By Shrinivas Dharmadhikari/The Citizen
New Delhi, March 3: In recent days there has been a barrage of news about the military operations of the Russian state in Ukraine. The reporting is slanted in the expected direction. Vladimir Putin is caricatured as an authoritarian leader bent on reclaiming former Imperial glory first in Ukraine and then in the Baltic states and elsewhere in the post-Soviet state. Ukraine is being shown as a poor abandoned country whose tiny population is left to deal with its mighty and menacing neighbour, symbolised as a wild boar since as early as the 16th century. A recent ABC News / Washington Post poll found that 80 percent of Americans see Russia as the enemy of the United States, the highest in the cold war between the two powers.
Back home, the Indian media is seized with a clear black-and-white TRP enhancer to present without any fear of accusation or labels. Rich with visuals coupled with a story that requires no homework for informed commentary, and laced with “Indians stranded in the conflict zone,” makes for a heady cocktail of human interest. Most have ticked off their responsibility of presenting the “other side” with a few sentences on NATO and Western countries’ diplomatic efforts etc. I have not seen anyone going beyond this minimalist coverage of the other side as part of the core issue and its historical perspective.
Today, I don’t wish to delve into the immediate context of this aggression by elaborating on the Bucharest declaration, the Eastward movement of NATO or the Minsk Conundrum and the abject failure of Western diplomacy. Let’s peel off a layer more and look deeper to contextualise this event in a wider setting.
For centuries Western Europeans have had “the Christian Other”. As long as it was categorised “the Eastern Europeans,” things were acceptable. West could continue with its arrogant pomp and peace assurance through “self-differentness”.
Russophobia as a term was first introduced on 20 September 1867, by Russian poet Fyodor Tyutchev, diplomat and member of the Imperial Chancellery, in a letter to his daughter Anna Aksakova. The term was used to refer to pro-Western Russian liberals, developing a negative attitude towards their own country and always standing on a pro-Western and anti-Russian position, regardless of any changes in Russian society and turning a blind eye to any violations of these principles in the West.
But the depiction by Marquis de Custin, a French traveller of 1839 was more unkind, broad-brushing Russians as follows: “These Russians who confound the appearance with reality, are trained bears the sight of which inclines me to regret the wild ones; they have not yet become polished men although they are spoiled savages”.
Anti-Slavic racism was an essential component also of Nazism. Nazi party movement regarded Slavic countries and their peoples as Untermenschen (subhumans), one of a number of “inferior foreign races”. Nazism was always in need of more territory to sustain its surplus population, and based it on the concept of Lebensraum, an older theme in German nationalism which maintained that Germany had a “natural yearning” to expand its borders eastward (Drang Nach Osten).
The Nazi policy towards Slavs was to exterminate, ethnically cleanse and enslave the vast majority of the Slavic people and repopulate their land with millions of ethnic Germans and other Germanic peoples.
Coming back to the present, the view of many in the West that Putin wants to rebuild the Soviet Union is a fantasy that a realist like Putin has himself rejected. In 2005 Putin commented that the collapse of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century” and “a genuine tragedy,” a sentiment he shares with the majority of Russians. But experts in the West are choosing to be oblivious to Putin’s other pronouncement, that “He who does not regret the break-up of the Soviet Union has no heart; he who wants to revive it in its previous form has no head.”
How did all this create the setting for the present event?
The lingering euphoria of the post-Cold War period created a kind of hubris among Western powers including European countries. The perception of Russia’s decline was so total that any resistance to Western initiatives was never factored into diplomatic discourse. In the 1990s and 2000s NATO pursued several rounds of aggressive advances ignoring Russia’s objections. During the Balkan crisis, Belgrade, a city that was never part of the Balkan War theatre was bombed for 78 days continuously and turned into rubble.
Today, Russians are always suspicious of any “rules-based” order because they are well aware that if it comes from the United States, it will invariably be “unilateral” and conditioned by narrowly understood self-interests. Hence as a Russian diplomat once explained, if the US can break international law around the world then Russia should “break the American monopoly on breaking international law,” at least in cases where it has skin in the game and the resources to enforce its will.
Another and even more serious mistake of the US foreign policy establishment is its continuous dismissing of Russia from international affairs. They still think the Russian state is ruled by an insanely corrupt and wayward Boris Yelstin. On the contrary, post-Yelstin Russia may not be perfect in any sense but surely is patriotic and nationalist to the core. It has rebuilt itself, in a process that is ongoing still, and 21st Century Russia is inching its way towards being a major international player.
The United States has acted as if it is dealing with Yelstin-led Russia. Hence during the NATO Bucharest conference in 2008, President Bush and his team made a strident appeal for the entry of Macedonia, Georgia and Ukraine into NATO at a later date. While Greece used Veto power to prevent the entry of Macedonia, Angela Merkel despite opposing the motion refrained from using the German Veto and the motion was passed.
My point here is simple. The attitude and approach of the Anglo-Saxon axes is well known since the Iraq war at least. But what about the EU countries? How did they get bullied by the United State and toe the line with protesting murmur? Today, by sanctioning Russia, they are sanctioning themselves. Energy prices are already going up by 50 percent and may rise further. In the last leg of diplomatic efforts, the French initiative at least somewhat reflected concern for Russian interests but was devoid of any follow-up action. German diplomacy on the contrary was abrasive and offered nothing new. Experts say that was the final nail in the coffin.
While on the other but equally relevant front, Poland and Hungary both Slavic countries and members of the EU have lost their case with the European Court of Justice. Now unless they amend their laws and bring them in line with other Western countries their funding will be withheld.
Here my contention is that it isn’t bullying by the United States or the NATO comfort of getting subsidised defence that is making the EU countries subservient. It is the age-old anti-Slavic mindset of the European ruling groups that is at work. For them, trans-Atlantic interests matter more. Because they feel that their Slavic brothers still need hand-holding in the international power game. In different ways, the civilising mission still continues.
Wars are the most undesirable part of human affairs but unless we take a holistic systems view of war, seeing developments in interconnected ways and events mutually interacting with each other, we will not understand the issues at play.