Putin’s anti-Olympic creed
The Putin era in Russia, now in its 15th year, has given birth to the ongoing diplomatic challenge of reading what’s going on behind the Kremlin leader’s steely eyes.
President George W. Bush famously perceived something trustworthy and sympathetic in President Vladimir Putin in 2001, while former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in his new memoir, recalls seeing “a stone-cold killer.” But there is no doubt what was preoccupying the Russian president during the closing ceremonies in Sochi on Sunday: the upheaval underway 250 miles to the west, the distance to the border between Russia and Ukraine — where Viktor Yanukovich’s government had just been toppled.
The grassroots revolution has yet to be color-coded, and its outcome is far from clear. Thursday, Yanukovich announced from Moscow that he was still president of the country he had fled, and the Russian air force went to combat alert along the Ukrainian border. Early Friday, Ukrainian officials claimed that Russian soldiers had seized two airfields in Crimea and condemned Russia for committing an act of occupation.
Suddenly, the winter games that Putin hosted have given way to his penchant for using armed force in what is beginning to look like a 21st-century version of the Great Game. This is the second time in six years that Putin has exerted Russian hard power to intimidate a neighboring country. In August 2008, Putin punished and weakened the pro-Western government in Tbilisi by sending Russian armored columns into Georgia, ostensibly to protect and ultimately to “liberate” the secessionist enclave of South Ossetia.
The bullying of the Georgian and Ukrainian governments reflects not just Putin’s worldview, motives and methods but those that have predominated for centuries in the country he rules.
According to the Olympic creed, “The most important thing is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle.” Vladimir Lenin believed in the exact opposite. He said all history — and the future — could be summed up in two pronouns, “who/whom,” shorthand for the question, “Who prevails over whom?”
For Lenin and the Soviet regime he founded, international life was indeed a struggle, but the most important thing was, precisely, to triumph. That meant not just winning the gold medal, but ensuring that there were no silvers or bronzes for the losers.
This mentality went back to the czars — and one uniquely acquisitive czarina, Catherine the Great, whose reign from 1762 to 1796 is often regarded as Russia’s golden age. “I have no way to defend my borders,” she is reputed to have said as her armies gobbled up much of Eurasia, “except to extend them.”
Russia was not unique in adopting the principle that the best defense is a good offense. But over the centuries, it felt itself uniquely vulnerable — to Swedes and others from the north, Mongols from the East, Napoleon and Hitler from the West.
The more of Russia’s periphery its rulers could conquer, the fewer — and the farther away from Moscow — their enemies would be. The result was the largest territorial empire in history and the largest state on the planet today.
The Soviets, particularly under Joseph Stalin, embraced their championship of communism as an ideological basis for domination of their neighbors and hostility to other great powers.
Then, a quarter of a century ago, came an exceptional, hopeful, even miraculous period. In the waning days of the Soviet Union and in the first years of post-Soviet Russia, two presidents — Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin — began to break away from the “who/whom” mentality. They realized that their country’s future depended on integration into a globalized world where something like the Olympic notion of creed would replace zero/sum competition. Gorbachev not only introduced the word “partnership” into the vocabulary of U.S.-Soviet relations — he translated it into a policy that Yeltsin continued when he joined the G8 and cooperated with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in bringing peace to the Balkans.
While Gorbachev and Yeltsin became bitter enemies, they will go down in history as a heroic tag team that made it possible to end the Cold War, free the Warsaw Pact member-states from Stalin’s “prison house of nations,” and bring a measure of democracy to the Soviet Union itself, which led to its dissolution into 15 states. Each has a seat in the United Nations and sovereignty under international law.
Of all those amputations from the body of old Soviet Union, Ukraine was, for many Russians, the most painful. I remember Yevgeny Primakov, a Ukrainian-born Soviet — and then Russian — senior official with whom I dealt in the 1990s, telling me that he identified with his native land as though it were a phantom limb. Kievan Rus, a loose assemblage of Slavic tribes in the Middle Ages, was the cradle of Russian civilization. And of all the regions in Ukraine, Crimea was the object of the most resentment and nostalgia in Russia.
In 1954, Nikita Khrushchev transferred Crimea from the Russian Federation to Ukraine as a gift on the 300th anniversary of Ukraine’s absorption into the czarist empire. At the time, it was a symbolic gesture, since Ukraine was, like the rest of the Soviet Union, governed from Moscow. The Crimean port city of Sevastopol was home to the Soviet Baltic fleet. Odessa, Yalta, and other seaside towns were retirement communities for the Soviet military. Hence the heavy concentration of transplanted Russians, as well as Russian-speaking Ukrainians, in Crimea today. But in 1954, virtually nobody anywhere, least of all in the Soviet Union, was predicting the eventual dismemberment of the state — not to mention in less than 40 years.
