Copyright © 2014 The Nation—distributed by Agence Global
Thanks to the Prague Post, we have the full text in English of President Vladimir Putin’s speech announcing the annexation of Crimea and, more importantly, described at great length his explanation for why the move—which is likely to create a grave rupture between Russia and the United States—was justified. Read in full, it’s a scary document. In it, Putin mixes politics, national resentments and nationalism, all overlaid with a religio-mystical tone that sounds, at times, almost messianic. The speech was delivered to wild applause and, according to The New York Times, some in the audience were moved to tears by the speech’s aggrieved evocation of Russia’s history and its religious, Russian Orthodox overtones.
For instance, at the very start of the speech, Putin says:
“Everything in Crimea speaks of our shared history and pride. This is the location of ancient Khersones, where Prince Vladimir was baptized. His spiritual feat of adopting Orthodoxy predetermined the overall basis of the culture, civilization and human values that unite the peoples of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. The graves of Russian soldiers whose bravery brought Crimea into the Russian empire are also in Crimea.”
Though Crimea has always been part of Russia, Putin says, when the Soviet Union fell apart, Crimea ended up with Ukraine. “It was only when Crimea ended up as part of a different country that Russia realized that it was not simply robbed, it was plundered.”
Indeed, Putin issues what sounds like irredentist comments about reclaiming millions of Russians—not only in Crimea, and not only in Ukraine—back to the motherland:
“Millions of people went to bed in one country and awoke in different ones [after the USSR’s collapse], overnight becoming ethnic minorities in former Union republics, while the Russian nation became one of the biggest, if not the biggest ethnic group in the world to be divided by borders.”
Putin says that Russia wants “good relations with Ukraine,” but adds:
“We hoped that Russian citizens and Russian speakers in Ukraine, especially its southeast and Crimea, would live in a friendly, democratic and civilized state that would protect their rights in line with the norms of international law. However, this is not how the situation developed. Time and time again attempts were made to deprive Russians of their historical memory, even of their language and to subject them to forced assimilation.”
In Ukraine, says Putin, those who demanded change had legitimate grievances. But, he adds:
“Those who stood behind the latest events in Ukraine had a different agenda: they were preparing yet another government takeover; they wanted to seize power and would stop short of nothing. They resorted to terror, murder and riots. Nationalists, neo-Nazis, Russophobes and anti-Semites executed this coup. They continue to set the tone in Ukraine to this day. . . . We can all clearly see the intentions of these ideological heirs of Bandera, Hitler’s accomplice during World War II.”
Of course, by annexing Crimea, Putin is almost certainly fueling the fire of the most extreme nationalist elements in Kiev. Unless the situation changes soon, what had been a dangerous minority of radical-right elements in the new Kiev government could gain huge new momentum, making Putin’s inflated claims a self-fulfilling prophecy. Putin adds that “there is nobody to talk to” in the Kiev government, dangerously implying that since Ukraine is essentially ungoverned, Russia can step in to protect ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking Ukrainians. In his speech, Putin explicitly links the annexation of Crimea to the need for protecting Russians across Ukraine:
“The residents of Crimea and Sevastopol turned to Russia for help in defending their rights and lives, in preventing the events that were unfolding and are still underway in Kiev, Donetsk, Kharkov and other Ukrainian cities. Naturally, we could not leave this plea unheeded.”
With justification, Putin cites the fact that, from Kosovo to Iraq and beyond, the United States and NATO often act with impunity:
“Like a mirror, the situation in Ukraine reflects what is going on and what has been happening in the world over the past several decades. . . . Our western partners, led by the United States of America, prefer not to be guided by international law in their practical policies, but by the rule of the gun. They have come to believe in their exclusivity and exceptionalism, that they can decide the destinies of the world, that only they can ever be right. They act as they please: here and there, they use force against sovereign states, building coalitions based on the principle ‘If you are not with us, you are against us.’”
But then Putin gets into a discussion of the “color revolutions.” This is critical to his worldview, and it is a signal that above all Putin fears that the United States is manipulating politics both inside Russia itself and in surrounding countries, such as Ukraine and Georgia, to support anti-Russian political forces, and he mixes up the color revolutions with the so-called Arab Spring:
“There was a whole series of controlled ‘color’ revolutions. Clearly, the people in those nations, where these events took place, were sick of tyranny and poverty, of their lack of prospects; but these feelings were taken advantage of cynically. . . . As a result, instead of democracy and freedom, there was chaos, outbreaks in violence and a series of upheavals. The Arab Spring turned into the Arab Winter.
