Obama's speech in Warsaw - Russia as Europe's antagonizing "other"

[Promoted from the diaries– streiff]

Obama’s speech – Russia is not a European state

U.S. President Barack Obama gave a speech in Warsaw, Poland yesterday and painted a portrait of contemporary Europe which holds profound significance. In effect, Obama proclaimed that Russia and Europe are two different things (i.e., Russia is not a European country or a nation which can be countenanced as belonging to the same family). Putting aside the false characterization of the European Union institutions headquartered in Brussels and Strasbourg as “Europe”, which some would say was really what Obama meant, the wall of separation between Moscow and Europe (and more generally the West) per se was made explicit in the President’s remarks.  Obama described Ukraine as a buffer between “Europe and Russia and the United States and the rest of the world”. He then contended that “[O]ur free nations will stand united so that further Russian provocations will only mean more isolation and costs for Russia.  Because after investing so much blood and treasure to bring Europe together, how can we allow the dark tactics of the 20th century to define this new century?”.


In the President’s view, therefore, “free nations” and Russia are separate concepts. Russia is a “bully” and “provocateur” whose “dark tactics” are causing instability and fissures throughout Europe. Obama went on to proclaim that today’s Ukrainians (including I assume the ones in Lvov honoring Waffen SS divisions and demanding that symbols honoring the defeat of Nazi Germany in WWII be placed on a list of extreme paraphernalia) are the “heirs of Solidarity”. Either Obama’s speechwriters (or Obama himself) are utterly oblivious to historically based rhetorical signals or they purposefully meant to insert this language. What this tells the average Russian, and most certainly an established member of Moscow’s educated class or intelligentsia, is that the West still regards him/her as not one of it. They may study German or French, stand in line to see Rembrandt at the Hermitage, learn about Russia’s pivotal role in maintaining European peace in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars or that their greatest empress was a Prussian princess, but as far as Obama and the attendees in Warsaw are concerned, they are permanent outsider in need of containment rather than engagement – a remnant of the Soviet Union pursuing unremitting expansionism.  

Obama’s speech read like one Fmr. President Harry Truman may have given in 1946 or Fmr. President Ronald Reagan in 1982. Truman needed to initiate containment after the diplomatic route which his predecessor suffered at the hands of Stalin, both because of Fmr. President Franklin Roosevelt’s own naivete regarding the Soviet dictator’s intentions and the fact that many within the President’s inner circle were NKVD (Soviet secret police) assets.  Reagan, operating from a position of strength (i.e., a Soviet economy completely dependent on artificially priced energy exports and loans from Washington-supported financial institutions) could afford to tighten the screws on Moscow and open a channel to the Soviet public in an effort to further discredit a regime which had lost its basic legitimacy decades earlier. 

Obama is facing a different Russia and a different Russian public.  Sure, Putin may have neo-imperialist aims, if only to strengthen his domestic support, prevent a feckless opposition from reorganizing and cling to power at all costs (contrast Putin’s supposed obsession with saving Russian life in Donetsk with his merciless “anti-terror” operations in Beslan and Moscow’s Nord-Ost, where hundreds of men and women (and many children in the case of Beslan) were cut down so as to maintain the mirage of the state’s invincibility in the face of its enemies. Similarly, compare Putin’s fear of “fascist” violence and harassment of Russians in Ukraine with his indifference to similar violence occurring against Russians in Turkmenistan, whom one could argue Putin abandoned for energy concessions. But a regime is not necessarily its people and to merge the two is to block avenues through which to drive important wedges and advance your own interests.


For all of the new restrictions imposed by Putin on NGOs, independent websites and political parties, there is no question that Russian society is many times more open and engaged with the West today than at any time in its modern history. Russian commercial engagement extends beyond the energy sector. Russian students flood German, Swedish, British and French universities on exchange programs. Russians travel to all corners of the globe and relax in the Spanish Riviera. Nobody is preventing yours truly from calling his friends or family in Moscow to take the country’s pulse. In other words, the people who matter in Russian society (literate, engaged and economically middle to upper middle class) know and appreciate what is happening around them. So what Obama has done is to take this group, many of whose members consider themselves to be European or western, and cut them off.  To add insult to injury, he spoke about the “blood and treasure” that “we” spent to “bring Europe together”. Who exactly is “we” and which Europe has been brought together? Or perhaps the question should be rephrased to ask when was Europe brought together? If Obama referred here to the Cold War, NATO expansion or the EU, I do not understand the reference to mass bloodshed. If he instead meant the Second World War, then his statement is incredibly offensive to millions of Soviet soldiers and civilians who lost their lives liberating, from their perspective, Europe from Nazi tyranny.  To say that their sacrifices did not count or, worse, were driven to extend or preserve the very barbarism they struggled against, is beyond the pale. One has to distinguish what the soldier in the field generally believed and what his government desired. The Wehrmacht which invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, from its Chief of Staff to the frontline infantryman, was under no illusions that the invasion was one of conquest. The same cannot honestly be said about individual Soviet troops who entered Sofia, Warsaw and Budapest in 1944/45.


