Putin's Crossroads

Many years ago when Russia and Ukraine emerged from beneath the rubble of the Soviet Union, the Western experts were trying to outguess the shape of the future political system of Russia.  Those assessments turned out to be wrong. The only opinion that survived the test of time was the prediction made by Richard Nixon. What the disgraced President had advised the American policymakers to do was to observe what kind of policy the future leaders of Russia would conduct with regard to Ukraine…

The president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, firmly believes that his actions are always correct. At the same time, however, the Russian acquisition of Crimea brought about a rather serious international crisis. So what is the truth behind the dramatic events that shook Russia and Ukraine directly while not leaving the rest of the world indifferent?

Let’s examine at close range President Putin’s explanations, largely supported not only by his powerful propaganda apparatus, but by the majority of Russians as well. In addition to the attitude of the majority of Russians, there is an opinion quite popular around the world. It would be enough to mention in this respect substantial components of the Chinese and Indian media, and the public mood amongst the Christian population of the Balkans.

According to the representatives of a vastly different, but quite a large group, the American bombing of the Serbian capital of Belgrade during the Clinton administration and the proclamation of the independence of Kosovo during President Bush’s mandate violated international law.  This opinion holds that the actions of the United States during the Clinton and Bush administrations violated the same principles that Russia stands accused of breaking today.

Before the seizure of the Crimea, Vladimir Putin had the reputation as one of the most effective leaders in the world. According to a large number of polls, he got the highest ratings for leadership. It would be enough to recall events dating back to the late summer of 2013, when American leadership was contemplating a military action against Syria. It was Vladimir Putin who saved President Obama from a tough decision he was desperately trying to avoid by suggesting the elimination of the Syrian stockpile of chemical weapons. It was due to this demarche that the ratings of President Putin went sky high while the ratings of President Obama went precipitously down.

Currently the president of Russia probably thinks that the acquisition of Crimea has elevated his prestige in Russia. As far as the rest of the world is concerned he is very wrong. If Mr. Putin doesn’t reconsider very carefully his next move, the Ukrainian crisis is about to place him on the first step of a downward slide. Vladimir Putin

Let’s focus first our attention on the analysis of the referendum which according to the President of Russia convinced the world of the legitimacy of his actions.

There is some complexity in this issue which deserves additional clarification.  Beyond a shadow of doubt, the Russian population of Crimea voted enthusiastically to reunite with the country they feel part of.  At the same time however, no one with even a superficial idea about the demography of Crimea will buy Putin’s claim that 95% of the peninsula’s population voted to join Russia. There is a score of rather inconvenient questions for which the pro-Putin propaganda apparatus has no answers.

For instance, how could 95% of the Crimean population have supported the Russian annexation of Crimea, given that 12% of the residents of the region are Tartars who, due to past grievances dating back to the Stalin era, are ferociously opposed to the idea of becoming subjects of Russia? There is another problem as well: How could the Ukrainians who comprise 35% of the Crimean population manage to vote in favor of the Russian occupation of the peninsula?

Not incidentally, the General Assembly of the United Nations refused to recognize the legitimacy of the referendum that on the top of all other irregularities was conducted with lightning speed, without any discussions of possible alternatives.

The president seems not to care. The experts seem to agree that the level of the popularity of Mr. Putin has reached a staggering 71.6%. Even the last Soviet leader, Michael Gorbachev -- who was never particularly fond of the present regime -- expressed his strong support for the Crimea-related moves of Vladimir Putin.

The powerful support President Putin enjoys in Russia conceals the fact that there are prestigious voices of dissent whose message is designed to issue a strong warning about the dangers lurking in the murky waters of international politics. Those voices of protest are trying to warn their compatriots about the danger stemming from the almost unanimous support for the actions of one single individual. 

Boris Yakunin, for instance, who is the most popular writer in Russia today, has already told the Russians that the country is bracing for a sudden and rough awakening in the aftermath of the nationalistic and patriotic delirium. According to Yakuninin, in the long-term (or maybe not so long…) perspective, Russia will face a huge internal crisis that could end up in a revolutionary upheaval having the potential to bury the currently triumphant autocratic regime.

On March 1, the prestigious Russian newspaper Vedomosti published an op-ed entitled “This Has Already Happened.” The author of the rebellious article is one of the most prestigious Russian historians, Andrei Zukov.

His warning one day will be remembered as one of the best proofs for intellectual brilliance and high moral values: “Our politicians are dragging our people into a terrible, horrifying adventure. History tells us we will not be given a free pass. We should not buy this as Germans bought the promises of Goebbels and Hitler.”

A few days later Professor Zubov was fired for “immoral conduct of an employee of a pedagogical institution.” The public outcry forced the leadership of the Moscow Institute of International Relations to reconsider the dismissal of Dr. Zubov.

The fact that a newspaper dared to publish the rebellious article, and that people dared to protest the actions of the government bureaucracy, shows convincingly enough that Putin is not Hitler, and that Russia of 2014 is not Nazi Germany of 1938.

At the same time there is undoubtedly a clear-cut danger stemming from the violation of some of the most important provisions of international law. At the same time however a fact that should not be forgotten is that Russia and its Western rivals are threatened in equal degree by the advancement of radical Islam.  We should not overlook the important fact that Jihadism aims to destroy both countries.

Finally, last but not least, Richard Nixon was right -- the attitude of the Russian politicians with regard to Ukraine can make or break the international order established in the aftermath of the victory over Adolf Hitler and his Reich.

Georgy Gounev teaches International Relations in Southern California.  He is the author of The Dark Side of the Crescent Moon due to be published in late 2014 or early 2015 by Rutgers University publishing house.    

