A Russian History Lesson Is In Order

Some folks seem to feel nostalgic for the Cold War.

Arizona Sen. John Mccain, for example. The former Republican presidential candidate recently demonstrated his sound-bite genius, referring to Russia as nothing but a “gas station masquerading as a country.”

While he was at it, Mccain decided to pile it on. Russia, he said, is not only a “gas station,” but also a “kleptocracy” and a “corruption.”

Whew! Glad the good senator set the American people straight. No longer will we identify Russia, even for a moment, as home to a people and a culture that produced Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Anton Chekhov, Alexander Pushkin, Sergei Eisenstein – and vodka. Ah, blessed vodka.

Nor will we harbor any appreciation for a World War II ally whose armies lost 13 million men and had Germany’s armies in retreat before the invasion of Normandy.

But McCain isn’t the only one given to excessive rhetoric. Consider Russian news anchor Dmitry Kiselyov. He recently reminded his television audience that Russia is the only country in the world capable of turning the United States into “radioactive ashes.”

Kiselyov may be correct. Russia claims some 8,500 nuclear warheads, more than the U.S. has cached away. Still, the United States owns more than enough of them to match Russia in the production of radioactive ashes.

What Kiselyov misses is history. From at least as early as the 1960s, the Soviet Union and the United States threatened mutual nuclear obliteration. But neither Khrushchev nor Kennedy nor any leaders of the two countries since ventured nuclear war. All recognized that the nuclear option chosen by any one of them meant nothing but ashes for both and a nuclear winter for the planet.

McCain misses history as well, and not just in his lack of respect for Russian artists.

Brutal invasions across its vast, flat topography have marked Russia’s history, most famously by France.

In 1812, after conquering the rest of Europe, Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Russia with an army of half-a-million. No topographical obstacles confronted him, but the brilliance of Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov and the Russian Winter did. Bonaparte escaped Russia with a ragged, starving 10,000 men.

A little more than a century later, German armies would bring World War I to Russia, bleed its armies and precipitate the Russian Revolution of 1917, launching the country’s 70-year experiment with Communism.

In June, 1941, another European conqueror, Adolf Hitler, sent his armies into Soviet Union. One of them was stopped before Leningrad, a second was captured at Stalingrad – both were vanquished.

In the months following World War II’s end, the Soviets rushed to secure puppet states along their western border that would serve as buffers against invasion.

Vladimir Putin was a KGB colonel when the Soviet Union came apart. He knew a grander Russia, one that always sought to protect its western border, thus his interest in a culturally Russian Crimea and his concern over a politically unstable Ukraine.

But Putin knows his limits and what going too far militarily risks: those “radioactive ashes.” Barack Obama understands that as well, and so does Sen. McCain. Both have called for sanctions.

In 1840, Alexis de Tocqueville, the prescient French chronicler of Democracy in America, wrote, “There are now two great nations in the world … the Russians and the Anglo-Americans … each seems called by some sweet Providence one day to hold in its hands the destinies of half the world.”

That they do.

Correction: In last week’s column, I quoted Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s announcement that the armed forces would be cut from 490,000 to 440,000. Wrong, of course. That’s just the Army. Cuts to the other services have yet to be announced. Current total force levels stand at 1.4 million. My apologies – and mahalo to one of my 11 regular readers.