"Putin's Western fan club" wants to force Eastern Europe into a Russian bearhug

Arguing Eastern Europe should be left under Russia's influence makes liberty a privilege of the powerful and mighty

Published October 21, 2023 6:00AM (EDT)

Russian President Vladimir Putin smiles during a meeting with military personnel of Russian Air Forces Base of Kant at the Ala-Archa State Residence on October 12, 2023, in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. (Contributor/Getty Images)
Russian President Vladimir Putin smiles during a meeting with military personnel of Russian Air Forces Base of Kant at the Ala-Archa State Residence on October 12, 2023, in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. (Contributor/Getty Images)

I was born in a country that weathered two dictatorships and underwent five name changes throughout the 20th century. Our enemies have occupied us. Our allies have as well. We Czechs are imbued with many flaws, but holding illusions about international politics is not among them. 

It’s been merely three decades since we’ve gained the chance to shape our own destiny, to experience what Americans take for granted. Yet, for a certain circle of U.S. elites, it appears centuries of foreign rule still don’t warrant us the luxury of freedom.

It's one thing to read outrageous comments spread by anonymous trolls on social networks. It's quite different to face similar rhetoric from renowned figures like John Mearsheimer, Noam Chomsky, Glenn Greenwald, or Cornel West. One of the biggest names in this group is economist Jeffrey Sachs, who has recently doubled down on his prior assertions that the Russian invasion of Ukraine was provoked by the grave misstep of extending NATO membership to Eastern European countries. If the West had respected Moscow's sphere of influence, goes the narrative, and hadn't welcomed Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, and others into the alliance, Russia would not have felt threatened, and all would have been fine.

For these individuals, small nations are mere accessories to regional powers, deemed unworthy of their own foreign policy and national interests.

These opinions may not reflect mainstream thought. Still, they are treated as an acceptable part of the public discourse. Most Americans probably don't even understand what makes them problematic. In a time when Western colonialism is universally condemned as an era of injustice and exploitation, Eastern colonialism often remains overlooked, ignored, or understated. 

The Czech lands have always been the prize for any apex predator lurking in the neighborhood: Austrians, Germans, and the Soviet Union. Between 1526 and 1990, Czechs enjoyed a mere 22 years of sovereignty. The German and, later, Russian occupations in the 20th century rank among the worst periods of my nation's history. The former was bloodier, the latter, much longer. Both stripped away our freedom, destroyed the lives of our people, and crippled our economy. Both left an indelible scar on my homeland. 

However, despite these similarities, there is one major difference. Each German chancellor who has visited the Czech Republic has apologized for the horrors committed by their country. We've lost count of how many times have German representatives bowed their heads before the victims of their predecessors. They approach us with genuine humility and remorse. 

The Russians, less so. No apologies, no flowers adorning the graves. Former Russian President Boris Yeltsin did, indeed, pen a memorandum in 1993, branding the invasion into Czechoslovakia "unacceptable." However, since Vladimir Putin's rise to power, not a shred of remorse has been heard from the Kremlin. On the contrary, Moscow has time and again proclaimed Eastern Europe as its own backyard.

Trouble is — we don’t like that. Our nations have been exploited, abused, and controlled by Moscow long enough. Colonization at its worst. Living under the shadow of the Iron Curtain has crushed the souls of entire generations. We have had enough. For us, inclusion in NATO isn't a geopolitical game. It's an assurance against reliving the fates of Georgia in 2008, Crimea in 2014, and the rest of Ukraine at present. We want to forge our own destiny. People like Jeffrey Sachs believe we shouldn't have the right to make such a choice.

For these individuals, small nations are mere accessories to regional powers, deemed unworthy of their own foreign policy and national interests. They are meant to be neatly packaged and surrendered to the Russian bear as sacrificial lambs, serving as buffers against the West to make the Kremlin's autocrats feel safe.

Sachs, Mearsheimer, and their ilk contend that present-day Russia is not the Soviet Union. True, it is not. Yet the Soviet Union was fundamentally Russia at its core, with other nations relegated to peripheral roles. And those who argue that Russia wouldn’t like to become the USSR again are simply not paying attention.

Putin has repeatedly declared the Soviet Union's collapse as "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century." Former Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev aptly calls Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia "our Baltic provinces." While a majority of Americans have chosen a president who abolished slavery as their most esteemed historical figure, the favorite of most Russians was a Communist dictator who enslaved and murdered millions of his own people.

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Russia remains an emperor stripped of his empire. The final dissolution of the USSR in 1990 produced a whole lot of winners. Lithuanians, Estonians, Ukrainians, Uzbeks and Moldavians all reveled in their newfound independence. Only the Russians felt like losers, a sentiment from which they have yet to recover. Stalin enjoys greater popularity now than he did during Khrushchev's rule in the 1950s.

Advocates for Russia assert that Putin's latest war is motivated by security. They turn a deaf ear when the Russian leader dismisses Ukraine as a fake nation without a real identity. Putin's supporters at home do listen and understand, because that's what they believe as well. In their view, it is the Russian leaders who should decide the future of Ukraine—and indeed any other nation within their reach.

The root of this problem is not an inherent malevolence within the Russian populace. It’s a mirror reflecting decades of relentless indoctrination from a state-controlled media and education system, both imbued with a level of bias that is inconceivable to most Western minds. As admirable as the courage of Russian citizens opposing the regime is, even the most hopeful liberal in St. Petersburg would admit that their ranks are too thin to make a difference.

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How could anyone with a modicum of reason expect Eastern Europeans to remain under the sway of such a state? True, Americans no longer know how it feels to be occupied; it’s been nearly 250 years since they were last governed by a foreign power. Nonetheless, it's hard to imagine that the U.S. public would tolerate assertions that African or Asian nations should relinquish their autonomy and obediently return to the “sphere of influence” of their erstwhile colonizers. Yet, astonishingly, there is no public outcry when renowned intellectuals propose the same fate for Eastern Europe, as though we are not people but mere pawns on a global chessboard.

Some might argue this is simply realpolitik—pragmatic, unfair, occasionally ruthless. If so, realpolitik is precisely what has engulfed Russia, a once-powerful country whose firmest allies today are Belarus and North Korea. Putin's Western fan club can't have it both ways. We are either talking about realpolitik and pragmatism, which makes NATO’s eastward enlargement perfectly legitimate, or we're in the realm of idealism, where every nation is free to carve its own destiny. To force Eastern Europe into the Russian bearhug makes no sense in any of these scenarios.

The truth is that people like Jeffrey Sachs are, in fact, enemies of freedom. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” These words should be sacred to every true American. Saying that Eastern Europe should have been left under Russia's influence makes liberty a privilege of the powerful and the mighty. What's alarming is the lack of response to their words.

By Josef Bouska

Josef Bouska is a writer and consultant.

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Commentary Nato Politic Russia Vladimir Putin