The Gift of Empathy

Have the U.S. public and media adopted, with insufficient evidence, a demonization of Putin? It's easy to do. Russia is the core of the former USSR, our Cold War enemy, and Putin, in his earlier career, was an intelligence operative. True, so was George Bush (the father) as director of the CIA, and true, the communist empire underwent a vast change under Gorbachev. But the demonization of Putin happened and is happening. Almost everybody I talk with is just sure that Putin is uniquely evil. Asked for evidence apart from official leaks, they look startled and respond that, as Leonard Cohen put it, "everybody knows." Especially if one hopes to overpower a foreign leader it is wise to see the world from his or her point of view, rather than only from our side. Of course this requires disentangling the practice of empathy from acceptance of propaganda, but that also applies, alas, to one's own leaders. The widespread and almost automatic demonization of Putin has been debunked by several analysts, including, for example, a writer for the American Herald Tribune, a former reporter for the A.P., and a retired Princeton & NYU professor of Russian studies. The latest person to challenge this demonization is Marcus Papadopoulos, editor of Politics First, a British British "nonpartisan" magazine. He spoke recently in the House of Lords. "The deterioration in relations between the United States and Russia is, in my estimation, the most dangerous reality facing the world at this moment," he began, and then described nature of the relations as it must look from the other side. "When a country is sidelined, has its views and concerns discarded, has its national security threatened, and observes its allies in the world being undermined and/or militarily attacked, sooner or later that country is going to respond." In his view, "the concept of national security resonates in a profoundly different way with a Russian [than] it does with an American or a Briton. Over a period of approximately 300 years, Russia was invaded by foreign armies on five occasions - and all five invasions came through Russian's western borders. In 1605, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth invaded; in 1708, Sweden invaded; in 1812, France invaded; in 1918, Imperial Germany invaded; and in 1941, Nazi Germany invaded. In contrast, the U.S. has not suffered invasion since the war of 1812. In any case, the U.S. has never had 27 million killed, as he says the USSR did during the second world war, or more than four times the ghastly holocaust of European Jews. Papadopoulos referred not only to Soviet deaths in the war, but also to the collapse of the USSR in 1992. "A meltdown," he called it. "The fabric of Russian society was torn to shreds. Russia had gone, overnight, from being a superpower to a country barely able to stand on its own two feet. For the US, which is the leader of the western world and of NATO, the Russian decline provided a golden opportunity to achieve American global hegemony." Referring to the Pentagon's Defense Planning Guidance of 1992, widely known as the Wolfowitz doctrine, the speaker quoted the key passage: "Our first objective," declared the Pentagon, "is to prevent the re-emergence of a new rival, either on the territory of the former Soviet Union or elsewhere, that poses a threat on the order of that posed formerly by the Soviet Union... We must maintain the mechanism for deterring potential competitors from even aspiring to a larger regional or global role." Soon, NATO was advancing eastward, into the former client states and some provinces of the USSR, including Ukraine, despite an oral promise made to Gorbachev that the western alliance would not move one inch toward the Russian border. "American and British politicians rarely, if at all, consider how they would respond if a Russian-led military alliance was on their borders; for example, in Mexico, Canada or France." Of course NATO views itself as a defensive organization, said Papadopoulos. This writer recalls a conference of security intellectuals in Berlin reviewing the familiar nightmare of eastern bloc troops racing across the Fulda gap. However, times change. Papadopoulos reminded his audience in the House of Lords that "in 1994 and 1995, NATO attacked the Bosnian Serbs, Russia's allies; in 1999, NATO bombed Serbia, a historic Russian ally; in 2003, NATO spearheaded the invasion of Iraq, who Russia had close relations with; in 2011, NATO intervened in Libya, which was Russia's eyes and ears in North Africa; and from 2011 to the present, the US, UK and France - all NATO members, of course - are attempting to overthrow the Syrian Government, which is Russia's eyes and ears in the Middle East." One does not have to agree with Russia in order to go through the exercise of seeing events as if from its side. Papadopoulos continued: "In late 2001, the US withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, a cornerstone agreement for reducing tension between the US and Russia. The American withdrawal led to the formation by Washington of the Missile Defense Agency, which this year activated a missile defense shield in Eastern Europe..." NATO claims these missiles are to shoot down Iranian missiles launched toward Europe. However, because of U.S. diplomacy, Iran does not have nuclear missiles. Moscow may assume these bases are actually aiming at retaliatory Russian weapons that would be fired by Moscow. How would the US react, Papadopoulos asks, to "a Russian missile defense system in, say, Mexico or Canada? We all know how the Americans responded to the deployment of Soviet ICBMs to Cuba." In 1962 Khrushchev sent not only intercontinental ballistic missiles to Cuba, but also tactical nukes to repel a possible naval invasion by its neighbor to the north. In response, Kennedy's reaction was to deliver a televised talk, impose a "quarantine," and through his brother propose a deal, part of which was secret. The next June, about eight months later, he delivered a commencement address called "A Strategy of Peace." In this talk he imagined the war against Hitler as the Soviets must have experienced it. If a similar invasion had happened to us, JFK said, the country would have been occupied up to Chicago and much of the industrial base destroyed. When I visited Moscow in 1986 as a "citizen diplomat," people there still talked about that speech. In his exercise of empathy, Papadopoulos concluded that "Russia has a right to be heard on the international stage, to not be encircled, to not have a missile defense shield on its borders and to not have its allies in the world [such as Syria] targeted." He asked, "Did the Americans believe that Russia would countenance their country being encircled and weakened? How on earth were the Russians supposed to respond? Empathy was, and remains, absent in many American and British politicians."