Journal, 17th – 23rd March

This week, I decided to get out of Canada on account of two months waiting for a work permit and no end in sight. I could quite easily talk about this, or alternatively pretend to be all high-minded and talk about how it’s indicative of something something; when I can come up with an argument that doen’t involve indignation / rabid self-pity, I may do this. Maybe.

Instead, I’d like to talk about Russia.

It’s no good, I still don’t understand what’s going on in Ukraine. This Thursday on Question Time, however, somebody asked whether the annexation of the Crimea heralded the start of a new Cold War. This lead to some fairly astonishing views on geopolitics, not least when the standard libertarian businesshead effectively implied that Russia would probably toe the line if the West would only get their shit together and bomb Damascus – no, me neither. The general response, though, was a half-hearted “Noooo… it’s more complicated than that” (That exact phrase was used by two panellists, I hasten to add).

Just dwell on that for a moment. The Cold War was an ongoing geopolitical crisis that lasted for over forty years, incorporating numerous countries aligning themselves to two major superpowers, two major conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, at least one diplomatic face-off which almost triggered a nuclear war, massive destabilisation of poorer countries as part of the ongoing conflict and several wars by proxy. The notion that the Cold War wasn’t complicated…?

…but. One of the defining traits of the Cold War – the defining trait if you like, the single thing that delineated it politically and culturally – was that although shots were not fired, people were encouraged to see the Soviets in the same way they would normally see a wartime foe. The Russians / Communists / Soviets (and at the time, all those words were interchangeable) were the Enemy, that was all there was to it, and nothing else mattered as much as this single unwavering fact. I knew that Communism was terrifying long before I knew what it actually was, and when I did find out (I was about nine, I think) my reaction was a fairly disappointed “Oh, is that all?” Calling yourself a Communist in the 1980s was the equivalent of calling yourself an Islamist today. There were other baddies in the world, but they were just Colonel Morans to the U.S.S.R.’s Moriarty. It emphatically wasn’t simple, but what made it the Cold War was that we were all encouraged to see it in simplistic, bloody-Russians terms. The Russians were looked upon like the Germans had been, which (from the governmental point of view) brought all of the benefits of war without any of that expensive killing and dying.

Now. Here’s a clip from a few years ago, in which David Mitchell holds forth on “the nutty Russians.”

…which is pretty funny… except that this is still exactly how Russia is casually portrayed by almost everyone, including senior politicians. Every country in the West is very comfortable with the Russians As Baddies, and it’s presented as a fait accompli that Russia’s actions are not just wholly indefensible, but a result of “Russian expansionism” which is a disease Russians can collectively get (a bit like Muslims can sometimes come down with radicalisation). Russian motivations aren’t worth even discussing, because we all know that Putin just got out of the shower one morning and though mmm, Crimea – just like we know he’s the boss because Russians, collectively, are mad. The Russians are so overtly the villains that, when the first fatality in the Ukraine occurred, a Canadian on the news claimed that “an innocent soldier was killed” and Russian Expansionism is so undisputed that Hillary fucking Clinton can compare Putin’s actions to Hitler’s Lebensraum policy and very few people bat an eyelid.

This isn’t intended to be an apologia for Russia. Even I can see that the march into the Crimea stinks to high heaven (and I still can’t work out why, if you’re going to hold a dodgy referendum, you don’t at least keep the yes votes down to 70% or so and not make it look like quite so obvious). Russia or the Soviet Union, has carried out some fairly staggering atrocities – particularly to its near neighbours – to an extent that someone from (say) Hampshire, or New Mexico, can’t even begin to understand. To keep the word count down I’m not going to go into detail, but just ask someone Polish if you want the blanks filled in.

However, you could also argue that the people who have suffered at the hands of Russian rulers more than any other are the Russians themselves. While people look at Putin’s existence as a mindwarping example of craziness, the fact is that three of the last four czars were more psychotic even than Stalin, and while you wouldn’t call Putin a reformer, compared to many of those who came before him he’s Clement sodding Attlee.

How about how Russia sees the world, though? Well, in recent-ish history, Russia has suffered two very bloody and traumatic invasions. Napoleon marched to Moscow, and the only way the Russians could defeat him was by destroying their own country, including the torching of their own capital city. In 1941 Hitler violated a (flagrantly nasty) treaty, marched into Russia, besieged Leningrad in a manner so bloody it was borderline genocidal, and almost took Moscow and Stalingrad. In between those two was the nasty Russo-Japanese War and then frightening losses during World War I, which directly lead to a vicious and divisive Civil War. And after all that, Russia was one of two superpowers – indisputably the inferior one, in terms of both finance and technology – that were locked in possible mutual annihilation for over forty years.

