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The war in Ukraine and western appeasement

The conflict in Ukraine has encouraged western countries to reassess their overall relations with Russia. Despite this, some apologists continue to hold on to the paradoxical relationships that ultimately led to the conflict in the first place.

March 23, 2022 - Armen Grigoryan - Articles and CommentaryUkraineAtWar

Vladimir Putin during his speech on February 21st 2022, a few days before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Photo: Rokas Tenys / Shutterstock

When Russian President Vladimir Putin gave his belligerent speech on Russian and Ukrainian history on February 21st, some still hoped that he could be satisfied with his recognition of the so-called “people’s republics” in Donetsk and Luhansk. However, as Russia launched a large-scale invasion three days later, even some traditional sceptics of sanctions and military aid for Ukraine began to change their minds.

While thousands of civilians have already been killed, the number of refugees is exceeding three million. Russian troops now continue bombing Kyiv, Kharkiv, Mariupol and other cities. As Ukrainians continue to thwart Russia’s invasion, it is uncomfortable to think that such large-scale bloodshed, destruction and human suffering could have been avoided.

After all, Putin’s obsession with rebuilding Moscow’s empire is nothing new. There were numerous warning signs that the infamous Brezhnev doctrine of yesteryear, which justified intervention in states where communist regimes might be threatened, had been revived and reformulated. This new doctrine focuses on former Soviet republics and other parts of Russia’s former sphere of influence.

In a widely publicised speech in 2005, Putin called the breakup of the Soviet Union the “geopolitical disaster of the 20th century”. He subsequently proclaimed that enriching and strengthening “historical unity” would be the ultimate mission. In 2007, Putin’s speech at the Munich Security Conference reiterated his ambitions. Soon after, there was a cyber attack on Estonia in 2007 – the first of its kind. In 2008, Putin told US President George W. Bush that “Ukraine is not even a country”. In the meantime, there were several armed provocations against Georgia, including bombs dropped by unmarked warplanes. Meanwhile, a “besieged fortress” mindset was increasingly promoted within Russia.

The Russo-Georgian War happened later in 2008. However, the “Tagliavini report” published in 2009 by the Council of the European Union’s Independent International Fact-Finding Mission was largely an example of “bothsidesism”. Simultaneously, the US administration reacted with a “reset” of relations with Moscow, apparently hoping to move past the situation.

However, Putin continued to promote this “besieged fortress” mindset, along with great power ambitions. Militarist rhetoric, combined with the demonisation of the West and promises to protect Russia from “external threats” and domestic “traitors”, was key to Putin’s campaign before the presidential elections in March 2012. Putin again stated that Russia’s problems began with the breakup of the Soviet Union, claiming that “as a matter of fact, historical great Russia, mostly formed back in the 18th century.” The use of the term “Russophobia”, which equated criticism of the Russian government and its policies with intolerance towards ethnic Russians, became ubiquitous in Russian propaganda.

This course of events led to the occupation of Crimea and parts of Eastern Ukraine in 2014. This is what actually happened, contrary to repeated apologist claims that “Russia took Crimea from Ukraine and helped fuel a civil war that broke out in the Donbas region.” Heinous crimes such as the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 were also committed. Sure, some economic sanctions and a degree of isolation followed (for example, exclusion from the G8 forum), but those were largely counterbalanced by a mixture of appeasement attempts and mercantile interests. Europe’s dependence on its natural gas supply from Russia even increased in spite of Putin’s previous blackmail. Such incidents included cutting off gas supplies to Europe in January 2009.

Still, some politicians took the Russian propaganda narrative about a “civil conflict” between the Ukrainian state and local militants at face value. Several western pundits and media outlets not just readily adopted that narrative but also contributed to the legitimisation of Putin’s narrative that Russia was traumatised by the USSR’s defeat in the Cold War. As a result, the Russian leader pushed the idea that the state was entitled to a sphere of influence. That supposed “trauma”, however, was a propaganda trick that helped to manipulate potential sympathisers and apologists abroad. On a domestic level, this helped to strengthen the “besieged fortress” mindset and distract the population from the lack of liberties and the decline of socio-economic standards. In fact, after the demise of the USSR and the Warsaw Pact, “traumatised” kleptocrat elites got an opportunity to seize large assets and substitute state-owned flats, dachas and cars for big fortunes. At the same time, “patriotic” demagoguery helped to form an “aggressive servile majority”. This term, previously used to describe the majority of members of the last Soviet Supreme Council elected in 1989, is quite suitable in this case. This group has disregarded the facts and supported aggression even at the expense of its own vital interests.

