Aesop's Russian Fable
Russia's aggression toward Ukraine embodies Aesop's fable about the dog with the bone. Possessing much, Russia only sees what it perceives it lacks. Yet what it really lacks is not the vast domain of the former USSR, but a free market and free society - the absence of which doomed the former Soviet Union and now threatens to condemn Russia.
In Aesop's fable, a dog carrying a bone encounters its own reflection in a body of water. Thinking its reflection to be another dog, it attempts to seize the reflection's bone. But when the dog opens its mouth to do so, its own bone drops into the water and sinks away.
Instead of two bones, the dog is left missing the one it once held. The tale is a lesson of greed and envy - and the inability to appreciate what one already possesses. It is a tale Russia should take to heart.
Russia's designs on Ukraine are moving from power play to morality play. However, the lesson of the play long ago became one of destruction. Worse still, it threatens to spread that destruction far beyond the participants directly involved.
Russia is a nation with a highly educated population. It is a country of immense size and commensurate potential. The value of its natural resources is not even fully known, let alone developed. Foremost among them are vast energy reserves, which leave Russia dependent on no one while others depend on it in this critical area.
Moreover, Russia is perfectly situated to exploit these advantages. It connects the developed European economy with the rapidly growing Asian one - to its west is Europe; to its east, the United States; and to its south, China.
Yet among all these advantages, there is one glaring disadvantage it seems unable to overcome: its communist legacy. While Russia has the resources needed for economic development, it lacks the experience with the critical tools - a free market and free society - necessary to realize their full potential.
While it is tempting to blame the absence of these tools solely on the legacy of the Soviet Union, their absence predates that - in fact, it made Russia easy pickings for the communist ideology that held the country in thrall for three generations. Stunted in its economic and societal development as a result, Russia emerged from its communist slumber as though from a time capsule - decades behind the developed world materially, but even more so in its developmental fundamentals.
The Soviet Union attempted to use state power to compensate for what it lacked in economic development. The outcome was a people that eschewed a free market and free society, and relied on arbitrary state power to achieve what development it attained.
This is the legacy the Soviet Union bequeathed to Russia. It is not surprising then that Russia's reaction to what it perceives it lacks is to reach for state power to compensate for those shortcomings - even beyond its own borders.
Russia has within itself the material resources it needs for economic development - it does not need more land, people, or resources. It has everything already, except that which it most needs.
When Reagan challenged Gorbachev to "tear down this wall," the world saw the challenge as one of letting out the people trapped behind it. But that was only half the challenge. The other half was to let in Western ideals of free markets and a free society. That still has not fully happened.
In the Russian version of Aesop's fable, Russia is the dog and its economy - with all its material potential - the bone. However, instead of realizing what it holds, it sees a reflection of the old Soviet Union staring back at it. Russia is intent on taking back what the USSR once held. In the process, it is letting slip its own economy and potential.
The problem for the rest of the world is that, unlike Aesop's fable - where the dog alone suffered for its greed - Russia's version extends the suffering far afield. Obviously, Ukraine is first. Beyond that lies an economically struggling Europe, and farther still, a fragile global economy.
The real developmental tools Russia lacks are driving it to act. Ironically, it is also their absence that drives others - notably Ukraine - away from Russia. If Russia had the attributes of a free market and free society, Ukraine, along with other nations, would be seeking closer ties to it - not seeking separation at all costs.
The shadow of communism - or more accurately, the absence of capitalism - continues to enshroud Russia. And by virtue of this, it casts a dark cloud over Europe and the world. As Marx once observed, "a specter is haunting Europe." Indeed it is, and it is the legacy of capitalism's absence.