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One heck of a speech in Russia                                                                                     Print this essay

Posted at: Mar/30/2014 : Posted by: mel

Related Category: Politics & Gov, World Watching,

Vladimir Putin's made a rousing address before Russian parliamentarians and officials a couple of days ago (March 18, 2014). The speech was in response to the fall of the Ukrainian government and the prompt annexation of the Crimean Peninsula by Russia under Putin’s leadership. Reading the translation of Putin’s speech, one could easily be lulled into the notion that the Russian people have been victims of unwarranted aggression by other countries for over 300 years. He went on to assure his parliament that all Russia did was come to the aid of ethnic Russians during a time of chaos and turmoil. While the gist of Putin’s rationalizations are no surprise, his willingness to publicly rewrite history in such a hyper-nationalistic way in our age of mass information is both novel and alarming.

No one who watches international events should have been surprised by Putin’s recent announcement of Russia's annexation of Crimea. The interesting part was his distorted view of Russian history. His proclamation possessed both a bizarre kind of aggrieved rationalization and simultaneously an aggressive hyper-nationalism as the new and improved official Russian ideology. In discussing Ukraine, however, Putin seemed to go out of his way to suggest he had no aggressive intentions and was not planning to divide the rest of the country despite his military being massed along the border of strategic Ukrainian states.

Listening to Putin, one could easily forget that Russia is and for many centuries has been the largest country in the world and that it acquired its territories by imperialist expansion often accompanied by genocide and ethnic cleansing. Instead, Putin prefers to see Russia as having been permanently on the defensive, a victim of both Western and Communist plots: "In a word, we have all the reasons to believe that the notorious policy of containing Russia, which was pursued in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, is continuing to this day….They are constantly trying to drive us into some corner, because we have an independent position, because we defend it, and because we call things by their names and are not hypocrites," he said.

Putin went on to say that after the Russian Revolution of 1917, it was the turn of the Bolsheviks to oppress Russia. Rewriting history is not that uncommon, but conveniently ignoring that the majority of Bolsheviks were Russian and that the party Lenin founded was institutionally Russian as well seems to be very selective memory. Listening to his words, one could easily be convinced that Bolsheviks and Lenin’s party were some outside force trying to manipulate and take advantage of ethnic Russians.

Putin says: "The Bolsheviks, for a number of reasons -- may God judge them -- added large sections of the historical South of Russia to the Republic of Ukraine. This was done with no consideration for the ethnic makeup of the population, and today these areas form the southeast of Ukraine. Then, in 1954, a decision was made to transfer Crimean Region to Ukraine. ... What matters now is that this decision was made in clear violation of the constitutional norms that were in place even then."

Once again, Putin's historical myopia is breathtaking: Nikita Khrushchev's decision to grant Crimea to Ukraine was as constitutional as anything a Soviet Communist leader did in the entire period of the USSR's existence. The Soviet Union seldom considered the legality of their actions, often following expansion with systemic violation of human and civil rights in an effort to quash potential dissent. If Khrushchev was wrong, then that's only because the USSR was wrong and should never have been created in the first place. By western standards it would be difficult to presume that the USSR made any territorial decisions based on being ethically right, subverting a moral wrong or protecting human welfare.

Clearly, Russian imperialism is missing from this narrative. Russia conquered the Crimean Tatar khanate in 1783; afterwards they forced the Tatars out of the ancestral homeland and quickly replaced them with settlers from Russia. Tens of thousands of Tatars were killed and nearly two-thirds were forced to leave the Crimea. In 1944, Stalin completed the ethnic cleansing by expelling the remaining 200K Tatar’s, mostly to Uzbekistan with nearly half dying along the way and encouraging more ethnic Russian settlers.

Obviously, for Putin it is important to explain why Crimea matters to Russia: "The graves of Russian soldiers whose bravery brought Crimea into the Russian empire are also in Crimea. This is also Sevastopol -- a legendary city with an outstanding history, a fortress that serves as the birthplace of Russia's Black Sea Fleet ... symbolizing Russian military glory and outstanding valor." What of the Crimean Tatars? Putin said: "True, there was a time when Crimean Tatars were treated unfairly, just as a number of other peoples in the USSR. There is only one thing I can say here: Millions of people of various ethnicities suffered during those repressions, and primarily Russians."

Despite all this victimization, Putin's speech loudly announced that Russia is back: It's mad as hell and it won't take being humiliated anymore. This Russia, the new Russia, is both victim and bully:
"Today it is imperative to end the hysterics and to renounce the rhetoric of the 'Cold War,' and to recognize an obvious thing: Russia is an independent and active participant in international life, and it has, like other countries, its national interests, which must be acknowledged and respected." This is followed by the warm and fuzzy Putin: "I appeal to the people of Ukraine. I sincerely want you to understand us: Under no conditions do we wish to bring you harm, to insult your national feelings. We have always respected the territorial integrity of the Ukrainian state. ...Don't believe those who terrify you with Russia, who shout that other regions will follow Crimea. ... We want Ukraine to be a strong, sovereign and self-sufficient state. ... We want peace and amity to come to the land of Ukraine, and together with other countries we are ready to provide full cooperation and support to that end. But I repeat: Only the citizens of Ukraine are able to bring order to their own home."