So from a Russian point of view, most of the twentieth century saw it either at war, being invaded, under threat of invasion or revolution, or confronted with a powerful enemy who wanted its annihilation. The U.S.S.R. lost around 30 million people during the two World Wars alone – that’s over fifty times the number of U.S. casualties. World War II claimed the lives of about one-seventh of the U.S.S.R. population, a simply staggering figure (again, not as extreme as what Poland endured, and that Soviet population of course included Ukraine). In other words, the Western countries we’re encouraged to see as reasonable have visited appalling suffering on the Russians, and unlike us the Russians actually remember this. Hence they might be genuinely worried if – say – NATO assures them it like, totally won’t expand Eastwards… and then goes and does it anyway.

Now, let’s throw in one more factor. The new rulers of the Ukraine appear to have deeply disturbing links to fascism. Ukraine is not a little defenseless tinpot backwater, as it’s being tacitly portrayed; it’s the biggest country entirely in mainland Europe and has a population of about 45 million. The last time a country near Russia was ruled by a fascist and they were blasé about it, roughly 25 million Soviet citizens died and the most bloody battle of all time was fought at Stalingrad. Russia’s satellite states post-war were intended as a buffer zone more than anything expansionist, simply because they didn’t want to take the slightest chance this would ever happen again; this doesn’t excuse Soviet actions, and nor did it make life any more fun in those states, but its worth noting as a counterpoint to the Russian Expansionism soundbite.

So, given that the Crimea is predominantly inhabited by ethnic Russians, it’s not entirely surprising that Russia might feel bloody worried and take some pretty drastic steps. That’s not a justification, just a rationalisation. But we’re simply encouraged not to think about this, just as thirty years ago no-one was encouraged to equate the Warsaw Pact with NATO. And if your stated aim is to get everyone round the table, talking to one of the countries with a barely-disguised line in “youse are all nuts anyway” seems an odd way to go about it.

As I say, this isn’t an apologia for Russia, and I’d surely be shitting myself just now if I lived in Georgia or Lithuania. It’s just to say that it the Cold War was about how we were asked to see the Russians, it’s certainly circling again. Also, showing the Russians how bastard hard we are is perhaps not the strategic genius it’s assumed to be. There’s no doubt that Russia has behaved and does behave appallingly, but a little recognition that they don’t have the monopoly on this might actually be more effective at getting them to stop it, rather than the West collectively saying “look how big our dick is.”

That’s all this week. Next week’s journal comes to you from Greater Manchester, in which I will ask the searing question “greater than what?” Or won’t.

4 Responses to “Journal, 17th – 23rd March”

  1. Unqualified Says:

    To dump more info and respond to points in no organized manner at all:
    the Crimea is only joined to the rest of the Ukraine by a 4-mile wide spit of land and only became part of the Ukraine politically in the ’50s, and Russia as a thing started in the Kievan Rus’; these facts help explain the Crimean intervention and why Russia might be interested in the Ukraine beyond mere geopolitics. (Further in mere geopolitics: the Russian wheat harvest failed a few years ago, and the Ukraine sits on the most productive soil in Europe.)

    and I still can’t work out why, if you’re going to hold a dodgy referendum, you don’t at least keep the yes votes down to 70% or so and not make it look like quite so obvious)

    Because the West and “non-Russian” (for want of a better phrase) Ukraine were never going to believe the result, bent or not. They’d see 70% for as “Putin didn’t get to 30% of the ballot boxes.” Given that, why not give your believers a bit of a morale boost?

    Russia is paranoid about security, for very good reasons. One of the reasons for World War I was Russia saw Serbia falling under Austro-Hungarian control as its final encirclement (not without good reason: it’s very easy to pick out Serbia on this map once you know the Axis is orange), and they see NATO doing it again today.

    There’s this odd nostalgia for the Cold War; things were big and simple, there wasn’t any of this climate change nonsense, economic growth seemed possible, Serious Men were respected and listened to and never accused of being horrible homophobes or racists or what have you (or if they were, they didn’t have to pretend to care). Of course this past didn’t actually exist, but you can see its appeal for a certain section of society that’s still much more likely to get published in the opinion columns.

    Here endeth the brain dump. :-)

  2. Mike Morris Says:

    And a very interesting braindump it was too.

    I was reading something in one of those old-fashioned books they still have these days, which mentioned (offhand) that since 1850 or so Russia had effectively displaced France as Britain’s main enemy, hence The Great Game – and that the Anglo-Russian Entente and the WWII alliance could be seen as blips in what was otherwise a fairly constant pattern.

  3. Unqualified Says:

    Quite possibly. My knowledge of 19th century European geopolitics has corroded somewhat, but I think the general principle of British involvement in European politics remained valid: they strove always to keep the Continental powers in balance, as anyone kept worried about a possible European land war wouldn’t go looking across the channel. From speed-reading Wikipedia, Russia’s clashes with Britain were mainly when Britain thought Russia was coming too close to comprehensively beating the Ottoman Empire – which would have enabled them to make a grab for everything from Bulgaria to the Iranian border, solidify their grasp of the Caucasus, and seriously threaten the Suez Canal. And wouldn’t THAT have changed the course of history?

  4. Unqualified Says:

    (For clarity: Wikipedia was to refresh a creaky memory; it’s far too names-and-dates and not enough context to learn actual history from.)

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