Unpacking Putin's Crimea Speech
President Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin speech on March 18th laid down a broad array of challenging markers to Russia’s ‘near abroad.’ He skillfully advocated a Russian position, neatly twisted the logic of Kosovo, integrated ‘liberal interventionist’ language, and signaled that Russia is not done reconsidering its borders and relations.
A salient theme is the Soviet Union’s disintegration, and that “Russia was plundered.” He claims he worked to accommodate Ukraine, hoping that Ukraine would allow ethnic Russians to live in a “civilized state that would protect their rights.”
Putin starts by stating that the referendum was “held in full compliance with democratic procedures and international norms.” No outside observers were allowed, but the footage of armed personnel and transparent ballot boxes loses something in translation for ‘transparent process.’ He notes that Crimea is the Black Sea Fleet’s homeport -- but it is Sevastopol because of an agreement with Ukraine; otherwise, it would be in Noworossiysk. He blames the ‘transfer’ of Crimea to Ukraine on Khrushchev as a “personal decision,” and that it is “for historians to figure out.”
Putin appeals to U.S. citizens to support this “freedom… to choose their fate.” He mentions “people” 51 times (in a Russian, Crimean or Ukrainian context), the will of the people, and what Russia will do, and that what has transpired is solidarity between the Crimean and Russian peoples, a different use of the word than the Polish “Solidarity.” He expands that “Kiev is the mother of Russian cities… and we cannot live without each other,” concluding that in Russia “the people are the ultimate source of all authority.”
Putin believes that Germany runs Europe, especially with the strength of Germany’s economy, and the U.S. allegedly rebalancing to Asia. Putin is informed by his German experiences and the Nord Stream pipeline that delivers energy directly to Germany. Germany has a complex memory of Russia, with many politicians who grew up in East Germany (including Angela Merkel). Putin is attempting the policy of Gorbachev’s USSR, to decouple Germany from Europe, and freeze them into strategic hesitancy, allowing Russia to create a new norm in Russia’s ‘near abroad.’ His closes that he expects “Germany will support Russia’s aspiration to restore unity.”
Putin, a new president during NATO’s ALLIED FORCE to forcefully end Serbian ethnic cleansing of Kosovo, recalls this example in international norms. He castigates the U.S., and asks if it was okay for Kosovo, why not for Crimea? It is a disingenuous argument, as there were no Ukrainian forces committing the organized depredations of Crimea as the Serbs were in Kosovo, but one that he continues with U.S. actions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. His arguments for protection of ethnic Russians in Crimea have overtones of Responsibility to Protect (R2P), turning a liberal interventionist concept into a justification from Kosovo to Crimea.
“Everything in Crimea speaks of our shared history and pride.” Putin calls Orthodoxy a cornerstone that “unites the peoples of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus,” and emphasizes the Russian language as another basis for cultural unity. “In people’s hearts and minds, Crimea has always been an inseparable part of Russia” (Tolstoy said the same). He claims that “attempts were made to deprive Russians of their historical memory, even of their language, to subject them to forced assimilation.” After Russian actions doing exactly that to Poland, and Soviet actions in Ukraine, it is a rich argument -- and with little factual basis; yet he returns to this theme frequently.
Putin cautions further NATO expansion “would have meant NATO’s navy… here in this city of Russia’s military glory (although Russia lost the Crimean War) and this would create… a perfectly real threat to the whole of southern Russia.” Further, “we are against having a military alliance making itself at home right in our… historic territory.” He cites the U.S.-led Ballistic Missile Defense as a threat, although the rocket science of the original BMD construct would have protected western Russia and Europe from Iranian missiles while being simultaneously incapable of intercepting outbound Russian missiles.
Putin I and Putin II focused on restructuring Russia’s domestic affairs; Putin III is focused on redressing the perceived wrongs from after the USSR “fell apart.” Russia needs to “continue… this kind of consolidation to resolve the tasks our country faces.” Russia considers U.S. and European “statements irresponsible and clearly aggressive,” and refuses to accept three centuries of “infamous containment,” and that “Russia will have to make a difficult decision now, taking into account various external and external considerations.” Read carefully, it is apparent that this is not about Crimea -- this is about Russia reclaiming what it sees as its rightful sphere of influence from the Baltic and the Balkans to Lake Baikal and beyond.