To understand the title completely, a quick overview of Russian History is needed. After the fall of the Byzantine Empire to the Turks in 1453, the Czars, beginning with Ivan the Great, viewed themselves as the inheritors of the Byzantine Christian traditions, with Moscow becoming “The Third Rome,” complete with a messianic mission to protect Orthodox Christianity. Ivan the Great married a Byzantine princess, niece of the last emperor, to seal this idea.
Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is somewhat mistitled, because a majority of the pages concern in fact Byzantine History, the story of an empire which persisted with difficulty for over a thousand years (Rome falls in 410: Constantinople in 1453). How exactly does an empire “decline”…for a thousand years?! The answer is that the Byzantines had periods of resurgence, even if long-term they were doomed.
Byzantine diplomacy was one of their reasons for surviving against such great odds: Arabs, Turks, Slavs, Crusaders, Italian city-states all sharpening their knives against this Greek state. And this diplomacy was usually predicated on the assumption that treaties and political agreements were instruments of survival: breaking them at any time, even entering into them with no intention of keeping the agreement, was morally justified.
The Russians, themselves surrounded by Tatars, Swedes, Ottoman Turks, learned this lesson well. While the more Westernizing czars later on became more trustworthy in international diplomacy, there are assorted examples of classic “Byzantine diplomacy” (e.g. Czar Alexander’s allying with Napoleon while simultaneously talking with the British about the future).
With Lenin, Stalin, and the Communists we return to more classic amoral Byzantine diplomacy. There is a case to be made that Lenin and Stalin followed two German philosophers in their careers: Marx and Nietzsche, the latter with his ideas on the amoral Übermensch being combined with Marx’s akimbo morality for class warfare.
One of the classic observations about the West’s dealings with dictators in the 20th century (and today) is that our high-minded politicians treat murderous tyrants…as if they were high-minded Western politicians. (Besides Chamberlain’s dealings with Hitler, one remembers with a shiver W. Bush’s claim to see Putin’s re-assuring soul. Or our present resident of the White House expecting egotistically expecting every tyrant to roll over and play dead for him.) This attitude has led the West to be continuously shocked and disappointed as soon as treaty violations are discovered: the SALT II treaty was DOA, because one violation was known fairly early (i.e. Russian troops in Cuba), and one could assume therefore that others existed, and so the Senate never ratified it.
President Reagan nevertheless offered to honor the treaty, if the Soviet Russians agreed to follow it also. And as could have been predicted, he needed to reveal in the middle 1980’s that the Soviet Russians had violated the agreement.
And so Communism may be somewhat gone in Russia, and a limited freedom is now present: but has anything changed? For over 20 years America and the West have been expecting the Russian government to become as Westernized and trustworthy as themselves. This has demonstrably not happened, and it has not happened because the Russian-Communist heritage of international deception has been transferred to Vladimir Putin’s shadow dictatorship.
How exactly is Putin a free-thinking Westerner?
And so again we see the liberals in the West becoming all warm and fuzzy about START and other such agreements. Why? Did they not pay attention in History class? Or are they just so optimistic that this time will be different ?
So, keep talking with the Russians, and keep signing agreements with them: but please stop being shocked when you discover that the Russians…have stayed Russians.