Russia – the un-Bearable rightness of being
GREGORY SLYSZ asks what the war in Syria, the coup d’état in Ukraine and the Sochi Olympic Games have in common
The current level of Russophobia among Western governments and media has strong echoes of the frozen East-West relations of the early 1980s. Far from being spontaneous, however, it is representative of the profound frustration of Western political elites with Russia’s increasingly robust defence of its own political and military interests. By refusing to play ball with the West over Syria and by refusing to handover to Washington the National Security Agency (NSA) whistle-blower, Edward Snowden, Russia gave notice to the West that it was no longer prepared to remain passive in the face of continual Western belligerence and provocation that now manifests itself along Russia’s borders.
Although the current controversies involving Russia and the West give the impression that they have recent origins, they in fact conceal a rivalry of much older roots. Since the last decade of the Cold War Western powers have been determined to destroy Russia’s geopolitical power. As the Soviet Union collapsed the West’s march on Moscow commenced with aggressive and uncompromising zeal. Collaboration between the EU and NATO has seen hostile political and military forces advance to Russia’s sphere of influence and even into former Soviet republics. NATO’s quest for an anti-ballistic missile system in Eastern Europe and the West’s engineering of the so-called “Rose”, “Orange” and “Tulip” revolutions in Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004) and Kyrgyzstan (2005) respectively, that replaced incumbent corrupt leaders with equally corrupt West-leaning placemen, was demonstrative of the West’s aim of encircling Russia. Further afield, Russia’s geopolitical interests have also been uncompromisingly challenged, most notably in the Middle East where its former allies such as Iraq and Libya have fallen under the West’s influence following Western military intervention. Russia’s abstention in 2011 in the UN Security Council vote authorising both a “no-fly zone” and NATO air strikes in Libya “to protect civilians” trapped in the country’s civil war, was instead used by the West to topple the regime of Muammar Gaddafi. Protests by Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov were given short shrift by Western governments. For Moscow this confirmed beyond doubt the West’s total disregard for Russia’s security and strategic interests.
Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union over twenty years ago Russo-Western relations have been one-way traffic, with the West demanding cooperation from Russia only on its terms and denouncing it when such cooperation was not forthcoming. Russia had expected, maybe naively, that in return for its constructive cooperation with the US over such areas like Libya it would receive assurances that political and military meddling in its security zones around its borders would cease. Instead, not only did such meddling not cease, it was dramatically increased.
The absence of reciprocity on any level has been further illustrated by Western responses to Russia’s extradition requests of a number of Russian fugitives. Since 2001, Britain has harboured the Chechen fighter, Akhmed Zakaev, refusing to submit him to Russian authorities to face trial on terrorism charges. In 2004, America granted asylum to another leading Chechen leader, Ilyas Akhmadov, foreign minister in the separatist Chechen government in the late 1990s, ignoring Moscow’s demand for his extradition on terrorism charges. It is not surprising, therefore, that from Moscow’s perspective, the West’s war on terror is duplicitous. In 2002, Moscow’s request of Britain for the extradition of the crooked Russian oligarch, Boris Berezovsky, to face charges of money-laundering, were dismissed by the British authorities, who had given him political asylum a year earlier. In 2013 in a carbon copy case, Britain granted asylum to the Russian banker Andrei Borodin who had fled Russia to escape embezzlement charges that even Interpol suspected were well grounded. Consequently Vladimir Putin’s refusal to submit to Washington Edward Snowden needs to be seen in a broader historical context to that presented by American propagandists.
Russia’s reaction to the West’s hostility in turn has attracted a torrent of Russophobia in Western political and media circles that is unprecedented even by Cold War standards. Whereas in America during the 1960s through to the 1980s there existed a fierce debate between hawks and doves over the level of belligerence that the West should adopt towards the Soviet Union, now there exists robust bi-partisanship for Russophobic political actions in both the political and media spheres. Vladimir Putin in particular has been cast as America’s bogey man, with reasoned discussion on Russo-US relations almost totally suspended from the mainstream media. Gone from the scene too are the Democrat liberals and the peace brigade so prominent during the Vietnam war, having been either “shamed” into silence during America’s successive “patriotic” wars, or drawn into the anti-Putin war drum beat by the hysteria over Russia’s recently passed law restricting promotion of non-traditional sexual relations to minors.
