29 May 2023
I grew up during the Cold War and, as a teenager, I spent many a night grappling with the thought that a third World War was a real possibility. This is one reason why, right after the collapse of the Soviet Union, I rushed to Moscow to try and help the new Russia to cope with its economic transition from central planning to markets. I was driven by the desire to do whatever I could to make sure that the new Russia would be a friendly nation. I shared the then-widely held view that an economically integrated and well-to-do Russia would be a peaceful neighbour.
Once in Moscow, with funding from the European Commission, I worked with a number of ministers and their economic collaborators. I found them eager to learn ‘Western economics’, which they initially understood poorly, and determined to do the ‘right thing’. It was exciting. Then, it turned bad. I could see corruption taking hold at all levels. I witnessed the emergence of the oligarchs, I noticed that many ministers were increasingly wearing expensive clothes and less interested in seeking advice. Being a foreigner started to close doors. Economic mistakes proliferated, despite warnings. Having concluded that a public debt crisis was becoming unavoidable, I quit and stopped travelling to Moscow a few months before it happened. It left me with a deep feeling of failure. It was not my own failure, of course, but the fear that a historical opportunity was being squandered.
Still, I was hopeful. People were free to express their views and so were the media. Open political debates were raging in a country that had never experienced democracy before. Elections were contested and reasonably free and fair. A market-driven economic infrastructure had fully replaced the Soviet system. The New Economic School, financed by George Soros’ Open Society Foundation, was training bright students as effectively as top departments in the West. Much more had to be done but, even though corruption was taking its toll, Russia seemed poised to grow. The big issue, I thought, was whether it would move from its reliance on extractive industries to a diversified economy. It did not. The oligarchs, whose wealth was mostly based on primary commodities, cemented their control. Then came Putin. Although he continued to rely primarily on liberal – in the European sense – reformers to conduct fiscal and monetary policies, he turned back from liberalism in all other domains. Gradually, all freedoms have been eroded. There are no independent media anymore. Justice has been perverted. My Russian friends now tell me that they have rediscovered the old Soviet times habit of only sharing views with very close friends.
Then came 24 February 2022. The failure is complete. My old nightmares are back.
I had travelled a few times to Kyiv in the late 1990s. It was depressing. Most of the people – officials, politicians, academics – that I met there looked exactly like the old apparatchiks that I had seen in Moscow. They did not seem to have learned much since the end of the Soviet Union.
Their economic discourse was still dominated by Soviet-era considerations. Corruption had taken hold there as well. Ukraine looked like a lost cause. After my last visit, the Orange Revolution greatly surprised me. It suggested that a new generation was pushing aside the people that I had met. Although the Orange Revolution failed, a decade later, the Maidan Revolution eventually dismissed the old-timers, but corruption survived. Russia responded by invading Crimea and parts of the Donbas. This left me confused. I could see that Putin was sending an unsubtle message to the new generation of Ukrainian leaders. Even though it revealed a degree of cynicism that went far beyond the already considerable level that he had displayed, I did not realise how much he shared with his Soviet predecessors a lack of concern for human lives, including those of his fellow countrymen.
On 24 February 2022, I thought that the special military operation would restore the old order in a matter of days and reintegrate Ukraine into the Russian empire. That is when a miracle occurred. The Russian army proved to be inept and cruel, which should not have come as a surprise. The surprise, to me, was that the Ukrainian army had changed after Maidan (and Crimea) and that its citizens were no longer willing to let Russia be the tough big brother.
Is this miracle reviving old hopes? My own hope is that a profoundly chastised Russia will give up on its dreams of imperial power and its enthusiasm for strong leaders. It is tempting to draw a similarity with Germany’s imperial military period, which extends far in the past, long before the Nazis (at times when there were other countries competing for supremacy). As in today’s Russia, a paranoid fear of neighbours and a cult of strong men coexisted with sophisticated elites. Today, Germany is arguably one of the world’s most pacifist countries, to the point of irritating its partners in support of Ukraine. In many ways, this is the result of a complete military defeat combined with the postwar effort to change the old historical narrative.
Here again, things become personal. During all my childhood, I have heard my Polish Jew parents express deep gratitude for the Red Army that freed them from the Nazis, which is another reason why I rushed to Moscow to try and help out. Now I praise Germany’s pacifism and wish that Ukraine destroys the Red Army. Historians like to remind us that old traditions are perpetuated through generations, which makes me wonder whether that is really what I wish. Without doubt, these days Germany is not a threatening dictatorship, Russia is not liberating anyone anywhere, and Ukraine is undergoing a deep transformation.
Ukraine currently is the only hope of solving the ‘Russian problem’ as it fights for its survival as a nation. Unless Russia is defeated, the Russian problem will remain a major threat. But what does defeat for Russia mean? Something bad enough that it will abandon its sick vision of its role in the world and its readiness to aggress those who disagree, at home and abroad. Hopefully, whatever the Ukrainians decide is a Russian defeat will suffice, and I do not want to think what will happen if it does not suffice. Meanwhile, Ukraine fights for us. Our support must be total, not just because we want to be helpful to brave people subject to cruel violence, but also because we are the eventual target.