It’s not often that one hears a truly historic speech. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s address to the Russian parliament calling for the acceptance of Crimea as a Russian region was one.
It heralded Russia’s unabashed resurgence as an unscrupulous, unpredictable player in a world where lies, half-truths, bad precedents and raw might have replaced any kind of legal framework. Though such a world may have lived previously only in Putin’s head, it is now as real as Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
It was a truly regal speech. Speaking in a Kremlin hall full of imperial splendor, flanked by no fewer than six Russian tricolors and with a double-headed eagle carved from marble soaring above his head, Putin was the benevolent czar, carrying different messages to his good subjects, his loyal allies and his enemies, domestic and external. His emotional range was Shakespearean in its breadth: from wrenching pain at past hurts to the unconcealed triumph of present victory. Not even the colloquialisms of a working-class Leningrad boy detracted from the majesty of the 46-minute performance, interrupted with applause at least 32 times.
The pain was reserved for the description of the Soviet Union’s demise and the weakness of the new Russia that emerged from it: “What seemed incredible became an unfortunate reality. The USSR fell apart… I recently heard Crimeans say they were handed over [to another country] like a sack of potatoes. And what about the Russian state? What about Russia? It bowed its head down and acquiesced, swallowed this hurt. Our country was in such a grave condition then that it could not defend its interests.”
The audience of parliamentarians, Russian dignitaries and Crimean representatives appeared to be on the verge of tears. Still in the minor key, Putin bonded with the audience over the failures of Ukraine’s post-Soviet governance. “I understand very well those who attended peaceful rallies against corruption, ineffective government, poverty,” Putin said after describing Ukraine as a failed state “milked” by corrupt politicians and torn apart by warring factions. But then his tone shifted. Anger rang in his voice: “Those who stood behind the recent events in Ukraine pursued different goals. They were preparing a coup d’etat; they planned to seize power while stopping at nothing: terror, murder, pogroms.” Russia’s interference in Crimea, Putin said, was meant to prevent “reprisals and punitive operations” against the Russian-speakers, the first target of “neo-Nazis, Russophobes and anti-Semites.”
With this, Putin switched to a legalistic tone. He gave his audience some carefully selected quotes from the transcripts of a 2010 International Court of Justice case to determine whether Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence from Serbia contravened international law. The court ruled that it did not, though its current president, Slovak Peter Tomka, and the Russian judge, Leonid Skotnikov, among others, filed dissenting opinions at the time saying the majority ruling was based more on politics than on law. Putin used the ruling to justify Crimea’s hastily arranged secession referendum.
Then it was time to attack the U.S. “Our Western partners headed by the United States of America prefer, in their practical policies, to rely not on international law but on the right of the strong,” he thundered. “They came to believe in being the chosen, in their exclusivity, in being allowed to determine the world’s destinies, in always being right. They act as they choose: Here and there, they use force against sovereign states, building coalitions on the principle of whoever is not for us is against us.”
Belgrade bombings, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya were all mentioned as examples of Western high-handedness, while the Arab Spring revolutions and Ukraine’s own Orange Revolution were held up as evidence of clandestine Western efforts to undermine sovereign nations.
“In the case of Ukraine, our Western partners crossed the line,” Putin said. “They behaved rudely, irresponsibly and unprofessionally. They knew well that Ukraine and the Crimea were home to millions of Russians.” And then the big point: “Russia found itself at a line from which it could no longer retreat. If you press a spring to the maximum, it will someday uncoil forcefully.”
After advising the West to “stop hysterics” and admit that “Russia is an independent, active participant in international life,” Putin switched to a vaguely beseeching tone. “Understand us,” he pleaded with Americans, Europeans and Ukrainians. He compared Crimea’s decision to rejoin Russia with the American Revolutionary War and with German reunification. With seemingly heartfelt emotion, he implored Ukrainians not to believe that he was after more of their territory.
One more snarl of anger graced Putin’s confident ending. “Some Western politicians,” he said, “are trying to scare us not just with sanctions but with the exacerbation of domestic problems. I’d like to know what they mean: the actions of a certain fifth column, traitors to the nation of every ilk, or provoking unrest by worsening Russia’s socioeconomic situation? We consider such statements as irresponsible and clearly aggressive and we will react to them accordingly.”
After expressing confidence that the parliament and the nation will continue to support him, Putin walked off the stage to a standing ovation.
It would have been easy to fall under the spell of the moment, to bask in a Russia resurgent. Except for the lies.
Having witnessed the winter revolution in Kiev, I will never accept the assertion that former president Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown by Western-trained “neo-Nazis.” I saw ordinary Ukrainians armed with sticks and makeshift shields manning the barricades. It is similarly hard to accept as genuine the hasty Crimean referendum held in an area occupied by Russian troops posing as “Crimean self-defense forces,” to use Putin’s term. A fair, well-organized and properly observed vote would have yielded the same results, but it was not held.
It is impossible to accept references to the Kosovo precedent when one knows how vehemently — and, in my opinion, rightly — Russia opposed the region’s independence.
It is, likewise, impossible to accept the notion of a threat to Ukraine’s Russian-speaking population. As a Russian who has lived and worked in Ukraine, I have never encountered any sign of hostility. It’s only now, thanks to Putin’s actions in Crimea, that Ukrainian’s are turning against Russians.
And it’s only now, thanks to Putin’s craftily brilliant speech, that Russians are trapped. All of us, “traitors” and empire revivalists, are in one way or another accountable for Putin’s tour de force. We are part of the well-armed, swashbuckling entity that Putin equates with Russia, and which will now be Russia in the eyes of the world. Putin wants it that way: He is out to prove that a noncommunist incarnation of the Soviet Union, which he still mourns, is back, and it’s got teeth.
Leonid Bershidsky writes on Russia, Europe and technology for Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter: @Bershidsky.