Protecting Syria: what’s in it for Russia
Russia’s military and political ties with Syria go back to the 1950s, which Moscow maintained after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia has invested billions of dollars in Syria’s civilian and military infrastructures and vastly expanded and modernised its naval base in Tartus on the Mediterranean coast. By strengthening its ties with Syria, Russia has positioned itself as a major regional mediator without whose approval little can be achieved. In so doing it has antagonised America’s key regional powers, Saudi Arabia and Qatar – who also happen to be the two main sponsors of Sunni terrorism in Syria and beyond that threatens stability not only of other powers in the region, notably Iran and even Israel, but also of Muslim areas in Russia, like Chechnya and Central Asia. The West’s plan, however, of establishing total hegemony over the region as well as its long-established agenda of regime change in Iran, which victory in Syria would facilitate, overrides any purported “war on terror”.
Saudi Arabia’s widespread involvement in sponsoring Sunni terrorism was revealed in a leak of a meeting in the summer of 2013 between Vladimir Putin and the Saudi security head, Prince Bandar, during which Bandar informed Putin that if he did not abandon Syria he could give no guarantee to protect the Winter Olympics in Sochi. “The Chechen groups that threaten the security of the games,” he added chillingly, “are controlled by us.”
The extent to which Putin’s angry rebuttal of Bandar’s blackmail compelled the Saudi prince to let loose his terrorist clients on the Russian people is not known, though at least two terrorist attacks by Islamists did occur prior to the Sochi games, both in the southern city of Volgograd over 400 miles away from Sochi, which killed and injured scores, including children. Nor is it clear how many further terrorist attacks were foiled by Russia’s security forces.
A victory of radical Islamic groups in Syria, or at least a huge increase in their influence over Syrian politics, would have been guaranteed were it not for Russia’s and China’s consistent vetoing of UN Security Council resolutions authorising a Libya-like Nato plan to bomb Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, into submission. With an impasse reached, an alleged chemical attack on civilians by Assad’s forces in August 2013 nearly provoked the West into launching a bombing campaign without UN authorisation, the use of such weapons said to have breached the so-called “red line” that Obama had set a year earlier. Despite the war cries from Western capitals, there was no concrete evidence linking Assad to an attack. In fact, it looked suspiciously like a rebel operation to give Western forces a pretext to attack Assad.
However, war-weary after two decades of continual warfare and with Russia threatening to provide the Assad regime with a sophisticated anti-aircraft defence shield, Western populations had no appetite for another war, as was demonstrated by a defeat in the House of Commons for the British government’s plan to use military force in Syria. Enjoying little public support himself for unilateral military action in Syria, President Obama backed off from a similar vote in the American Congress. Russia had totally outmaneuvered Western leaders, its international authority having been strengthened further when its proposal to place Syria’s chemical weapons under international control was accepted by the United States.
Meanwhile, in Ukraine…
Having its anti-Russian agenda stalled in the Middle East merely encouraged Western leaders to intensify it elsewhere. The current Ukrainian crisis, provoked by the coup d’etat that deposed Viktor Yanukovych, elected President in 2010 with 48% of the vote, has its origins in the long standing murky and corrupt politics of the country, both encouraged and exploited by the West. With Yanukovych’s election, the so-called Orange Revolution, the latest Western-backed attempt at regime change in the former Soviet world, collapsed. Yanukovych, however, was not the Moscow stooge that he was made out to be in the West. Since he became President he and the Ukrainian government pursued a balanced policy that sought to increase cooperation with the West, especially the EU, while simultaneously maintain strong economic and political ties with Moscow. What particularly incensed the EU was Yanukovych’s postponement in November 2013 of signing a trade and partnership agreement with it, given that the deal would have been a significant step for Ukraine’s economic, political, cultural, social as well as military integration with EU structures. What antagonised the EU further was Russia’s 15 billion dollar bailout package to Ukraine, considerably more generous than the EU’s politically top-heavy offer. Moscow’s offer in turn was supposed to have paved the way for Ukraine’s entry into the Moscow-led Customs Union among several former Soviet republics. Yet Yanukovych was also aware of the attractiveness of the EU’s markets and potential investment, and as such offered to start tripartite negotiations with the EU to include Russia. The outright rejection by Brussels of his proposal, however, demonstrated the political nature of the EU’s plan, to which economic considerations were merely an adjunct. Yanukovich was as unacceptable to NATO as he was to the EU. He opposed Ukrainian membership of NATO, and as such he represented a major obstacle to NATO’s ambitions of moving more bases into the post-Soviet space. As recently on 1 February at a NATO conference in Munich, the organisation’s chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen, in a barely disguised jibe against Russia, declared “Ukraine must have the freedom to choose its own path without external pressure.”
