for killing 14 people in Vilnius in January 1991?

Six: “the only way to ensure our security is to put a high fence around Russia and then let Russia, closed off from the world, rot and collapse”. Here Mr Kubilius talks about the need to work with the Russian opposition on the transformation of Russia. This is a sound proposal. However, the question is – who is the Russian opposition? If we talk about Navalny and other self-proclaimed liberals – don’t they express the same imperial thinking as Putin? For example, the TV channel Dozhd spoke about the poor equipment of the Russian army, not that this army should not be in Ukraine in the first place. If the Russian army was better equipped and thus more able to kill Ukrainians – obviously, the Dozhd channel would be OK with it. As well as other “liberals” who talk about the need to eliminate corruption in Russia and thus make it more efficient.

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Moreover, the Dozhd channel showed a map of Russia, including Crimea and labelled itself “a foreign agent”, i.e. it operated in Latvia under Russian law. Isn’t that absurd? In my view, it is. But it perfectly illustrates one distinguishing feature of Russians – while living abroad, they try to establish a “Russian world” where they live (e.g. demanding Russian schools, more rights for the Russian language etc.) instead of trying to integrate into a host country.

Therefore, self-proclaimed “Russian liberals” certainly are not the people whom the West should support. Who are those people, then? These are the leaders of national movements of Russia’s people (they are likely to head the newly independent states). If there are no such people, then the West could talk to current leaders of Russian regions. The transformation of Russia should involve its disintegration into a nation-state.

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Finally, Mr Kubilius repeats two ideas that, unfortunately, are widespread in the West but wrong. The first is that “the example of a strong, prosperous Ukraine can be the most substantial incentive for ordinary Russians to demand change in Russia itself“. The democratic developments in any of the former Soviet republics are the reason not to demand changes in Russia but to destroy that country (this was the case with Georgia in 2008, Ukraine in 2014 and 2022, and Kazakhstan in 2022). Russians are used to despising the nations that once were under their occupation. Therefore, they will never view these countries as examples for themselves. The second idea is that “Russia’s demise would be a bloody and nuclear chaos“. On the contrary – as soon as the Russian state repressive apparatus is sufficiently weak, Russian regions will be able to secede without the fear of the Chechen scenario. Moreover, it will be easier to negotiate denuclearization with newly independent states than with the Russian empire equipped with the idea of its “greatness”.

In short, the West should learn from the USSR’s demise rather than repeat its mistakes of the early 1990s.

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