“A similar situation unfolded in Ukraine. . . . We understand what is happening.”
Of course, while the United States has supported “democracy” as a tool of its foreign policy often, it’s hardly accurate that everything that happened in Ukraine, or in the Arab world, was instigated by the United States and its allies. Even at the height of the Cold War, when the Central Intelligence Agency ran rampant, Washington could hardly control events in other countries, and certainly most of what happened during the Arab Spring caught the Obama administration by surprise. The fall of Hosni Mubarak, for instance, was not initially supported by Washington, and the Tahrir Square movement was not instigated by the United States. But, to Putin—who most of all fears an Arab Spring-style (or Ukraine-style) movement inside Russia itself, all of this is one vast American conspiracy. In response, in recent years Putin has cracked down on foreign-funded groups of all kinds.
Putin accurately describes NATO’s expansion eastward and the deployment of a missile defense system in eastern Europe, noting, “They kept telling us the same thing: ‘Well, this does not concern you.’ That’s easy to say.” But Putin, as is his wont, lumps the George W. Bush administration together with the Obama administration in all of this, refusing to acknowledge that since taking office in 2009 Obama has sought to address many of Russia’s concerns, refusing to act on NATO expansion, seeking strategic arms deals, canceling the missile defense system and rejecting the neoconservative view of American “exceptionalism.” More recently, Obama has worked with Russia on issues including Syria and Iran. None of that is noted in Putin’s outburst. And then this:
“In short, we have every reason to assume that the infamous policy of containment, led in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, continues today. They are constantly trying to sweep us into a corner because we have an independent position, because we maintain it and because we call things like they are and do not engage in hypocrisy. But there is a limit to everything. And with Ukraine, our western partners have crossed the line, playing the bear and acting irresponsibly and unprofessionally.”
After all, they were fully aware that there are millions of Russians living in Ukraine and in Crimea. They must have really lacked political instinct and common sense not to foresee all the consequences of their actions. Russia found itself in a position it could not retreat from. If you compress the spring all the way to its limit, it will snap back hard.
Perhaps most worryingly, Putin says that Kiev, the Ukraine capital, is the “mother or Russian cities.” In context:
“Our concerns are understandable because we are not simply close neighbors but, as I have said many times already, we are one people. Kiev is the mother of Russian cities. Ancient Rus is our common source and we cannot live without each other.”
Is that a statement of cooperation, or a threat? Or both? Reassuringly, he adds:
“We want to be friends with Ukraine and we want Ukraine to be a strong, sovereign and self-sufficient country. Ukraine is one of our biggest partners after all. We have many joint projects and I believe in their success no matter what the current difficulties. Most importantly, we want peace and harmony to reign in Ukraine, and we are ready to work together with other countries to do everything possible to facilitate and support this. But as I said, only Ukraine’s own people can put their own house in order.”
But annexing Crimea doesn’t make it more likely that calm and reason will prevail in Kiev. Meanwhile, Putin’s speech rallies Russian patriotism over Crimea, but in an odd and dangerous-sounding passage Putin warns of a “fifth column” inside Russia. Over the past several years, Putin’s government has cracked down on dissent and open expression, often arresting peaceful demonstrators and shutting down media outlets. Yesterday, he said that in Russia there is a “disparate bunch of ‘national traitors.’” In context:
“Some Western politicians are already threatening us with not just sanctions but also the prospect of increasingly serious problems on the domestic front. I would like to know what it is they have in mind exactly: action by a fifth column, this disparate bunch of ‘national traitors,’ or are they hoping to put us in a worsening social and economic situation so as to provoke public discontent? We consider such statements irresponsible and clearly aggressive in tone, and we will respond to them accordingly.”
That, especially, sounds ominous.
Bob Dreyfuss, a contributing editor for The Nation magazine, is an investigative journalist living in Cape May, N.J., and New York City, specializing in politics and national security. He is the author of Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam, and has written frequently for Rolling Stone, The American Prospect, and Mother Jones.