Russia’s New Year’s holidays have ended. Groggy eyes on the metro, aching heads on electric trains. The stories of ten days of debauchery trickle in one by one. The doctor who punched his own patient dead. Lazarus who drank himself to death and back to life. The homeless men who drank themselves from death to deader after finding an unidentified brown liquid in a dumpster and going full on YOLO.
Plunging like the blood sugar of the morning commute funeral mass and their post 10-day communion wine hangover, oil hit a 12-year-low, bringing the long-suffering ruble even further down with it. Following previous claims Russia was rebounding from recession, both Moscow and the IMF now expect GDP contraction for 2015 to be at 3.8 percent. Rising economic tides are not predicted for 2016.
In December 2014, Putin vowed the Russian economy would start growing again in two years under what he called the worst case scenario. He’s still got a year to pray for the global oil glut to go away, all the while pretending that much needed economic diversification will just manifest itself in a virtual mafia state where personal initiative is deincentivized via legal nihilism and systemic rot. It doesn’t help that the best of Russia have been leaving in droves. But what does one do in a country where the glass ceiling has nails?
In a revelatory interview with the Germany daily Bild published on Monday, Putin appeared to be straining under the bad news, economic and otherwise. Looking at the state of Russia and the world today, Putin argued that Russia should have been stronger after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Then the world would somehow be a better place. The question is: A better place for whom?
Putin’s latest use of Western media for yet another “J’accuse…!” screed against the West offers a potent glimpse into the “other world” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said he now inhabits. His lack of consistency and belief are seemingly the hallmarks of a sociopath, a chekist who believes in nothing beyond intrigue and raw power, or both.
Putin can, on the one hand, bemoan how former NATO Secretary General Manfred Wörner allegedly promised Gorbachov during the 1990 negotiations on German reunification that NATO would not expand eastward. Never mind that this alleged promise from an official who has been dead for two decades referred to Eastern Germany itself, and not Eastern Europe, as has been argued. Never mind whether a promise holds the weight of a ratified treaty.
Every perceived slight against Russia has the half life of forever.
On the other hand, Putin has absolutely disregarded Russians obligations under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, in which Ukraine gave up its nuclear arsenal in exchange for assurances its borders would be respected, force would not be used against it, and economic pressure would not be levied to influence its politics. Which of those points has Russia not broken time and time again? Violations of the third point, in particular, most certainly predate the “fascist junta” in Kyiv.
In reality, the attempted dismantling of Ukraine echoes the anger of Munich 2007, with the spheres of influence Putin actually believes in ultimately clashing with the rule of law he pays lip service to. Ukraine, of course, never joined NATO, it was never even close. But there is always the chance. In Putin’s world, that chance fit into his own version of ‘The One Percent Doctrine.’
When asked if the Eastern European states had the right to organize their own security affairs by joining NATO, Putin dismissively noted he had heard this argument “a thousand times.”
“Of course every state has the right to organize its security the way it deems appropriate,” Putin said.
“But the states that were already in NATO, the member states, could also have followed their own interests – and abstained from an expansion to the east,” he continued.
Translation: “I claim to support the principle in spirit, but I will take a torch to it in practice.
I know Central and Eastern European states had every right to join NATO, but it was in the member states interests to deny them this right so as to avoid illegal military action on Russia’s behalf.”
In other words, a pure attempt at dismay. Don’t do what you have every right to do; do what we say you can do or there will be trouble. Then deflect your own aggressive actions by claiming you were pushed into a corner and forced to act defensively against your weaker neighbors…by invading them.
If Putin’s complete disregard for a rule-based international order was not already apparent, his 19th century imperialist thinking shone threw when discussing the annexation of Crimea.
“For me, it is not borders and state territories that matter, but people’s fortunes,” he said.
“Napoleon once said that justice is the incarnation of God on Earth,” he would go on to say.
“I’m telling you: the reunification of Crimea and Russia is just.”
Never mind a small man evoking Napoleon and making his actions coequal with a theophanous manifestation. Stick to his far less esoteric claims of support for the “people’s fortunes” when an estimated 160,000 were killed to crush Chechnya’s dream of independence.
When Grozny was razed, filtration camps were set up, and rape and torture were used as instruments of collective punishment against a civilian population, whose interest was Putin acting in again: “Borders and state territories” or people?
Is Putin not the one who deemed calls for “separatism” in Russia illegal, making them punishable by up to four years in prison? Has Putin not forced the same type of federalization on Kyiv that he has actively opposed in Russia since becoming deputy chief of the Yeltsin’s presidential administration in 1998?
Just how absurd is it? Rafis Kashapov, a Russian Tatar activist, was sentenced to 3 years in prison for criticizing Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea. In Russia, you can literally (ok, figuratively) cleave off part of another country, and then imprison people who criticize that illegal land grab on…separatism charges. The mind boggles.
And yet, after once again evoking Kosovo, Putin says “everyone should comply with uniform international rules and not want to change them any time one feels like it.”
In the codex of Putinist propaganda, this is called mirroring —accusing others of doing precisely what you are doing.
He then goes on to claim that Western sanctions are not about helping Ukraine, but “geopolitically pushing Russia back.”
If by geopolitically pushing back Russia, he means expelling Russian soldiers from Ukrainian soil, he is correct. But in Putin’s world, invading a foreign country and then being sanctioned for it is deeply unjust.
He proceeds to call European Union sanctions “a theatre of the absurd.” But saying the tens of thousands of Russian troops to have actively taken part in military operations in Ukraine are on holiday (with uninterrupted supply lines) is not absurd? In what world is using economic pressure rather than military force to compel an aggressive party to back down somehow beyond the pale?
Putin, one can be certain, has an answer to that question. It just might not correspond to any knowable reality.
As I previously wrote, in the “graveyard of ideologies”, for many Russians in general (and Putin in particular), a simple rule of thumb has come to define morality of action: “If Russia does it, it is right.”
Putin is not for or against military intervention in principle, but he is for Russian military interventions. Putin is not for or against security services meddling in the internal affairs of other states, but he does support Russian security services meddling in the affairs of other states. Putin is not for or against imperialism, but he does support Russian imperialism. He is not for or against international law, but he opposes it when it’s not in his interest, and supports it when he sees an opportunity to stick a finger in Washington’s eye.
And Putin has no particular regard for “the freedom of expression of the people,” as he claims to have had in Crimea. But he will use the pretense of the democratic will as a trojan horse to carve up neighboring states, as has been done in Georgia and Ukraine, as could easily be done to Moldova, Kazakhstan, Armenia and beyond. As for the “freedom of expression” of Chechens and Russia’s other ethnic minorities, well, no need to belabor that point.
In a rational world, a leader of 15 years and counting with carte blanche to do whatever he wants might hold some sense of accountability for the state of the nation.
But, rather than face up to the monolithic failings of his power vertical, he is doubling down on rage and victimhood. Time and time again, he cries about where his neighbors have built their fences, all the while, burning his own house to the ground.
Russia is on the ropes and punching itself in the face. But to hear Putin tell it, the West has once again given her a black eye.
And just like with the ten-day-drinking binge to have engulfed Russia over the holidays, the hangover from Russia’s hallucinated reality is coming. The big question is: On the Monday morning after the masses finally come down from the latest Russian trip, how many people will be left lying dead in the snow?
Happy New Year’s everyone.