So now we can finally be sure: The Russian knout is in the window. For Putin, not only Ukraine is a failed state, but he and Xi Jinping already prophetically foresee the end of the free Western world. The territorially largest nuclear power offers a political alternative that can draw on a long imperial tradition – from the tsars to Stalin to Vladimir Putin himself. The Russian president offers us an imposed Gleichschaltung, safely backed by the police, the military, the state security service, and the systematic suppression of all opposition. Stalin once asked how many divisions the Vatican could mobilize? Putin asks how much military power Europe possesses – and how much Russia? It is this answer that counts and makes him take his imperial stance.
Putin succeeded in transforming his country, so bitterly humiliated in the 1990s, into a nuclear power that is once again feared. This achievement has won him the support of the military and of all Russian patriots. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Americans and the countries of the former Warsaw Pact were only too glad that Russia was finally knocked down. To be sure, Stalin had freed them from the Nazis but imposed on them a dictatorship no less brutal. This explains their willingness, indeed their insistence, to place themselves under the protection of NATO, even though Western politicians had made – verbal – promises to Russia that it would not be extended eastwards. But the fear of falling into the clutches of the Russians again was stronger. They no longer wanted a dictatorship; they wanted real freedom and national self-determination.
However, Western freedom did not only foster prosperity, but growing inequality as well. Liberalism is an immense opportunity, but at the same time it is a temptation when degenerating into neoliberalism that leads to the concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands. Much disillusionment has occurred in Europa since the collapse of the Soviet Union, but one thing should be kept in mind. Russian corruption and oligarchy are no alternative to neoliberalism; they only add political disenfranchisement, the silence of a graveyard, because any open protest is out of the question. To a few, this may be as appealing as the Chinese model of total surveillance. Unquestionably, Putin knows how to impose political stalemate that he mistakes for peace. By contrast, the West’s intervention during the Arab Spring may have been well-intentioned, aimed at strengthening democratic forces, but the approach was frighteningly naïve. How can democracy be realized in countries where there is at best only one adequately paid job for every three young men who want to start a family? Under conditions of great population pressure, only a dictatorship is capable of taming a perpetually smoldering turmoil. Unlike Western politicians, sociologists like Steiger and Heinsohn (Weltmacht und Söhne /Sons and World Power/) understood the socio-economic dilemma – but so did Vladimir Putin. Regarding Syria, he asked which forces had real power. The answer left not doubt: the bloody Assad regime. Putin therefore offered his full support to the regime, and peace ensued: the peace of a graveyard (accompanied by a welcome bonus – a Russian military base facing the Mediterranean). Everywhere else, the dictatorship reasserted its rights or, as in Libya, civil war still reigns. In the eyes of Russia and its propaganda, the West had disgraced itself hopelessly.
Traditions are tenacious, Russia is no exception. The Soviet Union felt called upon to rally all Slavic brothers throughout Europe under the Russian umbrella. In his speech on February 22, the Russian president proved how committed he is to this tradition. Whether Ukrainians share his vision, that is, whether they want to live under Russian tutelage or domination, is of no concern to him. They happen to speak a language closely related to Russian and they had a common history in the past. We remember that this was also an argument for Hitler to detach Bohemia and Moravia from Czechoslovakia and annex them to the German Reich. It is the classic argument of all conquering politicians, an argument that thwarts any lasting peace.
History can be used to support any desire for annexation. Slavic tribes – as place names prove – once settled large parts of Europe. The new Russian tsar might feel called upon to remind not only the Ukrainians that they are basically Russians, but that this applies equally to all other Slavic peoples, i.e. Poles, Czechs, Slovenes, Croats and, of course, the Serbs. Dictators always find lots of arguments if they want to discredit freedom. And indeed, freedom is always precarious and endangered. And indeed, freedom is always precarious and endangered. The Western camp has confused it with blue-eyedness and even with social irresponsibility – as is currently the case in the United States.
But would Europa fare any better if Putin were allowed to impose the Russian knout and graveyard silence?*2*
1 However, in Russian talk shows politically leveled by the regime participants tend to shout at the top of their voices. Just listen to “Vremya pokazhet” (Время покажет /Time will tell/) on the First Russian Channel, where decibels take the place of arguments. Only in Bolshaya Igra (Большая игра /the Great Game/) a genteel tone prevails, but Dmitriy Saims (Дмитрий Саимс) the only moderate voice, is unlikely to prevail in the long run.
2 To be more precise: Putin demands graveyard silence only in his own country. Everywhere else, he actively promotes the struggle between Putin-understanders and their opponents. For this purpose he uses all means of hybrid warfare – but the latter is practiced by both camps.