In his Allegory of the Cave Plato asserts that the universe revealed by our senses is not the actual world but the shadow of reality. Thus, this virtual reality is merely an illusion designed to obscure the true differences between the causes and the consequences of events and phenomena. Today too, politicians and peoples alike stare at the walls of their own caves where shadows fight shadows with deadly intensity, while realities are ignored, or even ridiculed. Indeed, in our hyper-ideologized and hyper-mediatized domestic and international politics the fallacious appearances of the shadows are perceived to be more authentic than the blunt facts. In this manner, the silhouettes present enticingly idolatrous images that partially or completely conceal the truth.
The West’s response to the surreptitious invasion and the subsequent annexation of the Crimea demonstrated for the umpteenth time the shadow-vision of its politicians vis-a-vis the Kremlin that had routinely manifested itself in intellectual cluelessness, professional incompetence bordering on idiocy and masochistic self-flagellation. The mirror-image of this shadow-vision is the illusory history of Russian civilization from Kievan Rus to today’s ethno-fascist autocracy. For what was visible in the past and what appears to be apparent in the present is not the historical reality but a shadow theatre, in which famous personalities, religious dogmas, secular ideas, epochal events, miraculous transformations, sudden catastrophes, and equally abrupt evanescence of seemingly rock-solid regimes had vanished or dissolved into deceitfully old or new formations like the shadows on the wall of Plato’s cave.
At no period of their tragically intertwined histories were the Russian and the Ukrainian peoples able to overcome the eternal fluctuation between the boundless brutality of the all-powerful state and the occasional outbursts of horrific revenge by the multitudes of the oppressed. These vicious circles of alternating emergences and disappearances of the rulers and the mobs lent the Russian and the Ukrainian civilizations their ephemeral characters and rendered them inherently unstable and even chaotic. Indeed, the main evil of both societies was the complete and absolute subordination of domestic and foreign policies to the cruel tactics of single-minded autocrats. By the late 15th and early 16th centuries the Russian monarchy became completely militarized and expansionist, while the Ukrainian lands came from the middle of the 14th century under quasi military administrations by a variety of foreign occupiers. Following the Partitions of Poland between 1772 and 1795 and the conquest of the Crimean Khanate, Ukraine was divided between Russia and Austria. The short lived independence of Ukraine after the 1917 coup d’etat by communist terrorists in Russia ended in the bloody conquest and integration of the country into the Soviet Union. Throughout the centuries, the need to maintain disproportionately large militaries in these essentially poor agrarian countries with very little capital and industry gradually demoralized and brutalized both the state and the people. These political and social foundations, in turn, left no room for meaningful reforms either in the state administrations or in the respective societies. The effect of these developments was two-fold: absolute power concentrated in the person of the autocrat, thus precluding any possibility of establishing diverse political institutions, and artificially arresting economic and social progress. The system became irredeemably inflexible and thus completely incapable to change either by command or organically. The resulting paralysis created a political and moral abyss between the Western and the Eastern parts of Europe that had remained the enduring feature of international relations throughout the centuries.
The roots of the most recent crisis inside Russia and Ukraine and between Ukraine and Russia can be traced directly to the disintegration of the Soviet Union that Vladimir Putin defined somewhat egocentrically as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.” Given communism’s spectacular failure, this statement clearly demonstrates Putin’s intellectual and political limitations. Intellectually, he is incapable of grasping the relation of realities to wishful thinking. Politically, he is mired in a shadowy world view, in which imaginary explanations prevent him from according due reverence for facts. Similarly, a relatively long list of Ukrainian presidents and prime ministers have concealed their individual greed and ambition under the cloak of seductive nativism and populism. Thus, after more than two decades since the ignominious collapse of the Soviet Union both countries are a wreck. Weak institutions, politically incompetent and economically illiterate politicians, over dependence on natural resources and moribund industries, unabashed corruption, and dogged disregard for domestic and foreign market realities, have caused severe economic decline and countless political tragedies in both countries. Therefore, the legend of Russia’s and Ukraine’s Western-induced misfortunes in and after 1990 and 1991, is completely false and deceptively self-serving. Russia and Ukraine have declined gradually because of their persistent refusal to reform. Their catastrophes have been essentially self-inflicted.
