Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent address to his national parliament accusing the west of orchestrating his nation’s most troubling misfortunes merely illustrates the sad reality which the western world faces in dealing with a government that has openly committed itself to an autocratic course of international subversion and confrontation. Putin’s latest harangue against the west now leaves no doubt that the rest of the Russian government has now fully bought into the Kremlin’s shameful denunciations of its peaceful neighbors and that most of its misinformed population is equally prepared to blindly follow wherever the Soviet strongman dares to take them. What is perhaps most disturbing about Moscow’s antipathy is that Putin has resorted to utilizing a noxious strain of virulent jingoism unseen in the west since 1930’s Berlin to portray his nation’s woes as one of distinctly external origins. By emphasizing a purely fabricated Russophobia as the main motive of his regime’s foreign detractors, Putin can only be preparing the Russian people for the inevitable confrontation he now is determined to create.
If the western world hasn’t taken notice by now than Putin’s recent accusation blaming the west for his military’s illicit intervention in Ukraine should be all the evidence the west needs to realize how far the Kremlin is prepared to go in deceiving its own people to justify its newfound proclivity for armed aggression. But what’s worse is the fact that the west’s inability to sway the Kremlin away from its Ukrainian venture can only mean Russia will undoubtedly use the same tact again when it moves on to threaten its other neighbors with sizeable Russian minorities. And that scenario is no longer a question of ‘if’ but rather ‘when’. Putin’s latest xenophobic address to parliament more than hints at the course the Kremlin is prepared to take. This was not an isolated diatribe to indict the west for Russia’s economic woes but rather a calculated attempt to sway Russia’s political establishment that the Kremlin’s foreign policy is now obstinately framed to an ‘us versus them’ mentality and that the fate of Russia’s historical precedence in the whole Slavic world is very much at stake and in danger of being eclipsed by the democratic free world.
Putin’s one character trait that should most alarm the democratic free world is his willingness to outright lie to the rest of the world to conceal the extent of his bellicose foreign policy or the limits he will go to in order to repudiate Russia’s duplicity in undermining the sovereignty of its democratic neighbors. This more than illustrates his contempt for the international community, especially the west which he has always viewed as the major impediment to achieving Russian greatness. But more significantly, it signifies the Kremlin’s reluctance to afford the same international statutes governing national sovereignty to those nation’s that used to reside within the former Soviet orbit as it does to those nations that did not. In other words, Putin’s desire to return Russia to its former status as a military and economic superpower state is most likely unachievable without a return to the overarching Soviet system that made postwar Russia the sage of Eastern Europe. Putin’s political future now depends on his ability to restore that harsh and contentious institution.
In the last five years Putin has made a compelling effort to resurrect the former Soviet behemoth by instituting the kind of political constraints that enable a totalitarian state to develop and thrive. None of these changes could have been possible without the help of a blatantly partial and invasive, state security service. Putin has continued to etch his stamp all over Russia’s domestic security service, the FSB, ever since he directed the KGB’s predecessor agency under former President Boris Yeltsin. By personally placing a number of professional cronies into senior positions in the FSB hierarchy, Putin gains a free hand in directing the vast apparatus of an all-encompassing police state however he sees fit. Thus political enemies and other domestic opponents of his regime must walk a fine line in the way they express their disapproval of Kremlin policy. Inevitably as Putin has consolidated his hold over the FSB and Russia’s other police agencies the breadth and substance of that opposition becomes increasingly muted and perilous.
With Putin’s relationship with Russia’s security apparatus solid and secure, he can now move onto eliminating another vestige of Russia’s fleeting experience with capitalist democracy by returning it to the one-party system that once embodied the Soviet state. This particular facet of democracy has already been widely censored by the Kremlin over the last six years. In that time frame Putin’s United Russia Party has gradually come to dominate political rule at the federal, provincial and municipal levels. Ever since the launching of United Russia in 2008 many of Russia’s other independent political parties have either been marginalized to the point of irrelevance through corruption at the ballot box, contempt from the state-sponsored media or by harassment from security and electoral agencies servile to a Kremlin agenda. Many political watchdog groups, investigative reporters and international human rights monitors have been expelled from the country; imprisoned on trumped-up charges and even murdered for delving too far into the Kremlin’s excesses. Naturally this type of scrutiny goes a long way in squelching some of the more hostile political parties or driving them underground. Currently that is where most of the more pertinent anti-Putin resistance circles must disseminate its message from.