Playing into Putin’s Hands

Not only has Obama unwittingly (or perhaps wittingly) reoriented American foreign policy in Europe by painting Russia as a permanent outsider, he has also played right into the narrative which Russian President Vladimir Putin has meticulously constructed over the past year with a renewed public relations campaign to promote orthodox and some would consider reactionary “Russian” values. Dr. Leon Aron, a premier Russia expert based in Washington for whom this author has previously worked, wrote about this in the Wall Street Journal

As Fmr. Russian President Boris Yelstin and others before him, Putin has taken on the mantle of a gatherer of supposedly lost or abandoned Russian lands as a means to distract from profound domestic problems. The Russian economy is slated to grow by barely 1% in real terms this quarter, Moscow’s involvement in Ukraine has produced targeted sanctions and capital flight and the Kremlin is stuck providing for pensioners in annexed Crimea. Then there are the country’s outer regions. While separatists were shooting down helicopters outside Donetsk, thousands in the city of Yaroslavl were dying from treatable illnesses due to collapsed infrastructure, ignored healthcare facilities and paltry incomes. This was the fiery report of Yaroslavl local legislator, former Governor of Nizhny Novgorod and Vice Premier under former Yelstin, Boris Nemtsov to a Ukrainian TV audience a few weeks ago.

Nemtsov’s statements appear to corroborate distressing trends. Moscow’s renowned Marshak Clinic, among the first private addiction treatment centers to open in post-Soviet Russia, released a study a month ago regarding the average age of alcoholics and drug users admitted to its facility for treatment. The results showed a decline in the average age of alcoholic of 7-10 years with a corresponding figure of 2-3 years for drug users. Russia’s addicts are becoming younger and using more potent substances to reach their high. This has in no small part contributed to an explosion of HIV/AIDS within the country. Russia has gone backward in AIDS prevention and rates of infection, with the Kremlin refusing the consider or publicly mention radical solutions to stop the spread. Instead of allowing needle sharing programs (as even Margaret Thatcher did in the UK at the start of the AIDS crisis) and drug substitution treatments (as popularized in Holland), the official line appears to be a promotion of healthy living, sports and cultural awareness. While over one million Russians are estimated to be infected with the disease and drug users inventing horrific new concoctions (e.g., krokodil) to find relief, the Kremlin glorified its $50 billion Olympic spectacular and passed bills which prohibited “propaganda” of nontraditional sexual relationships directed at children.


Not all is lost, however, as there appears to be belated, limited improvement in Russia’s demographic projections. City dwellers are wealthier and more established. Nemtsov himself admitted, as did other members of Russia’s so-called liberal opposition (about whom I will write in a separate post) that incomes have on average doubled since the mid-1990s. Then we have this analysis of who actually constitutes the Russian middle class, courtesy of the opposition-oriented Moscow Times. With 79% of the self-identified middle class saying the Kremlin should be supported despite its flaws and 49% stating that Russia needed a firm hand, is it any wonder that Putin’s calculated standoff in Ukraine has yielded the highest approval ratings he has seen in over two years?  As anecdotal evidence of the swell in support for the Kremlin, family friends we spoke with in Moscow in the immediate aftermath of Crimea’s referendum (cultured and well-traveled scientists and mathematicians) were uniformly overjoyed that historic Russian territory had rejoined the homeland and thankful to Putin for achieving what his predecessor had not. 


Winston Churchill led an international expeditionary force into Russia during its civil war to prevent a consolidation of Bolshevik power and to restore Russia to the family of European nations. Charles De Gaulle believed Russia was a European country and that China’s economic rise would serve to bind it and the rest of Europe closer together.  Even the German political establishment believes that Russia must have a place at the European, if the not necessarily the EU, table. Obama’s speech in Warsaw in response to the situation in Ukraine appears to have upended this long-held thinking. To the Moscow layman, the view from Washington is that it is still 1981, Russia is the Soviet Union with a new flag and the thoughts, aspirations and fears of the Russian president and the Russian public are one and the same.  Putin’s PR machine would not want it depicted any other way.



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