The stubborn avoidance of facing realities had resulted in bad governments headed by even worse leaders. In Russia, Boris Yeltsin appeared on the Russian political stage and the world’s firmament as a miracle worker, a magician, who by a single command of his stick could turn the country with no democratic traditions into a healthy and thriving democracy. Created thus by a conspiratorial cabal of nostalgic journalists with an unhealthy bias for communist ideology, and by the credulous imagination of well-meaning politicians in the West, Yeltsin completely lost contact with reality. Desirous to be the new Tsar and a model democrat at the same time, he quickly became the shadow of his true identity, a schizophrenic man, whose double bumbled through the 1990s aimlessly like a drunken bear in the circus arena. The result was a situation bearing the stamp of this fraud. In 1998, Russia faced economic ruin and financial bankruptcy. It also starred into a political abyss, due to Yeltsin’s failure to establish and strengthen the institutions to guard Russia’s fledgling democracy. Adding insult to injury, Russia’s political life was captured by his own extended family and their hangers-on. These privileged individuals gained tremendous wealth and influence. Political influence, in turn, destroyed even the appearance of the rule of law and gave free reign to Russia’s historically infamous corruption.
In defiance of every democratic principle, but in accordance of Russia’s autocratic traditions, Yeltsin proclaimed Vladimir Putin his successor. In 2000, the latter took possession of the presidency and the terminally ill country through a process that resembled more the coronation of an absolute monarch than democratic elections. Again, in contravention of all the known facts and accepted principles, the same conspiratorial cabal of politicians and journalists anointed Putin the savior of Russia’s democratic future. This contradiction between the actual situation and the unrealistic expectations has caused Putin, as happened to Yeltsin before him, to become gradually both the false hero and the miserable victim of the yawning gap between the reality of his limited capabilities and the shadow of the superhuman attributes bestowed upon him by the idolatrous domestic and foreign prophets of a new Russian miracle.
When the former colonel of the KGB was elevated first to the head of the government and then to the de facto presidency, Russia’s ruling elite passed a devastatingly negative verdict on the Yeltsin Administration’s botched attempt at the country’s democratic transformation. The lost decade of the Yeltsin era had to be undone by the unemotional and even ruthless technocrats of the KGB. The period of stagnation and weakness had to be followed by the era of deliberate and forceful restoration of Russia’s greatness. They concluded that the key to accomplish these objectives is the reestablishment of the absolute political supremacy of the state over the government and the society. Accordingly, they were convinced that Russia’s future lies in a neo-Soviet totalitarian and militaristic regime headed by an Andropov-type leader, who is assisted by a rational and relatively clean Chekist bureaucracy and not by a self-serving and destructive kleptocracy. Essentially, the incoming Putin Administration had desired nothing less than to restore the historical autocracy in order to save for the third time in two decades the moribund state of Russia.
Meantime, in the newly sovereign state of Ukraine, the first fifteen years passed in unhappy idleness. With the consecutive elections of Leonid Kravchuk and Leonid Kuchma, two prominent communists of the Politburo and the Central Committee of the by then defunct Ukrainian Communist Party, the much awaited transformation of the country remained a myth. Economically, Ukrainians were hit hard by recessions that were more severe than the post-Soviet economic decline in the other newly independent states of the former Soviet Union. In the 1990s, Ukraine lost 60% of its GDP. Inflation rose to five digit numbers. Violent corruption destroyed domestic and international trust in the security and basic honesty of the economic system. The resulting Orange Revolution in 2004 that brought Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko to power was an unmitigated disaster. Under the pretext of fundamental transformation, they proceeded to annihilate each other, in order to establish their own version of autocracy. To add insult to injury, both concealed their real intentions behind a devastating lie: the maintenance of the fiction of a functioning parliamentary democracy that, in turn, created a political vacuum opportunistically filled by local and Russian oligarchs under the tight control of Vladimir Putin and his KGB, meanwhile renamed the FSB. Predictably, Yushchenko’s presidency collapsed and Tymoshenko was jailed for corruption.
