Last Thursday I took the metro to Belorusskaya, to get the Sheremetyevo airport train out of Moscow. Perhaps not for the last time in my life but probably the last for a while, at least.
During the last six months I have met, befriended and drunk too much vodka with some warm, sensible and decent Russian people. Their thoughts, worries and interests in life are, predictably, remarkably like mine. Unlike their parents’ generation, we wear the same clothes, listen to the same music, watch the same films.
But the major difference between us is that I can come back to my “safe European home”, free of bullying from the state in which I live, and write pieces like this; they need to keep their eyes down and stay out of politics, if they know what’s good for them. I should add that those who come to work for a multi-national are automatically screened by the security services, as part of the selection process. I kid you not.
Might it just be, I idly wondered as I sat in that train, that I might look back at the time of my little foreign assignment as what historians will call the last gasp of a relatively free and open Russia in between the First and Second Cold Wars? We shall see.
What is certainly true is that it has been my grim privilege to have been present, on and off, during the most important period of tension between Russia and the West since the Berlin Wall fell. Perhaps it will ultimately turn out to be the most important since the Cuban Missile Crisis, a half-century ago; perhaps it already is.
Not that you would have known from being in Moscow that anything important was happening. What remains of the free press is gradually being closed down, to be replaced by Kremlin-friendly news outlets, as we reported here and, besides, the Crimea is the best part of a thousand miles from Moscow and it’s not as if many shots have been fired even there.
So, when an American colleague expressed concern about travelling to Moscow “in light of the political situation”, we laughed. Aside from the occasional anti-war or pro-Ukraine demonstration (where innocent passers-by, including one of my Russian co-workers, were randomly detained by police), life goes on exactly as before.
Now, merely being there doesn’t suddenly make you into an expert in international geopolitics (mind you, given the extraordinary failure of all Obama’s foreign-policy wonkery to have anticipated such blindingly obvious Russian intentions, one sometimes wonders how much use being an “expert” really is).
But it has been hard for anyone to read any Russian news outlet – free or otherwise – over recent months and not have feared for Ukraine’s independence. The signs were all there, from the significant increases in military spending (for what?) to the ominous propaganda onslaught (why bother to lie so obviously?) which insisted that ethnic Russians were under attack from shadowy fascist elements within the Euromaidan movement.
Oh, and that those people with guns in the Crimea were not Russian soldiers in plain clothes but “local defence brigades”. Pull the other one, if you please. And it really should be a mortal embarrassment to all of us on the British left that some of our number have actually parroted as real this transparent propaganda by an authoritarian state.
It is also difficult, for anyone with a passing knowledge of 20th century European history, not to note the striking resemblance which continues to hold between Putin’s strategy to annex Crimea (take a part of the country to see if anyone reacts, then take the whole of it when they don’t) and Hitler’s in annexing the Sudetenland in 1938.
If you think that comparison sounds far-fetched, I invite you to consider that yesterday the Ukraine government reported Russian troops landing in the Kherson region of Ukraine: outside of Crimea.
It seems somehow unlikely that Russia will now stop just at the Crimea – why should it, given the reluctance of the West to come up with any response which is remotely painful for Russia? That same West which is decreasing its defence spending across the board and has effectively taken military responses off the table anyway?
This is not, to state the obvious, to say that the West should tumble headlong into an armed conflict with a nuclear power. But there is a huge difference between directly threatening military action, on the one hand, and taking it entirely off the table, on the other. The second represents a fatal destroying of one’s negotiating position in the global power game, and that is what we are doing. It is also, chillingly, exactly what Allied powers did in the 1930s.
We need not wait for the results of today’s independence “referendum” (the quotes are, I’m afraid, richly deserved, see comments from some residents here); the Ukraine government has already effectively lost the Crimea. It remains to be seen whether it will have sufficient support from the West to be permitted to keep some or all of the rest, or whether Russian soldiers will simply march into that as well.
The omens are not good.