Like a pocketful of quarters in the washing machine, the Soviet Union spun apart into clattering ruin on December 25, 1991, thus ending the Cold War. Five days after my third birthday, the fifteen Soviet satellites declared with one voice that they actually would like to have nice things. Gorbachev declared the end of the Soviet experiment, and the former Union began to untangle. Americans took to calling the end of the Cold War the “end of history.” This was a transparently silly thing to say – history had existed prior to Vladimir Lenin and would continue after his wretched empire. However, there was truth in it as it pertains to the American mind.
Over the past week of Putin’s inhumanity in Ukraine, I’ve seen dozens of variations on Lt. Gen (ret) Barry McCaffrey stating that it is “astonishing Russia has performed so poorly.” Really? Because I’m not astonished. I’m not astonished at all. I wasn’t alive to watch the May Day tanks crunch through Red Square rumbling the stones and shaking the world. I never watched Khrushchev thrust his bald head forward and harangue the UN General Assembly. I don’t even remember the shambolic end of the Soviet corpse. In the final year of the USSR, I was probably playing with trucks and learning my colors or something. That’s never been my Russia.
My Russia is the pallid Vladimir Putin, skin stretched like a painter’s canvas, strutting around in front of too many Russian flags. I’ve only ever known the Russia whose ships break down at sea and whose tanks rust a little more every time the frost melts. That Russia has a $2 trillion economy, an economy smaller than California. Its economy is somewhere around the size of Brazil or Indonesia.
That’s why I felt so confused by the Trumpist rhetoric during the 2016 campaign. Then-candidate Trump and his apparatchiks repeated the refrain, “`wouldn’t it be nice if we got along with Russia?” I remember my own refrain: who cares? Who cares about a $2 trillion gas station with moldering gunships? When was the last time you heard a presidential candidate say, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we got along with Indonesia?” Never. Never is the answer. It would never happen because Indonesia does not loom overly large in the American mind. Cold War muscle memory inflates the Russian bear in the minds of Americans who remember the 50-year struggle.
Well, the Cold War is over, has been over for a generation, and we won.
There are 44 aircraft carriers in service around the world. America has twenty. Russia has one. So, no, Romney was not “right.” An aggressive petrostate attacking its neighbors does not become America’s “biggest geopolitical threat” just because it’s in Europe. That’s Cold War nostalgia. Naked aggression does not make a country tough or threatening or powerful; it just makes them assholes. America’s greatest threat isn’t even a rising China; the only thing that can conquer America is our own democratic decay.
Russia is a regional power run by an aging malignant narcissist who seeks to recapture imagined glory. Putin and his goons must never be allowed to reconstitute their evil empire; they must be resisted by every nation that believes in liberty and democracy. Americans shouldn’t help them along by pretending they’re the superpower they once were.
Keep in mind: their largest industry is oil, and their tanks keep running out of gas.