Russian motivations

Published August 17, 2016

THE recent ratcheting up of tensions between Russia and Ukraine has been portrayed in the Western media more or less exclusively as a plot by Vladimir Putin, possibly with a view to resuming outright hostilities and carving a land corridor through Ukrainian territory to Crimea, which Moscow arbitrarily annexed two years ago.

The scenario is not entirely implausible. The economic sanctions imposed in the wake of the annexation are biting. Worse, they are humiliating. In that respect, perhaps they now take second place to the doping scandal and the exclusion of many Russian athletes from the Rio Olympics. On top of that, there are the Nato deployments on Russia’s borders with the Baltic states.

With parliamentary elections coming up next month, watering the roots of nationalistic pride with a bit of blood would not be entirely uncharacteristic for President Putin. At the same time, it would be unfair to ignore the character of the government in Kiev, which is prone to taking its visceral anti-Russian tendencies to extremes, to the extent of exalting as national heroes figures from Ukrainian history, including Nazi collaborators, with plenty of blood on their hands.

Barely a quarter-century ago, Ukraine and Russia were part of the same country. In fact, this week marks the 25th anniversary of the thoroughly misguided coup attempt that hastened the demise of the Soviet Union. The idea behind the move by retrograde elements within the Soviet Communist Party and the state structure, including the KGB, was evidently to halt the wide-ranging changes party general secretary Mikhail Gorbachev had set in motion, in particular a new union treaty that it was feared would effectively be tantamount to the dissolution of the Soviet entity.

Gorbachev, who was also the president of the USSR, was placed under guard in the dacha where he was briefly on vacation. There’s a spot of retrospective irony in the fact that the dacha was located in Crimea. (And incidentally, Gorbachev, who has in recent years been a trenchant critic of Putin on various fronts, did not object to Crimea being returned to the Russian fold.)

This week marks the 25th anniversary of the Soviet coup attempt.

The 1991 coup was more or less destined to be a disaster. When vice-president Gennady Yanayev appeared at a press conference to explain the takeover, his trembling hands effectively gave the game away. Many years later, he admitted he was thoroughly inebriated at the time. Perhaps it isn’t too much of a coincidence, in the Russian context, that the man who singularly symbolised resistance to the coup also boasted a notorious weakness for vodka.

Boris Yeltsin endeared himself to the West with a defiant declaration of resistance to the coup from the top of a tank in the centre of Moscow. It may have been his finest hour, although what ultimately defeated the attempt wasn’t any individual act but the refusal of many citizens to entertain the prospect of a reversal. They poured out in vast numbers on to the streets of the Soviet capital in particular — and, crucially, the young recruits manning the tanks were not prepared to mow down the protesters (unlike, one might add, their counterparts in Budapest in 1956 and Prague in 1968).

It’s impossible to say how long some semblance of the Soviet Union might have survived in the absence of the abortive coup, but there can be little doubt that the incredibly stupid attempt to seize power hastened the USSR’s demise, with Gorbachev effectively sidelined despite formally returning to power and Yeltsin, already the president of Russia, calling the shots, and agreeing with his Ukrainian and Belarusian counterparts to dissolve the union by the end of the year.

Yeltsin’s rule was in several ways a barely mitigated disaster for post-Soviet Russia, with an infinitely larger number of losers than winners in the economic sphere amid the US-backed rush to neoliberalism, and his democratic credentials were indelibly stained by the military conquest of the Russian parliament in 1993, which entailed a considerably greater loss of life than the events of 1991. Amid all the allegations of Russian interference in this year’s US presidential election, it is also worth noting that American consultants, with direct assistance from Bill Clinton, were key to Yeltsin’s 1996 re-election strategy, when a communist comeback was deemed a possibility.

Yeltsin eventually made way for Putin at the end of 1999 — or, what is more likely, Putin made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. Russia’s subsequent trajectory has been disturbing in many ways, and much of it can be blamed on Putin’s predilections, but the military manoeuvres on its periphery cannot entirely be removed from the context of the periodic invasions from the West that nation has endured for hundreds of years. Peaceful coexistence can by definition only be a reciprocal arrangement. At the moment it seems even the detente that characterised the penultimate phase of the Cold War would be a salutary step.

Published in Dawn, August 17th, 2016



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