In the mid-1980s, one of my associates in Amsterdam wrote an article on the continued occupation of the Baltic countries and the Dutch refusal to acknowledge the annexation of the three countries by the USSR. He sent it to one of the main Dutch newspapers for publication, but saw it duly returned with a note saying: “the Baltic countries are part of the USSR and their independence is no longer an issue for discussion.” Five years later, the three republics reinstated their independence and now they are full-fledged parts of the European Union, without any hesitation.
I am mentioning this because even in cases when all seems to be lost and dreams seem to be totally unrealistic, it is no time to give up. At this moment we are looking at a frightening development, in which existing borders in Europe and agreements that guaranteed their inviolability are thrown into the wastebasket by a regime that increasingly believes in its own deformation of the political reality in the world. There can be no doubt that Russia will annex the Crimea, of course fully in line with “the will of the Crimean people” and with “guarantees for the rights of the peninsula’s population.” No Western pressure will alter the course of events, unfortunately, and no Western government will be willing to take the risk and make the annexation of the Crimea a breaking point in their relation with Russia. Too much is at stake: not only peace and stability, but also and in particular the economic survival of the European Union.
And like his predecessor in 1938-1939, Putin will not be satisfied with the Crimea alone. He needs to defend the rogue state in Transdniestria, which now runs the risk of becoming a second Kaliningrad region, and he needs to make sure Ukraine loses its access to the Black Sea. He will go for a Ukrainian rump state, which will be kept instable and economically weak through provocations, absurd claims and demands, and every now and then a “peacekeeping incursion”.
Yes, there is a clear comparison with Hitler’s behavior before the Second World War, and not only because of the “Anschluss” of the Crimea. Like Hitler, Putin uses external threats as a means to take away the attention from the internal one, and like Hitler he seeks out enemies in order to create a “Volksgemeinschaft”, a national unity based on strict authoritarian/dictatorial rule, massive propaganda, militarization of society and the use of methods very reminiscent of the SA in Hitler’s Germany.
At the same time there is one difference that is often overlooked. Hitler waged war because of a political cause, however rotten and deformed it might have been. Putin is waging war because of his personal business, and the business of his cronies, and uses the “defense of the Russian motherland” only as a useful blanket to cover up his real motives. He is in charge of a feudal state, where all the lines lead to the top, where everybody pays to remain safe, and where at the top of the hierarchy is the criminal leader, the main “thief in law”, Putin himself. He accumulated an incredible wealth, estimated by some at 130 billion, and this definitely not as a result of his meager Presidential salary. What Yanukovych did is child’s play in comparison to what is happening in Russia.
Yet there is another comparison. Like Hitler in 1938-1939, Putin is digging his own grave. Instead of being satisfied with his immeasurable wealth and power, he has succumbed to the corrupting effects of absolute power and devotion of those around him. Corruption and fear have led to an environment where everybody agrees, everybody follows the leader, everybody applauds his geniality and wisdom. He has started to believe in his uniqueness, in his brilliance, and has lost all sense of reality. The other day I was watching a documentary on Idi Amin Dada, the Ugandan leader in the 1970s who ruled his country at will and fed his opponents to the crocodiles. In one scene he chairs a cabinet meeting and fulminates against the Minister of Foreign Affairs, who is accused of all kinds of mistakes and wrongdoings. Two weeks later the body of this Minister was found floating in the Nile…
Yet the same type of pictures we see of Putin, sitting in his Kremlin seat, without any empathy or emotion, fulminating against one of his Ministers. Yes, they don’t wind up (yet) in the river Moskva, but it is the same arrogance, the same brazenness, the same disrespect for basic human interaction.
People in Russia are scared. Scared because they are ruled by a madman who send his country to war with a brother nation, the Ukrainians. Every citizen in Russia has either relatives or friends in Ukraine. People are scared, because they understand that if he is capable of doing this, he is capable of anything. They are scared, because they understand that in the end there is only one solution: a Maidan in Moscow, in St. Petersburg, and in other cities throughout Russia. Putin will have to go, and the only way he will go is through a popular uprising.
I have no doubt this will happen. Sooner or later the Russian people will stand up. I watched the beautifully balanced and emotional speech of Khodorkovsky at Maidan, asking people to remember that there is also another Russia, and I heard the people shout: “Rossiya, vstavai! Russia, stand up!”
That day will come, Russia will stand up. It will be the start of much bloodshed, incomparably more than what we have seen in Ukraine. But it will be the final end of Soviet rule, and will be the beginning of a new – and hopefully brighter – chapter in Russia’s history.
Until then, there are two things we can do. First is to punish all those who are part of this regime. Block their accounts and properties, withdraw their visas, send their spoiled children home from Western universities. They love Londongrad and shopping in Kensington, they love the Cote d’Azur and luxury resorts in the French Alps, but let them sulk in Russia and know they are persona non grata wherever they go, and run the risk of being deported or arrested or both.
The second we can and should do is to remember: Putin is not Russia. Yes, his rating are high, but so were Hitler’s ratings in 1938-1939. It will change, radically, as soon as the population sees a way out of this nightmare. The population needs to be informed through independent media channels to counter State propaganda. The democratic movement in Russia needs our support. There are brave people out there, who go out and demonstrate and risk their own liberty, for your and our freedom. They deserve our support. We should stand by them, and by doing so speed up Putin’s demise.
Robert van Voren is Professor of Soviet and Post-Soviet Studies at Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas and Ilia State University in Tbilisi, and was Permanent Representative of Ukraine in the Benelux for Humanitarian Affairs in 1994-1997.