Friday, February 28, 2014

Does Putin want a return to the Soviet Union?

I wrote last night that Putin is dreaming of a return to the Soviet Union and hopes that Russians will unite under shared nostalgia for the Soviet era in order to make Sochi's infrastructure last as sustainable and profitable. But today, after reading this piece on Russia's actions in Crimea by Thomas De Waal for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Moscow Center, I'm not so sure the resurrection of the Soviet Union is Putin's primary guiding light.

As Russian soldiers set up camp in Crimea this morning, Western commentators were saying the West should preemptively tell Putin that he needs to keep his stuff inside his pants a.k.a. not annex Crimea or Ukraine. This afternoon, Obama did something of the sort, saying Russia shouldn't use force in Ukraine. De Waal argues that the West's pre-emptive position comes from fear that Putin wants another Soviet Union, so he'll do anything within his power to use force in Ukraine. This assumption is a misunderstanding that has several times been lost in translation, De Waal writes:

I have again read that Putin wants to re-create the USSR, using a quotation that I and others have pointed out does not actually imply that.

Any Russian escalation deserves a strong response from the West. But if you read what Putin is actually saying he is being more equivocal. He is ruthless, but he is not Sauron in Lord of the Rings. He almost certainly wants the government in Kiev to fail, but he is also hosting the G8 summit in Sochi in June.

The quote De Waal is talking about is one that Western journalists often quote Putin as having called the end of the Soviet Union "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century." I saw this quote in an editorial and almost used it as a piece of evidence for my piece. But De Waal's argument encouraged me to look back at the transcript of Putin's speech in April of 2005 when he allegedly said it.

What I found in the speech was a completely different statement. De Waal is right in some regard in that Putin did not say the crumbling of the Soviet Union was "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century," and that instead, Putin said the crumbling of the Soviet Union was "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of our age." Plus, when you look at this sentence in context, you see that it was actually a set up for a part of the speech where Putin celebrated Russians for creating their own type of democracy in the midst of the challenging economic and social change brought about by the disappearance of the Soviet empire:

Прежде всего следует признать, что крушение Советского Союза было крупнейшей геополитической катастрофой века. Для российского же народа оно стало настоящей драмой. Десятки миллионов наших сограждан и соотечественников оказались за пределами российской территории. Эпидемия распада к тому же перекинулась на саму Россию.

Накопления граждан были обесценены, старые идеалы разрушены, многие учреждения распущены или реформировались на скорую руку. Целостность страны оказалась нарушена террористической интервенцией и последовавшей хасавюртовской капитуляцией. Олигархические группировки, обладая неограниченным контролем над информационными потоками, обслуживали исключительно собственные корпоративные интересы. Массовая бедность стала восприниматься как норма. И все это происходило на фоне тяжелейшего экономического спада, нестабильных финансов, паралича социальной сферы.

Многие тогда думали, многим тогда казалось, что наша молодая демократия является не продолжением российской государственности, а ее окончательным крахом, является затянувшейся агонией советской системы.

Те, кто так думал – ошиблись. Именно в этот период в России происходили крайне значимые события... Надо было решить труднейшую задачу: как сохранить собственные ценности, не растерять безусловных достижений и подтвердить жизнеспособность российской демократии. Мы должны были найти собственную дорогу к строительству демократического, свободного и справедливого общества и государства.

Говоря о справедливости, имею в виду, конечно же, не печально известную формулу «все отнять и поделить», а открытие широких и равных возможностей развития для всех, успеха для всех, лучшей жизни для всех.

В конечном счете, на базе утверждения именно таких принципов мы и должны стать свободным обществом свободных людей. И в этой связи нелишне вспомнить, как исторически в российском обществе формировалось стремление к свободе и справедливости, как оно вызревало в общественном сознании.

First and foremost it's worth it to mention that the crumbling of the Soviet Union was the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of our time. For the Russian people, there was real drama. Tens of millions of our citizens and their compatriots found themselves outside Russian territory. An epidemic of disintegration also spread across Russia itself.

Citizens' savings were devalued, old ideals ruined, many institutions quickly disbanded or reformed. The integrity of the country was disrupted by terrorist intervention... Oligarch groups, having unlimited control over the information flow, served only their own corporate interests. Mass poverty began to be perceived as the norm. All this against a background of severe economic downturn, unstable finances and social paralysis. 

Many people thought that it seemed our young democracy was not a continuation of Russian statehood but rather its ultimate collapse and the prolonged agony of the Soviet system.

Those who thought this were wrong. It was in this period that extremely important events took place in Russia... In those difficult years, the Russian people had to simultaneously defend state sovereignty and accurately choose a new vector in the development of its thousand-year history. It was necessary to solve the most difficult task : how to keep your own values... and confirm the viability of Russian democracy. We had to find their own way for the construction of a democratic, free and just society and state.

Speaking of justice, I, of course, don't mean the notorious formula of "taking and sharing amongst everyone," but rather the opening of broad and equal opportunities of development for all, success for all, a better life for all.

Ultimately, it is based on the approval of such principles that we should become a free society of free people. And in this juncture, it is useful to recall how in Russian society the desire for freedom and justice formed historically and how it matured in the public consciousness.

I'm not saying that Putin doesn't want a return to the Soviet Union in any way. De Waal mentioned a quote by Alexander Lebed that Putin is a fan of: "Whoever does not regret the destruction of the Soviet Union doesn't have a heart, whoever wants to recreate it doesn't have a head." Just because Putin misses the Soviet Union doesn't mean he has illusions of grandeur, and to equate nostalgia for a time of power with an uncompromising and dangerous thirst for power is no better than a Cold War mentality.

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