I listened live to Putin’s speech yesterday with great interest. Here is my own analysis, for what it is worth.
Putin was strongest in his accusations of western hypocrisy. His ironic welcoming of the West having suddenly discovered the concept of international law was very well done. His analysis of the might is right approach the West had previously adopted, and their contempt of the UN over Iraq and Afghanistan, was spot on. Putin also was absolutely right in describing the Kosovo situation as “highly analogous” to the situation in Crimea. That is indeed true, and attempts by the West – including the Guardian – to argue the cases are different are pathetic exercises in special pleading.
The problem is that Putin blithely ignored the enormous logical inconsistency in his argument. He stated that the Crimean and Kosovo cases were highly analogous, but then used that to justify Russia’s action in Crimea, despite the fact that Russia has always maintained the NATO Kosovo intervention was illegal(and still refuses to recognize Kosovo). In fact of course Russia was right over Kosovo, and thus is wrong over Crimea.
I was very interested that Putin made distinct reference to the appalling crimes against the Tartars in the 1930’s, but also to the terrible suffering of Ukrainians in that period. His references were not detailed but their meaning was clear. I was surprised because under Putin’s rule there has been a great deal of rehabilitation of Stalin. Archives that were opened under glasnost have frozen over again, and history in Russian schools now portrays Stalin’s foreign policy achievement much more than his crimes (and it is now again possible to complete your Russian school education with no knowledge the Stalin-Hitler pact ever happened). So this was both surprising and positive. Designed to be positive was his assurance that Crimea will be trilingual. We will see what happens; Putin’s Russia is in fact not tolerant of its ethnic populations in majority Russian areas, and in fact contains a great many more far right thugs than Ukraine – probably about the same percentage of the population.
The 97% referendum figure is simply unbelievable to any reasonable person and is straight out of the Soviet playbook – it was strange to see Putin going in and out of modern media friendly mode and his audience, with their Soviet en brosse haircuts and synchronized clapping – obviously liked the Soviet bits best.
The attempt to downplay Russia’s diplomatic isolation was also a bit strange. He thanked China, though China had very pointedly failed to support Russian in the Security Council. When you are forced to thank people for abstaining, you are not in a strong position diplomatically. He also thanked India, which is peculiar, because the Indian PM yesterday put out a press release saying Putin had called him, but the had urged Putin to engage diplomatically with the interim government in Kiev, which certainly would not be welcome to Putin. I concluded that Putin was merely trying to tell his domestic audience Russia has support, even when it does not.
But what I find really strange is that the parts of the speech I found most interesting have not drawn any media comment I can see. Putin plainly said that in his discussions with Kuchma on the boundaries of Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union, they hadn’t wanted to open any dispute with what they expected to be a friendly neighbor, and that therefore the boundaries of Ukraine had never been finally demarcated. He said twice the boundaries had not been demarcated. That seemed to indicate a very general threat to Eastern Ukraine. He also spoke of the common heritage of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine in a way that indicated that he did not accept that Ukraine might choose a political future away from Russia.
Secondly, he said that on the day the Soviet Union broke up, Russians in many places had “woken up to find themselves in a foreign country.” Again from the context in which he said it, this referred not just to Crimea, and not just even to the rest of Ukraine, but to Russian nationals all over the Former Soviet Union. I would be worrying a lot about this part of the speech if I was Kazakh, to give just one example. Putin seemed to be outlining a clear agenda to bring Russian speaking areas of CIS countries back in to Mother Russia – indeed, I see no other possible interpretation of his actions in Georgia and Ukraine.
I think that we should start listening much more carefully to what he says. I also think that the weakness of the EU’s response to events gives Putin a very dangerous encouragement to pursue further aggrandizement. I posted a few days ago:
The EU I expect to do nothing. Sanctions will target a few individuals who are not too close to Putin and don’t keep too many of their interests in the West. I don’t think Alisher Usmanov and Roman Abramovic need lose too much sleep, that Harrods need worry or that we will see any flats seized at One Hyde Park. (It is among my dearest wishes one day to see One Hyde Park given out for council housing.) Neither do I expect to see the United States do anything effective; its levers are limited.
The truth is of course that the global political elite are in the pockets of the global financial elite, and while ordinary Russians are still desperately poor, the money the oligarchs rip out of Russia’s backward commodity exporting economy is parceled around the world financial system in ways that make it impossible for the western political classes to do anything. Whose funds would the hedge fund managers look after? Whose yacht could Mandelson and Osborne holiday on?
Personally I should like to see a complete financial freeze on the entire Russian oligarchy. The knock on effects would only hurt a few bankers, and city types and those who depend on them (cocaine dealers, lap dancers, Porsche dealers, illegal domestic servants). Sadly we shan’t see anything happen. They won’t let Eton go bust.