The return to power of the previously disgraced common criminal and political scoundrel Viktor Yanukovych cemented Putin’s hold over Ukraine. Using the former as a puppet and a hostage, Putin devised a deliberate plan of centralized dependence on Russia that again froze every segment of Ukrainian society in a vicious circle of political, economic, ethnic and religious divisions. Half-hearted efforts by the European Union to bring Ukraine closer to the West resulted only in drawing Putin’s devilish circle tighter. For Ukraine there was no escape from this quagmire. Hopelessly divided along ethnic and religious lines, vicariously ruled by a subservient pro-Russian government without any desire to reform, and cursed with an atrociously criminal and corrupt economy, this untenable situation could have been resolved only by a catastrophe.
The stage for Ukraine’s plunge into the abyss of chaos, anarchy, and ultimately civil war was set when, in November 2013, Viktor Yanukovych broke up negotiations with the European Union aimed at signing an association and free trade agreement in favor of a bribe of fifteen billion dollars from Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Suddenly, after a decade of traditional apathy, the entire country exploded in protest. Ukrainians, particularly young ones from the urban areas, saw their chance to remedy the seemingly unstoppable process of their national misery, congregated at the “Euro Maidan” to express their desire to join the civilized European world. Viktor Yanukovych hoped against all odds that by exploiting the fear of revolution and by invoking the specter of a bloody civil war he would be able to tame the genii of the revolution. Mislead by his lack of culture and intelligence and by his natural autocratic instincts, he first unleashed the Berkut riot police and later ordered police and military snipers to open fire at the exposed and defenseless crowd on the main square. Finally, becoming conscious of the steely determination of the people and the power vacuum that surrounded him, Yanukovych fled Kiev and ultimately Ukraine. The revolution triumphed, but the price paid for its astounding success was the loss of Crimea and the Kremlin orchestrated bloody upheaval of the Russian speaking minority in Eastern Ukraine. In spite of Petro Poroshenko’s election to the presidency, Ukraine remains a dangerously divided country. Unless he understands that he is the elected leader of the national sovereignty and not the absolute ruler of the people who elected him, his presidency will become a repeated farce that will end in another horrific tragedy.
The fundamental political issue is whether Petro Poroshenko could overcome the contradictions and the lies that have been inherent in every government since independence. The greatest threat, therefore, to a new beginning is not the separatists in Eastern Ukraine, or Putin’s mercenaries and irregulars, but the enormous difficulties of getting the politics of governance right in a country that has a terrible record of squandering many historic opportunities and killed many sincere efforts at modernization and reform through a combination of systematic inertia and oligarchic preeminence. To say that expectations for the incoming Poroshenko presidency are high must qualify as a gross understatement. His strength rests on a perception and a geographic fact. During his campaign he came across as a sincere person who displayed self-confidence and leadership. Equally important is the fact that, unlike Viktor Yushchenko and Viktor Yanukovych, he comes from the center and not the West or the East of Ukraine. On the other side of the political ledger, however, there are the demands on him that would mightily challenge even an immortal. Although he served in the Yushchenko as well as the Yanukovych administrations, Petro Poroshenko lacks his own power base. He owes his impressive election victory to the ad hoc alliance between the powerful oligarchs and the assorted populist groups and formations that emerged during the anti-Yanukovych protests. Under these circumstances, it is not enough to understand the challenges of the situation, but to have a steely determination to free Ukrainian politics from the iron grip of corruption, end the stranglehold of the oligarchs over the economy, and unleash the entrepreneurial spirit of the people. The question is whether the oligarchs and the people would understand the need for essential changes, or would they again settle for the status quo and become both the executioners and the victims of the country’s unsuccessful new beginning?