Are these words sincere, or is the speech a smoke screen for further aggression? Regardless of what many analysts will say, no one really knows. Others before Putin including Stalin, Khrushchev and Hitler have gone on record as having nothing but peaceful intentions toward their neighbors, and then rationalize another aggressive and expansive move. Specific to Hitler, it is useful to read his 1938 speech to the Reichstag on the seizure of the Sudetenland which was filled with references to protecting German-speaking expatriates and rationalizing the new German nationalism and its right to expansion.

Putin went on to speak of the indignities the Russian people were forced to endure at the hands of America at the end of the Cold War and warned that Russia would retaliate against Western sanctions. Putin’s audience was moved to tears as he stirred the sleeping giant of Great Russian Nationalism. When Putin was a child the USSR was a superpower. His country helped defeat the Nazis in a war where Russia bore most of the civilian casualties. Emerging from WWII, the Soviets controlled all of Eastern Europe, launched the first satellite and put the first man in space. Clearly, for Putin the fall of the Soviet Union was a great tragedy that he would like to reverse.
In the 1990’s, Putin wrote his doctoral dissertation laying out his plan for Russia to reclaim its greatness by consolidating and exporting its oil and natural gas resources. For the last 15 years he has been following his published plan to the letter, rebuilding Russia’s political, economic and military power. It is also not unreasonable to believe that he sees himself as having almost single-handedly restored Russian power and dignity. The Sochi Olympics and his casual meeting with American athletes in their dorm only serve to reinforce this theme. The final piece of the plan is for Russia to reclaim lands lost at the end of the Cold War, either by annexing, or by merely having political dominion over them.

Putin has enjoyed a few lucky breaks along the way that have accelerated his plan. It is doubtful that he could have foreseen America’s decade long preoccupation with 2 unsuccessful wars in the Middle East. He also would not have been able to predict Europe’s recent economic distress, which left the region reluctant to take strong measures against Russia. Clearly, on the international stage, Putin has out played President Obama with nearly every hand dealt. It would be interesting to speculate how different things would be in Eastern Europe of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher or Richard Nixon was still in office.

The remaining chapters of the dissertation focus on reclaiming the various Baltic States including Estonia, Latvia, Georgia and Lithuania along with Moldova. These are countries rich in agriculture which a new Russian empire would need. While NATO is a player in some of these countries, it is difficult to say if the Article-V mutual defense clause would actually be implemented in action, rather than just words.

For the sake of historical reference, the Budapest Accord should be mentioned. This was an agreement signed by the Russian Federation and other nuclear powers in 1994 agreeing to respect Ukrainian independence and sovereignty in exchanged for the Ukraine surrendering the nuclear weapons it possessed as a result of the fall of the Soviet Union. As a result of the accord, Ukraine gave up the world’s third largest nuclear weapons stockpile.

Some of the credit for the debacle in Ukraine needs to fall on Victor Yanukovych, their ousted President. While not always the best of friends, Yanukovych and Putin clearly supported each other, especially in arranging trade agreements for natural gas and the exclusion of membership in the European Union (EU) despite this path being supported by the Ukrainian parliament. With his ouster, the people of the Ukraine have had an opportunity to tour Yanukovych’s residence and see the opulent lifestyle he enjoyed while his country faced bailouts and fuel rationing for winter heating. When he ultimately fled to Russia, his personal wealth was estimated at $12.5 billion by Fortune Magazine. This accumulation of wealth while others suffered created a climate ripe for protest and radical change.

To this point, Putin has played his cards like a master, being one step ahead of all who might protest his actions. The weakness to Putin’s position is Russia’s own economy. As Russia emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union, a small circle of Russian’s accumulated great wealth and power consolidating their hold on Russian exports and trade. These oligarchs’ are effectively the new ruling class in Russia. As long as their wealth and power is not at risk, they continue to support Putin who has gone out of his way to create situations beneficial to them. If western sanctions continue to target the stuffets of this small circle of individuals, Putin’s circle of internal Russian support will falter.

Much of Eastern and Western Europe have become dependent on cheap oil and gas exports from Russia for approximately one-third of their energy. With no alternative energy source easily available, it is doubtful that anything serious can be done to reverse the Russian annexation of Crimea.

History is about learning cause, effect, and repeating patterns of behavior. It is doubtful that Putin is destine to start “Cold War II,” but he clearly has a personal vision for what represents Russian greatness. Rebuilding the military, the economy, and acquiring strategic ports along with adjoining states are all part of this grand scheme. Just like others before him, he knows how to give a rousing speech that rewrites history and touts nationalism along with reclaimed greatness. The concern for all of Europe is how far he will go to turn his words into reality.

Clearly the truth has no place when a good lie will do….

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