Saturday, March 22, 2014

Barend Vlaardingerbroek from Lebanon: Russia – the phoenix rises

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


Anonymous said...

Not sure that I agree that there was a coup in Kiev. Fact is the President lost the confidence of Parliament and they gave him the boot - that's not unusual and not a coup in that it was not an act of force but rather than act of Parliament.

I agree though that the people wanted to go with Russia and so be it - their choice.

The real issue is how much liberty does a government allow one of its communities to make a choice for self determination? If the South Island votes to become an independent country does Parliament simply say, "Ok, off you go and good luck"? Or what about if Auckland says they want to be a country within a country? Or the Rodney District? Or the community of Orewa?

That I think is the real issue and one that is relevant to many countries today.

Brian said...

The Charge of the Obama Brigade.
Half a decision half a decision
In to the valley of the Crimea.
Cried the Western Nations
"Save Ukraine from the Russian Horde."

Forward the Obama Brigade
Was there a Politician dismayed?
Sanctions to right of them
Sanctions to the left of them
Sanctions in front of them
And Sanctions behind them!
Onward they went to Hell

Into the Vale of bureaucracy
Out of the mouths of diplomacy
Comes on, the Obama Brigade.
Armed with bright red tape
Flashing their Committee papers high
Threatening a nation while all wondered;
Just what they are going to achieve?

“With sincere apologies to the Light Brigade, and
Alfred, Lord Tennyson”.

The ridiculous spectacle of the Western alliance threatening Russia with dire sanctions, which would in themselves hurt the West more. Proves only that President Obama and his European and Western allies are but a military emasculated conglomerate of idealists.
It has been said that Nations should govern always with a eye on history, today we see a fragmented Western group that has, over the past two decades, surrendered wholeheartedly to the pacifist theories of the 1930;s.
New Zealand is a very obvious member of this group, when it destroyed its combat air force to save money and continued with its cut backs in defense. But sending soldiers into battle without air cover in this modern age does not seem to worry or concern our Politicians. After all cannon fodder is cheap at the price, as the conflicts of 1914 and 1939 have shown.
Putin has shown the weakness of the West and its continual obsession in trying to back both political horses. While lulling the majority of its citizens with the idea that peace itself, can be bought by appeasement and the offices of the United Nations.

Unknown said...

Nice piece Barend. Please alert Ron Smith to it. He needs the education.
By the way Brian, cannon fodder is only available to politicians because we have citizens prepared to be fooled into going to Wars to get killed to fill the coffers of arms barons and banks who frequently fund both sides in a conflict. The only ones to always profit. As in the first and second world wars and Vietnam. The mighty NZ combat Air force.Pretty scarey stuff they were.Are you kidding me?
Maybe we should take the lead of Sweden and Switzerland and keep our noses out of the war mongering US and Britain wars for profit adventures. It might have slipped by you but neither of those two European nations countries was occupied in world war two.
As my idiotic naive countrymen elected a currency trading, speculator banker as their Prime Minister we might as well put this traitor to some use making our country a tax haven so we will be of value to his buddies, the money boys, who runs this world at the moment and not be targeted by their bully boys, the US and their lackeys Britain. Then the smiling assassin could park his ill gotten gains in NZ instead of in some tax haven off shore.

Dave said...

The West has become a sickly quagmire of self righteous greenies who think everyone just needs to hold hands and sing silly folk songs and all will be happy. In NZ we have over 3 or 4 decades seen a big increase in liberalism, soft approach on law, drugs, pandering to greedy racist separatist views and stupid regulations with osh, resource consents and local body red tape. All making it very difficult for growth and development. Meantime if you are a gay, a darker skin colour, unemployed and smoke pot we are your oyster. In war a Taliban terrorist laughs at our soldiers while our own self imposed laws of engagement prohibit us from ever winning any conflict. The Russians don't indulge in such stupid fantasies, they just get things done.
No wonder Putin feels free to do whatever he wants.

Unknown said...

Totally agree with Dave on the feely-touchy fringe restricting our freedoms approach of governments. Where the people doing stuff the society does not want don`t get their arses kicked hard enough.On the other hand unrestrained development has produced rivers that we can no longer swim in or drink out of. Unrestricted population growth with inadequate infrastructure improvements in tandem are not instituted here.It now takes over 5 hours to drive from Christchurch to Dunedin, a journey of 360 kilometers which would take under 3 hours in Germany for instance.2 hours more sitting in a car when people could be doing more constructive stuff and causing less pollution.The problem in NZ is that the idiot voters in this country keep voting for that sea of mediocrity in Wellington who have created these problems. Our clean green image is only a myth now. Once this becomes widely known around the world and our country becomes more populated why would someone get on a plane in Europe to come here when they can see all the stuff we have in this country in a short flight within Europe or the US. It is our lack of population and clean green environment that attracts tourists here. We are loosing that advantage due to greedy people with no thought for sustainability.