Notes From the Margins…

Russia: Under Western Eyes

  • March 05, 2014
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Just to be clear:   I regard Russia’s quasi-occupation of the Crimea as a dangerous gambit,  and a violation of international law that opens the possibility for a range of potentially dire outcomes.     That said, I can’t see how any state in Russia’s position would allow such a vital economic and strategic asset to fall into the hands of a hostile and anti-Russian government studded with representatives of the far-right, and actively supported by NATO, the European Union and the United States.

The Black Sea is Russia’s single maritime access point to the Middle East and the Mediterranean, and no state in a similar position would simply give it up.

Once upon a time it didn’t matter that the Black Sea fleet was housed in Ukraine, when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union.     Since then Russia’s naval presence has been contested by various Ukrainian leaders, including Yanukovich himself, and Russia has always been able to use its military clout and its control of the gas tap to overawe such opposition.

The EuroMaidan revolution/coup has changed that, and added the additional risk of a nationalist backlash against the Russian-speaking minorities in Ukraine.    This is why Russia has used its military clout in an attempt to secure its interests.     Will it work?    It might.   And unless the tensions between the Crimea’s Russian-speakers, Tatars and Ukraine can be resolved through reciprocal agreements, then Russian annexation of the Crimea might even be the best of various bad options.

Putin’s gamble also opens the prospect of a war between Russia and Ukraine that could return the region to the vicious ethnic strife of World War II or even further back, to the days of General Wrangel’s marauding White Armies during the Russian Civil War, or the anti-Semitic pogroms under Simon Petliura’s Ukrainian administration from 1919-20.

So cool and wise heads are required to avoid these outcomes, and bring about a peaceful resolution to the crisis, and that would require, among other things, a very different understanding of Russian calculations than the hysterical bluster emanating from so many western politicians and analysts.

Whether it is John Kerry’s denunciation of Russia’s ‘incredible act of aggression‘, or the cretinous Louise Mensch twittering to the Russian embassy that the ‘the only real “red lines” belong to Vladimir Putin, and they are marching West’, western perceptions of Russia are steeped in old notions of Russian belligerence that go back to the Cold War and beyond, to the bad old days of the Tsars and the ‘Russian bear.’

Like Joseph Conrad,   western governments have often assumed that Russia is inherently aggressive,  irredentist, and imperialistic, and that such behavior is something to do with Russia’s inscrutable Easternness or the fact that it was only partially European.

When I studied British history at school, we learned how Britain’s foreign policy during the 19th century was driven by the desire to prevent any attempt by the Tsarist Empire to block its access to Britain’s prize imperial possession in India.

We were taught to regard these efforts as a defensive protection of a natural right that was good for Britain and India and the world in general,   unlike the Russians, who were a threat to everybody.

Similar assumptions underpinned the Cold War.   After World War II, the Europe and the United States assumed that the Soviet Union was once again returning to its old ‘Russian’ ways  and preparing a military takeover of the free world – ignoring evidence that Russia’s seizure of Eastern Europe was essentially an attempt to establish a cordon sanitaire and a barrier against invasion – and a product of military weakness rather than strength.

In his famous ‘long telegram’, written from Moscow in 1946, which outlined the doctrine of ‘containment’, the American diplomat George Kennan famously wrote:

In the atmosphere of oriental secrecy and conspiracy which pervades this government, possibilities for poisoning and distorting sources of information are infinite. The very disrespect of Russians for objective truth – indeed their disbelief in its existence – leads them to view all stated facts as instruments for furtherance of one ulterior purpose or another.

The idea that Russian politics  is always directed towards some occult ulterior purpose is intrinsic to the ‘new Russian empire’ narratives of our own era, which depict Russian behaviour in the Balkans, Ukraine or Syria as a product of Russian cynicism, opportunism and self-interest.

Thus the New York Times condemned Putin’s ‘cynical and outrageous exploitation of the Ukrainian crisis to seize control of Crimea’ and insists that the United States and Europe ‘must make clear to him that he has stepped far outside the bounds of civilized behavior.’

In fact, Putin’s ‘power grab’ is entirely within the parameters of ‘civilized behavior’, if the Iraq War is anything to go by, which the New York Times once supported so ardently.     The hapless John Kerry appeared to have forgotten this when he told the Russians ‘You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pretext.’