The scene was therefore set for open confrontation between the authorities and those who were opposed to Ukraine’s continuing association with Russia, mainly the radical Russophobes from the West of the country and their Western backers. The ensuing crisis was played out largely in Kiev’s Maydan Square before the world’s press and which was largely orchestrated by violent neo-fascists from various political groupings styling themselves the Right Sector. These were turn encouraged by a parade of European and American politicians including hardline Russophobes like US Senator John McCain, the leader of Poland’s opposition, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Georgia’s former president, Mikhail Saakishvili, as well as the EU’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton. These, in turn, had no problem with rubbing shoulders with politicians like Svoboda Party leader, Oleh Tyahnybok, for whom Ukraine’s greatest enemy is the “Muscovite-Jewish mafia”.
Svoboda itself proudly traces its heritage to the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) of Stepan Bandera which during the Second World War ethnically cleansed parts of Ukraine, murdering thousands of Poles, Jews and Russians in the process. The extent of foreign meddling in the crisis was revealed by a leaked telephone conversation in which the Assistant Secretary of State for Europe, Victoria Nuland, and the US ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, were heard to be forming Ukraine’s future government.
Their preferred candidate for Prime Minister, the central banker Arseniy Yatsenyuk, was unsurprisingly appointed to that post following the deposal of Yanukovych in February 2014. Yatsenyuk, who leads a government which includes several Svoboda members, is a curious bed-fellow for Tyahnybok, given Yatsenyuk’s Jewish origins. Revealingly, Nuland was also keen to express her contempt for the EU’s mismanagement of the crisis, telling Pyatt to “f…k the EU” and seek a solution through the UN instead to “glue this thing together”.
On 21 February, amidst growing violence the EU, in a desperate attempt to salvage its reputation, brokered a deal between Yanukovych and the “moderate” leaders of the protests which was to see the reinstatement of the 2004 Constitution of the Orange Revolution, as well as the formation of a government of national unity and early elections. Yet no sooner was the deal signed than the Ukrainian Parliament proceeded to remove Yanukovych from office.
The new self-appointed authorities, consisting of Western placemen and fascists from both Svoboda and even from the more radical Right Sector, like Andriy Parubiy and Dmytro Yarosh, has done little to de-escalate tensions in the country. Instead of appealing to the country’s diverse communities, one of the first diktats that the new government issued was repeal a law giving regional rights to minority languages. Although it was vetoed by the acting President Oleksandr Turchynov a few days later, the parliamentary move nevertheless sent shock waves through the Russian speaking half of the country as well as other minorities such as Romanians, Greeks, Poles and Hungarians. Even more chilling was the repeal of the law penalizing Nazi propaganda. For Ukraine’s Jewish community the developing situation was so alarming that a leading Ukrainian Rabbi, Moshe Reuven Azman, appealed to Kiev’s Jews to leave the city and even the country if possible.
The corruption and incompetence of the previous order is not in doubt. But whatever its faults, it was democratically elected and acknowledged by the international community as legitimate. Presidential elections were due to take place next year and most opinion polls were indicating a defeat for Yanukovych in the second round to most of the opposition candidates. Uncertainty, however, as to the pro-Western credentials of a new president was sufficient for Western powers to orchaestrate a coup d’etat and bring in their own man on a wave of a “popular will”.
In doing so, however, they have significantly miscalculated, something which has been already made clear by Russia’s decisive actions to secure its vital strategic interests in Crimea, a territory that was ceded to the Soviet Republic of Ukraine in 1954 by the then Party boss of the Soviet Communist Party, Nikita Khrushchev, who sought to secure the support of Ukraine’s powerful regional Communist Party leaders in the post-Stalin power struggle. The irony of the current crisis is that the formal reason given for the transfer of the territory was to commemorate the tercentenary of the Pereyaslav Treaty that saw the Cossack State, the “Ukraine” of the 16th century, acknowledge the “protection” of the Russian Tsar. The thought that Crimea would ever be separated from Russia’s orbit never crossed Khrushchev’s or anyone else’s mind, in a time when the USSR was a Super Power and for Khrushchev at least, destined to rule the world. The West’s patronage and alignment with disreputable Ukrainian forces has also discredited its cause. The Maydan protests were never about a single cause but a plethora of grievances against a corrupt, albeit democratically elected administration while popular attitudes towards the protests were as divided as the country itself with about a 50-50 split for and against. What the West doesn’t realise is that tolerance by groups like Right Sector, as well as by the more “respectable” Svoboda, of Western interference in Ukrainian affairs is merely a strategic ploy to rid Ukraine of Russia’s influence. They have as much tolerance for democratic values, IMF, NATO or the EU’s gay rights agenda as they do for Russia. And yet they have now been elevated to a position completely out of proportion with their popular support and one which they will not cede voluntarily. As Yarosh stated, “we have enough guns to defend all of Ukraine from the internal occupiers”. Yarosh, together with Parubiy, now control the ministerial defence portfolios in the new government.
