Russification, Stalin’s Gift and Putin’s Hole Card


If you didn’t notice it, a few days ago Vladimir Putin issued a kind of Monroe Doctrine for all the former Soviet states, stating that Moscow would exercise its say (Da or Nyet) in any government changeovers in the old Soviet Union, and by implication, the Empire.

This is not a small thing. There is now uneasiness from Warsaw to Vilnius to Sofia, not to mention some shuffling of seats even in Tokyo, Seoul and Taipei, not so much because of Moscow’s bellicosity but because of Washington’s timidity when confronted with it. Weak on Ukraine already, the media are absolutely quiet on this major new development.

One of the devices used by Moscow to justify this new doctrine was “other language”, namely people in these nations who speak a first language other than the national tongue of the country involved, in this case Ukraine. That other language was implied to mean the Russian language. A clever device.

(On a side note, I have to hand it to the Russians, the original masters of the parsed phrase, proving they are still the masters of the craft, leaving the Obama Administration’s puny attempts at riposte lying in the dust throughout this Ukraine affair.)

This is as discomfiting to Poles and Estonians, both EU members, as it is to Ukraine, for every Soviet satellite taught children Russian as a second language from the first grade on, from the first day of “liberation” until the Soviet Bloc fell in 1992. No longer taught, and in many countries despised, almost every citizen born after 1975 is still fluent in Russian. In many places I found they were offended if you tried to use it, even when that was the easier language to communicate with. They would prefer to struggle with English than speak clearly in Russian. I once spent a fitful night on a sleeper from Moscow to Ukraine with a Russian escort who only spoke French and Russian, and two Palestinian Arabs (who drank all my vodka), one of which could only speak a smattering of Russian, the other a smattering of English. Thankfully I could speak some French. It was a four-way circus, and everyone but the Russian slept with one eye open.

Stalin’s Gift

What most people don’t know is that every former-Soviet republic has about a 15%-20% Russian population, who were first sent out there in the 1920s-30s. So, no matter where you go, from Tashkent, Samarkand, Alma Ata in the east to Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn in the west, a sizable minority are ethnically Russian, and they are usually still spotted around in key positions in government, infrastructure and industry. When I was in Tallinn I found that almost all the small businesses had .ru business cards. In Kharkiv, all the factory director-generals were Russian.

Crimea is an exception only in that a majority, or near majority, are ethnic Russian, and that is probably explained by the presence of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol. Russians only trust other Russians to carry out the more sensitive parts of administration of a military base.

So, there were always practical reasons for the Russian presence in these other republics.

Beginning in the 1920s, the core of all the republics’ governments were Russian, their function, besides governing, to establish identification and training of local communist indigenous talent, but also to oversee transportation, all manufacturing and industry, and construction. While the top jobs were much like senior diplomatic posts, rotating every few years, the apparatchiks, the underlying administrative positions, originally were moved there involuntarily, never to return to Russia. And while having a day job job at the factory, they had a second in their apartment complexes, as the eyes and ears of the party apparatus. They were sprinkled around the housing areas, so that every area had a few, and every local citizen knew who they were and acted accordingly. It was tough to make friends, as you can imagine.

As you can also imagine, this made life for the Russians rather lonely, for it was difficult for them to have Uzbek friends, just as it was for Uzbeks to call them friends, at least in public. So, there were versions of the Old Rodina (Motherland) Moose Lodge, Knights of Moscow and such, where Russians could go, be together and drink, and speak of many things that the Uzbeks would find uninteresting, such as how stupid Uzbeks are. Democrats would understand this.

It was this way everywhere, and to some extent still is. In Ukrainian cities that had major strategic importance such as Crimea (the Navy) and Kharkov (#5 industrial city in USSR) the Russian population was much larger.

But Ukraine is also unique in that it is more liberal, western and democratic in its national worldview than the Turkic people of the east (all the “stans”). Many of the Russian-Ukrainians do not really want the heavy hand of Moscow upon them. They like being part of the west. So the politics there, especially in Donetsk and Kharkiv are dicier than other sites. It’s a three-way conflict, not two.

Throughout all this, I have yet to hear or read one word of lamentation about the loss of freedom and self-determination of 44 million souls. Not from our government. Not from the EU. Not from the liberal press. Not even from Fox News. I think they all agree, these 44 million are a statistic, and not “the story”, which probably says more about how low we have sunk than anything else we have or

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have not done in this conflict.

Putin’s Hole Card

Just understand, what we are seeing play out in Ukraine is realpolitik, based on power and strategic position, and not ideology, or even hate, although a little “gotcha” or “get even” has to be involved in Putin and the Red Army’s thinking. Just throw out of your mind a sense of fair play or the tale of the Good Samaritan, for a Russian would feel himself shamed and less a man if he saw an amateur fumbling around in the dark, with his wallet exposed, as they have watched Barack Obama (and Hillary and Kerry) fumble the past five years, and did not relieve him of it. He would lift that wallet as a kind of moral duty even, “to teach lesson.” And he would lift the victim’s hair, if the amateur raised too much of a squawk. They can and will play dirty and without remorse.

In short, Russians are still playing from a deck of cards first dealt them in the 13th Century, while our current administration is playing from a brand new deck of Go Fish, on recycled-paper and printed at a children’s workshop in Connecticut. Even Carter kept a few tough guys on his payroll.

As long as we have men like John Kerry and Obama who continue to use words like “inappropriate” to define naked military aggression, and continue to spout the naive platitude so often offered up by the Left that treaties are self-enforcing, requiring no vigilance, and no shows of strength and will, we will continue to see men like Putin lift these foreign policy naifs’ pockets.

As long as we have men and women who think they can simply call “time out” with aggressive nations, then metaphorically punish them by metaphorically sending them to their imaginary room, without their metaphorical dinner, under the inane vanity of thinking that they have caused Russia to tremble because we are “disappointed” in them, as a mom might her five-year old…as the Koreans say, we are in deep kemchi.

Russians dislike Ukrainians because Ukrainians believe they are European while they think the Russian are Asian. Russians believe they are European, too, so are very touchy about the old French comment “Scratch a Russian and you’ll find a Tartar” (Marquis de Cuistane). But this is just the tone Kerry has adopted in scolding the Russians, and the vain fool doesn’t even know it.

Putin has a hole card, and as long as we deal with him as a petulant child, he will play it, over and over again…just for fun. Just to strip our wallet.

Since world wars have begun with similar naive beliefs and kindergarten solutions, I suppose a little cold war instead would be nice after all.

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