The U.S. media portrayal of Russian President
Vladimir Putin has been unrelentingly negative
following the Russian army intrusion into Crimea,
the subsequent occupation of the former Ukrainian
autonomous province, the hurried plebiscite there
favoring re-annexation by Russia, and finally the
formal merger of Crimea into the Russian nation.
Mr. Putin’s rationale for his actions has been his
judgment that the Ukrainian revolution which ousted
the controversial Ukrainian president was illegal, and
that both ethnic Russians and Ukrainian Jews were
threatened by the new regime which, he claims, is
ultra-nationalist and fascist. When Russian officials
further warned that anti-ethnic Russian actions in Estonia
were being “monitored,” more alarm bells went off in the
Western media, and Mr. Putin’s behavior was sometimes
likened to Nazi rationales for its aggression in Europe
75 years ago when the German dictator used the “welfare”
of ethnic Germans as the “excuse” for his aggression into
the Rhineland, followed by Czechoslovakia, Austria and
Furthermore, Mr. Putin’s rather transparent attempts to
reassemble the old Soviet empire that had disintegrated
after the end of communist rule of Russia in 1991 (in the
form of a Russian "sphere of influence") has been
regarded as a possible revival of the Cold War that pitted
democratic capitalist nations against Marxist states from
1945 to 1990.
A personal duel between President Putin and U.S. President
Obama has simultaneously been taking place, a diplomatic
contest in which the Russian leader had continually
outmaneuvered the American chief of state in a series of
confrontations. In spite of Mr. Obama’s consistent pattern
of trying to placate Mr. Putin, including unilaterally
pulling U.S. missile forces out of Central Europe and
seemingly giving priority to Russian security concerns
over concerns of U.S, allies, Mr. Putin had regarded
these actions as American “weakness” and the U.S.
president as a diplomatic “amateur.” During the
Crimean crisis, several long personal telephone
conversations between the two leaders seemed to
accomplish little if nothing at all, excepting Mr. Putin’s
Finally, Russian diplomatic and trade activity has been
increasing in South America and Cuba, with Russian
navy vessels visiting Cuba for the first time since the
end of the Soviet Union.
Facing U.S. and European sanctions for his actions in
Crimea, Mr. Putin has responded by placing reciprocal
sanctions and withdrawing Russian investments in the
Complicating this global confrontation has been
Ukrainian and European dependence on Russian oil
and gas, and U.S. dependence on Russian support in the
effort to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
The U.S. media, for the most part, has not however fully
covered the composition of the factions which made
up the “Maidan Square” revolution that ousted Ukrainian
President Yanukovych a month ago. Properly labeling the
ousted leader’s corruption and unpopularity, media
coverage has glossed over important components of the
new revolutionary Ukrainian government which has
placed figures from far right and anti-semitic nationalist
groups in positions of significance.
While regarding serious secessionist movements in
Great Britain (Scotland), Spain (Catalonia) and Italy
(Venice/Veneto) with benign neutrality, the U.S. media
has been aggressively hostile to the Crimean secessionist
activity, even though Crimea has historically been part of
Russia for centuries and only recently was unilaterally
(without voter consent) handed over to Ukraine by then
Russian communist leader Nikita Krushchev.
Ukraine itself was part of Russia, and later the Soviet Union,
although the suppression and inhumane treatment of this
region (most notably the starvation of millions of Ukrainian
peasants in the 1930s by Soviet dictator Stalin) had
understandably made most ethnic Ukrainians strongly
anti-Russian. This anti-Soviet activity was expressed as
early as the outbreak of World War II when some Ukrainian
nationalists openly cooperated with and aided advancing
Nazi German armies.
Furthermore, many Ukrainian nationalists, historically
violently anti-semitic, participated in the Holocaust. Since
Ukraine and Belarus had been a large part of the settlement
of Ashkenazi Jews from 1600 to the late 1900s, the large Jewish
population suffered violent persecution not only from the
German Nazis, but also (for a longer time) from extreme
Ukrainian nationalists before, during and after World War II.
In fact, while Jewish emigration from Russia subsided after
2000, it was increasing from Ukraine where a rise in
Under President Putin, it is pointed out by many Jews now
living in Russia, Jewish religious and cultural life has
recently flourished. President Putin himself has seemed to
go out of his way to establish ties not only with Russian
Jewish leaders and organizations, but has opened considerable
dialogue with the state of Israel and Prime Minister Netanyahu.
This is in contrast to Soviet policy. Although the Soviet Union
voted for the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, it soon
took sides against the Israelis, even as there was an increase
in anti-semitism throughout the Soviet Union after World
War II. Millions of Soviet Jews subsequently emigrated, mostly
to Israel, Western Europe and the U.S.
Current Russian concern for ethnic Russians in Estonia,
however, is much less credible. Many of the ethnic Russians
who live in the now independent nations of Estonia, Latvia
and Lithuania are descendants of Russian invaders who took
over these countries by force during World War II. Russia
imposed the Russian language on these nations, even though
they already had languages of their own.
As for Mr. Putin’s desire (some say “obsession”) to recreate
the old Soviet Union, this, too, lacks credibility when it is
considered that most of the new nations which broke away
from the Marxist empire (including Ukraine, Belarus,
Kazakhstan, Georgia and other smaller states) seem quite
happy with their independence, their new national identity,
and their sovereign right to not be restricted solely as being
part of a rigid Russian "sphere of influence."
In hosting the recent winter Olympic games in the Russian
city of Sochi, and by interjecting a Russian diplomatic role in
the crises of Syria, Iran and the Middle East, Mr. Putin has
sought to increase Russian global prestige. He has had, in
these endeavors, some success. It would seem somehow
self-destructive for him to now to over-reach by bringing up
memories of the ruthless Soviet domination of Eastern
Europe and its Cold War threat to Western Europe by forcibly
trying to re-create the old empire.
The situation in Ukraine, however, might be somewhat
more complicated than it now seems. Respecting genuine
Ukrainian independence and the right of its people to
change their government if a clear majority wants to do so,
Americans and Europeans have also the right to expect that
the endemic corruption of the previous Ukrainian regime
will not just be replaced with the corruption of a new regime,
and that the new regime will not ignore the human rights of
all its citizens. An independent Ukraine has the right to
establish ties to the European Union if it wishes to, but
Russia has historical ties to Ukraine, and economic interests
there, and it has the right to expect that Ukraine will not be a
hostile neighbor (just as the U.S. has opposed having Cuba
as a hostile neighbor).
It might be that Mr. Putin’s primary motive in Ukraine has
been for domestic Russian consumption. When he returned
to the presidency after a term as prime minister, Mr. Putin
was no longer as popular as he had been, There were
unprecedented demonstrations against him. After seizing
Crimea, however, his popularity has reportedly soared.
Annexing Crimea is not totally a plus for Mr. Putin. Crimea
has a weak economy and was a formerly a financial burden
for the government in Kiev. Now Moscow must bear the
Crimean deficit of billions of rubles, and deal with the fact
that the Crimean standard of living is notably lower than the
rest of Russia.
Like so many international circumstances, the situation in
Eastern Europe is complicated. It is in all our interests to
understand these complications as best we can.
Copyright (c) 2014 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.