Why Putin brought Crimea home

It is not only America’s or Europe’s antagonistic policies which drove Putin to endanger peace and stability in Europe.

25 years after the fall of the Berlin wall Russia’s president took to the stage in his Kremlin on March 18 to tell the world: „The Germans should understand the Russian need for re-unification.“ Valdimir Putin looked very serious when he said that, although I guess he was chuckling inside. In 1989 he was not at all happy that the East Germans broke through the wall to get to West Berlin. Because they ran away from him, the Soviet KGB officer in Dresden. He did not see the collapse oft he Soviet Union as liberation from a dictatorship; for Putin the end oft he real socialist empire was a catastrophe. The joy of the „Ossis“ to finally be reunited with the decadent, capitalist West was a personal humiliation for the young Russian.

I am getting tired of this anecdote of Vladimir Vladimirovich’s early life. As traumatising as it was, it does not explain his behaviour today. Putin did not seriously expect understanding from the Germans for his theft of Crimea. „Instead they threaten us with sanctions“, he complained. „Since the 17th century, this policy of containment against Russia has been in place, but it is still going on. Our western partners have crossed the line, they have acted irresponsibly.“

It is absolutely possible to accuse the West of having acted insensitively towards Russia in the Nineties, as the Austrian historian Gerhard Mangott does in a recent editorial (see: http://derstandard.at/1395056827816/Die-Antwort-einer-Grossmacht-in-Bedraengnis): Putin’s action in Crimea was an „aggressive reaction to the position oft he US of not only marginalising Russia, but  actively weakening it“. True, Republican senator John McCain loves to go to Kiev or the Georgian capital Tbilisi to campaign against Moscow. George W. Bush wanted to put a US missile defense system into Poland. Putin had to feel threatened by this. On both sides, Cold War reflexes were still strong at the time.

But the US missile shield was never stationed in Poland. Why? Because Barack Obama cancelled the whole thing in 2009. The US president understood Putin’s resistance and preferred to move the defensive missiles to Turkey – Iran had been identified as the new enemy power the West needed protection from. Obama’s foreign minister Hilary Clinton tried to push a „reset“ button in Moscow with her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov. Europe too has shown more political wisdom towards Russia in the years before this crisis. Poland’s foreign minister Radek Sikorski very reasonably told me in an interview last week about Ukraine and possibe involvement of foreign powers: „We have been partitioned by our neighbours many times and we will not start doing the same to our neighbour.“

So our concern at the moment is not the shortsighted, triumphalist superpower behaviour of he United States of America. Currently the danger comes from the energy superpower Russia, which is breaking international law by annexing Crimea. Russia undermines the established etiquette in Europe of not changing borders by force  and such a move endangers peace in this continent.

Do we still need to understand more about Putin? I don’ think so. The former KGB officer is today suffering from fantasies of omnipotence and paranoia. Classic character traits of an ageing macho autocrat who became president for a third time instead of retiring from active politics.

Today the question is how to stop Putin. Sanctions will drive him crazy – he will reply with an eye for an eye. He will play with fire beyond Russia’s borders wherever there is a Russian minority „to protect“ – and there are many of them. Even if he said now that he does not plan to militarily intervene in the Ukraine, there are other ways to bring Russians back into the fold. If the situation in Donetsk does not calm down, there might be a need for a referendum about the Anschluss of Eastern Ukraine to Russia. In that case, Putin would have a good chance to get another part of Ukraine back.

But sanctions are still the best way to react to his latest move. Sanctions are better than soldiers in Ukraine or Russia – especially German soldiers. It will not solve the crisis for sure. The Austrian historian Mangott borrows from the greek colleague Thucydides to make his point: „The strong do what they can the weak suffer what they must.“ To use this quote today is cynical, because it does not reflect the ultimative truth in today’s Europe. The most powerful member state in Europe is Germany, which is quite happy to be embedded in the European Union. We are no longer in the 1930s, when Hitler snatched the Sudentenland or annexed Austria. Unfortunately for all of us Putin and his apologist fans are still stuck there.

The Cold Warriors in Washington DC, the traumatized KGB officer from Dresden, the original Rus people of northern Ukraine – all those characters played a role in Putin’s Crimean adventure. But in part Putin just made a cold rational calculation: the stagnant Russian economy is only growing by one percent this year. What can a leader in this position do? Point to the threat from outside. A small war he can win comes in very handy. Putin’s clique in the Kremlin, who honoured his revanchist speech with standing ovations, is the Russia of the last century. The generation of the post-Soviet nomenclatura. As long as these people are in power, Russia has no chance for a democratic future.

And we cannot blame the Americans for this.


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© 2018 Tessa Szyszkowitz