By L. Todd Wood:
I spend a lot of time in Moscow. I love the city. I love the culture. I love the people. Moscow is an oasis of luxury in the middle of the Russian forest—literally a shining city on the river. The metropolis is no longer defined by the old, drab Soviet apartment buildings, although there are plenty. It is defined by its energetic, youthful vibe and its restaurants, museums, clubs, parks, and cafes.
The oligarchs have seen to it that Muscovites have plenty of distractions. There is a wonderful dichotomy, however, of the old and the new. You can take the Russian out of Siberia, but you can’t take the past out of the Russian, or so it seems.
It was reported in the press that Russia imported around half a million baseball bats in the last year. I read that article with fascination. On its face, this seems strange for a country that doesn’t play baseball. In reality, the bats are mostly not meant for games at all; Russians buy them to settle traffic disputes. That may seem shocking, but the more you spend time there, the more completely apropos this idea becomes.
One thing is for sure—the average westerner doesn’t understand this country at all. They have seen lots of stereotypes and clichés but don’t have a good grasp of what they are dealing with. I have even found this to be true of people in very important positions of power in the West. Seeing that Russia is now in the news every day, maybe we ought to attempt to understand them better.
Understanding Russian culture is difficult, and I am certainly no expert. However, I have spent a lot of time there. There are many analysts and pundits who are more versed in Russian history and its national psyche, but through experience, I have formed my own opinion.
Let me start with an example of what I mean.
I was leaving a friend’s house one night in Moscow, navigating the labyrinth of the parking lot at the base of her apartment building, when we ran into a “situation.” Her flat is in a high rise that shoots about twenty-five stories high, and they are typically surrounded by schools, medical facilities, grocery stores, etc. This makes for a maze of lanes and parking areas that you really have to get used to. People park anywhere they can—on the sidewalk, anywhere. It can become an intricate dance to get out of the residential areas and onto a main thoroughfare.
We were heading down the right direction in a one-way passageway that was narrow enough to allow for only one vehicle. The moon was out, so it was a bright night. About halfway down, another vehicle approached us going the wrong way. It was a large SUV, I think a Land Rover. (Russians love their expensive Western cars.)
As we began to play this game of chicken, I looked over at her as she stopped and attempted to decide what to do. “We are going the right way, yes?” I asked.
“Da,” she said.
The man in the SUV was calm, nonchalant, and began staring at us. He was smoking a cigarette and smoothly tapping the ashes out the window, never breaking his stare.
“Well, is he going to move?” I asked again.
“Nyet,” she said angrily.
“I don’t get it. We have the right of way, right? Why won’t he just back up?”
“Because everyone here is a king,” she answered. “I hate it,” she added. “If you have money, you can do what you want.”
Then I remembered the article I mentioned above and wondered if this is the part where the baseball bats come out. I looked at the guy, who was doing a great impression of Michael Corleone. My friend began to back up. It was difficult, as we were almost to the other end, but she had to back up all the way to the beginning of the alley.
I thought of this incident the other day when I heard a colleague talk about how we should be allies with Russia. That they should be our friend.
Russia will never be our friend, unfortunately. At least not in this generation. There is too much baggage, too much left over from the past on both sides. The best we can hope for is some type of new detente in which we cooperate, but maintain a solid wall of deterrence for any possible thoughts of taking another bite of Europe.
You see, they look at the world like the guy in the Land Rover. They will see how far they can push you. If you back down, you will have to back up all the way out of the alley, kind of like Obama backed out of the Middle East. When our fearless leader backed down from the red line in Syria, it was the green light for Putin to take a few bites of the geopolitical apple—take some real estate, if you will. The dominoes fell quickly: Crimea, East Ukraine, Syria, etc. Now we have a new axis of power in the Middle East stretching from Latakia to Tehran composed of the Russian, Shia Islam, and Iran nexus.
This aggressiveness is in the Russians’ genes. Former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper was right when he said that Russia doesn’t share our values. We are too-different civilizations trying to coexist without blowing up the world. This is the needle we have to thread.
There is a saying that everything I needed to know in life I learned from Star Trek. Remember the Yangs and the Coms, or even better, The Wrath of Khan? Khan was a Genghis Khan look-alike who came back from exile to threaten the Federation.
This is where the Russian mindset comes from. They were under the yoke of the Mongolian horde for centuries, paying tribute to the local strong man of the clan. They were split off from Europe; they never went through the enlightenment. Peter the Great dragged them kicking and screaming into the modern world, but they never really left where they came from.
Well guess what? Khan has returned, and boy, is he pissed.
He saw his empire and his status as a superpower crumble. He went through the wild, wild west of the 1990s and saw thugs take over most of the industry and wealth. He saw his military humiliated by the West as they bombed the Serbians, a long-time Russian ally. They never forgot about that, by the way. If you go to any Russian dinner party and they find out you are American, the subject will eventually come up.
If you look at Russian society through this lens, you will see why Vladimir Putin’s approval ratings are so high. All he did was simply make Russia great again. The people forgave all his other indiscretions. For you see, that’s the other thing about Russia you need to know. If your leader says you need to tighten your belt for the Rodina — the Motherland, — you do it, no questions asked. That is in their genes as well and trumps (pardon the pun) every other consideration, even your life. Everything is secondary to the needs of the state.
So now we are in a situation where Russia is perceived to have more power, even though their economy is weak and in a recession. Their military power is growing due to large amounts of investment, and the price of oil is going back up. You have a leader in Putin who has played a weak hand well. The West and Russia are now sitting face to face in their cars on a one-way street, staring each other down.
The only question is this: do we go for the baseball bats, or does somebody blink?
L. Todd Wood is an OpsLens contributor, a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, flew special operations helicopters supporting SEAL Team 6, Delta Force and others. After leaving the military, he pursued his other passion, finance, spending 18 years on Wall Street trading emerging market debt, and later, writing. The first of his many thrillers is “Currency.” Todd is a national security columnist for The Washington Times and has contributed to Fox Business, Newsmax TV, Moscow Times, the New York Post, the National Review, Zero Hedge, The Jerusalem Post, and others. For more information about L. Todd Wood, visit LToddWood.com.