Why Putin Did It

The Russian president’s speech about annexing Crimea is really about winning back the pride lost when the Berlin Wall fell.

Pool photo by Alexei Nikolsky

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s speech today announcing the annexation of Crimea and ratcheting up his confrontation with the West sounded to many American ears like the Bizarro rhetoric of a comic book character in a world turned upside down. He accused the West, and especially the United States, of all the sins for which he has been charged in the current crisis. He claimed the Europeans and Americans operate on the principle that “truth is not with us, it’s against us.” He claimed that when dealing with them “what is white is called black, what is black is called white.”

And yet … and yet … in a crisis where the slightest miscalculation could lead to a catastrophic war, we in the West would do well to listen closely to what Putin is saying. The bitterness in his narrative was palpable as he described more than two decades of humiliation at the hands of American and European governments that treated his country like a second- or even third-rate power. For him and for many of his people, whatever their other rationales may be, winning back Crimea is about winning back pride.

The world’s history is rife with wars begun to restore national dignity, and nowhere has that been more true or more disastrous than in Europe, where the link between humiliations and conflagrations is all too well known. It is certainly an exaggeration to compare Putin to Hitler, but there is little doubt that the disastrous “peace to end all peace” imposed by the victors in World War I lead to the rise of enraged nationalism in Germany that eventually brought on World War II. And it is just as certain that we are paying the price today in Crimea for the botched conclusion of the Cold War more than 20 years ago.

As former U.S. Ambassador to Moscow Jack F. Matlock Jr. pointed out in The Washington Post over the weekend, “A failure to appreciate how the Cold War ended has had a profound impact on Russian and Western attitudes.”

Matlock, who served in Russia from 1987 to 1991 and saw it all, argues that the end of the decades-long confrontation was negotiated, not “won.” And he says the break-up of the Soviet Union was not something that Washington actually wanted. In 1991, in fact, President George H.W. Bush argued against what he called “suicidal nationalism” in the former Soviet republics. But by 1992, the first Bush was caught up in the triumphalist narrative: “By the grace of God, America won the Cold War,” he said in his State of the Union address at the beginning of that election year.

Afterwards, throughout the Clinton administration and especially during the George W. Bush administration, “the United States insisted on treating Russia as the loser,” says Matlock. The Obama administration famously tried a “reset” of relations with Moscow, but “then Congress’s penchant for minding other people’s business when it cannot cope with its own began to take its toll.” In supposed defense of human rights, the hawks on the Hill piled insult upon insult—at least in the eyes of Putin, and also in the view of many Russians who identify with his sense of grievance.

In today’s speech, Putin hit all those chords of resentment as he built to the crescendo in which he announced measures to take Crimea away from Ukraine and bring it into the Russian Federation.

It is the United States and Europe that have no respect for international law, he said, citing repeatedly the example of Kosovo in 1999, when NATO conducted a two-month bombing campaign to help separate the province and its ethnic Albanian population from the nation of Serbia. Of course Putin didn’t mention the savage persecution of the ethnic Albanians and the ethnic cleansing that targeted them, none of which has an analogy in fact in Crimea. Russia, traditionally allied with the Serbs, had vehemently opposed the action in Kosovo, and was ignored. That was his point.

As NATO expanded to the East over the last two decades, there was little consultation with the Kremlin and a singular lack of respect for its worries, at least as Putin tells the story. “We were cheated again and again,” he said. “Decisions were taken behind our backs.” When Moscow objected it was told, “it’s none of your concern.”

Now in Kiev, and among some members of Congress, talk has begun again of bringing Ukraine into the Western military alliance — a measure Putin described as totally unacceptable, even unimaginable. Crimea, especially, is of too much strategic significance as Russia’s main port on the Black Sea. “We have to stop this Cold War rhetoric,” said Putin. “Russia has national interests,” he went on, “and you have to respect those interests.”

The Russian president mocked American and European claims that he was conducting some sort of renegade power play in Crimea. Returning to his favorite analogy, Putin demanded to know why Albanians in Kosovo could win their independence, but not Russians in Crimea? And while many people died in the Kosovo war, as he pointed out, none have died in Crimea. Is the West worried about international law? “Better late than never,” he said.

Putin cited a selective view of history in which Crimea was always part of Russia, sort of. Certainly it was a place where a lot of Russian blood was shed, conquering it in the 18th century, trying to hold onto it against the Turks, French and British in the 19th, and weathering a ferocious German siege in the 20th. In Crimea, “every place is sacred to us,” Putin told his rapturous parliamentary audience.

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The Russian president seemed at a loss to explain why Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev decided to move Crimea into the Ukraine Soviet Socialist Republic in 1954, and suggested that Khrushchev may have been trying to make amends for the role he played starving and slaughtering Ukrainians under Stalin in the 1930s.

It seems not to have occurred to Putin that it was just this kind of high-handed arrogance toward Ukraine that created so many resentments then—and which endure now. In any case, that wasn’t part of his narrative.

When the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, Putin said, “millions of Russian went to bed in one country and woke up abroad” in the new nation of Ukraine. Even so, Russians continued to feel “in our hearts” that Crimea was part of Russia. If they didn’t make a big deal out of this, he said, it was because they figured Ukraine would be a good (read: pliant) neighbor.

Over the last decade, that premise started falling apart. The idealistic Orange Revolution in 2004 touted (anti-Russian) democracy while a succession of cynical kleptocrats (often in cahoots with Russian oligarchs) led Ukraine toward bankruptcy.

The popular uprising that began in Kiev last November and overthrew the pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in February was portrayed by Putin as a Western-backed “coup d’état” by fascists who idolize the anti-Semitic WWII Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera. In fact, fanatical far-right parties are on the scene in Kiev, but their numbers are few, and if they didn’t exist, there is little question Putin would have invented them. They are the fundamental justification for the moves he announced today. Annexation, he claimed, is simply protecting the Crimea and all its peoples, not just the ethnic Russians. He doesn’t want to divide up Ukraine, he said. He just wants a decent government in Kiev.

Western economic sanctions are certain to mount in retaliation for the Crimea annexation, but Putin clearly thinks he and his people are ready to weather that storm. It’s a point of pride.