Such hypocrisy comes naturally to states that have become so used to taking their own interventions as a natural right for so long, that they cannot see themselves as aggressive, belligerent or imperialistic.

From Cuba and the Philippines to Iraq, the United States has  invaded countries on a ‘completely trumped up pretext’ and has frequently used the press and the mass media to manipulate its population into supporting such interventions.  

Time magazine has condemned Putin’s attempt to manipulate the Russian population through ‘ brainwashing’ and ‘the blatant misinformation and demagoguery on Russian television.’   Weren’t the ‘dodgy dossiers’ and spurious allegations about ’45 minute missiles’ and WMD that preceded the Iraq War a form of brainwashing, misinformation and demoguery?   If so, we didn’t hear it from Time or any other mainstream media outlets.

There were few suggestions from respectable commentators back then that Bush and Blair were being cynical or opportunistic, or were in fact, lying, when they breached the UN Charter.   Many of those commentators who are currently denouncing Russia’s violation of Ukrainian sovereignty never showed the same outrage at the violation of charters, international law or national borders by their governments during the era of ‘humanitarian’ imperialism.

Obama has condemned Putin’s ‘meddling’ in Ukraine.   Haven’t the United States, Europe, and NATO also meddled in Ukraine?   What gives them the right to do so and not Russia?

What we need now is a negotiated outcome that can reconcile Russia’s legitimate security concerns with Ukraine’s national interests.

That is unlikely to happen, as long as western politicians and analysts continue to reserve for themselves the exclusive rights to dictate the affairs of other countries, while depicting Russia as an outlaw state when it behaves in much the same way.

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  1. Carrie

    5th Mar 2014 - 2:00 pm

    Interesting thoughts about what might have happened – or been averted rather – in Crimea on night of 27/28 February:

    • Matt

      7th Mar 2014 - 2:18 pm

      They are indeed. A very dark brew, if true.

  2. Nigel Hunt

    7th Mar 2014 - 10:52 am

    This is an interesting situation. Obviously too complex for Western leaders to understand. Having visited Crimea, it is clear that it is more Russian than Ukrainian, and I thought the policy of the UK, EU etc was self-determination – otherwise why are we allowing a referendum in Scotland? It is far more dangerous that Slovobda has such a strong presence in the current unelected Ukrainian government – a party that is explicitly national socialist, did have a swastika-like symbol, and suggests that independence for Ukraine occurred on 30 June 1941. It has also ensured that Russian is being removed as a recognised second language in Ukraine. While I may not understand a word of Welsh, and I await the day it dies out so that people may communicate more effectively with each other, I do defend the right of people to speak whichever language they choose, and unlike Slovobda, I would not tell Welsh people that they may not take public office unless they speak fluent English.
    The Russians are not only a strong force in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, they are also dominant in some western places such as Odessa. Let’s await developments.

    • Matt

      7th Mar 2014 - 2:16 pm

      Good points Nigel – though I don’t agree that the poor old Welsh have to lose their language. Bilingual peoples can communicate perfectly well with each other, in my opinion. And in fact marginalizing ‘minority languages’ can produce extremely negative consequences in more polarised situations, as appears to be the case with the decision by Ukraine’s ‘democratic’ government to delegitimize Russian. As you suggest, in the Crimea – and other Russian-speaking areas – that isn’t exactly going to reassure Russians about their future in Ukraine, and clearly isn’t intended to. From the point of view of Ukraine overall, the Crimean Russians are a minority. In the Crimea it’s a different matter, and many, perhaps the majority of the population there clearly feel closely to Russia than Ukraine. But in an independent or Russian-affiliated Crimea, what would happen to the Tatars?

      As you say, it’s complex, and needs real thought and wisdom to prevent the situation from unraveling. Don’t hold your breath.

  3. Nigel Hunt

    7th Mar 2014 - 2:28 pm

    Hi Matt, as soon as one group bans something of another group, whether it is Russian in Ukraine, Welsh in Wales, visiting Jewish shops in Nazi Germany, Catalonian in Franco’s Spain or god in the USSR you have both the beginnings of totalitarianism and the beginnings of a rebellion. If you want something to genuinely die out, leave it to people to choose and if it is unpopular it will die out naturally.

    • Matt

      7th Mar 2014 - 3:17 pm


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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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