For Russians and Russified Ukrainians in Ukraine, which constitute about half of the population, if not more, the Western-sponsored putsch in Kiev represents an outright attack on their identity. To these people Moscow’s involvement in the affairs of Crimea and other parts of Russian Ukraine is not only justified but morally correct. The more Western leaders give succour to what they see as the illegitimate government in Kiev the more they drive these communities towards Moscow’s fold, as evidenced, for instance, by the declaration on 6 March of UDI by the Crimean Parliament.
For all the sympathy expressed for the “Ukrainian people” by Western leaders and journalists in absurd and hyperbolic dispatches about imminent World War III and their indignation towards Putin’s “Hitlerite” actions, the putsch in Ukraine was never about freeing the people of Ukraine from corrupt, oppressive governance. It was, rather, about containing a resurgent Russia which is challenging the West’s geopolitical assertiveness and long-standing regime-change agenda that commenced in Yugoslavia and was supposed to have continued in Syria. The conflict with Russia is no longer about economic ideology as it was the case, at least partly, during the Cold War, given that Russia is now more capitalist than many of the West’s highly regulated economies. It now purely concerns power politics and a scramble for the world’s resources. Whether the West will succeed in achieving this aim in Ukraine is doubtful, given that the IMF strategy that it has proposed for Ukraine will lead to unprecedented austerity that can only provoke further unrest and greater alienation of the people of Ukraine from Kiev’s administration.
Where do the Sochi Olympic Games fit in?
Undermining Russia in its showcase event, the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, was a major long-term aim of Western powers, which could not allow Russia to present itself to the world in a light contrary to the stereotypical caricature crafted by Western propagandists. In the run-up to the Games negative media reporting reached a scale unprecedented for any such event. Reports ranged from scare stories about terrorists secreting explosives in toothpaste on flights heading for Sochixi] to pictures of inadequate and unfinished accommodation and of brown contaminated water oozing from taps, pictures that later were exposed as fake.
To pull the heart strings of animal lovers The New York Times carried an expose of the “systematic slaughter” of Sochi’s stray dogs in time for the Olympics, which, according to the report
…cast a gruesome specter over the traditionally cheery atmosphere of the Games [undercutting]the image of a friendlier, welcoming Russia that President Vladimir V. Putin has sought to cultivate in recent months.
But the story that generated the greatest attention was Russia’s legislation passed in June 2013 banning distribution of “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations among minors”, making such propaganda punishable by fines and imprisonment. Mobilising international leftist, liberal and gay rights organisations, the story generated enough ire, genuine and faked, forced by political correctness, to provoke condemnation from the highest political quarters. Calls for boycotts of the Games were heeded by several Western leaders, including President Obama. Curiously missing from the indignant voices was similar condemnation of countries, like America’s close allies, notably Saudi Arabia, where sodomy is punishable by death or of many US states where homosexuality, unlike in Russia, is banned outright.
The Western media continued to do its utmost to discredit the Games as they were going on with contextually inaccurate stories of empty stadiums and outright lies about athletes’ dormitories being infested with roaming wolves.
As it happens the Games were, by common consensus, spectacular, passing without any major incident. But that, of course, was never really in doubt. The aim of Western political leaders, together with the “on message” mainstream media was to create a coalition of Russia-haters across the political spectrum to mobilise international opinion against Russia at a time when Western geopolitical strategists were plotting major anti-Russian manoeuvres.
A war of wills
The recent escalation of Russophobia in the West to almost hysterical proportions has been carefully orchestrated by Western politicians and media to disguise ulterior, foreign policy aims, behind contrived indignation about non-existent and exaggerated issues. The key to understanding what is really going on is to avoid reflexive reactions to propagandistic headlines and statements and to engage in joined-up thinking. Only then is it possible to trace the origins of the current stand-off between Russia and the West and to recognise it for what it is. It is certainly not about the promotion of democratic values and sustainable economic development. The opposite is certainly the case. Nor is it about the promotion of conservative values. If anything it is the Russia of today that has embraced the conservative and religious values that were once common in the West, in what is a complete reversal of situations that existed during the Cold War era. What is at the heart of the stand-off is a struggle of wills between the West’s ever increasing global assertiveness and Russia’s renewed intention to stop it.
Dr. GREGORY SLYSZ lectures in history, and specialises in Russian and Eastern European affairs