Dominic Lieven, Russia Against Napoleon: the Battle for Europe, 1807-1814 (2009) is a masterpiece of history. It won the Wolfson Prize for History, and I finished reading it this week. It transforms the understanding of the centrality of Russia to nineteenth century Russia, and indeed the defeat of Napoleon, not only in the retreat from Moscow, but the chase to Paris.
The book is uncannily prescient for today’s world, and indeed the events of this week as the Biden-Putin phone call leads to the effective acceptance by at least one faction of the American Empire that it will not send troops to Ukraine. Russia has more assertively demanded in effect a treaty to end the Cold War legally and to stop the eastward expansion of NATO that America has led since the victor’s ruses of the early 1990s.
To end the century-long Cold War for real America needs to withdraw from Europe, and allow Russia and the rest of Europe to find its true security. The leaders of the Western alliance may do well to read Lieven’s book and his closing reflections on how Alexander I of Russia liberated Europe and defeated the aggressive ideological empire of the day, Napoleon’s France. Alexander’s overriding priority was to end Napoleonic control of Germany. As Lieven writes:
“The basic point was that Alexander was convinced that Russian and European security depended on each other. That is still true today. But perhaps there is some inspiration to be drawn from a story in which the Russian army advancing across Europe in 1813-14 was in most places seen as an army of liberation, whose victories meant escape from Napoleon’s exactions, an end to an era of constant war, and the restoration of European trade and prosperity.”Lieven, Russia against Napoleon, p. 528.
Is it too much to imagine in a not too distant year there is a Treaty of Kiev or Vienna that brings the long unfounded enmity between the Anglo-American world and Russia to an end, closes the Cold War, and restores peace and security to Europe without the fear and arms traders of America?
Mary Sarotte has published a book, Not One Inch: America, Russia and the Making of Post-Cold War Stalemate (2021) that explores the decade of the 1990s and the squandered opportunity to end the Cold War without humiliating Russia. Its title comes from a fateful conversation between American Secretary of State, James Baker, and leader of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev. Baker proposed that the USSR could withdraw from Germany if America and NATO will “not shift one inch eastward from its present position”.
Gorbachev agreed and took the words on trust. Fatefully, the American Empire proved not trustworthy or agreement capable. President George HW Bush told Baker that alas he did want to push ahead, and America’s geo-strategic aggression continued. They welched on the deal, and never put a too-clever negotiator’s words into a legal treaty. No gracious victor there. Sarotte gives a balanced account, using archival documents, but ultimately takes the side of the American imperial republican idealists of the 1990s, from which milieu she came
The consequence, in my view from the outer provinces of the crumbling American Empire, was the great geo-political tragedy that Putin has spent twenty years responding to, and the unresolved Cold War we have today. We cannot have Cold War II with China because we have not yet concluded Cold War with a treaty and a peace with honour.
Not much poetry, and much history and geopolitics this week. In reading the Cambridge History of Russia: Volume 3 The Twentieth Century I came across an illuminating discussion of the debate on totalitarianism. There Barrington Moore Jr is quoted on his assessment of the Utopian goals and totalitarian methods of the Soviet state. He said “the means have swallowed up and distorted the original ends”.
The same could be said of the public health utopian response to COVID.
Image Credit: James Baker and Mikhail Gorbachev, The Baker Institute