The most critical obstacle to the Kremlin’s transformation back to the days of Soviet yore is their increasingly suffocating stranglehold over Russia’s media establishment. Controlling the message emanating from Moscow and stifling the dissemination of news from abroad was always the central priority of the Soviet system. It worked quite effectively for more than six decades under the communists and no doubt has made a strong impact on the way Putin views his regime’s relationship with today’s news media. This holds especially true in the information age, where access to international news can be readily gathered through the internet by a bevy of computing devices. Although controlling that output in today’s day and age is truly a daunting task for any totalitarian regime, the Kremlin seems quite adept at manipulating Russia’s information technology to the regime’s advantage. Although they can’t completely suppress every bit of news that emanates from cyberspace, Putin’s formidable hold over Russia’s major media outlets at least assures that a large majority of the news available to the Russian people is circulated with a distinctly pro-Kremlin slant.
|Russian forces moving into the breakaway Donetsk Republic|
With the scope of Russia’s audience firmly attuned to the Kremlin’s perspective, Putin can inject his virulent propaganda to the Russian people in ways that could cast even the most passive of bystanders as the most intimidating threat. By arousing his people’s deepest nationalistic passions Putin has taken a page right out of Josef Goebbels’ playbook by presenting Russia as the main victim of western manipulation since the fall of the Soviet Union. Mix those caustic invectives with malicious tales of western racial bias against the Slavs and other examples of foreign Russophobia and the Kremlin accomplishes its main task of invigorating the masses toward an impending conflict. And by portraying Russia as a nation under virtual siege from NATO encroachment and western economic blackmail, the Kremlin can ultimately control the level of furor of the nation’s fabricated, mass hysteria by invoking the Soviet Union’s Cold War nemesis as being up to its old tricks once again. This is exactly what the Nazis’ did in the interwar years by depicting the Great War victors as the root cause of Germany's desolation.
The biggest question that remains unanswered is just how far Putin is prepared to go in order to satisfy Russia’s return to global superpower status. The fact of the matter is; Russia is fairly limited to what it can get away with politically and economically in the international markets. With economic sanctions gradually tightening around the Russian economy the Kremlin’s ability to invoke its own form of economic blackmail on energy-starved Western Europe is seriously mitigated. This leaves only the military option as the way to redeem Russian greatness. Of course, Putin is well aware of this limitation thus he must carefully pick and choose how, why, when and where he uses his military resources. Although it is quite plausible that Russian forces from their Central Military District will be consigned to monitor the volatile borderlands along the Ukrainian frontier for the foreseeable future, the Russian Armed Forces are perfectly capable of projecting military power in many separate areas of the globe at any given time. And its muscle-flexing Commander-in-Chief is quite prepared to give its rambunctious commanders an extended length of leash for which to propagate Russian power abroad.
|Ukrainian victims of a Russian artillery barrage|
Russia’s military intervention in the disputed Georgian enclave of North Ossetia was probably just a trial run for their provocative land grab in Ukraine. But make no mistake about it; the Kremlin’s interest in the Ukraine greatly preceded their concern for the Russian minority in Georgia. The intervention in North Ossetia simply verified the tact the Kremlin would take in offering aid to the Russian minorities as the justification Putin has concocted to begin his reconstruction of the Soviet Union. If it sounds similar to Adolf Hitler’s imperial summoning of the German Volksdeutsche into one all-inclusive German Reich that’s because it truly is just another veiled attempt at empire-building in the façade of militant nationalism. In case we haven’t noticed already, many of Putin’s most recent public speeches have proudly invoked the historical significance of Russian imperialism as the decisive factor in projecting the supremacy of Russian culture abroad. This is precisely why Russia’s neighbors have historically kept a wary eye on the Slavic behemoth to the east.
