Leading article

Vladimir Putin knows what he stands for. Do we?

The Russian leader's speeches set out a clear expansionist agenda. It needs answering

19 April 2014

9:00 AM

19 April 2014

9:00 AM

Possibly because his oratory is no match for his much-displayed pectoral muscles, the speeches of Vladimir Putin are seldom reported at length in the West. But as a means of understanding the manoeuvres in eastern Ukraine this week, there is no better starting point than the speech he made to the Duma when the Russian parliament annexed Crimea. Lest anyone thinks his words have been enriched by an over-imaginative reporter, the translation is provided by the Kremlin itself.

Speaking of the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, he asserted, ‘Russia realised that it was not simply robbed, it was plundered… Millions of people went to bed in one country and awoke in different ones, overnight becoming ethnic minorities in former Union republics, while the Russian nation became one of the biggest, if not the biggest, ethnic group in the world to be divided by borders.’ At the time, Russia ‘humbly accepted the situation’ because it was going through such hard times then that ‘realistically it was incapable of protecting its interests’.

Putin believes that times have changed. Russia is more minded to protect its interests — and, as he has found, the same is not quite so true for the West. The Kremlin feels that now is the time to test new boundaries. Crimea is really just the beginning of a campaign, under the cover of the UN’s right to national self-determination, to reassemble the Russian empire. For anyone hoping he might stop with eastern Ukraine, he helpfully described Kiev as the ‘mother of Russian cities’.

You do not need to be an anthropologist to work out that once you start justifying helping yourself to regions of other nation states by reference to the presence of ethnic Russians, there are other possibilities, too: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan all have significant Russian populations. And what about Belarus? Or the Baltic states? Putin talks now as if he is ready to avenge two decades of western dominance and our definition of national self-determination.

His speech was as cogent as it was menacing. He had words for the West. ‘If you compress the spring all the way to its limit, it will snap back hard — you must always remember this.’ And when soldiers in unmarked uniforms start to seize police stations in eastern Ukraine, he shows us precisely what he means.

To understand this new resurgent Russia, it is important to work out the ways in which Putin is right. The Kremlin has a sense of purpose and direction in its foreign policy — the West lacks both. Putin has detected this and sensed that now, with a war-weary West, is the ideal moment to act to reverse what he regards as the tragedy of the break-up of the Russian empire. When he moved in Crimea, and this week in eastern Ukraine, he knew he could bank on a short-term and not-entirely-strategic response from the West. A visit from Vice-President Joe Biden was the most threatening gesture America would make.

So long as Putin is not so crass as to send tanks rolling across borders, and wraps up everything he does in the language of human rights and national self-determination, he can get away with pretty much anything. No matter what Russia does next, we need not concern ourselves too much with the sounds coming out of Westminster or Capitol Hill. The script has already been written. Putin will try his luck further, the West will declare itself jolly cross, and Putin will ask if the West has a right to preach about not invading foreign countries when it has sent in the tanks to Iraq and Afghanistan. It was once the Soviet Union which revealed its soft underbelly through military failure in Afghanistan; now it is us.

How quickly we forget that our best weapon in the Cold War was a clear sense of purpose — an ability to articulate the set of values that we were defending. It was this that enabled Eastern European countries to join the comity of free nations. But as Putin likes to point out, the West’s fantasy of acting as world policeman — striking out dictators and returning countries to democracy — is finished. What should now take its place? The Kremlin is making its vision perfectly clear. It’s time the West did the same.

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  • Andrew S

    Tight, cogent. Well done.

  • Andrew S

    Tight, cogent. Well done.

  • zanzamander

    I disagree, I think the West (mainly the US) does have a clear sense of purpose and direction in its foreign policy, it is just that it is being dictated by the Saudis and perhaps that is why you seem to think that we don’t have one.

    Let me spell it out for you, the purpose and direction in our foreign policy is to assist Islamism (of the mainly Sunni variety) to flourish and eventually establish fully in the West, it is to be the royal pain in the butt for the Russians and it is to leave Israel, Japan and other older allies to fend for themselves.

    Oh, and in the process, to expand the EU forever eastwards, until eventually it will one day include Turkey, Lebanon and who knows, even Saudi Arabia! And the set of values we’re defending, well that’ll be fascism of course.

    • Bonkim

      Are you a citizen of Zanzibar? Your logic surely shows that.

  • Bonkim

    The goings on in Ukraine were triggered by the EU and US meddling in Kiev. Most East Ukrainians want closer ties with Mother Russia whereas the western Papist lot are looking at how they can milk the EU.

    If it was say a pro-western country that had similar divisions – whose side would Britain and the US be? US has been meddling across the Globe to safeguard its interests and failing – why should Russia not do likewise.

    On a practical note US shale gas will not last long particularly if it was to replace piped gas from Russia to Europe. Doubt if the rest of the world will go along with a US/Russia war or any serious upset in world trade arising from the West/Russian spat if it was to get toxic.

    My bet is with Putin trumping whatever the EU, US and Britain come up with, and why waste effort on an illegitimate regime in Kiev that is practically bankrupt, cannot afford to pay its gas bill and most of its industries in the East and production shipped off to Russia. Doubt if any western investors or banks will risk putting their money in Ukraine for a long time.

    Ukraine is toast whichever way you look.

  • johnlbirch

    The problem with much of the discourse on the Ukrainian crisis (or Russian foreign policy in general) is that no attempt is ever made to try to see things from Russia’s point of view.

    Its always worth remembering that historically Russia has always felt surrounded and threatened. It may be an odd point of view, but nonetheless true and its rather an important thing to remember. Russian leaders are also (and perhaps as a result) somewhat unsure of themselves.

    This is shown in their attitude to Syria. The last thing any Russian leader wants is the legitimisation of the idea of forced regime change – there is always the feeling in the back of their minds that they could be next (not without justification, given history). If you add in the large Islamic groups in and just over their own border and you can see why a they will have a fear of “it could happen here”.

    The west will also hardly be seen as a bastion of freedom. The behaviour of the USA in particular in destabilising governments around the world in the past few decades, up to the present day, will hardly give them any confidence.

    And then along comes the Ukraine. The cack-handed ineptitude of the EU will have been seen as yet another example of western destablisation, but this time in a country on their very border, with a huge Russian minority, and even the base for their Black Sea fleet. Then the violent overthrow of an elected government, and the swift recognition of the new regime by the west must have confirmed their worst fears.

    Then add into the piece Russian nationalism. The sight of thousands of fellow Russians wanting to return to Mother Russia will be pretty potent, and would hardly take any stirring up. And once stirred its pretty obvious which side Putin is bound to support.

    The west’s response has been beyond inept – and just continues to play into these fears. They create the idea of this mad expansionist Russian monster, which – beyond some out of context speeches from years ago – showed no sign of existing prior to this (not many Russian illegal invasions of foreign countries in the past few decades, compared to the USA, ditto widespread illegal espionage, etc.) then, by sheer stupidity, create it.

    What Russia wants – yearns for – is stability, A stable Ukraine – like the one that existed before the EU’s criminal meddling – was not a problem, and its pretty unlikely that Russia will interfere in any other bordering states while they too remain stable and, broadly, friendly. But all the west seems to be doing is make their Russian minorities very nervous, and Russia itself very nervous.

    What should the west do now? Stop the sabre rattling when they have no intention of doing anything (unless Germany wants all its lights to go out). Take actions to reassure Russian minorities outside Russia, make sure they are recognised and valued. And take firm action against the EU amateur imperialists who caused this crisis.