As the opportunities to stop the aggressor at an earlier stage were wasted, the large-scale crisis in Ukraine will now be long-lasting. The country is now paying with human lives for appeasement, which was not even its own choice. But EU members and other countries, whose governments tried hard not to disappoint Putin, are also bearing the costs of continuously attempted appeasement. These issues include increased spending (particularly on defence and humanitarian aid), the need to care for refugees, the interruption of supply chains, inflation, and so forth. Eventually, the “Putin understander” politicians, pundits and lobbyists will probably be the only beneficiaries of their betrayal of values and principles in exchange for seemingly lucrative business – even if they pay with their careers and reputation.

In this context, it may also be useful to review an additional reason that has been used by governments for several years to justify appeasement over meaningful sanctions that might have prevented the escalation. This is the unwillingness to undermine the economic interests and well-being of ordinary Russians. The point is not just that now, obviously, harsher sanctions will have an even more devastating effect on the Russian economy. Overall, many Ukrainians are probably right in thinking that there have been attempts to manipulate western public opinion in order to equate the death and devastation caused by the Russian invasion with Russia’s declining standard of living. Previously, the argument about the well-being of ordinary Russians was already quite hypocritical. This is because, even notwithstanding the suffering caused by Russia’s policies to foreigners, it also gave preference to Russian citizens who traded freedom and dignity for a small share of oil revenues. These people were prioritised over those whose lives have been ruined not by the decline in the amount of oil and gas sold abroad, the exchange rate, or the seizure of assets and ban on international travel for Putin’s entourage, but by Putin’s totalitarianism in the making.

Here are just a few examples of these people’s experiences.

Historian Yury Dmitriev was framed and sentenced to de facto life imprisonment for investigating mass killings by Stalin’s NKVD – the predecessor of the KGB and Putin’s FSB – in the 1930s.

Sixteen-year-old Nikita Uvarov was recently sentenced to five years of imprisonment on an absurd charge of “extremism” for an apparent plot to blow up a virtual secret police (FSB) compound in Minecraft. Moreover, the state prosecutor has appealed the “mild” verdict and demanded a nine-year prison term. There have also been a large number of political prisoners, with some brutally killed and others tortured in prisons and labour camps.

Or consider the Chechens, who survived two wars and then were subjected to the rule of ex-warlord Ramzan Kadyrov, the self-defined “Putin’s infantryman” whose henchmen are now murdering Ukrainians. The kidnap and torture of Kadyrov’s critics has been routine for years. His henchmen, including the chief of the police, have also publicly threatened to cut opponents’ heads off.

Assassinations and attempted assassinations of Putin’s opponents – in some cases with radioactive materials or chemical agents such as Novichok – also come to mind. A full list of examples would consist of dozens of pages.

It has already been revealed that the Kremlin’s strategists planned a blitzkrieg that would lead to Putin’s triumph as a collector of lands and builder of the “Russian world”. On February 26th, the Russian state agency RIA Novosti published an article boasting that “Ukraine has returned to Russia” and therefore that Russia, Ukraine and Belarus would become the “Russian world”. The piece also claimed that a new world order, which had been outlined in Putin’s Munich speech in 2007, was being born. Shortly afterwards, as it turned out that the Ukrainians were fighting back effectively, the article was deleted from the website. However, it has been saved on the Internet Archive.

Another premature revelation was made on the same day by the Carnegie Moscow Centre’s director, Dmitri Trenin. In a Twitter post, he also stated that Russia would gather the “lost lands” after Ukraine’s subjugation and that the “Russian world” would become a geopolitical unit. He also claimed that the last vestiges of domestic liberalism would be purged. As Trenin’s post implied that these developments were already unavoidable, it could be argued that making such a post on the same day as the aforementioned article was not coincidental. Certainly, after receiving a great amount of negative feedback, Trenin attempted to exonerate himself by stating that his previous post had just pointed to the Kremlin’s policy trends rather than speculative outcomes. Despite this, it is quite telling that afterwards he stopped posting altogether.

Actually, such “sudden” revelations, along with Putin’s statements made in the last few weeks, were hardly surprising for Putin’s critics. After all, they have been arguing about the dangerousness of his revanchist ambitions for years. This group has also disproved apologist claims that “Russian policymakers—including Mr Putin—have said hardly anything about conquering new territory to recreate the Soviet Union or build a greater Russia.”

This is a good reminder that Russia’s revanchist mindset and ensuing policies still have quite a few apologists outside the country. This group has been providing informational support by dismissing or misrepresenting facts. They have even attempted to justify outright military aggression through platitudes that the aggressor does not bear full responsibility for the war.

Armen Grigoryan is co-founder and vice president of the Yerevan-based Centre for Policy Studies, and a member of the advisory board of the project Resilience in the South Caucasus: Prospects and Challenges of a New EU Foreign Policy Concept, implemented by the Institute of Slavic Languages and Caucasus Studies, University of Jena.


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