Is it that Russia desperately needs to believe in itself, beset as it is by so many intrinsic problems such as substance abuse, demographic implosion, low life expectancy, crumbling infrastructure, or a suicide rate among its young people that's two-and-half times the global average? Is it that ordinary Russians can see so many of their educated countrymen emigrating for good? And so many of their wealthy countrymen investing their wealth, pilfered at home, in property on the Cote d'Azure, Cyprus or London?
Russia is a nation tortured by its history. From the Mongol invasion, Ivan the Terrible, the Times of Troubles, the Black Hundreds, the Okhrana, Lenin, Stalin - Russians have been brutally held down by aggressive forces for centuries. This is a nation whose soul was shaped by serfdom, Siberian exile, by the Gulags, by prison gang hierarchies. And today, Russia's intelligentsia is, to quote author Victor Erofeyev, marginalised, brushed out of the way, made to feel an alien, enemy element.
It's worth noting that when serfdom was abolished in 1861, 38% of Russia's population belonged to their landowner. By comparison, at its high-point just before the Civil War, 14% of the population of the USA were slaves. And it was Russians who enslaved one another, rather than people of another race, captured on another continent. Russia plundered itself the way other countries plundered their overseas empires. Communism then came along, played to the masses, promised them paradise on earth as the inhuman system decimated Russia's intelligentsia and crushed any tradition of independent thought.
After the collapse of communism, rather than embrace tolerance, good-will and openness, Russia carried on along the same trajectory as before. Communism's fall led not to the rise a civil society, but to that of a plundering oligopoly, a kleptocracy of ex-KGB spooks well-versed in the techniques of deception; hungry for wealth as well as power. And the wealth was converted to power, the power back to wealth and so on.
Their Russia remains a deeply suspicious, untrusting nation. Much of the distrust that ordinary Russians bear towards the West stems from the propaganda they've been fed for the past 96 years. Propaganda bought by oligarchs' billions from pliant media owners.
Rule of law, balance of powers, respect for private property, distinction between private and public property, distinction between power and wealth, tolerance, fair play - the founding stones of Anglo-Saxon polity - are all nebulous concepts in the Russian mind. The Anglo-Saxon model is also based on the devolution of power from the individual to the committee, and the notion of checks and balances. And as such it is more accountable, more transparent, more civilised.
Back in the 1990s, when I worked in a multinational publishing corporation, I met the country manager of its Russian operation, who happened also to be professor of printing at a Moscow university. With access to the its presses, paper and ink, he quickly came to dominate a lucrative publishing niche, before selling his business to foreign capital. Speaking to him after many fine French wines, I found myself staring into the dark, dark soul of a man who clearly believed in a hundred and one cranky conspiracy theories, a man who had total disregard for his fellow man, and thought everything meaningless because the world was going to end in seven years time in a cosmic cataclysm and everyone would die.
So how should the West see Russia? How should the West respond to Putin?
The solution to the Prisoner's Dilemma offers a powerful algorithm that sets out how we ought to behave toward our fellow man (or indeed nation) for the optimal outcome.
If our fellow man gets along with us just fine, we should never do anything against him. Co-existing with him in honest cooperation, we will both flourish. Yet what happens when he turns nasty on us? The answer is to punish him - instantly and robustly - and to continue to do so until the moment he asks for mercy, and decides to return to a policy of cooperation. And then cooperate with him, continuing to do so - unless there's a further transgression.
The Prisoner's Dilemma has been played out millions of times in computer simulations, using millions of different responses to 'cooperate' and 'defect'. Which strategy is most effective in this game? The scenario that consistently proves to be most beneficial in the long term is to cooperate with the other fellow until he defects, then defect back on him until he relents, then switch back to 'cooperate' mode.
Quoting from the Wikipedia article linked above, these are the conditions necessary for the strategy to be successful:
The most important condition is that the strategy must be 'nice', that is, it will not defect before its opponent does... A purely selfish strategy will not 'cheat' on its opponent, for purely self-interested reasons first.
However [...] the successful strategy must not be blindly optimistic. It must retaliate. An example of a non-retaliating strategy is Always Cooperate. This is a very bad choice, as 'nasty' strategies will ruthlessly exploit such players*.
Successful strategies must also be forgiving. Though players will retaliate, they will once again fall back to cooperating if the opponent does not continue to defect. This stops long runs of revenge and counter-revenge, maximising points.
The last quality is being non-envious, that is not striving to score more than the opponent.
This strategy worked well for the Western Allies at the end of WWII; West Germany and Japan were created out of two nations that were crushed decidedly; they demonstrated genuine contrition and became close partners of the Western Allies. Note the 'non-envious' quality; within four decades of the ending of the war, Germany and Japan were economically more successful than America or Britain.
The end of the Cold War was rather like the end of WWI. The loser failed to show contrition for its past behaviour (be it invading Belgium or enslaving Central and Eastern Europe). Feeling itself unjustly punished, indeed persecuted, out of a sense of injustice visited upon it, the former loser rebuilt itself as the world's major trouble-maker.
What will heal eventually Russia's tortured soul is a genuine civil society; but this will only emerge after a generation or two has successfully built up and passed on wealth to its children, who will have a stake in preserving it from upheavals - wars or revolutions. Charitable organisations, cultural activities, a vibrant, tolerant, free media; but above all an end to a paranoid vision in which the world's largest nation in terms of land mass feels that it is about to get invaded again.
It is not. NATO leaders realise (even intuitively, if they are unfamiliar with the Prisoner's Dilemma) that 'Nice', 'Forgiving' and 'Non-envious' are the right strategies to deploy towards a non-hostile Russia. They should also realise that 'Retaliating' is the right strategy to deploy towards a belligerent, threatening, bullying Russia.
And Russia, like the educationally challenged classroom bully that, not knowing what to do to find popularity, instead seeks to instill fear into its neighbours, mistaking that with 'respect'.
* Non-retaliating strategies are a bad choice as 'nasty' strategies will ruthlessly exploit those who use them. A lesson for the EU and Barack Obama - being soft on Putin is mathematically, logically, strategically, doomed to failure.
This time last year:
A post from Opole
This time two years ago:
Raise a glass to Powiśle
This time four years ago:
Mud, rain and local elections (Mrs G-W gets a thumbs down)
This time six years ago:
There must be a better way (commuting woes, again)