Just be Thankful We are Not Like Russia!

We can be thankful and pretentiously proud that America would never ever be a boorish bully with its neighbors, the way Russia has been with the Ukraine. Or can we?

The media this past week has treated us to a wonderful, real-time example of international power-politics and the usual, duplicitous response to it.

On the one hand, we have this bear of a bully Russia – led by its Hitleresque Putin – using political, economic and brazen military pressure to exert control over the actions of a weak, but free and independent neighboring country, the Ukraine.

Such a shame! What brutal bullies!

On the other hand, there’s the holier-than-thou attitude of American leaders, who paint Russia’s actions as blatantly illegal, threatening and unacceptable. The very idea that a powerful country such as Russia would act in such a heavy-handed way against its weaker neighbors has triggered expressions of shock and righteous anger on the part of American leaders.Putin

Russia is portrayed as the neighborhood bully who must be brought in tow and punished for its archaic attitude and actions. The Democrats perched on their soapboxes are having a conniption fit over the nefarious Russian deeds, while Republicans bellow and beat their chests in pompous indignation, wasting not one sound-bite to blame Obama for allowing the Russians to act in such a domineering way with impunity. (However, the only suggestion the Republicans have offered to punish Russia and solve the Ukrainian problem has been to repeal Obamacare.)

Thankfully, American leaders can advance this moral and sanctimonious war against Russia’s actions in the Ukraine because America has never and would never stoop to such blatant political and military pressure against a weaker, independent neighbor state. Right?

Let There Be Light

The “crisis” in the Ukraine is the subject of this week’s blog because there are important lessons to learn that can be helpful in our business and career. Lessons like:

We can better deal with an adversary and be successful in negotiations when we take the time to learn and understand the other person’s point of view.

It is disingenuous — even dangerous — to see the world from only our perspective and to herald that view as Absolute Truth.

Another important lesson to learn is that it is ineffective and hypocritical to criticize the actions of others when one has dirty hands. (A lesson learned so well by Governor Eliot Spitzer when he railed against prostitution only to be identified as a high-value customer.)

Let’s examine the Ukrainian crisis from the perspective of learning lessons that will help us be more successful in our business and career.

The first thing to understand is that the “crisis” in the Ukraine is about power politics and how it is practiced – by both Russia and the United States. Russia is basically a land-locked country that throughout history has been surrounded and invaded by its enemies (including the United States in 1918), causing it to become hypersensitive about its territorial self-interests. Russia is obsessed with any perceived external threat to its existence. (The reference here is to Russia, not the Soviet Union, which was a political and economic anomaly.) A victim of invasions throughout its history, Russia is naturally suspicious, perhaps paranoically so, concerning any actions along its boarders.

The Ukraine and Russia share a long, intertwined history. Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, is considered by many historians to be the birthplace of Russia itself. Over the centuries the people of Russia and the Ukraine shared much of the same culture, language and religion, so much so that by the time of the American Revolution, Russia and the Ukraine were seen as one in the same. In 1922, Ukraine and Russia were two of the seven Russian republics that joined to form the Soviet Union.

Crimea, the flashpoint of the current crisis, has a history that extends over 2000 years, but has been considered part of Russia – not the Ukraine – since the 18th century. In 1954, the Soviet Union put Crimea under the “administration” of the Ukraine, but most of its population continued to view themselves as Russian, not Ukrainian citizens. With the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Ukraine became an independent country, with Crimea as a part, but as an “autonomous republic” with closer ties to Moscow than Kiev.

The current crisis really started with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, during the term of the first President Bush and has come to a head under President Obama. After the Cold War, America’s leaders viewed Russia as weak, disoriented and disorganized. The belief was that this situation offered the opportunity to woo the former countries of the Soviet Union – Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Ukraine and others – away from Russia and into the Western camp. The tactics used to achieve this objective were both economic and military, with large aid packages and membership in NATO offered to these countries.

In the arrogant euphoria of winning the Cold War, American leaders failed to look at these actions from the perspective of Russia. If they had, they would have understood that Russian viewed the expansion of NATO in Eastern Europe and its southern flank as an effort to once again encircle Russia with potential enemies that would threaten its very existence. Putting anti-missile systems in Poland and Czechoslovakia (intended to protect Europe and Israel from potential Iranian missiles) was viewed by Russian leaders as a concrete example of this threat to Russia. (After all, how would the U.S. react if Russia were to put missiles in Cuba?)

