Back in the 1970s I was part of the Field Trade Craft course for new Case Officers at the Central Intelligence Agency’s principal training facility, located at Camp Peary, near Williamsburg, Virginia. Peary was and still is referred to by one and all as “the Farm,” though it engaged in animal husbandry only in the most basic sense. One of the instructors had part of a poem by Rudyard Kipling displayed on his office door. It read:
The toad beneath the harrow knows
Exactly where each tooth-point goes:
The butterfly upon the road
Preaches contentment to the toad
Some of the students began referring to themselves as “toads” and were expecting the worst from the instructors to bring them into conformity with Agency expectations, while they also identified the instructors as the butterflies who were telling them to shut up and play along if they wished to be certified to go overseas. Everyone knew it was a matter of perception of one’s role or status, with the students resigned to punishment or worse like the toads, while the instructors, whose viewpoints and expectations were quite different, could blithely assure their victims that everything was proceeding just as it should be.
That there will always be toads and butterflies engaged in national security issues is a given, while perceptions of what is important or significant will vary depending on one’s individual life and cultural experiences. Or, to put it another way, one’s basic views are not predetermined and will depend very much on which side of a fence one is standing on.
All of that said, I have recently returned from a three-week trip that included stops in seven countries in Eastern Europe. In preparation for the journey, I arranged for contact with a number of local journalists, politicians and academics in the various countries. Those whom I selected were generally determined by me to be active in the more conservative parties in their respective countries, providing something of a comfort zone for myself given my own inclinations. What I really wanted to know was how the war in Ukraine really was being perceived by both the national elites as well as by the ordinary citizens.
I expected responses that would be in sync with my own views, i.e. that the war was avoidable but had been demanded by both Britain and the US to weaken Russia and its leader Vladimir Putin; that all parties engaged at any level in the conflict should be calling for a cease fire and negotiations to end the fighting; and that Russia has legitimate national security concerns that must be addressed even while one is condemning the use of military force in this instance.
While there were some variations in the responses of my interlocutors, I quickly learned that the war in Ukraine, if not popular, was considered to be a necessary step to limit what was described repeatedly as an allegedly autocratic if not kleptocratic Putin’s desire to recreate the old Soviet Union, using military force as necessary. I energetically disputed that view on two levels: first, the Russia does not have the resources to entertain such an agenda, as the Ukraine fighting has demonstrated, and secondly, that Putin’s often cited comments relating to the “disastrous” dissolution of the Soviet Union clearly refer to the catastrophic looting of Russia’s resources that took place subsequently under Boris Yeltsin. Putin was not referring to a yearning to recreate the Warsaw Pact or anything like that.
Indeed, the anti-Russian sentiment surprised me among people who are, undeniably, on the front line of the conflict and should normally be wary of involvement. Only in Serbia, which has deep historical, cultural and religious ties to Russia, did a leading journalist tell me that his countrymen’s views of the Ukraine conflict are essential divided “fifty-fifty” with half of the nation and even some of its leaders supporting Ukraine’s defense. In other Eastern European countries, the viewpoint was much more decisively pro-Ukrainian. One Czech Republic academic described his country’s leaders as “heros” because they, joined by presidents from Poland and Slovenia, traveled to Kiev when the war started to pledge their personal support for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Several contacts provided a more plausible reason for the tilt towards Ukraine: they wanted to prevent any return to Russian dominance of the region which just might lead to a return to Moscow’s centralized control and a possible adoption of the types of statecraft employed under the communist regimes set up by the Kremlin in the wake of the Second World War. They want to weaken Russia, whatever it takes, so that it can no longer play a dominant role in Eastern Europe and the Balkans.
More to the point, they want hands off the prosperity that they have experienced since the collapse of the Soviet Union slightly more than thirty years ago. Most of the nations in Eastern Europe are now visibly prosperous with expensive restaurants, chic hotels and rows of Italian and French branded shops in the downtown areas. Even when one sees the monstrous Stalinist apartment blocks defiling many urban areas while also witnessing evidence in rural areas of abandoned buildings and bullet holes in facades dating from the troubles in the 1990s, the impression was definitely upscale. I saw more expensive automobiles on my journey than I have ever seen elsewhere, to included the ubiquitous Mercedes and BMWs and also the much more exclusive Maseratis and Lamborghinis as well as a few Bentleys and Rolls Royces. Bucharest, the capital of Romania, has less than 3 million inhabitants who have registered 1.5 million automobiles. And, I noted, that streets and roads throughout the East were better maintained than they are in many parts of Joe Biden’s America.
Bear in mind that many people now living in Eastern Europe have direct and largely unfavorable memories of the economic and social failures dating to the time when Soviet-communist proxies ruled backed up by military interventions (Hungary, Czechoslovakia) when anyone stepped out of line. And the younger generation knows only free markets and relatively free elections and would be even less disposed towards wanting to return to the old ways as described by their parents. All that adds up to concern over a possibly irredentist Russia.
So, it would seem to me that it is fear of a reversion to something like “the specter haunting Europe” communism that appears to be what prevails and has shaped attitudes and perspectives, and communism historically speaking means Russia like it or not. I did indeed argue against judging today’s Russia by a standard of guilt by association with a discarded socio-economic concept, particularly as Russia is certainly at least comparable to most of Eastern Europe in terms of the freedom of elections and other fundamental liberties. And there is also the common bond of the Orthodox religion, which is the majority creed in most states in the region, even if one Slovak intellectual described to me the religiosity of his fellow countrymen as “they are all pagans.”
So, it is reasonable to suggest that some kind of amicable multilateral relationship would be preferred over an arrangement where a neocon driven hostile military alliance is confronting the country with the largest nuclear arsenal in the world. But be that as it may, my trip opened up my eyes to the reality that Eastern Europeans have legitimate concerns over what Russia represents based on historical realities. It is undeniably a factor in how support for increased NATO/western intervention is lining up and, in that context, it should be noted that the Polish, Czech and Slovak governments have been leaders in providing weapons drawn from their own arsenals to the Ukrainians. One has to hope that at a certain point everyone will come to their senses and realize that killing tens of thousands of Ukrainians and Russians has been a pointless exercise that will only delay an inevitable negotiated resolution of the conflict.
Reprinted with permission from Unz Review.