Today I watched excerpts of Mr. Putin’s speech regarding a recent referendum in the Crimea and his signing a document to reclaim Crimea as part of the Russian Federation. An article in the New York Times read as follows: “Mr. Putin claimed Crimea as part of Russia Tuesday, reversing what he described as an historic mistake made by the Soviet Union 60 years ago and brushing aside international condemnation that would leave Russia isolated for years to come.”
We are now watching a similar Russian agitation taking place in the eastern part of Ukraine. As in Crimea, unidentified paramilitary bands have taken over government installations defying the Ukraine government while many thousands of Russian troops perform maneuvers just across Ukraine’s border. Naturally, Mr. Putin is denying any involvement, yet he says Russia is ready to take action to protect ethnic Russians living in Ukraine. In the meantime the Russian ruble is falling in value, foreign capital is leaving Russia, international investments are halting, the Russian credit rating has been downgraded to just one point above junk status, Russia has been rejected from the G8, US and European sanctions are being applied, and the world is looking on Russia as a pariah state. Does Russian care? Not in the least.
The New York Times got it right. Russia does not care about isolation, in fact it seems to revels in it. For the sake of reclaiming its perceived Motherland, Russia is more than willing to sacrifice it’s relations with the rest of the world, and even the prosperity of its citizenry. It astounds me that the average Russian is willing to accept this. Mr. Putin’s popularity has never been higher. It means nothing that 13 of the 15 countries on the United Nations Security Council voted to condemn Russia. It was only Russia that voted in its own favor. Even China, who usually supports Russia, failed to vote on the side of Russia. Even though the world views Russia’s annexation of the Crimea as illegal, and will no doubt condemn Russia if something similar happens in the eastern part of Ukraine, Russia will not care.
Russia has a very different view of its own self interest.
Growing up during the Cold War and having now visited Russia, watching Mr. Putin and the many delegates all dressed in formal attire, seated in an exquisitely beautiful hall—no doubt in one of the Czar’s palaces—Russia is no longer distant and theoretical, but real and compelling. I even have Russian friends. I have become a Russian watcher of sorts.
Russians are nationalists in a way that no North American can possibly understand, and they are more than willing to pay the price of isolation, world condemnation, and decreased prosperity for the sake of Motherland, which ultimately translates into security. Driving by a park in St. Petersburg on my recent trip, our Russian guide described how millions of Russians had died in the siege of Leningrad, and how this park had been used as a cemetery and crematorium. She recounted how one and a half million people had died in less than 900 days! These are inconceivable numbers, and I clearly heard a deep emotion in my tour guide’s voice and on the faces of my fellow Russian travelers as we passed by. We were passing sacred ground. Since the days of Napoleon Russians have bought their land in blood, and naturally they have an intense need to feel their borders are as deep and secure as possible. As Jews never want to see the Holocaust repeated, so Russia never wants to see itself the victim of invasion from the West again. Russians see the whole of Ukraine as theirs, and if they can get away with it, will take it all at almost any cost. It is their buffer zone and traditional sphere of influence. A North American can never understand the concept of Motherland that absolutely pervades and defines the identity of Russia. Yet as the world moves towards globalization and as nation-states and national borders become less important in a “flattened world” this new reality is a foreign and threatening concept to many Russians.
Yet I still continue to think Russia should be moving towards the European Union and not putting up fences further separating itself from the rest of the world. Increasing relations is the way to prosperity even for a resource economy like Russian. My Russian friends find this view impossible. Given its history it’s going to take Russia decades before it can truly move out of the 19th and 20th centuries.
What is taking place in Ukraine today is turning the world’s clock back. Russia has just breathed new life into NATO, a 20th century relic. States like Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, and Hungary, all formerly within the Soviet orbit, now feel anxiety they could be next. And indeed they may well be. NATO will be their saving grace. Ideally, we should be seeing less NATO, not more of it. Unfortunately, the speech we just heard Mr. Putin give reinvokes the Cold War. NATO is going nowhere soon. No doubt more sanctions will be levied by the United States and Western Europe, and there will be reprisals from Russia. Visas will become more difficult to obtain. Russia will become just a little more unfriendly as you enter, and the life of the average Russian will become even more grim. In spite of this Mr. Putin is enjoying increased popularity. He is defending the Motherland and the honor of Russia.