In Cold War days Moscow probably deserved all the demonization it got. Domestic repression was severe. The military were out of control; the number they killed in Afghanistan could well have rivaled the U.S. in Vietnam.
Their security people were also on a rampage. The two years I once spent in Moscow trying to learn the language and know the people ended up as little more than an invitation for the hard-eyed men in the KGB to constantly harass me and persecute anyone who tried to help me. And that was during the so-called Khrushchev liberalization period of the early 1960s.
But there were also times when Moscow deserved some understanding. Even in Afghanistan it did at least try to create something more progressive than the mess we see today. At home there was a genuine willingness to allow non-Russian peoples to keep their culture and languages. The “evil empire” of U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s imagination was not quite as evil as it was made out; it was at least able to throw up a leader of Mikhail Gorbachev’s quality. Meanwhile the best our allegedly superior democratic West could do was, well, Reagan.
Today it is clear the demonization goes much too far. The post-1991 efforts to reach out to the West were remarkable to anyone who knew what went before. Vladimir Putin with his KGB background is no Gorbachev. But the invitation to join the Group of Seven industrialized nations meant much for the Russians. Finally Russia had the acceptance as a Western-oriented nation it had always wanted.
Today all that has been thrown away by the meaningless effort to demonize Moscow over the Ukraine civil war and Crimea. From the beginning Putin had made it clear Russia was not seeking territory, that it was only supporting the moves for autonomy by the Russian-speaking peoples in the eastern Ukrainian provinces — moves sparked by the inefficiency and then breakdown of the central government in Kiev, and by the foolish attempt to ban the use of Russian. Putin rejected his critics who said Moscow should annex those historically Russian territories. His move would also be justified by the recent Western concept of R2P — the responsibility to protect peoples being suppressed by superior central government force.
Yet for some strange reason this move was made out to be Russian aggression and a denial of Ukrainian sovereignty. The aggression claim continues despite acceptance by all sides of the Minsk agreement of February this year, where Ukraine and Russia agreed on a cease-fire and “local self-governance in particular in the districts of Donetsk and Luhansk.” Ukrainian sovereignty and some administration rights were specifically endorsed. What’s more, the area to be “self-governed” by the separatists is much less than they had originally demanded. Legislation to authorize these arrangements has already been introduced in the Ukrainian Parliament over violent protests by the ugly, pro-Nazi, anti-Semitic groups that to date have done so much to prolong the fighting in eastern Ukraine, and which through their policy of random destruction have forced some 1 million Russian speakers to flee into Russia — ethnic cleansing with a vengeance.
Yet all Moscow gets from its very considerable concessions at Minsk and its acceptance of those refugees is a continuation of sanctions and an escalation of NATO military pressures. This, even though two senior NATO members, Germany and France, were present to endorse the Minsk agreements that are now being implemented. NATO once saw fit to bomb Belgrade to force a transfer of sovereignty to Kosovo. Moscow is condemned for much less.
Even as the Ukraine situation winds down, the anti-Moscow sanctions continue and NATO still blows hot. Maybe this is justified by the Crimea takeover. If so, I suggest the people involved should visit the Crimea.
Historically, it has always been Russian (remember the Crimean War?). It remains Russian. In two visits, one very recent, I have never heard a word of Ukrainian spoken. Crimea was gifted to Ukraine by Moscow in 1954 as an act of Soviet convenience, despite the problem of having to retain the Soviet fleet in Sevastopol. When the Soviet Union broke up in 1991 it should automatically have been returned to Russia. Its seizure during the 2014 troubles in Kiev was inevitable and for most, welcome.
As for that other excuse for NATO pressure — alleged aggressive Russian pressure against the three Baltic States — does anyone in NATO know about the severe language and other discrimination against the Russian-origin minorities stranded in this area by the 1991 Soviet breakup? Details provided by Moscow have been thoroughly ignored. If Moscow’s unhappiness on this account amounts to aggression then we need a new definition of aggression.
Ingrained Cold War fears and NATO expansionism explain some of the illogicality of Western anti-Russia moves. Ignorance is another factor. The people who accuse Moscow of trying to suppress the native Tartar language in Crimea need only to turn on the TV in Crimea to discover daily programs teaching Tartar. How many in NATO really understand what is going on in the Baltic States?
But Moscow also shares some of the blame. Its vigorous denials of any responsibility by the pro-Russian separatists for the March 2014 destruction of the Malaysian airliner MH17 helped early on to push Western opinion in an anti-Moscow direction. I spent some time in August in the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs with a highly intelligent and very senior official who tried with genuine sincerity to convince me that the theories blaming Ukraine were correct. True, seeming bullet holes in the fuselage gave some credence to what she and quite a few others were saying. But Moscow now accepts a missile was responsible. It should not have wasted our time with elaborate theories and radar scans that said Ukrainian fighter planes were responsible.
Gregory Clark is a former Australian diplomat and president of Tama University. He recently made a fact-finding visit to Russia at the invitation of the Russian authorities. The initial report of that visit can be found at www.gregoryclark.net/jt/page126/page126.html .
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.