Staunton, April 17 – Diplomats, commentators, and the public typically focus on a particular action rather than on the context within which it takes place or the extent to which it points to broader trends, either because this gives them confidence that they can address the particular or because all extrapolations from it are inevitably subject to dispute.
But that makes the arguments of those who suggest that any particular action is part of a broader trend all the more important because such arguments not only provide a test of the assumptions of others about the limited nature of this or that action but also call attention to what may happen in the future.
One writer who routinely seeks to go from the particular to the general in analyzing Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy actions is US-based Russian historian Yury Feltshtinsky, who argues in a new essay that Putin’s military expansion is only beginning (apostrophe.com.ua/article/politics/2016-04-17/yuriy-felshtinskiy-voennaya-ekspansiya-putina-tolko-nachinaetsya/4400).
“Living exclusively on the extraction and sale of raw materials,” he writes today on the Apostrophe portal, “Russia is able to produce only two products – arms and armed conflicts. The first is important as a source of income for the state,” especially given declines in oil prices. “The second is an instrument for expanding political influence.”
At the present time, Feltshtinsky argues, Russia is searching for new places to exacerbate or create conflicts: “Abkhazia and South Osetia for a new war with Georgia; Crimea and Eastern Ukraine for continuing the war with Ukraine; Transdniestria for the potential seizure of Moldova; Syria and Kurdistan for splitting NATO, destabilizing Turkey and unleashing a major war in the Middle East to increase oil prices; the Karabakh conflict for subordinating Armenia; military bases in Belarus as a place des armes for the annexation of Belarus; ‘the Russian question’ in the Baltic states as an occasion for intervention in the Baltic countries and the reunification of ties between Kaliningrad and continental Russia; provocations towards Finland and Sweden which are not members of NATO for intervention in Finland under the pretext of not allowing it to become a member of NATO; the seizure of the Arctic in order to exacerbate conflicts with Canada; and finally, the demand for the return of Alaska to Russia which sold it 150 years ago as the beginning of an open geopolitical and military-political conflict with the US by means of the use of atomic blackmail against the entire world.”
Given this list, the historian says, “all signs show that the program of territorial seizures by Russia has only begun with the annexation of Crimea and the occupation of the eastern regions of Ukraine” and that talk about demanding the return of Alaska should not be dismissed as an April Fool’s joke.
That is how many people reacted to an article published on that date in Moscow’s “Gazeta” with the title “The Return of Alaska will be a Gift to Putin” (gazeta.ru/politics/2016/03/30_a_8151107.shtml). But “perhaps,” Felshtinsky says, this may not prove to be funny at all.
After seizing Crimea, Putin did not say that this represented the completion of his territorial goals nor did he say that his intention was to restore the USSR, the Russian historian points out. Instead, he again talked about the end of the USSR as “a personal and geopolitical” tragedy and dismissed Ukraine as a non-existent state.
And taking their lead from Putin’s words, Russian singers talked about taking even more, up to and including the Turkish straits and Jerusalem because they are part of an imagined “Russian world” or because of Russia’s role as “the third Rome,” Feltshtinsky says.
From this perspective, of course, “Poland, Finland and Alaska which once were part of the Russian Empire are nothing other than ‘Russian lands from time immemorial.’ And it is thus not be any chance that from March 2014, Russian submarines regularly approach Finland, and Russian jets fly up to the air borders of the Baltic countries, Poland, Finland and … Alaska.”
A year before Putin made these remarks, “Gazeta” suggested that talk about getting Alaska back was either “idiotism or a provocation.” But now, the Moscow paper “seriously discusses if it is possible for Russia to demand the return of Alaska,” a reflection of the changes Putin’s policies have wrought in Russia.
Felshtinsky points to one detail of this year’s “Gazeta” article: it talks about the return of Alaska not as a gift to Russia as a state but to Putin personally. “And it is understandable why: Russia and Russians don’t need either Crimea or Eastern Ukraine or Alaska” given the price they have paid and would have to pay for that to happen.
The only people who need this are “Putin and his small junta of five to seven of the senior KGB/FSB officers who today run Russia.” These people are “very dangerous” because they did not join the organs to become builders but rather to “suppress, kill, control, provoke, ‘split up,’ take away and recruit,” all things they “know how to do and do with enthusiasm.”
In the propaganda film, “World Order,” Putin declared that he had learned as a child on the streets of Leningrad that if a fight is inevitable, one must strike out first. That is what he has done, even if many have been unwilling to recognize his moves as a reflection of this perception of the nature of the world.
In 1999, when he was head of the KGB, he was involved in sending Russian troops to seize the Prishtina airport in Kosovo. Later that year, when he had become prime minister, he unleashed the second post-Soviet Chechen war. Then in 2008, the Kremlin leader invaded Georgia; and in March 2014, he sent his forces into Ukraine.
“The main problem with Putin and Russia today,” Felshtinsky says, “is that Putin is not a dictator. He is in power as a representative of the KGB/FSB, and with the departure of Putin from the political arena, nothing of principle will change in Russia if the junta of former FSB officers remains.”
Many have ignored that and have ignored the fact that “not once over the last two years has the Kremlin declared that with the occupation of Crimea and the eastern regions of Ukraine is the program of Russia’s territorial seizures at an end. To the contrary, everything indicates that it is only beginning.”
Evidence for this conclusion includes increased military spending, the “bold” testing of NATO’s resolve in Europe, dispatching Russian forces to Syria, increased espionage activity, the aggressive rhetoric of the foreign ministry, and “the activation of anti-Western rhetoric by the Russian media in Russia and abroad to levels unheard of even in Soviet times.”
“Putin is trying to force the world community to recognize ‘a new world order’ as proclaimed and organized by the Kremlin,” Felshtinsky says. “At the basis of this new doctrine lies Putin’s demand to recognize Russia’s right to a free hand for the realization of the foreign political plans of the Kremlin to control or seize territories and spheres of influence.”
According to the Russian historian, “the tactical instrument for the realization of this strategic task is the exacerbation of conflicts in various parts of the world” in order to demand Russia’s participation in their resolution as “a fully equal partner of the US.” And Putin is doing so because “this is the only sphere in which Russia is competitive.”