Putin’s Russia re-defines chutzpah

So far as gall is concerned, Russian government seems to have perfectly unlimited reserves of it, and then some.

The latest example: Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s minister of foreign affairs, demands “legal guarantees” (whatever THAT means) that Ukraine will remain neutral and will not join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

As a reminder: NATO is a military alliance, formed in 1949. Canada is one of its founding members.

Growing potential for Soviet post-Second World War expansionism, seen as a major threat by the West, was the original idea behind the treaty. The Soviets, having promised their wartime Allies they would permit free elections in countries they had “liberated” would end up holding elections that were anything but free. Thus, they created a group of countries, called originally “people’s democracies,” only to become a network of communist dictatorships. Since the Soviets were giving all kinds of signs it was not their intention to stop there, the West acted to instill a bit of fear in them and, at least, slow down (if not stop) the Soviet expansionist plans.

The Soviets hated NATO with a vengeance that would have deserved better things.

Now, NATO has committed an unpardonable act: considering Ukraine a candidate for membership, it told the Russians to stay within their borders and stop violating Ukraine’s borders.

On and off

What has happened is this: Ukraine became a NATO membership candidate in 2008. The pro-Russian government of president Viktor Yanukovych, elected in 2010, said it would rather that Ukraine remained non-aligned. Yanukovych’s party changed the country’s policy in an internal document dealing with its political orientation, but it never officially withdrew Ukraine from NATO.

The important thing to remember here: Yanukovych is the guy deposed from his presidency following his about-face when it came to the European Union (EU), and he is, at the same time, the guy who claims he’s Ukraine’s president still, making these pronouncements from the safety of Russian government’s security installations.

Russian government has been acting in the traditional way, maintaining what have been in fact Tsarist imperial policies. These have included hostility toward the West, in general, and the overwhelming wish to have secure buffer zones between the West and Russia proper, in particular.

These policies have existed under the Tsars, they flourished under the communists, and they are alive and well under Vladimir Putin. The fact that they are somewhat outmoded, indeed, stupid, even, now, doesn’t matter. What matters is Mama Rossia (Mother Russia), overseeing her holdings and making sure they are safe (and she is safe doing so).

That one needs to twist historical facts from time to time in order to do so? So what? That the claim that, for example, Crimea has been always Russian and today’s government is only restoring it to its rightful owner is a bloody lie? Who cares? We stole it in the 18th century from its previous owners, and that makes it ours. And if you don’t like it, tough.

But now NATO has mentioned that there is this Article 5 of the treaty. It says the Alliance will help any of its members in case they suffer an attack from the outside. The article makes no difference between full and candidate memberships. And NATO told Russia it is perfectly prepared to meet its obligations.

Whether it will, or would, now, that’s a different question. It could lead to a nuclear exchange. Who would win?

Neither Russia, nor the West, is the answer.

And who would lose?

Here, the answer is less clear, and you can make cases for at least three scenarios (one side loses, the other side loses, they both lose).

That humankind in general would lose, that seems to be nobody’s concern.

NATO and EU: different animals

Russia, in any case, sees that NATO is not as wishy-washy a body like the European Union. That group, formed originally as a body to support the good old continent’s economy, has become a centralized and bureaucratized fossil, run by aging Maoists, Trotskyites and other such political nobodies, with imperial ambitions of their own.

So, NATO – without any sign of diplomatic delicacy – is picking up the stick known as Article 5. That is giving Russia pause. But not much of it, obviously. If Ukraine says it wants no help from NATO, their goes the stick.

But how to achieve that?

Yanukovich seems like a spent force as a Ukrainian president.

But nothing beats using insurgents who say the West has devilish plans with and for Ukraine, stoking up all kinds of more-or-less traditional phobias and paranoias. These guys then attack legitimate Ukrainian government offices, proclaiming this or that region of the country independent and concluding their declarations with calls for help from Mother Russia. We have seen this kind of scenario played somewhere before: oh, yes, Czechoslovakia’s Prague Spring of 1968.

In any case, who is going to prove the insurgents were not, in fact, working for Russia’s intelligence forces? The West can refuse to recognize the referendum results in Crimea that said most of its citizens wanted to be Russian. The West can refuse to recognize Crimea’s brand new constitution that says the place has always been and will always remain Russian.

What else can the West do?

In theory, a lot, coming close to military confrontation but not crossing that fateful line.

In real life? Not much. It has lost its willingness and, as a consequence, ability to stand up and be counted. Whether it’s because the West’s hands aren’t too clean, either, that’s another question. It is true, for example, that the West has compromised a huge chunk of its integrity when it only tried to whisper that the atrocities the Russians had been committing in Chechnya were beyond unacceptable. Putin told the West’s leaders, in no uncertain words, too, that he is saving the world from what he termed was “green danger,” meaning Islam. To the extent that, indeed, all kinds of Islamic fundamentalist groups have been using the war in Chechnya as training grounds to prepare their men for sundry methods of combat.

Silence that deafens

What did Western leaders do? To their credit, they didn’t say, oh, ah, if that’s the case, then, pray proceed. To their discredit, they didn’t say anything else, either. Their silence confirmed what Putin had been saying (in Russian tradition) all along: the end justifies the means.

Not that the West hadn’t known this saying before, and from other sources, too. After all, it has been attributed to Niccolo Machiavelli. And he himself stole it from ancient Greek playwright Sophocles. In his play, Electra, Sophocles said (in verbatim translation): “The end excuses any evil.”

But Russian president Putin has taken his administration’s gall to new levels. He’s come close to chutzpah, which is gall to end all galls.

Putin wrote a threatening letter to EU leaders, telling them to mind their own bloody business, and he can turn off deliveries of Russian oil and natural gas to Ukraine any time he pleases, and then, where are you?

He said that Ukraine owes Russia money for some of the stuff that had been already delivered, and it would be only legitimate on Russia’s part to stop delivery until all accounts are settled.

Russian ITAR-TASS news agency published the full text of the letter Thursday, and, on that same day, a U.S. State Department spokesthingie announced that Putin’s threat bordered on blackmail.

Technically, it didn’t. You’ve got to pay your bills, or your phone company or energy suppliers are within their rights to deny you service.

Logically, it did: Putin’s timing defined it.

But, and that was the funniest thing, upon hearing about the U.S. reaction, Putin told all and sundry that nice people don’t read mail that isn’t addressed to them.

And this from a former Soviet KGB spy whose job it had been to do just that!

Combined with his foreign minister open interference in another country’s policies, this goes to show the West should have told Russia to behave or else long ago.

It’s getting too late now.

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