Putin’s expansionist war in Europe
Opinion: The Baltic states of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania see themselves as the front line in an undeclared war by Russia against Europe. Former Asian Soviet republics are getting jittery too
Last February I had a six-hour stopover in the departure section of Moscow’s sparkling new Vnukovo airport international terminal. I was returning from a visit to Siberia, where the only reliable information I could get on the crisis in Ukraine was on the internet. Hoping to read the latest newspapers I looked around for a newsagent among the expensive consumer stores. All I could find was a freesheet on metal stands placed around the terminal. It was the newspaper of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the racist National Front-type politician who rants against the West, advocates the reoccupation of the Baltic states and says Russia should make Kazakhstan its back yard.
I thought how this was a chilling reflection of modern Russia: expensive designer stores, people travelling, but access only to a distorted and dangerous media. Television and news agencies in Russia are now firmly under Kremlin control, just as in the pre-glasnost Soviet Union.
Back then I once asked Vladimir Goncherov, the foreign editor of the official Soviet news agency, Tass, what were his guidelines for reporting the Soviet war in Afghanistan, given the blackout on news of casualties and military funerals. He replied, quoting the Soviet novelist Mikhail Sholokhov: “We write from our hearts and our hearts belong to the party.” Only years later did Moscow admit to 13,000 killed.
Now Russians are engaged in a war in Ukraine and the reporting of casualties is once more taboo. As Valentina Melnikova of the Soldiers’ Mothers Committee said last month: “Mothers receive coffins with their sons, anonymously.” On another trip to the former Soviet Union in the spring – to Riga, the capital of Latvia – I met Russian tourists avidly reading the Russian-language Latvian newspapers for western accounts of events in Ukraine.
I was in Riga for a meeting of the board of ASEF, the Asia-Europe Foundation on which some 50 European and Asian countries are represented. In this forum my Russian colleague chose to align with the Asians rather than the Europeans. Which has a certain logic. President Vladimir Putin is following the Chinese rather than the European model of government. People are free to do what they like – travel, make money, start a business, buy designer clothes – but civil society and opposition are crushed, and the electronic media must peddle state propaganda.
nderstandably nervous Latvian
officials I met on that trip were understandably nervous about events in Ukraine. Putin has positioned himself as the protector of the interests of Russians in the near abroad. Twenty-eight per cent of the Latvian population is ethnic Russian (in Ukraine it is 17 per cent). When Latvians were on the brink of leaving the bankrupt Soviet Union a quarter of a century ago there was a popular anecdote in Moscow about a Russian who said he was moving to Riga because he hoped to wake up abroad. Now Latvian nationals worry about waking up “back in the USSR”.
The Baltic states of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania see themselves as the front line in an undeclared war by Russia against Europe. Former Asian Soviet republics are getting jittery too. Kazakhstan won independence when communism collapsed and, like Latvia and Estonia, about a quarter of its population is Russian. Putin said this week there never had been a country called Kazakhstan and it is purely the product of its current president, Nursultan Nazarbayev.
There is a pattern here. The Kremlin began its conflict with Kiev by ridiculing the statehood of Ukraine, and the crisis was heightened by large-scale Russian military exercises near the border.
This week, as Putin derided Kazakhstan statehood, he ordered military exercises involving 4,000 troops and air power in the Siberian Altai region which borders Kazakhstan. He has called the break-up of the Soviet Union the greatest geopolitical disaster of the last century. He identifies with the destiny of a greater Russia. But his authoritarian model is too menacing for voluntary co-option of his near abroad.
Only Belarus and Kazakhstan accepted his invitation to join a customs union, and Kazakhstan is now threatening to pull out. Putin can achieve his sought-after hegemony over former Soviet republics only by belligerence or war. Resistance is inevitable. Statehood changes people.
An Estonian broadcaster remarked to me once in the dying days of the Soviet Union that the independence Estonia enjoyed between the two world wars “spoiled us forever”. The Ukrainians, the Kazakhs and the peoples of other former Soviet republics now too have been “spoiled forever”. As Nazarbayev said in response to Putin’s dismissal of his country’s legitimacy: “Our independence is our dearest treasure . . . We will never surrender it.” This is the same Nazarbayev who opposed the Soviet Union’s break-up.
Jingoistic commentatorsWhen leafing through Zhirinovsky’s rag in Vnukovo airport it occurred to me how close his extreme outpourings are to those emanating from the mainstream Russian media. On visits to Russian in recent years I have observed with dismay how jingoistic commentators such as Dmitry Kiselyov are given prime time to demonise the West, bash gays and immigrants and rant about anti-Russian conspiracies.
Last year Putin rewarded Kiselyov by making him head of his new official international news agency – a modern-day version of Tass – called Russia Today. Kiselyov still broadcasts his political analyses on Rossiya 1 television network. He says Ukraine is only a virtual concept and a failed state. Recently he boasted that Russia is the only country in the world capable of turning the US into radioactive dust. To paraphrase Sholokhov, he speaks from his heart, and his heart belongs to Putin. It is all very depressing.
A year ago who would have thought that Russian tanks, artillery and anti-aircraft weapons would be engaged in an expansionist war in Europe? With the rhetoric that emanates today from Moscow, who knows what will be happening a year from now?
Conor O’Clery is former Moscow correspondent of The Irish Times and author of Moscow, December 25, 1991, the Last Day of the Soviet Union