The Bear That Talks Like a Man

On Russia and Ukraine we are experiencing things incrementally and coming to terms with the fact that we have entered a new era. Vladimir Putin has ended the post-Cold War settlement and is redrawing borders. It is childish and obtuse to see his moves and understand them as anything but what they are, the beginning of a time that will sorely try the United States. We have to get busy figuring out how to deal with it, both day to day and in the long term.

In rough connection to that, two books. One reminds us that Moscow was making diplomats’ heads explode long before the Cold War. The second is from a futurist who notes history not only is surprising, it can move at quite a clip once it takes one of its turns.

“All the Great Prizes” is John Taliaferro’s insightful, smartly observed biography of John Hay, whose fabled career took him from 22-year-old private secretary to Abraham Lincoln to secretary of state, 40 years later, in the administration of Theodore Roosevelt. In between Hay was a diplomat, poet, newspaper editor, fiery editorial writer, presidential biographer and ambassador. He had a warm mind and a cool heart. Hay was graceful, pleasing, broad-gauged, calm, and he counseled the occasionally hotheaded Roosevelt in how to maneuver and deflect. He had a generous and realistic sense of the imperatives of nations.

So it’s interesting the Russians drove him wild.

In 1901 Moscow was moving to dominate Manchuria, which gave the willies to everyone in Asia and to the U.S., which had commercial interests. An American consul in the region warned Hay that unless Russia was checked, it would annex Manchuria outright. All the secretary got when he protested to Russia was denials and hurt looks. He complained that he was “dealing with a government with whom mendacity is a science.” He wrote to Roosevelt: “I take it for granted that Russia knows as well as we do that we will not fight over Manchuria, for the simple reason that we cannot.”

John Hay
U.S. statesman and writer John Hay in 1890.

In the end, in 1904, the Japanese moved against Russia in a sneak attack on Port Arthur, almost taking out the Russian fleet. A brutal war commenced. Russia was defeated in a series of battles and experienced widespread unrest at home. Czar Nicholas II had thought the war would contribute to patriotic feeling; instead it sparked demonstrations and riots that were the first violent sign of the revolution that would come a dozen years later.

Peace was pushed and negotiated by Teddy Roosevelt, who became the first American president to win a Nobel Peace Prize—and he deserved it.

By that time Hay had written to him with uncharacteristic anger: “Four years of conflict with [the Russians] have shown me that you cannot let up a moment on them without danger to your midriff. The bear that talks like a man is more to be watched than Adam Zad”—a reference to Rudyard Kipling’s Adam-zad, “the Bear that walks like a Man!”

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For a possible look into the future, the second book, “The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century” by George Friedman, founder of the private intelligence and forecasting firm Stratfor. The book was published four years ago, in January 2010. In one chapter he predicts Russia’s future.

“In geopolitics, major conflicts repeat themselves,” he writes. “Russia is the eastern portion of Europe and has clashed with the rest of Europe on multiple occasions.”

Europeans who have invaded Russia lived to regret it—if they were lucky. Russia in turn has sometimes pushed westward. “At other times, passive and ignored, Russia is taken advantage of. But, in due course, others pay for underestimating it.”

The Cold War didn’t settle the Russian question, which is: “Where will its frontiers lie and what will be the relationship between Russia and its neighbors?” In the years since 1989 American actions were “insufficient and unfocused.” They alerted the Russians to “potential danger from the United States and ensured they would respond to it.”

To Russia, “The farther west into Europe its borders extend, the farther conquerors have to travel to reach Moscow. Therefore Russia is always pressing westward,” just as Europe presses eastward.

“Russia had its guts carved out after the collapse of communism. St. Petersburg, its jewel, was about a thousand miles away from NATO troops in 1989. Now it is less than one hundred miles away. In 1989, Moscow was twelve hundred miles from the limits of Russian power. Now it is about two hundred miles.” Russia does not feel it has to “conquer the world,” but that it must “regain and hold its buffers—essentially the boundaries of the old Soviet Union.”

Sweeping demographic changes—a slowly growing or declining population, especially among ethnic Russians—would suggest the mid-2010s were the right time to move. Later might be too late.

Europe now, too, is hungry for energy, and Russia supplies it with natural gas. International energy markets may shift in the future, but for now Europe is dependent on Russia, so that Moscow can use its resources to bend neighbors to its will.

Russia, Mr. Friedman predicted, will take actions that will appear to be aggressive but in fact are defensive. It will focus on recovering influence and control in the former Soviet Union, re-creating the system of buffers it once hand. It will then attempt to create a series of buffers beyond the boundaries of the old Soviet Union. It will also try to prevent anti-Russian coalitions from forming.

“It is only a matter of time before Russian influence will overwhelm Kiev,” Mr. Friedman wrote. The Russians “must dominate Belarus and Ukraine for their basic national security. . . . Ukraine and Belarus are everything to the Russians. If they are to fall into the enemy’s hands—for example, join NATO—Russia would be in mortal danger.” Reabsorbing Belarus and Ukraine “into the Russian sphere of influence is a given in the next five years.”

The flashpoint after that will be the Baltics—Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania—all former parts of the old Soviet Union, all members of NATO. Russia will attempt to neutralize them.

All of this will be not a sudden confrontation but an extended one. The tools the Russians will use will be covert (financing and energizing local Russian minorities), economic (cutting or threatening to cut the flow of natural gas) and military pressure (stationing troops near borders).

At first, Mr. Friedman wrote, the U.S. will underestimate Russia. Then it will be obsessed with Russia.

It will end, he says, with the collapse of Russia.

The extended confrontation will severely strain Russian military and economic power. Internal pressures, poor infrastructure, demographic shifts, and a government consumed by military considerations and distracted from potential domestic advances will have an impact. (Mr. Friedman does not go into this but since we’re speculating, one internal factor could be a grinding discord due to resistance to Putinism among educated Russians grown used to free speech.)

The new era, he says, will end as the old Soviet Union did. “Russia broke in 1917, and again in 1991. And the country’s military will collapse once more shortly after 2020.”