Vladimir Putin- he’s been described as a thug, an autocrat, a killer and other bad things. While it is true he is no Easter Bunny, neither is he Stalin. There are no gulags, no pogroms, no mass executions in Polish forests. Above all else, Putin is a power player who cares most about Russia’s interests and secondly about Russians in countries on his doorstep. The one thing he does not care about is world opinion, especially that emanating from the West.
The annexation of the Crimea is a perfect example. About 60% of that area’s population is ethnic Russian. There was no independent Ukraine after the 12th century. It briefly re-emerged after World War I only to be run over by the Red Army after World War II and absorbed into the Soviet Union. Only after the fall of the Soviet Union did an independent Ukraine again emerge with the Crimea part of it. Thus, it is foreign to Putin and most Russians that the West would decry a breach of “territorial integrity” of a country born yesterday whose history- especially the Crimea- was much different.
Yet by the same token, Putin’s actions in the Crimea (and Eastern Ukraine) were felt from Warsaw to Bucharest. It reopened, in the minds and psyche of Eastern and Central Europe, old wounds and memories of oppression and brutality. In 1905, Joseph Conrad described Russia’s territorial expansion as that from Russia’s inception, “the brutal destruction of dignity, of truth, of rectitude, of all that is faithful in human nature has been made the imperative condition of her (Russia’s) existence.” Wrote Milan Kundera, a Czech writer, some 80 years later: “…they did everything to destroy Czech culture…totalitarian Russian civilization is the radical negation of the modern West.” Not much has changed under Putin.
Eastern Europe has suffered unspeakable brutality brought forth by Russia whether under the rule of czars or the Soviets. Rightfully, to them this brutality has nothing to do with politics but instead is sprung from something in the Russian soul. They are simultaneously influenced by the loftiest of Russian culture- of music, philosophy, literature, and religion. They have been equally touched by the works of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy on the one hand, and the brutal actions of Stalin on the other hand. They have given presents with their left hand and slapped Eastern Europe with their right hand.
What they fear most is the occasional appearance of leaders and institutions that repress for the sake of repression. For example, nothing else explains Stalin’s forced starvation of the Ukrainian people that is believed to have cost 3 million people their lives. Nothing else explains the mass execution of Polish fighters who surrendered to the Red Army rather than be taken prisoners of war by the Germans.
Eastern Europe has been traumatized for centuries by its stronger, erratic and power hungry neighbor to the east. The danger to these countries comes not from Putin, the man, any more than it came from Stalin, the man. It comes from something within the make-up of the Russian character. Putin and Stalin and the czars were only temporary embodiments of that character.
Unfortunately for Eastern Europe, their fate and their security comes from what happens in Russia. Putin has successfully made a mockery of democracy not only in his native Russia, but elsewhere to the Russian people. The constant beating of drums in the United States about Russian-Trump collusion shows to the Russian people how tenuous Western liberal democracy truly is in that a nation like the United States can be so paralyzed by what amounts to insinuation and innuendo. Russian interference in the American and European elections plays to his domestic audience more than they affect electoral outcomes in Western democracies.
Having achieved the goal of successfully mocking Western liberal democracy and showing its shortfalls in the minds of the Russian people, what is left for Putin to create his own political legitimacy? That is where the dangerous aspect of Russia enters the scene. What he has left in his bag of tricks is creating conflicts and invading neighboring countries under the guise of protecting Russian minorities in those countries.
A perfect example is the discord he sowed in Germany after Russian media outlets spread a fake story. The story stated that a young Russian girl was kidnapped and gang-raped by a group of Muslim refugees allowed into that country. This led to demonstrations against the refugees in Germany until it was revealed that no such kidnapping took place and that the “rape” was not of the “gang” variety, but more of the “statutory” variety.
This is how Putin operates. It is a technique he learned while in the KGB. There will be no mass invasion of tanks across borders. Instead, an army of faceless and nameless people bearing no military insignia will cross the border under cover of night and carve off a piece of the country. It will be more mafia-like than military. The “little green men,” as they have been called in Eastern Europe, have been likened to mafia thugs. They are not thugs; they are Putin’s manifestation of the Russian character.
In many, many ways, Putin is most like Nicholas II, the last czar of Russia who, under Putin’s rule, was elevated to saintly status by the Russian Orthodox Church. But Nicholas II, like Putin, was no saint. He enjoyed reading “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” inflicted cruelty upon his nation, engaged in a costly war with Japan, and refused to adopt a more democratic constitution. By the same token, he is described by historians as a gentle man who doted on his family and loved the outdoors. This is akin to the Putin spin doctors who portray him as a strong leader who is looking out for the interests of the Russian people- the man who wrestles tigers and fishes bare-chested while being pious and one of the “Russian common folk.”
Yet even when captured by the Bolsheviks and awaiting their eventual brutal execution, Nicholas learned that Russia had signed the Treaty of Brest-Livotsk which surrendered Belarus, the Ukraine, the Crimea, the modern-day Baltic states and parts of Georgia to the Germans. Said Nicholas II: he would rather cut off his hands than sign such a treaty. That is the character of the Russian soul. Considering that after the break up of the Soviet Union, Russia gave up much more in 1991 than the Bolsheviks gave up in 1918, Putin is the manifestation of the Russian character and soul on steroids. And that is what scares the living daylight out of Eastern Europe.
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