Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Seventh Krymnash Myth -- that Annexation Was a Response to West’s Denigration of Russia -- Baseless, Popov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 16 – The seventh “Krymnash” myth, one suggesting that Russia has not engaged in aggression in Crimea and the Donbas but rather responded in a “morally justified” way to the years of “humiliating acts committed by the West” is “very important” but just as baseless as all the others, Arkady Popov argues.

            In a detailed and heavily-footnoted 7500-word article in today’s “Yezhedevny zhurnal,” the Moscow historian argues that what this is all about is Moscow’s anger about the West’s failure to “recognize the territory of the former USSR as a zone of ‘Russia’s special interests’” that no one may enter without taking Moscow’s views into account (

Vladimir Putin laid out the foundations of this myth in his Crimean speech of March 18, 2014, Popov says, when the Kremlin leader declared that “we are against any military organization dominating alongside our yard, next to our home or on our historical territories,” an indication that only Russia could be the master in the former Soviet space and that the countries there are “not sovereign with the right to decide” their foreign relations.

That conception, the Moscow historian continues, “clashes with the assurances hta tRussia is not interfering in the affairs of Ukraine and that Crimea ‘reunited itself’ and the Donbas ‘rose itself.’” But while that may “trouble” others, it doesn’t  appear to bother the Krymnashists.

Popov devotes a large part of his article to a discussion of soft power and the way in which developed countries now prefer to use it rather than hard power to promote themselves in the world, even to the point of viewing war, the ultimate expression of hard power, as something marginal and antiquated.

He argues that “military interventions in the 21st century have not ceased to be carried out, but they long ago ceased to be economically effective and correspondingly competitively useful.” That can be seen in the case of the United States.

“Despite the fact that English and Hollywood, the American dollar and Apple have won recognition throughout the world,” Popov writes, “attitudes toward the US in the contemporary world can’t be called especially warm.” The reason is clear: “because the US not simply possesses the largest hard power in the world but because it uses it too often.”

Washington’s use of hard power in various places and especially in the former Yugoslavia has led Putin to ask if the US is allowed to, why shouldn’t Russia? But that misses the point in several respects. First, the situation in Yugoslavia and that in Crimea were very different before outsiders intervened.

Second, as Putin should know from his legal studies, Kosovo is “not a precedent for a precedent in justice is called a legal decision to which others may appeal.” What happened in Kosovo, Popov says, was not a legal decision but an act of force. Appealing to it therefore is baseless. 

“Aggression does not cease to be aggression because it is not the first such act in the world.”

And third, Putin increasingly has followed the notion that relations among countries should follow the law of nature where force triumphs over law and right and where the strong define what the weak must do. If Russia takes Crimea from Ukraine, that is “just because Ukraine is weak. A system of legal consciousness known since the times of the Assyrians.”

But there are deeper sources of and problems with the notion that Russia is justifiably “rising from its knees” after humiliation by the West.  Some Russians viewed the world this way “immediatleya fter the collapse of the USSR … but for the first ten yeares it appeared that this theory had not practical prospects,” given that the West was ready to integrate Russia and many in Russia wanted to integrate with the West.

With the rise of Vladimir Putin, however, things began to change, Popov says. In December 2000, less than a year after he became president, Putin called for reviving the Soviet hymn changing only the words “indestructivel union” with “holy power” and “a powerful will.”  This was a sign: “Russia will rise from its knees!”

And as Russia became more “vertical” and authoritarian, the possibilities that it might integrate with the West declined because the West was not about to take in a country whose values were increasingly at odds with its own. Then in 2005, Putin made it clear that he wasn’t interested when he called the end of the USSR “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”

In the same speech, Putin also spoke about “tens of millions of our fellow citizens and compatriots” having been left “beyond the borders of Russian territory.”  Equating these two concepts, the first time it had happened, was also a sign of what Putin intended with regard to Russia’s neighbors.

Popov says that “The Russian Federation although it is a nuclear power is not a superpower.” It simply doesn’t have the resources or even more the attractive soft power that the West and its allies do. Worse, he continues, Putin did not use the income from the sale of oil and gas to change that. Why? Because “the functioning of ‘the vertical’ excludes that possibility.”

Putin “couldn’t turn away from ‘the vertical.’” Not because of those around him but because to do so would require that he acknowledge that he had become “a political bankrupt.” And consequently, he had only one way out: war and war very publicly carried out, which could change the international system and give Russia “a chance to rise from its knees.”

“What follows from this?” Popov asks rhetorically. It means that “it is a mistake to see in the Crimean-Donetsk adventure only an outburst of irrational anger or to consider them in terms of immediate goals.” Instead, they reflect “a strategic plan,” one that Putin signaled some years ago, “to return to war the status of a political norm.”

Unfortunately for him but fortunately for the world, he is unlikely to succeed, Popov says. The rest of the world doesn’t want to return to that past and prefers instead to use soft power.  And that in turn carries a lesson about “an important distinction” between Crimea and the Donbas, on the one hand, and Kosovo and Iraq, on the other.

“The adventures in Kosovo and Iraq … were and remain” exceptions to the West’s approach, Popov says, because “their illegal content conflicts with the legal foundations of the functioning of Western democracies.”  Consequently, they will not last for long because domestic politics in Western countries dominate foreign affairs.

But in sharp contrast, “the adventures in Crimea and the Donbas should be viewed as the main directions of Putinism: they, alas, organically grow out of his adventurist domestic policy” and thus are likely to continue unless and until that domestic policy is changed and its author off the scene.

The West will not recognize the annexation of Crimea, Popov continues, “and it will not accept the Clausewitzean formula that “war is an extension of politics by other means.” Western countries see no reason to return to the world of war or to support those who do, whatever short-term cooperation they may show to the latter.

The values of peaceful cooperation and soft power are too deeply ingrained in Western societies for them to change in the way Putin would like. “Barbarians may find it difficult to understand [that] pathetic myths are no helpers for them. Myths are good when they awaken and inspire, but bad when they lead into delusion.”

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