In this interpretive essay, I will focus on what the speech tells us about the hierarchy of considerations driving the Kremlin’s policy with respect to Crimea, with respect to Ukraine, with respect to its ‘Near Abroad’ and the world at large. These are the factors that should determine the Western response if it is to rise from its present amateurism. Read on…
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Vladimir Putin’s Speech to the Federal Assembly on Crimean Accession: Commentary
by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.
The atmosphere in the St George’s Hall of the Kremlin where Vladimir Putin delivered his speech Tuesday on Crimean accession to the Russian Federation was festive. Cameras directed at the deputies of the lower house, senators and governors of the RF regions caught triumphal expressions here and there, joyful tears elsewhere. The speech was interrupted repeatedly by hearty rounds of applause and standing ovations.
The presenters of the live coverage on the Vesti 24 satellite broadcast instilled the sense of being witnesses to history in what was characterized as the most important political development in the country in decades. There can be little doubt, given the near unanimity of feeling among Russia’s elites in the chamber, and, according to the latest public opinion polls, the near unanimity of the broad population of the country these past several days, that yesterday’s events ensured the legacy of Vladimir Putin as the restorer of Russian national pride in their country’s great power status, whatever else he may achieve in his presidency.
The Western media have begun issuing their reportage on the speech. It was long, running nearly 50 minutes, and it provided many choice sound bites that journalists have cited to convey its flavor.
In the interpretive essay which follows below, I will take a different approach. I dispense with summarizing this complex text or cherry-picking the quotable lines throughout. In any case, the whole text is available for viewing on the presidential website kremlin.ru for those who wish to go to the source. I will attempt instead to highlight what the speech tells us about the considerations driving the Kremlin’s policy with respect to Crimea, with respect to Ukraine, with respect to its ‘Near Abroad’ and the world at large. I do so because these are the factors that should determine Western response if it is to rise from its present amateurism and resemble the professionalism we expect of our state authorities.
Nearly all of this material is found in the brief statement setting out the geopolitical necessity of the action and in the considerably longer overview of the background to the present confrontation with the US and EU over Ukraine with the emphasis on lack of respect in the West for Russian national interests. Then there is a second-tier portion of the speech, the legal case Putin made for Russian action over Crimea. It is a subset of the first two points.
In taking this approach I choose to ignore the lengthy passages of Romantic nationalism that open and close the speech: the assertion that Russians and Ukrainians are practically one people, the shared religious and civilizational orientation; and the historical recitals showing why the Crimea has always remained a deeply Russian territory in the national consciousness of Putin’s compatriots. I insist that these arguments which Putin used to explain his call for accession of Crimea to the RF played no significant role in the Kremlin’s decisions. They are produced out of normal political calculations that the broad public and even the establishment can neither understand nor be motivated to patriotic solidarity by abstractions of Realpolitik, by a geopolitical chess match. By contrast, the call of language, religion, history, bloodlines provide the emotional sustenance people will rally around.
Saying this I mean that Putin is above and outside the nationalism component. The high spirits we all saw in the St George’s Hall audience Tuesday and later that day at the rally on Red Square which Putin also addressed are well under his control. For that reason we can take at face value Putin’s assurances in the speech that Russia will not seize further pieces of Ukraine, will not split Ukraine or threaten other countries on its borders with Russian minority populations. The actions in Crimea are uniquely targeted at threats and opportunities there, because of the region’s strategic importance. The proof of this will come in the weeks immediately ahead when the appeals of the Russian speakers in Transnistria for merging with Russia will go unanswered, just as they have in past years.
The vital importance of geopolitical considerations and military security to the Russian decision on the Crimea is confirmed by the particulars of accession: it will enter the Russian Federation as two different component parts, one being the wholly Russian city of Sevastopol and the other being the rest of the Crimea with its mix of Russians, Ukrainians and Tatars in what will be power sharing. This ensures that however politics on the multi-cultural peninsula evolve, the port city will be immune to change.