When the breakup of the Soviet Union occurred the day after Christmas 1991, it came with breathtaking speed, generating at least as much anxiety as euphoria around the world. Only six months earlier, President George H. W. Bush, fearing massive violence and instability, issued a public appeal in Kiev for the restive Ukrainians to give Gorbachev’s reforms a chance and not to declare independence.
“The chicken Kiev speech,” as William Safire of the New York Times called it, antagonized Ukrainian-Americans and other East European immigrant communities and damaged Bush’s re-election campaign the following year.
As it happened, except for some bloodshed in the Baltic States and the North Caucasus, the Soviet republics’ stampede for the exits was remarkably peaceful. That was overwhelmingly because Yeltsin, the president of a Russian Federation shorn of its own ties to the Soviet Union, insisted that the inter-republic borders would become the international borders. Millions of ethnic Russians overnight became citizens of neighboring former Soviet republics. By the same token, many members of other ethnic groups became minorities within Russia.
Messy and controversial as that arrangement was, it spared the fractured Soviet Union the years of mayhem, ethnic cleansing, and civil war that accompanied the dissolution of another multi-ethnic communist state: Yugoslavia.
One of the Clinton administration’s first diplomatic efforts was to broker a deal between the governments in Moscow and Kiev, whereby Ukraine gave up its Soviet-era nuclear weapons and Russia promised to respect the “sovereignty and territorial integrity” of Ukraine.
Putin is, at a minimum, dangerously close to violating that compact less than a week after presiding over what is supposed to be a quadrennial celebration of international good will, friendly competition, and playing by the rules. He seems to believe that Mother Russia has the right and obligation to protect her children in what post-Soviet Russians have called “the near-abroad.” That is a code word for what Putin sees as Russia’s sphere of influence and a no-go zone for NATO and the European Union.
Therein lies a profound irony. Putin, like many of his countrymen, is convinced that the West, institutionalized in NATO and the EU, constitutes a strategic threat to Russia. In fact, the West and the North are the only points of the compass that do not point to danger.
Radical Islamic forces from the South are making deep inroads in Chechnya and other culturally Muslim regions of Russia. The Siberian Far East is a vast expanse of land that is people-poor and resource rich, sharing more than 2,000 miles of border with China, which is people-rich and resource poor. That is a recipe for geopolitical trouble down the road if there ever was one.
But the number one threat to Russia’s sustainability as a unified state is internal: the combination of a demographic time bomb (low birth rates among Slavs and high rates among other ethnic groups), an intractable public health crisis, a failure to modernize its economy, and Putin’s “vertical of power” — a euphemism for authoritarianism — makes efficient, transparent, accountable, and democratic governance impossible.
The more immediate irony, evident in the drama of recent weeks, is that the more Putin tried to strong-arm Ukraine away from the West and back toward a Soviet-like past, the more the Ukrainian protestors hoisted EU flags and pulled down statues of Lenin. When Yanukovich, with evident support from Moscow, resorted to violent tactics against the people-power movement, Ukrainians came together in outrage and opposition — not just to Yanukovich, but to his backer in the Kremlin.
That has now led to a final irony. One key goal of Putin’s foreign policy in recent years has been to prevent Western powers for bringing about regime-change — especially when the regime in question has ties to Moscow. With that imperative in mind, Putin has so far been successful in keeping Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in power in Damascus. Yet last weekend, much closer to home — indeed, in the most precious part of the near-abroad — there was regime-change in Kiev.
It wasn’t caused by Western meddling, as the Russians claim. It was caused by Russia’s own muscling of Ukraine and its support for the escalating brutality in the Maidan.
Just a few weeks ago, there was much commentary in the world press — some of it admiring, some of it woeful — to the effect that Putin is a master diplomat and grand strategist, skating rings around the feckless West. While the events of the last day are still confused, and while the longer-term outcome is anyone’s guess, right now it appears that Putin’s winner-take-all way of dealing with the world will turn him into one of history’s losers.
PHOTO (TOP): Russian President Vladimir Putin at a meeting with Fyodor Andreev, president of Alrosa diamond mining company, at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, February 26, 2014. REUTERS/Mihail Metzel/RIA Novosti/Kremlin
PHOTO (INSERT 1): A poster of Russian President Vladimir Putin reading ” For Motherland, for Russia, for Sovereignty” is seen during a pro-government demonstration in Sochi at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, February 23, 2014. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard
PHOTO (INSERT 2): Catherine the Great by Johann Baptist von Lampi the Elder.. Wikipedia/Commons
PHOTO (INSERT 3):Russian President Vladimir Putin toasts Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev (L) and figure skating coach Tatiana Tarasova (R) with glasses of champagne in the presidential lounge before the 2014 Winter Olympics closing ceremony in Sochi, February 23, 2014. REUTERS/David Goldman/Pool