In invoking a pledge to come to the immediate aid of all Russian-speaking minorities within striking distance of Moscow, the Kremlin has given notice to every Eastern European country with sizeable Russian communities that they have an obligation to adjudicate their ethnic rifts with an eye to appeasing Kremlin sensitivities. Putin has made it abundantly clear that this type of ethnic indifference was the main transgression that Kiev stands accused of committing. Although it is merely a pretext for Russian military intervention, Russia’s other western neighbors are warned to pay heed; that the spark which will ignite tension with the Kremlin will most likely appear from within their Russian minority groups. Like their counterparts from the Russian expatriate communities in Eastern Ukraine, many of these agitators are masquerading as fifth-column provocateurs in the employ of the Russian FSB or their more militant comrades in the GRU. Once again these very likely scenarios seem to elicit a striking resemblance to the activities of the Nazis’ during the 1938 Sudetenland Crisis and the prewar ethnic rivalries between German and Pole in Danzig and Upper Silesia.
|NATO Security Council in session, Brussels|
So where does this leave Ukraine? The sad truth is Vladimir Putin and his Kremlin cronies have no intention of ever leaving Ukraine. It is also quite doubtful that the breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk are the only regions that the Kremlin is interested in. The whole history of Russia’s post-Tsarist, military industrial complex has been closely tied to the Donetsk Industrial Basin, which runs roughly from the Sea of Azov to the Lower Dnieper River. A large portion of Russia’s military-grade, heavy metal ore and coal deposits lie within this region. Much of the heavy industry that resides there, although turned over to Ukraine in accordance with the political agreements that granted Kiev independence from Moscow in 1992, have had their commercial trade agreements structured largely to Moscow’s advantage. These are not about to be renegotiated or simply abandoned by the Kremlin. More significantly though is the Kremlin’s belief that Russia, by virtue of its magnanimous, centuries-long hold over all economic development in the lands of the former Russian Empire, is entitled in perpetuity to reap the fruits of their administrative labors by manipulating most of the interstate commercial trade agreements in the former Soviet lands unfairly in Moscow’s favor.
Based on these assumptions it is most improbable that Moscow is about to leave Kiev with a free hand to run its own affairs when so much lies at stake for Russia’s strategic future. Putin himself has already made it a point to emphasize Ukraine’s future as being forever intertwined with Mother Russia’s. Thus it seems highly unlikely that Moscow’s appetite for Ukrainian land can be sated by consuming just the eastern provinces now in dispute. Moscow’s ambitions run much farther west and in all likelihood stands to run right up to the right bank of the Dnieper. If Russia can reach this formidable geographic barrier than for all intents and purposes the dismemberment of Ukraine will be complete. It might also be noteworthy to point out that Russia still harbors grand designs on affecting a land link to their newfound province in the Crimea. This puts most of Southern Ukraine in the line of fire; a scenario not lost on Kiev’s southern neighbors in Romania and Moldova. While most of Eastern Europe anxiously awaits the outcome of the Russian-Ukrainian border war, many of these states are beginning to distance themselves from Kiev in the hope that Moscow will be swayed from encroaching further west. But this can be nothing more than wishful thinking.
|Polish and US Special Forces on joint combat exercises|
In Putin’s grand scheme of things Ukraine is just a steppingstone to far more strategic land acquisitions with better outlets to the sea. These lie to the north in the Baltic States, where Russia’s restless minority has already begun to stir. Estonia and Latvia, both standing members in the NATO alliance have everything to fear from a resurgent Russian military, unshackled by the constraints of its post-Soviet downturn. Both these countries have quite sizeable Russian minorities, many of them who regularly travel to and fro the mother country. The danger to these lands rises exponentially the more Ukraine’s hard-pressed armed forces weaken due to armament deficiencies. That doesn’t necessarily have to be the case should the west resolve to supply Ukraine the means to compellingly defend their sovereignty from the Kremlin-sponsored insurrectionists but it is increasingly doubtful the west wants to force Putin’s hand by opening up the floodgates to outright invasion. Thus NATO must state unequivocally that Putin’s line in the sand lies smack dead across the frontier of the Baltic States.