The king is dead. Long live the king! – Trad.
If ever an episode in history was easy to draft the script for, it was the accession of the newly independent state of Crimea to the Russian Federation. Did I hear someone say ‘annexation’? Not on your Nelly!
First, there was a coup in Kiev and the president had to make a run for it, leaving behind an illegitimate ‘provisional government’, i.e. no Ukrainian government at all. Next, Russia exercised its well-established customary right of protective jurisdiction over its kith and kin in the Crimea. Next, over 90% of the people there signalled through a referendum that they wanted to return to the motherland from which they had been wrenched 60 years earlier. Where’s the problem?
Yes, it could be argued that it was just a bit naughty of the Crimeans to opt for external self-determination (secession), as international law has long held that peoples should attain internal self-determination, i.e. remain part of the state in which they find themselves while being enabled to control their own destiny to a large extent. But then there was the game-changer called Kosovo. What is sauce for the Albanian Kosovar goose is sauce for the Crimean Russian gander. So there.
Astute readers will probably have noticed the mildly sarcastic tongue-in-cheek nature of my preceding commentary. No, I am not avidly defending Moscow’s recent antics. But I am impressed. I have noted Vladimir Putin’s brilliance as a Grand Master of the geopolitical chessgame before (‘The rule of international law – have we turned a corner?’ Breaking Views 1 October 2013) and am seriously starting to wonder whether he can walk on water.
Russia is rapidly making its way back onto centrestage as a global power. In the couple of decades following the disintegration of the Iron Curtain into a pile of rust, Russia had to do a lot of soul-searching about its own identity and pondering over its place in the world. I think they’re over that now – that little fracas with Georgia undoubtedly crystallised a few things – and are entering a new phase. Never truly a part of Europe nor indeed of the West, it wasn’t going to become the ‘poor relation’ that it was in imperial times or was starting to look like in the aftermath of the demise of the Soviet Union. Russian media commentators have been talking about a role in the world as a counterbalance to the US; on the BBC’s ‘Hard Talk’ this week, presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the world wasn’t unipolar. It is starting to become clear that the new Russia is picking up where the Soviet Union left off – as an alternative civilisation to the West in general and the US in particular.
It would be an understatement to say that the Russians do not trust the West, and want to keep it well away from their borders. We have yet to see what will happen to the rest of the Ukraine – my money is on an east-west split whether de jure or de facto with the east turning into a buffer zone. But the dislike runs much deeper than qualms about NATO’s proximity. There is a strong cultural element that invokes some entrenched values and mores. As Greenpeace and Pussy Riot both found out to their detriment, the Russian view of the right to dissent and protest doesn’t quite square with today’s Western version. In a similar vein, the ‘right’ to erode the traditional family structure and actively recruit young people into the homosexual lifestyle is not recognised by the Russian authorities nor indeed by most Russian people. I am not saying the Russians are ‘behind’ the West in these respects and will ‘catch up’. Quite on the contrary, I harbour a sneaking respect for the no-nonsense line the Russians have been taking on these various issues. I am sure that I am not the only one and it would not surprise me in the least if between many and most readers of these columns were sitting there quietly nodding. The fact that many of us do not dare speak out to that effect is an indictment of what Western society is becoming – a load of wimps dictated to by a ‘cultural elite’ (to use a fashionable misnomer) that threatens us with charges of ideological crimes should we have the temerity to argue against the new social morality that is being foisted upon us. Perhaps today’s Russia presents us with a ‘third way’ between the dictatorial moral conservatism of yesteryear and the equally autocratic moral diktat of the new Western sociocultural priesthood.
On the international front, the new Russia will continue to assert itself, with Syria a harbinger of things to come. It will continue to actively support the al-Assad regime in power in Damascus; they would lose both face and a base from which to exercise regional influence if the regime were to fall. It’s a tightrope act for them as they are not exactly bosom pals of the Iranians, who are likewise determined to uphold the status quo in Syria for their very own reasons. But Syria is much more to Russia than a regional alliance. It is the Kremlin saying to the world, “We’re back.”
The USSR is dead. Long live the Russian Federation. You might not like it, but you’d better get to terms with it. As for myself, the more I see, the more I like, albeit grudgingly.
Barend Vlaardingerbroek lives in Lebanon and is a regular contributor to ‘Breaking Views’ on geopolitical and social issues. Feedback welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.