Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. © Russian Presidential Press and Information Office
A Russian tank rolling over border lines has become a familiar sight. Nevertheless, that does not lessen the political significance of such an action – which appears to have occurred again in recent days. Russian meddling in the affairs of its neighbours, as documented by Michael Weiss, is hardly over. As predicted, it seems that the Russian bear is not satiated by simply swallowing Crimea.
Russia has attempted to dominate its neighbours since before the end of the Cold War. The ‘Union’ of Soviet Socialist Republics was anything but. The formation of the USSR in the aftermath of the Russian Civil War was not one which most member states entered willingly – with the myth of happy unification serving as a fig leaf for what amounted to the military re-conquest of former Russian imperial territories.
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, Russia has been its own nation, but one which sought to exert the same influence on nearby countries as it did in its previous incarnation. President Putin, a former official in the sinister KGB, well schooled in the police state methodology, seeks to replicate this today.
Hence the trauma and strife and resistance on the streets of Ukraine; when the Russian-speaking Eastern half of the country, backed by the Motherland herself, comes up against western, Europhile tendencies from the other Ukraine. Sparks were always going to fly.
I watched live footage of a demonstration gone bad during the original EuroMaiden protests, and, amid the garish lighting, setting the surroundings ablaze with a torrent of lurid orange fluorescents, the men and women of Ukraine (I hesitate, out of respect for their uncommon bravery, to use the word ‘ordinary’) were being corralled by the machinery of the state. That state, now since thankfully replaced, was a Russia proxy. More aggressive action from Moscow can hardly seem surprising.
That night was full of the sounds of wordless shouting, mingled with the occasional sharp scream of pain, and the infrequent pop of some minor explosion. Viewing this – sitting as I was in the relative prosperity of the Western world, watching the citizens of some far-off land fighting to attain the same dizzy heights of freedom that I enjoy – made me feel at once humble, afraid, exhilarated and proud.
I was frightened for democracy; once more under threat from some two-bit would-be despot in a foreign field. I was humbled by the courage, moral and physical, of those who defied the threats of brute force from the authorities to protest against kow-towing to Moscow. I was exhilarated, as I am whenever what I love comes up against what I hate, by this open defiance of Russian soft expansion, and their de facto puppet in ‘local’ government. Finally, I was proud – unaccountably so, as I don’t know anyone involved – but proud nevertheless.
It was also an education of sorts to observe the differences in coverage. It was very interesting to see that Putin mouthpiece Russia Today only focused on the violence apparently committed by demonstrators, who were called only “rioters”. Obviously the Kremlin-sponsored government is above reproach.
The protesters were not perfect, by any means, and the new government in Kiev is not a model of democratic perfection; and, accordingly, any attempt to marshal this complex event into a black-and-white narrative would be misguided.
And yet, there are still lessons to be extracted from the trauma in Ukraine, etched with the pain and bloodshed of the nation. Rebels in the East of the country are hardly nice people – certainly less so than the new leaders in the nation’s capital. There have been calls for the registration of Jews in Donetsk, where horror stories of the new order of things are emerging.
It is important to acknowledge that such threats to democracy still exist, even in nations as close geographically to Western democracy as Russia and Ukraine. Putin is a tyrant, who attempts to smash political opponents and undesirables with the weight of a compromised legal system. His many proxies and allies – in Ukraine, Belarus and the like – present the same challenge to liberty and democracy, and only make it worse.
While a fair amount of his political foes have been squabbling oligarchs, immoral billionaires rapidly enriched by the disintegration of the Soviet Union, it has been difficult to empathise with the victims of his oppressive rule. Some people even seem to like the guy; Peter Hitchens went as far as to deliver a lecture – only partially tongue in cheek – about his admiration for this xenophobic, gay-bashing murderer.
But now he is doing it to ordinary people, and in another sovereign state, no less. Bands are arrested and imprisoned on archaic statute. Discontent is stirred up by Russian Agents provocateurs in order to destabilise a democratic transition. This is still happening. And, as long as it is, it must be opposed.
James Snell is a Contributing Editor of The Libertarian
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