The efforts to draw the Ukraine into the economic and military sphere of the West by bringing it into NATO, was simply the last straw for Russia. Russia may have been willing to see the former satellite-states of the Soviet Union move toward the West, but the Ukraine – with its history as an integral part of Russia – was just too much for Russia to accept without fighting back. The simple reality is that if you tease and threaten a bear it will lash out in what it sees as self-defense. Western influence in Ukraine was seen by Russia as a direct threat to its security. And you can’t say the West was not warned, because in 2009 Putin issued a very specific warning as to the action Russia would take if the West continued to try to move the Ukraine away from Russia—especially if it became part of NATO.

The point to be made here is that if American leaders had approached these issues with an understanding of Russia’s perspective and fears, this current crisis could have been averted. Economic assistance and economic integration with the Ukraine is one thing, but bringing the Ukraine into NATO is like walking into a bear’s den and poking him in the eye with a stick.

The other problem is that America does not exactly have the credibility of clean hands when it comes to condemning Russia’s exercise of power politics in its sphere of influence.

American leaders mock Russia for using the pretext of “protecting Russian citizens” as justification for invading Crimea, while forgetting that President Polk used the same excuse – Mexicans were “supposedly” crossing into Texas to attack American citizens – to justify the Mexican-American-WarAmerican invasion and occupation of Mexico. The real intent had been to extract the entire Southwest from Mexico so that American expansion could continue unabated. The same pretext of protecting American lives and interests was also used by future American presidents to justify military actions in Guatemala, Costa Rica, Honduras, Nicaragua, Cuba, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Panama and Grenada.

Lest we forget that in 1903 when the United States wanted to build a canal across the Isthmus of Panama, but when Columbia – of which Panama was a part – would not agree to American control of the canal area, the U.S. response was to foment and finance a “rebellion” in Panama to declare its independence. Then we used military force to prevent Columbia from putting down the rebellion. (Soon after which a treaty was “negotiated” with the newly “independent” Panama, giving America complete sovereignty over the “canal zone” for 99 years.)

Examples of how the American government has used economic, clandestine political or military actions against independent, but weaker countries in North and South America, to “protect” American interests or expand its influence is too long to list here. The truth is that, with the possible exception of Canada, there is no country in North or South America that has not been on the receiving end of America acting in its own self-interests; no different than the way Russia, in its sphere of interest, is acting toward the Ukraine and Crimea now. This should not be surprising because that is the way the state-craft of power politics works. But it is beyond hypocrisy for America to claim otherwise and doing so does nothing but make the situation in Ukraine worse.

And the Moral of the Story …

If you were peeved by reading this blog that seems to rationalize and justify Russia’s aggressive action in the Ukraine while criticizing American actions to the point of boarding in being unpatriotic, that is the point. The only way to provide leadership and resolve real problems – in business and statecraft – is to be capable of taking a broad perspective of the issue. It means being able to “get on the other side of the table” to see things from another point of view. Only by taking a broad perspective – in business and statecraft – can we be in a position to reach solutions that are acceptable to all.

When we are locked in to only our point of view and interests and offer those views as the absolute truth, then stalemate rather than success will be the ongoing outcome.

The crisis in the Ukraine teaches us the value of making the effort to understand the perspective and point of view of others; as well as the potential consequences if we don’t make that effort. When it comes to negotiation with another party, the most difficult way to achieve what we want to achieve is to focus only on what we want for ourselves. Successful negotiation is not defined by one party taking all they want, but by both parties walking away feeling they got what they needed. The only way that can be achieved is by understanding the fears, interests and needs of others.

7 responses to “Just be Thankful We are Not Like Russia!

  1. Bob; Good points all. You should talk to a Canadian about the War of 1812 if you think we haven’t messed with the Canadians.

  2. Hmm…why is America all up in European business. Ever heard of Monroe Doctrine? There is so much mess in America…people need their President right now and all he did was throw some bs Affordable Care Act in people’s faces and went back to being nosy in Russian and Ukranian business. Leave them alone. There are hundreds of countries around the world with different cultures. Why does everyone have to have a democracy like America does? Be like Canada haha they are quiet and happy. Period!

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