Set against these facts, the ongoing U.S. and NATO show of enhancing its military presence in the Baltics and Poland raises tensions unnecessarily, chasing as it does a bugbear while posing new risks of misunderstandings with unforeseeable consequences. The bleating of Polish and Lithuanian authorities that they need NATO protection against an imperialist and expansionist Russia is coming from the very same authorities who created the disaster in Ukraine by training the thugs and snipers on the Maidan.
The quintessence of Putin’s speech was the assertion that NATO designs on Ukraine, on Crimea and in particular on the home port of the Russian Black Sea fleet in Sevastopol were the red line which Russia would not tolerate being crossed. The Kremlin saw the coup d’etat in Kiev that brought the anti-Moskali Maidan to power as a prelude to conclusion not merely of EU accession papers but also NATO agreements.
The first iteration of the extreme gravity of this consideration took the following form: “Crimea is our common heritage and the most important factor of stability in the region. And this strategic territory must be under a strong, resilient sovereignty which de facto can only be Russian today.”
Then Putin went out of his way to flesh out his concerns:
“I remind you that in Kiev we already heard about the application for quick entry of Ukraine into NATO. What would this prospect mean for Crimea and Sevastopol? In a city of Russian martial glory the NATO fleet would appear, posing a threat to the entire South of Russia. This is not something ephemeral but rather completely concrete. ….
“Moreover, we have nothing against collaboration with NATO, not at all. What we oppose is that a military alliance, and notwithstanding all internal processes NATO remains a military organization, should operate right alongside our fence, next to our house or on our historic territories. You know, I simply cannot imagine that we would travel to Sevastopol to pay a guest visit on NATO sailors. Most of them are great guys, to be sure, but it’s better that they pay a visit to us than the other way around.”
The hint of levity or black humor in the last sentence is the kind of rhetorical relief that we have come to expect from Putin in his better crafted speeches. However, the context was grave.
It is worth noting that by taking control of Crimea and managing its accession to the Russian Federation under conditions that are rejected out of hand by Kiev, Vladimir Putin has guaranteed his broader objective of keeping Ukraine out of NATO. Countries with serious territorial disputes are virtually disqualified from joining the alliance because of article 5 of its charter, the mutual defense clause.
Moving beyond the specifics of the Russian concerns and actions taken in Crimea, the speech of Tuesday was a programmatic statement of Russian foreign policy that follows in a direct line the 3 other statements of similar importance which Vladimir Putin has issued over the past 7 years: first came Putin’s February 2007 behind closed doors address to the Munich Security Conference; then his article “Russia in a Changing World” published in Moskovskie Novosti on 27 February 2012 as the culmination of a series of electoral manifestos leading up to the 4 March 2012 presidential ballot; and most recently his December 2013 annual State of the Nation address to the Federal Assembly.
Each of these speeches set out Russia’s grievances at its shabby treatment by the West, and the USA in particular in the period since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Each has hinted at the possibility of a more cooperative relationship with the West up to and including Russian membership in NATO if only mutual respect and consideration of national interests were to guide policy on all sides. And each has been custom tailored to the hot issues of the moment over which Russia and the West are on a collision course.
In 2007 the Russians, and not only the Russians, were very exercised over the mantra of unilateralism still being promoted by the George W. Bush administration. Rejection of the unipolar world and of military interventions of coalitions of the willing, without the approval of the UN Security Council, was the core feature of the speech. In February 2012, the headache of the day for the Kremlin was what it construed as American meddling in Russian domestic affairs: the assumed support of the Americans to the December 2011 mass protests over the contested Duma elections, the arrival of a potentially troublesome new American ambassador who was too closely linked over the years with aggressive Opposition personalities. This all found its way into the presidential policy paper for the election.
In December 2013, the atmosphere was still heavy with the confrontations with the USA and its Western European allies over Syria and Iran, where Russia promoted diplomatic solutions and narrowly, but successfully prevented the West from applying its threatened use of military force in each case. The speech addressed Western disdain for the principles of international law. The speech also set out the principles of a nearly full-blown ideology to justify opposition to the American global hegemony: the declaration that Russia was a conservative nation in moral and ethical values, as well as in geopolitics, standing up to the West’s attempts to impose its own degenerate social ideals on the rest of the world. Vladimir Putin defended diversity and development in keeping with national traditions. The context, of course, was the wave of black PR on Russia preceding the Sochi Olympic Games and the LGBT backlash over Russia’s anti-gay-propaganda laws.
