Containment and Diplomacy: How to Handle Revanchist Powers
Andrea Graziosi 14 February 2022

Personally, I’m seriously worried – and here I do not fully agree with professor Motyl – because I don’t think it’s a question of words. I believe Putin to be a dangerous person, he proved this over many times. There are dangerous leaders in the world, they happen, they do exist. Putin’s words may vary constantly on the wolf and the lamb theme, but there is something that I think Putin wants. I think he wants part of Ukraine. I may be wrong, but I believe that in 2014 he was actually defeated to his eyes, in spite of all the words about victory in Crimea. And I believe that to make things even worse, there is a reality behind his paranoia. And the reality is the border problems that also provoked the Yugoslavia crisis. In spite of all the good words and ideals of Helsinki and of the European Union this idea that administrative borders that became national state borders raise no problem, as long as they are borders, is simply wrong. History doesn’t work this way. So I am seriously worried. I think there are reasons to be worried, and I don’t think unfortunately that with declarations and statements, although they’re important and I fully support them, we can solve this.

How comes that so many Europeans adopt the Russian point of view and do not see Ukraine, just as they didn’t see Eastern Europe for a long time? Many of the European problems are in fact derived from this – not seeing each other, the two components of the European Union today. Why don’t we see Ukraine, and now we see Russia? Being a professor, I think part of this is a question of ignorance. At the time of Benedetto Croce, Russia too was not seen; Croce thought Russia to be a peculiar place that strange people got interested into, not a serious affair culturally speaking. This changed of course for Russia, but not for the rest. As a historian, I often have the chance to meet up with serious European intellectuals, who teach in prestigious American and European universities, and they still ask me often if Russian and Ukrainian are after all different languages, if it’s not the same. That is a level of ignorance that really seems to like a joke, but it is the truth.

So I agree with Frank Sysyn that we need to do more to increase knowledge. At the same time, there is of course a problem with our past, and I’m speaking especially of Germany and Italy, because these are the two main problems. Germany, of course, is reluctant to tackle Russia, not just Ukraine. This is by the way why, with but a few exceptions, German contribution to Soviet history has been poor. German historians did not address seriously Soviet history, not even when it touched them. And the reasons are obvious. For instance, there was a German Socialist Republic in the Soviet Union, and there is no good history of it. It’s too hot to handle. An American, Norman Naimark, had to write a book about what happened in 1945. France of course has special relations with Russia since the defeat of 1815, and since they discovered that their problem was Germany and Moscow could help. The good relations are always there. This was true for De Gaulle, but it’s even true for Macron – though Macron of course is much better from this point of view. Russia has been for more than 100 years their reference in Europe.

Then there is of course the problem of all the revisionists in Europe. One should not forget that in Europe, there are plenty of revisionists – the Serbs, the Hungarians. About 20% of Hungarian nationals live beyond the Hungarian border, and Serbia too has a similar problem. So the revisionist position like in the inter-war period has its basis – it’s not a huge one as it was then, but there is a problem of revisionism of the 1991 settlement. I will return to this at the end.

And then there is of course an undeniable complementarity of economic interests. There is the gas, there are the raw materials, there are European needs for export. So the situation in Europe is very fragmented. And the post 1991 development made things worse. Think of Italy. Italy is almost completely pro-Russian by now. Once upon a time, after 1948, the Left was pro-Soviet Union and the right was anti-Russian. After Berlusconi, both the left and the right are substantially pro-Russia, some way or the other, because there have been historical developments. And even in Germany, things have developed in a similar direction, with the exception of Merkel, who knew directly what the Soviet and Russian presence meant in Europe.

Overall, all Europeans, I would say even the United Kingdom, do not understand that Russia and Turkey are different from us, not because they’re different genetically or structurally or forever, but are presently different because they did not go through the 20th century the way we did. They are big powers that still behave as great powers behaved in the pre-1914 world. For Italy, it was impossible to have Albania going someplace without Italy being asked. For Germany, the same applied to Bohemia as it was called then. So great powers had the right to control “small states.” They still think this way. They are in a way revisionist powers, because born out of defeat in World War I, that have never been defeated since. They were the new states that came after the defeat of the Tsarist and the Ottoman empires. They are powers that still reason, if I may use this term, in a non-Wilsonian way. They do not believe in and actually despise this democratic “crap.” So when you deal with them, you are not dealing with people belonging to your planet. And there lies the trick, because Europeans cannot even imagine that Russia, or Turkey, are ready to do things that for us are now unthinkable – though they were fully thinkable only eighty years ago.

I also believe that the Europeans do not perceive that Putin is really a revanchist person that feels that Russia has been humiliated in the 1990s even if this is not true – this being for historians who know history the most dangerous frame of mind for a politician: the belief that there has been a humiliation, the belief this humiliation has to be redressed. And in the face of this, we have this difficulty in accepting reality, in accepting a great power mentality and behavior, but also in accepting the fact that the West, as it existed after 1945, is in deep crisis, if not passing away like all historical objects. This is why I am so worried.

So what is my take at the end of this, not very comforting reflections? First of course, the good words: more culture, more Ukrainian study centers, more explanations, and as prof. Motyl suggested, not to emphasize things. But in political terms, I think that the question can be best faced with two types of action. One is of course, to go back and improve a revised version of containment. With revanchist great powers led by leaders who feel that their country suffered national humiliation, and who look for redress, either you go to war – which is very unlikely, very wrong, and probably also a loss – or you go for containment, as George Kennan said many years ago. A new way of containment, then. Which way? How do we do this, without provoking anything? Certainly, for sure, by helping and arming Ukraine. Second, though I know this may sound as wishful thinking, there should be a way to address the international problems that 1991 and the 1990s left open. These problems should be acknowledged. There are problems in the former Yugoslavia. There are problems in Bosnia. There are problems in Moldavia, in Syria and in Iraq, in the Caucasus. There are problems of borders in Ukraine, all over. These problems should be addressed; they are real problems. Otherwise sooner or later, like always in history, they will find a way to address themselves. So I think some diplomatic initiative to say this problem exists and should be addressed is needed.


Andrea Graziosi is professor of history at the Università di Napoli Federico II.


Cover Photo: Ali Atmaca (Anadolu Agency via AFP).

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