Vladimir Putin’s Russia will remain a messy mystery, unless it is understood that it is stitched together by an intricate cobweb of outright lies and false pretensions. Putin’s claim that Russia is a unique “state civilization” erected on the foundation of the “cultural nucleus” of all ethnic Russians both inside Russia proper and the diaspora are patently false on several accounts. The myth of the “Third Rome”, the most absurd and nihilistic theory of human history, the thesis of the immortal autocracy, the weakest monster of the European absolute monarchies, and the baseless legend of the trinity of Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality, died an ignominious death, when a small band of common criminals and political terrorists overthrew the decaying corpse of the Romanov dynasty and declared triumphantly the end of the state. Symbolized by the embalmed corpses of Lenin and Stalin, the Soviet Union was the empire of an extinct civilization masquerading as a real alternative to the democratic West. Having met the same fate as the imperial autocracy, the corpse of Russian civilization was dressed up as a quasi-Western puppet before being clothed in the equally ridiculous garment of Putin’s “sovereign democracy.” When these hopeless attempts failed to produce the unbelievable miracle of resurrection of the long-expired Russian civilization, Putin, the neo-Napoleon and neo-Hitler wrapped into a single matryoshka figure, fell back on the old-fashioned militarism compounded by Mussolini’s and Hitler’s ethno-fascism. Hence, the rebuilding of the military with petrodollars, the revival of expansionism as an official state policy, the oscillation between the United States and China, the bravado of threatening rhetoric against the former republics of the Soviet Union, the intensification of disinformation campaigns against the rest of the world, and the clearly illegal aggressions in the case of Georgia and Ukraine.
A regime that exists in an intellectual vacuum is by definition a government of absolute fear. Vladimir Putin is gripped by fear of both real and imaginary enemies. By necessity, as all autocrats, he is also a gambler. He knows that he is dealt a weak hand. Yet, he tries to bluff his way from this conundrum into an illusive greatness. No question that fairly soon he will fail. What will come after him is not easy to predict. On thing, however, is certain: even in its miserable condition Russia will be sustained by its militarism, and will remain an enduring threat to the rest of Europe and the neighboring countries in the Middle East and Asia.
Neither Russia nor Ukraine could gain stability without maintaining peace in their bilateral relations. Stability is the most important precondition for long overdue political, economic, legal and social reforms. If the new Ukrainian president is forced to fight daily for his government’s existence, he would not be unable to carry out meaningful reforms, and would also fail in his efforts to inspire confidence in the international community toward his administration. The same predicament applies to Russia too. Unless President Putin can convince the West that he would be a reliable partner in maintaining peace and stability in Europe and Asia, the United States and the rest of the world would not be able to look upon his ethno-fascist militarism in a favorable light.
Domestically, the greatest threat for Ukraine is the possibility of democratic anarchy. Petro Poroshenko must respect the right of the opposition to challenge his administration peacefully. He also will have to uphold the collective and individual rights of every minority in Ukraine, especially the Russian minority. On the other hand, the minorities, including the Russian, must understand that they will have to live as a minority in Ukraine that entails both rights and responsibilities. Individual or sporadic acts of terrorism should not be answered by counterterrorism. However, organized and persistent terrorism, particularly when it fueled and supported from outside the country, must be met decisively and must aim at deterring and defeating the perpetrators.
By the same token, nationalism could not be the sole condition of either government’s legitimacy. While nationalism could be a positive force in the nation building process, in Eastern Europe, more often than not, it had led to ethnic and religious hatred that frequently metamorphosed into ubiquitous rejection of the so-called enemy’s culture as an inferior product of inferior minds. When such a mentality acquires moral quality, the intensity of ethnic hatred becomes the supreme proof of national identity. According to this false narrative, the more one hates the different other, the better patriot he or she is. Equally damaging is the fact that ethnic hatred is always uncritical and is the cause of extremism in words as well as deeds. Today, for these reasons, ethnic hatred supported by irresponsible and short-sighted politics, shapes the policies of the adversarial majorities. Clearly, the morality of hatred had poisoned Russian-Ukrainian relations to the detriment of both countries.
The overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych was a personal defeat for Vladimir Putin and a national humiliation for Russia. A Ukrainian administration led by a representative of the Russian minority and subservient to Russia was destroyed and is being replaced by an administration controlled by the Ukrainian majority. On the other hand, the price of this transformation was the loss of the Crimea and the real possibility of the secession of parts of Eastern and Southern Ukraine. As a result, both the destroyers and the destroyed have been scared and humiliated. Neither could remain indifferent to what is happening in the other country. Moreover, to suppose that the dismemberment of Ukraine will pass without adverse consequences to the stability and peace of Europe, is either proof of huge strategic incompetence or willful neglect. Finally, the violation of Russia’s multiple contractual obligations to respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine, is designed to destroy the international legal system. This act by a reckless autocrat is closely connected to Vladimir Putin’s disdain for the rule of law at home. Restoring the balance between his desire to fully control his subjects and respecting the rights of foreigners will require resolve and strong determination from the international community.
When more than twenty years ago the communist hammer-and-sickle flag was taken down from the top tower of the Kremlin and replaced by the old imperial colors of the Tsars, there was an almost unanimous consensus in the West that Boris Yeltsin and his new team represent the Second Coming. Then, with him, Russia marched to a disastrous decade. Anointing Vladimir Putin appeared to be a move with a ton of promise. The world was told that he will surely dazzle every mortal on the earth. Against all expectations, under his leadership, Russia quickly became more chauvinistic, revanchist, corrupt and corporatist. Its economy grew to depend even more on oil and gas. Its non-energy and raw material exports are currently smaller than Sweden’s. The population has been shrinking at an alarming rate. In reality, Russia is threatened by an impending demographic catastrophe. Even when it was apparent that this new guy’s only grand idea was to create tensions between his country and the rest of the world, President George W. Bush hosted Putin in his family estate in Kennebunkport in 2007, and opined that “It is much better to work together than it is to create tensions.” While he and his fellow leaders continued to wait for a miraculous political epiphany of Mr. Putin, the Russian president’s rhetoric grew shriller and the evil he represented manifested itself in the barbaric invasion of Georgia. Instead of realizing that Putin was not interested in cooperation, but believed that confrontation would serve his autocratic ambitions better, President Obama, the supreme foreign policy amateur and narcissist, was convinced that American-Russian relations need a new gesture of goodwill. His policy, grandiloquently called “reset”, was to affect change in Russia’s domestic and foreign policies toward more civilized normalcy by assisting Putin to modernize the economy and alleviate his fear of hostile encirclement and international isolation. While trying to motivate and encourage the positive, not the negative, Barack Obama’s policy toward Russia was, and has remained up to now, both confused and confusing. Implemented by two equally incompetent secretaries of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton and John Kerry, this policy produced disappointing results. In the aftermath of the annexation of the Crimea and the ongoing civil war in Eastern Ukraine, the Obama Administration’s attempt at “fundamentally transforming American-Russian relations”, looks increasingly as a huge foreign policy debacle. Equally futile was the European Union’s “Eastern Partnership” policy. Attempting to direct Brussels’s attention toward Eastern Europe was designed to protect the exposed northern flank against Russian aggression. However, the European Union was torn between its desire to be inclusive and its fear of Putin’s revanchist policies. The European Union’s intellectually impressive but militarily toothless power politics turned into an embarrassing diplomatic fiasco.
