During the so called “Great Recession” of 2008 – 2010 many American families including my own experienced a sharp reduction in their incomes and their net worth. As a result, many of us had to cut down on all the ridiculous accouterments of upper middle class life that we had thought to be oh so essential. No more imported cheeses from Whole Foods perhaps and how about a Chevy when it came time to return that Mercedes Benz to the dealership? The funny thing about this type of event is that it teaches you what is really important in life, and it is not grass-fed beef. I believe that many of us learned to refocus on our families, our friends, our core values. Not all were strong enough; a few may have gone the other way, perhaps becoming bitter towards the government, wanting to get more free stuff, blaming the “big banks” rather than their own keeping up with the Joneses in the heady 2000’s. Those are the Bernie and Hillary crowds, ever blaming the other for their own failures. But most of us fessed up, stood up, grew up.
The West has been “tightening up” economic and diplomatic sanctions on Russia ever since Putin’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula four years ago. This was the most obvious and predictable of responses, one that Putin could see coming from a mile away. And though it may sound strange to many of us in the West, he not only foresaw it, but welcomed it. Economic sanctions were not an undesirable side-effect of annexing the Crimean Peninsula to Russia, it was one of the goals of that move by Vladimir Putin.
It was only recently revealed by Mr. Putin himself during one of his rambling pre-election interviews that his grandfather on his father’s side was Stalin’s personal chef at the “blizkaya dacha” or the “near” dacha, a secluded property outside of Moscow where Stalin spent most of his time outside of official visits and ceremonies. Considering Stalin’s justified paranoia about being poisoned, the level of trust for this position cannot be overstated. In the early stages of his political career as an operative in Yeltsin’s inner circle and his first two terms in office, Putin often expressed a rather critical view of Old Joe Stalin, never once revealing his not insignificant family connection with the tyrant. But all that seems now to have changed. Stalin’s image is being rehabilitated as they used to say in the USSR, from the very top down. Whether this has always been Putin’s plan, whether he was playing a long game, prepping the Russian public opinion for the hard turn to Stalin-style patriotic tyranny, or whether this is something Putin has himself evolved into via his disillusionment from the West, may never be known. I strongly suspect the former. It seems to me that Putin from his early days in the KGB was a closet Stalinist, closet, because Stalinism was virtually banned in Brezhnev’s and Gorbachev’s Russia, to say nothing of Yeltsin. It is only now, having consolidated his power that Putin is feeling free to slowly leave the closet and declare his admiration for the Mustached One.
Image by Mosedschurte
Putin reads the world’s post WWII history as a tale of American economic colonialism. Starting with the unprecedented success of the Marshall plan for the rebuilding of West Germany after the War, via the major American investments in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, Putin believes that the US has grown accustomed to throwing about its economic might, using it to coerce the recipients of its largesse into adopting its value system and becoming its forward outposts in trouble spots around the world. There is nothing that Putin admires more that the steadfastness of those countries like Cuba and North Korea, and Iran and now Turkey that withstood and are still resisting American pressure to bend the knee in exchange for their own Marshall plans. There is nobody that Putin despises more than countries like Poland, and the Baltic States and most of all post-Maidan Ukraine who, in his view, turned their back on their core values and on their proper cultural and geopolitical space within the Russian sphere of influence in exchange for American blue jeans and Coca Cola.
In the system of cultural homogenization on a planetary scale under the liberal American and Western value system Putin perceives mortal danger to liberty and the human race and in that he is surprisingly close to the worldview of many Trump supporters, Trump himself, and the author of these lines. While he despises Western liberal values, Putin does not underestimate their appeal. He was, after all, the KGB station chief in East Germany during its last days before reunification and he witnessed first-hand the passion with which most East Germans craved Western consumer luxuries and the length they would go to in order to obtain them. In this addiction to cheap products or the high income levels that allow consumers access to the not-so-cheap ones, Putin sees a tremendous weakness of spirit and the West’s Achilles Heel. In his view, Gorbachev and later Yeltsin allowed the rot of Western consumerist liberalism to penetrate deep into Russia, rendering it weak and feckless in the face of mounting threats from a militant America. Western economic sanctions against Russia limited the import of precisely the kind of luxury goods like cheeses and olive oils that middle class Russians have become accustomed to over the last quarter century and which Putin fervently wished they would let go. By limiting Russians access to these goods, the West did Putin’s bidding, allowing him to perform nation-wide cold turkey rehab from Western consumerism, while blaming the West for the withdrawal symptoms.
