August 1, 2014
A few weeks after the Malaysian airliner was shot down over Ukraine, there seems to be little doubt that Vladimir Putin is fighting a war against whoever questions his plan to restore Russia’s imperial might. The war began in 2008 with the annexation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, after the then Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili was cleverly provoked to crack down on the rebellious, pro-Russian provinces.
The Georgian army was swiftly crushed and over the next couple of years Russia continued a propaganda war in which it beguiled Western leaders with the “democratic charisma” of Putin and his second-in-command Dmitry Medvedev. That turned out to be an efficient strategy and only the more astute observers resisted the illusion that Western-style democracy was possible in Russia. As it happens, most of these observers, or at least their ancestors, hail from countries that had firsthand experience of Russia as their neighbor. One of them is Polish-born Zbigniew Brzeziński, a former U.S. national security adviser under President Jimmy Carter. Politicians who systematically sounded the alarm against Moscow’s aggressive ways included Polish President Lech Kaczyński, who died in 2010 when a government plane carrying him and 95 others crashed near Smolensk, Russia. His assessment of the situation, ignored at the time, has turned out to be exceptionally accurate.
In a popular joke from the communist era, a teacher asks his class what countries the Soviet Union neighbors. Correct answer: the Soviet Union neighbors whatever countries it wants. It is hard not to get the impression that contemporary Russian leaders think the same. It is also clear as day that the West is doing its best not to rattle the Kremlin’s cage, seeing how easily it has come to terms with the annexation of Crimea. Now, whoever said that the more you have the more you want, was right. The developments in eastern Ukraine clearly show that Russia treats the region like another dish on its table. This is an unprecedented war too, in that it is being fought by men with no insignia on their uniforms and with no formal affiliation with any army or government. Systematically and cynically, Russia has been dismissing accusations of backing separatists from Donetsk and Luhansk, of supplying them with weapons, and of deploying its own special troops and military intelligence experts to the conflict zone.
Using terms the separatists use, Russia’s pro-government media (and other media are almost nonexistent) talk and write about the People’s Republic of Donetsk or Luhansk, even though nobody, not even Russia, has recognized those as independent states.
The tragedy of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 has further radicalized Moscow’s rhetoric. The evidence indicates that the missile that hit the Boeing 777 in the right wing had been fired from the separatists’ positions, but Russia is categorically denying any responsibility, feeding more of its cynical lies to the public in Russia and around the world. But this time, nobody in their right mind—except perhaps Russians duped by decades of propaganda—believes the stories peddled in the Russian media, such as that it was the Ukrainian military that launched the deadly missile in an attempt to down Russia’s version of Air Force One with Putin on board. The two planes were indeed flying close by at one point—when they were both over Warsaw some time before the Malaysian airliner was shot down.
Note where the Russian president was flying from. He had been on one of his longest foreign trips ever, touring countries in South and Central America. One of his stops was in Cuba, the Soviet Union’s former ally, where a Russian military base may reopen soon. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, the base was used as a monitoring and intelligence center. Putin also went to Fortaleza, Brazil, where the leaders of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) signed an agreement to jointly create a $100 billion reserve fund and establish a $50 billion investment and development bank. The media in Russia has described the bank as a counterweight to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, both of which, according to Moscow commentators, are controlled by Washington and its henchmen. The influential, pro-government Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda has printed a photograph of the five BRICS leaders with a caption saying “The five musketeers against Cardinal Obama,” an allusion to the classic Alexandre Dumas novel.
The way things look Putin’s war will take on an economic dimension of global proportions. It is important to realize that it is no longer about two or three regions in Ukraine that the average Western European and American has trouble finding on a map.