Under Putin’s renewed leadership Russia is clearly heading toward another political and economic collapse. His contempt for peace and stability, and his disregard for the sovereignty of other states call for an uncanny comparison with the disastrous Brezhnev Doctrine of the 1980s. Based on the globalist ideology of communism, the Brezhnev Doctrine exhibited a simplistic worldview of anti-Western “patriotism” that was designed to save the thuggish dictatorship by exporting a moribund version of Asiatic autocracy. The ensuing invasion of Afghanistan was the clearest message from the Soviet Politburo that, in spite of the much heralded detente and Ostpolitik, the Soviet Union gave up any pretense of joining the West. Similarly, the invasion of Georgia and the annexation of the Crimea have signaled Putin’s determination to prefer absolute power inside Russia to being a responsible partner on the international stage. He too abandoned any intention to joining the West.
The more Putin resorts to force the more resentment he will create. Yet, he is trapped in a roller coaster of his own making, because he is paralyzed by an aggressive fear that he will lose power. That is why his “sovereign or guided democracy” puts Russia in heavier chains than any autocracy the country experienced before. In this manner, instead of repudiating the mentality of the Soviet Union, he is doubling down on the failed policies of militarism and conquest. The result is a never-ending cat-and-mouse game with the militarily inferior neighboring countries and an irresponsible adventurism vis-a-vis Western Europe and the rest of the world.
The United States and the European Union need a different Russian and also a new Ukrainian policy. The first and foremost requirement is unified leadership. The current president of the United States is intellectually incapable of filling the leadership role that has been vacant since his first inauguration. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her colleagues within the European Union are not militarily-minded and in any event had always opted for checkbook diplomacy. The question is: what to do about a Russia that puts domestic politics before its international responsibilities and thus has no compelling interest in establishing and maintaining lasting peace and stability in the continent? This situation in being always in a state of conflict or even war, can only be countered and managed by a revitalized NATO, with its European members taking more financial and military responsibilities. Instead of providing strong rhetoric with policies of appeasement, NATO must deny Russia dominion over the “near abroad” and Russia’s antediluvian notion of its “sphere of influence.” Force and not persuasion will only bring Putin to his senses. The United States and the European Union must also stress jointly that Ukraine is not a colony of Russia and Russian minorities in Ukraine and elsewhere will be not allowed to be used by the Kremlin as a shadow empire or a hostile and disruptive Fifth Column.
The West also must abandon once and for all the erroneous notion that Russia could be integrated into Europe, because Russia will never freely accept democracy, free markets and the rule of law as a model for its government. As a consequence, Russia will certainly fall behind in the process of globalization that, in turn, will expose her directly and dangerously to a much more powerful China. Only when Russia realizes the enormity of the Chinese threat will it gravitate toward the European Union and the United States, and give up its opposition to Western values.
The vulnerability, unwarranted optimism and complacency of the West must also end. Nobody should have any illusions about the evil nature and intentions of an economically weak but militarily powerful Russia. In particular, the European states, regardless whether they belong to NATO, must be cognizant of the fact that they are sitting on a still active volcano. This volcano could erupt at any moment, at the whim of an autocrat, who would always view the rest of Europe as a threat to his absolute domination.
In this respect, the United States has a unique responsibility. As the leader of the Free World it cannot afford a policy toward Russia based on illusions. Neither could the United States ignore Russian nationalism that historically had been hateful and destructive. The relativism regarding Western and Russian nationalism promoted by the media and misguided members of the academia must be countered by steady repetition of factual comparisons and objective analyses.
Finally, the United States cannot let NATO to degenerate into a military organization that gives the impression of not being able to defend itself against its enemies.
Democracy protected by individual freedom is the cornerstone of human progress. The free citizens of the West should not allow the shadows of their good intentions to obscure the reality of the evil embodied in present-day’s Russia and its President, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. They and their elected representatives must maintain their humanity mixed with a healthy dose of hardheadedness. For only such intellectual complexity will assure enduring universal freedom, peace and prosperity.
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Dr. Miklos K. Radvanyi is Vice President of Frontiers of Freedom.