Many years ago when Russia and Ukraine emerged from beneath the rubble of the Soviet Union, the Western experts were trying to outguess the shape of the future political system of Russia.  Those assessments turned out to be wrong. The only opinion that survived the test of time was the prediction made by Richard Nixon. What the disgraced President had advised the American policymakers to do was to observe what kind of policy the future leaders of Russia would conduct with regard to Ukraine…

The president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, firmly believes that his actions are always correct. At the same time, however, the Russian acquisition of Crimea brought about a rather serious international crisis. So what is the truth behind the dramatic events that shook Russia and Ukraine directly while not leaving the rest of the world indifferent?

Let’s examine at close range President Putin’s explanations, largely supported not only by his powerful propaganda apparatus, but by the majority of Russians as well. In addition to the attitude of the majority of Russians, there is an opinion quite popular around the world. It would be enough to mention in this respect substantial components of the Chinese and Indian media, and the public mood amongst the Christian population of the Balkans.

According to the representatives of a vastly different, but quite a large group, the American bombing of the Serbian capital of Belgrade during the Clinton administration and the proclamation of the independence of Kosovo during President Bush’s mandate violated international law.  This opinion holds that the actions of the United States during the Clinton and Bush administrations violated the same principles that Russia stands accused of breaking today.

Before the seizure of the Crimea, Vladimir Putin had the reputation as one of the most effective leaders in the world. According to a large number of polls, he got the highest ratings for leadership. It would be enough to recall events dating back to the late summer of 2013, when American leadership was contemplating a military action against Syria. It was Vladimir Putin who saved President Obama from a tough decision he was desperately trying to avoid by suggesting the elimination of the Syrian stockpile of chemical weapons. It was due to this demarche that the ratings of President Putin went sky high while the ratings of President Obama went precipitously down.

Currently the president of Russia probably thinks that the acquisition of Crimea has elevated his prestige in Russia. As far as the rest of the world is concerned he is very wrong. If Mr. Putin doesn’t reconsider very carefully his next move, the Ukrainian crisis is about to place him on the first step of a downward slide. Vladimir Putin

Let’s focus first our attention on the analysis of the referendum which according to the President of Russia convinced the world of the legitimacy of his actions.

There is some complexity in this issue which deserves additional clarification.  Beyond a shadow of doubt, the Russian population of Crimea voted enthusiastically to reunite with the country they feel part of.  At the same time however, no one with even a superficial idea about the demography of Crimea will buy Putin’s claim that 95% of the peninsula’s population voted to join Russia. There is a score of rather inconvenient questions for which the pro-Putin propaganda apparatus has no answers.

For instance, how could 95% of the Crimean population have supported the Russian annexation of Crimea, given that 12% of the residents of the region are Tartars who, due to past grievances dating back to the Stalin era, are ferociously opposed to the idea of becoming subjects of Russia? There is another problem as well: How could the Ukrainians who comprise 35% of the Crimean population manage to vote in favor of the Russian occupation of the peninsula?

Not incidentally, the General Assembly of the United Nations refused to recognize the legitimacy of the referendum that on the top of all other irregularities was conducted with lightning speed, without any discussions of possible alternatives.

The president seems not to care. The experts seem to agree that the level of the popularity of Mr. Putin has reached a staggering 71.6%. Even the last Soviet leader, Michael Gorbachev -- who was never particularly fond of the present regime -- expressed his strong support for the Crimea-related moves of Vladimir Putin.

The powerful support President Putin enjoys in Russia conceals the fact that there are prestigious voices of dissent whose message is designed to issue a strong warning about the dangers lurking in the murky waters of international politics. Those voices of protest are trying to warn their compatriots about the danger stemming from the almost unanimous support for the actions of one single individual. 

Boris Yakunin, for instance, who is the most popular writer in Russia today, has already told the Russians that the country is bracing for a sudden and rough awakening in the aftermath of the nationalistic and patriotic delirium. According to Yakuninin, in the long-term (or maybe not so long…) perspective, Russia will face a huge internal crisis that could end up in a revolutionary upheaval having the potential to bury the currently triumphant autocratic regime.

On March 1, the prestigious Russian newspaper Vedomosti published an op-ed entitled “This Has Already Happened.” The author of the rebellious article is one of the most prestigious Russian historians, Andrei Zukov.

His warning one day will be remembered as one of the best proofs for intellectual brilliance and high moral values: “Our politicians are dragging our people into a terrible, horrifying adventure. History tells us we will not be given a free pass. We should not buy this as Germans bought the promises of Goebbels and Hitler.”

A few days later Professor Zubov was fired for “immoral conduct of an employee of a pedagogical institution.” The public outcry forced the leadership of the Moscow Institute of International Relations to reconsider the dismissal of Dr. Zubov.

The fact that a newspaper dared to publish the rebellious article, and that people dared to protest the actions of the government bureaucracy, shows convincingly enough that Putin is not Hitler, and that Russia of 2014 is not Nazi Germany of 1938.

At the same time there is undoubtedly a clear-cut danger stemming from the violation of some of the most important provisions of international law. At the same time however a fact that should not be forgotten is that Russia and its Western rivals are threatened in equal degree by the advancement of radical Islam.  We should not overlook the important fact that Jihadism aims to destroy both countries.

Finally, last but not least, Richard Nixon was right -- the attitude of the Russian politicians with regard to Ukraine can make or break the international order established in the aftermath of the victory over Adolf Hitler and his Reich.

Georgy Gounev teaches International Relations in Southern California.  He is the author of The Dark Side of the Crescent Moon due to be published in late 2014 or early 2015 by Rutgers University publishing house.    

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