The speech on Tuesday picked up these threads of grievances but refocused on the never ending Western attempts to ‘contain’ Russia for which the Maidan has been instrumentalized. In this view, the regime installed in Kiev answers to the armed radicals who with Western help came to dominate the revolution; while at the same time the regime is also answerable directly to Washington.
The substantial part of the speech making the legal case for the referendum in Crimea and for the republic’s right to declare its independence from Ukraine and enter the Russian Federation is an expose of the double standards of Western leaders and their extraordinary cynicism, as seen from Moscow.
As he remarked with barely contained sarcasm at the outset of this section: “We are being told [by Western Europe and North America] that we are violating the norms of international law. Firstly, it’s a good thing they have remembered that international law exists; and we are thankful for that, since it’s better late than never.”
What followed was a point for point response to all the Western allegations over Russian moves in Crimea. This was a direct answer to Obama’s typically snide remark days before on the quality of the legal advice the Kremlin was receiving.
And so we were reminded that there was no ‘intervention’ or incursion of Russian military forces into Crimea, that the force levels were at all times well below the 25,000 allowed to Russia under the treaty lease terms for the Sevastopol base. The referendum on independence was entirely in keeping with international law since it came under the stipulations on self-determination set into the UN Charter. Moreover, Putin reminded his audience that the Crimean action was in no way different from the declaration of independence from the USSR issued by Ukraine in 1991 which similarly violated the laws of the Union of which it was a part and had not received approval from Moscow.
Of course, the high point of this argumentation which Putin drew out to underscore the perfidy of the West was the Kosovo precedent, where the USA had supported the republic’s independence from Serbia over Belgrade’s strenuous objections. And the principle of this conforming to international law had been restated by the United States in its submissions to the International Court of Justice in 2009 which ruled the independence was legal.
And so, President Putin has had his say, his rebuttal to virtually all arguments in the US-led campaign for sanctions against Russia, the aggressor. Meanwhile the vast majority of his compatriots are indifferent to these fine issues of legal and geopolitical duels; they are rejoicing in what is construed as the righting of an historical wrong and a bloodless military victory worthy of their ancestors.
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In closing, I draw attention to an item in yesterday’s press which comes from a respected U.S. establishment mouthpiece and breaks rank with the nearly uniform condemnatory coverage by American and European media by offering a glimmer of grudging respect for Russia’s actions in Crimea. The article entitled “What we learned in Crimea” in The Washington Post was authored by David Ignatius, a journalist with a long record of dismissiveness towards the Kremlin. However, in this case Ignatius’s material comes from his highly placed contacts in the U.S. military, the government institution which is probably least infected by the ideological prejudices that have swept our politicians and statesmen off their feet.
Among the ‘lessons learned’ by Pentagon official was that “Russia’s move into Crimea was a study in the speedy deployment of special operations forces to achieve a limited objective.” Ignatius concludes: “…the precision and discipline of Russian forces were crucial. Their professionalism reduced the risk of an incident that could have spiraled out of control.”
To this I would add that throughout the Ukraine crisis the Russians have been professional on the diplomatic front as well as the military front. The puerile efforts of John Kerry to shame and isolate Russia over its actions most likely will end in the same ignominious failure as similar calls by Dick Cheney and Condy Rice back in September 2008. This brings up the question of who is really being ‘delusional.’
It is no accident that in the middle of his speech to the Federal Assembly Vladimir Putin said: “In the case of Ukraine, our Western partners crossed the red line, handled themselves crudely, irresponsibly and unprofessionally.” Coming from a former KGB officer, there could be nothing more damning than the last word.
©Gilbert Doctorow, 2014
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G. Doctorow is an occasional guest lecturer at St. Petersburg State University and Research Fellow of the American University in Moscow. His latest book, Stepping Out of Line: Collected (Nonconformist) Essays on Russian-American Relations, 2008-12, is available in paperback and e-book from Amazon.com and affiliated websites worldwide. Also on sale in Sterling and Waterstone’s booksellers, Brussels.