Putin is preparing Russia for a war of, as 15th century Spaniards would say, “Reconquista”. His number one priority in this preparation is freeing the Russians from their dependence on imported goods, some replaced by domestic products, others simply done away with. In this, the sanctions have done and are still doing all of his dirty work for him, teaching Russians to get by, to find pride in domestically produced goods and simply returning them to the toughness of their grandfathers. In an interesting development just today, the Russian Duma allowed Russians for the first time since the Middle Ages (!) to freely collect deadwood in Russia’s forests for heating purposes. Until now and for many centuries, this resource belonged to the Czars and later to the State. But not any longer. It appears that in Putin’s mind Winter is indeed coming.
Image by Keith Ruffles
Putin’s plan of Russian Imperial restoration should not be a secret to any student of modern world history. His first targets are places such as the Crimea, and the Ukraine proper, and soon Latvia, in which major ethnic Russian minorities reside and which also present significant strategic value. Where possible, such as in pre-Maidan Ukraine and Lukashenko’s Belarus, Putin tries to install Russophyllic leaders who are willing to play the role of faithful vassals. When that strategy failed in the Ukraine and Putin’s vassal Yanukovych was removed in the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution, Putin immediately took Crimea. As to the rest of the Ukraine, Putin’s strategy for now is to let it collapse under the weight of its own corruption and mismanagement while harassing its flanks on the southeastern front via the separatist pro-Russian “republics” of Donezk and Lugansk.
With Chechnya temporarily pacified and Georgia’s overly pro-Western ambitions crushed in the 2008 war in which the West did nothing to aid the Georgians, Putin is now setting his sights on the toughest nut to crack and the highest prize of all, the Baltics. Militarily, at least on paper, the three Baltic States of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia present no greater challenge than Georgia. They are small and geographically within easy reach from mainland European Russia. However there is the “small” matter of the NATO membership of these countries, with its charter’s Article 5 attack one attack us all provision. There is also the “westerness” or the “whiteness” of these countries. Georgians are Christians, yes, but they are brown and Eastern, and speak a funny language written with a funny alphabet that nobody can read. They are surrounded by uncouth Muslims living in various “stans” in a region of the world that nothing good ever comes from. So it stands to reason that the West didn’t lift a finger to help them when they needed it.
Image by DavidConFran
Not so with the cute and ever so white Balts, surrounded as they are by even cuter and whiter Finns and Swedes and Germans. Taking on these states, which are full-fledged members of NATO and the European Union and located as they are on the threshold of Western Europe is a challenge unlike any Putin has so far undertaken. To prepare for this challenge Putin has been busy painting the Baltic States and their people as oppressors and aggressors, both in the past and in the present. Putin’s internal PR machine is busy reminding Russians of the Balts’ horrendous record of Nazi collaboration in WWII, a collaboration in which they indeed excelled and which was in in no way compelled by the Germans. No, the Balts exterminated Jews and did their fascist German masters’ bidding in all other matters with gleeful abandon. That much is true. Post war, Putin is reminding his people, the Soviet Union tried to “Marshall Plan” the Baltics, investing to the best of its impoverished ability in the three Baltic “republics”, making them, helped by the industrious nature of their inhabitants, by far the most prosperous places in the USSR. And then in 1990 Gorbachev let them go, without as much a token fight, without asking for anything back, without a pledge of allegiance or a letter of thanks for “liberating” them from Nazi occupation.
One would think they should show gratitude for such largesse, Putin is suggesting, but instead rank and open hatred of not only the Soviet Union, but Russia, its people and its culture prevails in the Baltics today. Anything remotely Russian is suppressed; language, documents, monuments (many of which are being destroyed) and even people, who are being actively discriminated against. Latvia, with its 25% ethnic Russian population, is particularly vulnerable to these charges. The Russian Duma is now contemplating sanctions against Latvia for suppressing the language rights of its very sizable Russian minority. After the sanctions are approved an embargo of sorts may follow and then, yes, the good old Russian tank columns in the mold of Prague and Budapest. Putin’s recent nuclear sabre rattling is reserved for that moment; will NATO honor its charter, or will it, like England and France in the first days of WWII and like the US when Russia took Crimea simply disregard its honor-bound obligations? I have no doubt that the latter will happen; no sane American leader will take the US to war with Russia over a small country that was a part of the Russian Empire since late 18th century. Doing so would be completely contrary to any possible interpretation of American interests.
Image by Jorge Láscar
But here’s another question: will Latvia, like Finland in the late 1930’s fight the Russians hard enough to give them a bloody nose and ward them off? The answer to that question as well is no and they couldn’t if they tried. Finland is wooded and hard to penetrate with tanks and the air forces of the 1930’s were not what they are today. Latvia is flat and urban and exposed; prime country for armored columns with close air support. No, Latvia will submit, a new government will be installed, its membership in NATO and the EU terminated. The Russians will tighten their belts a couple of notches, but their eyes will gleam with newfound pride and a deep fear will strike the hearts of Estonians and Lithuanians. They are next.