Staunton, August 25 – One of the most dangerous things Vladimir Putin has done is to degrade the level of political discourse across the board in Moscow to the level of “pathological ravings,” a development that some in the West appear not to understand and thus continue to be affected in the ways the Kremlin wants, according to Andrey Piontkovsky.
In an essay with the far from accidental title “The Banality of Evil,” the Russian commentator points out that many ideas Russian officials and experts are presenting as “banal” and “mainstream” would have been viewed not only in Moscow but in the West only a few years ago as absurd and ridiculous (kasparov.ru/material.php?id=57BDA2B9CC2C0).
And that “linguistic” development -- especially when Western leaders fail to recognize it -- both opens the way to serious misunderstanding on key issues and also to ever more crude language in Moscow and the danger that Moscow will act on the basis of this language and continue to move in ever more dangerous directions.
Piontkovsky draws these conclusions on the basis of a close reading of recent statements both in Washington and in the Russian expert press by Ruslan Pukhov, a member of the Social Council of the Russian Defense Ministry and thus “a significant figure in the Kremlin’s military-propaganda apparatus.”
Moscow has lost two wars in the last two years: one in Ukraine where ethnic Russians “in the overwhelming majority remained true to the Ukrainian state and its European choice” and a “hybrid” one in the Baltic region where NATO responded to Putin’s “Hitlerite question: ‘Are you ready to die for Narva?’” with another “’Are you, Mr. Putin, ready to die for Narva?’”
After such foreign policy defeats, the Russian analyst points out, “dictatorial regimes usually lose power,” and that is clearly what many in and around the Kremlin are afraid of. Consequently, within that circle, there have been discussions about the need for peaceful coexistence of “a new grand bargain with the West.”
People like Pukhov are clearly the foot soldiers in this effort, Piontkovsky says, and that is what makes the defense analyst’s July speech in Washington on “Russia’s Military Response to the NATO Warsaw Summit” and his article on foreign affairs in “Vedomosti” so instructive albeit disturbing because of what it says about the level of discourse in Moscow.
In his speech, Pukhov made two points, the first that Russia was “ignoring all the NATO hysteria around the Baltics” and the second that Russia was building up its forces around Ukraine so as to give the Kremlin “a range of force oppositions to react to the Ukrainian situation.”
“The shock therapy of the second,” Piontkovsky says, “was designed to elicit by contrast trust in his audience. Yes, we are Scythians, Asians with slanty and greedy eyes. We are preparing to tear to pieces a state of the people closest ethnically and historically to us.” Pukhov implicitly asked and answered his question “what then is the casus belli? Very simple: we must react to the Ukrainian situation.”
“In reality,” the Russian commentator writes, “the flight of Ukraine from the chains of the post-Soviet bosses would represent a mortal threat for the kleptocracy ruling in Russia: the success of Ukraine would be an infectious example for Russian society.”
In short, then, Pukhov was outlining a new “’grand bargain:’ You will close your eyes to our reprisal against Ukraine, and we will spare you the existential choice in a clash in the Balitc with a nuclear power with an inadequate leader. Thus, we will recognize it as belong to your sphere of influence, and Ukraine thus belongs to ours.”
Undoubtedly Pukhov and Putin were inspired by Barack Obama’s remark that “the Russians want to rape Ukraine more than we Americans want to defend it, and we have to take that into consideration.” But despite that “weakness, lack of will and unprincipled position,” there are two reasons to think that Pukhov’s words were absurdly over the top.
On the one hand, NATO doesn’t require any guarantees from Russia about Baltic security. And on the other, even if the West were to betray Ukraine, “it would never betray itself: the Ukrainian people will fight with the heirs of the Horde.” So it is clear, Piontkovsky says, “Pukhov came to Washington as a swindler selling air castles.”
What is important about all this, Piontkovsky continues, is not even the stupidity that is reflected in Pukhov’s words but the fact that what he is saying is what much of the Russian “’establishment’” is saying as well, the result of “an irreversible transformation” that it has undergone in the last two or three years.
And even more is that Pukhov doesn’t appear to many in the West as just how “demonic” this all is, the Russian analyst says, apparently because they have forgotten that similar arguments were made by those who ultimately began World War II and were hanged at Nuremberg.
In case anyone thinks what Pukhov said is an anomaly, Piontkovsky shows that he and other Russian commentators have made exactly the same kind of crude arguments about Syria – and suggested that many in the West have again failed to recognize just how crude and how dangerous such words are.