Vladimir Putin and the Myth of the Collapse of the Soviet Union

Posted: December 29, 2014 in Uncategorized

Putin_Federal_Assembly_Speech

The longer the conflict in Ukraine continues and the more column inches and opinion pieces I read about Vladimir Putin, the more I’m struck by the continued use of two devices. The first is the use of the term “thug” to describe Putin’s character and behaviour, but that’s one for another day. The second is Putin’s description, in an April 2005 speech, of the collapse of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”. I suppose I was always aware of it, but more recently I’m disturbed by its use to hint at a sinister plot behind Russian foreign policy. When pundits like former US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton or Guardian columnist John Kampfner (to name but a few) cite the quote what they mean to suggest is that Putin’s bitterness over the Soviet collapse and his desire to reconstitute the Soviet empire are behind Russia’s aggressive actions in Georgia and Ukraine. After all, as a former KGB officer raised in the Soviet milieu, threats and force are the only things he understands apparently.

But what did Mr Putin actually say in his address to the Russian Federal Assembly in 2005? Translations appear to differ. Take the official Russian transcript and feed it into Google Translate and it comes across as “[…]the greatest geopolitical catastrophe […]”. The official English translation from the Kremlin website, however, records it as “[…[a major geopolitical disaster […]”. As a (intermediate level) Russian speaker myself, I can tell you there is ambiguity here, given the Russian language lacks a definite article. But regardless of whether it was “the” or “a” (and believe me it makes a difference given the inference it often lends itself to), what’s more important is the context Putin used it in.

The relevant section of the speech does not relate to Russia’s diminished prestige or national pride, nor the collapse of its military strength or global influence. Instead Mr Putin was highlighting the difficulties faced by ethnic Russians who suddenly found themselves living outside the new Russian Federation and the privations of the general population. If anything he appears to be lamenting the social and human costs of the Soviet collapse, highlighting the depreciation of savings, the rise of oligarchic groups and the spread of mass poverty. There is also a reference to the rise of terrorism and the Khasavyurt Accord, which ended the First Chechen War, but this is framed in terms of Russia’s potential Balkanization, rather than anguish over its diminished power. The rest of the section is dedicated to celebrating the perseverance of the Russian people during this difficult period in consolidating Russian inspired democracy, freedom and human rights. Issues over the compatibility of Western and Russian standards of human rights notwithstanding, this speech is hardly the eye opening revelation of Putin’s revanchist character that commentators regularly make it out to be.

We shouldn’t delude ourselves. Russia seeks to maximize its influence and power in the former Soviet Union. This is inevitable, given the geographical, cultural, linguistic and economic position it finds itself in. By their very nature great powers must seek the security of friendly regimes as buffers, and reject the encroachment of outside powers and alliances into their periphery. In their direct borderland, that necessity sometimes dictates the use of force. For policy makers and media figures to explain this to the public would mean challenging powerful societal narratives about the nature of the international system and the benign intent of our institutions. So instead we currently rely on a different narrative about Russian revanchism as embodied by Mr Putin, and in terms of reinforcing this narrative, his 2005 speech is a powerful lever. I’ve seen it more times recently than I can count. But it’s ultimately counterproductive to the goal of re-establishing regional and global stability. If we are ever to reach some kind of understanding with Russia, one in which we both escape the seemingly endless cycle of engagement and confrontation that has seemingly defined our relationship since the 17th century, we will eventually need to abandon this approach.        

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