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After Crimea, is Transdniestria Next?

Transdniestria is one of the more obscure places in Europe. Officially this impoverished and tiny entity does not exist, being recognized by basically nobody; even its Russian client does not formally regard it as a state, though it does maintain diplomatic relations. Transdniestria – officially the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, or PMR, as it styles itself in English – came into existence in 1992, after a brief conflict between Russian troops and Moldova, to which the PMR legally belongs. As such, it is a “frozen conflict” without obvious resolution. Its half-million population, which is aging and dropping fast, is about a third each Moldavian (i.e. Romanian), Russian, and Ukrainian, and the pseudo-country has a garrison of about a thousand Russian troops, ostensibly there as peacekeepers.

Tensions are rising in the PMR as neighboring Ukraine writhes in its Kremlin-induced crisis, not helped by the fact that the legitimate economy is weak while smuggling is rampant; the PMR has a reputation for corruption and lawlessness considered impressive by the high regional standards. But it is strategically significant, since it is connected to Ukraine, and thanks to the Russian population there, the PMR is considered “theirs” by the Kremlin, regardless of what Russia’s official position may be. If Vladimir Putin decides to take over much of Ukraine – and it may be a matter more of when than if now – his forces will wind up absorbing the PMR too.

Strong hints of where this conflict is headed were provided yesterday in a detailed piece by Vladimir Solovyev in the Moscow daily Kommersant, which is pro-Kremlin. Revealingly titled The Crimea of the Fatherland is sweet and pleasant to them: Authorities in Trandniestria are prepared to repeat the fate of the peninsula,” it explains how far along planning actually is for incorporating the PMR, in Crimean fashion, into Russia. It begins forthrightly:

The situation around Transdniestria as taken a turn for the worse. Kommersant has learned that talks on a settlement of the Dniester conflict scheduled for 10-11 April have been derailed. Authorities in the unrecognized republic have declined to take part, accusing Moldova of sanctions, and Ukraine of a blockade. Transdniestria, inspired by the example of Crimea, wants a definitive divorce from Kishinev [the Moldovian capital, Chișinău in Romanian] and annexation to Russia. Moscow, on the other hand, is expressing a readiness to use force against those offending Transdnistria and to “enforce peace on any aggressor”.

The article explains that PMR authorities have decided to cease internationally-brokered parley with Moldovan authorities and have latched onto a border question:

The scuttling of the negotiations was new confirmation of the exacerbation of the relations between Kishinev and Tiraspol [the PMR "capital"]. The reason lies not only in the lack of economic agreements. A territorial dispute affecting several villages of Moldovan jurisdiction, which Transdniestria considers its own, has flared up with new force between the parties to the conflict. On Friday, residents of the village of Dorotskoye held a meeting, raising the question of a transition to PMR jurisdiction. The proceeding all but ended in the Moldovan flag being torn down from the local council building, but in the end it was decided to meet on 10 April to settle whom to live with in the future – Moldova or Transdniestria.

Unsurprisingly in the current regional situation, the PMR is having problems with Ukraine too:

Tiraspol is in conflict not only with Kishinev but also with Kyiv, which more than a month ago tightened procedures for the crossing of the Ukrainian border for citizens of the Russian Federation. In Transdniestria, however, which is squeezed between Moldova and Ukraine, almost one out of every two residents has Russian citizenship, and Kyiv’s actions were seen there as a blockade. “In March [Ukrainian authorities], barred more than 200 residents of the PMR, who had Russian passports, from crossing the border. Approximately 200,000 citizens of the Russian Federation reside in our republic, a further 100,000 almost have Ukrainian citizenship, many have family connections in the neighboring countries, and these measures are inflaming tension,” PMR leader Yevgeniy Shevchuk complained.

Ukraine has described its tensions with the PMR as an internal matter, a view which is rejected in Tiraspol and – of course – in Moscow too:

Moscow’s increased attention to Transdniestria is putting Ukraine on alert. “There are reports that the Russian Federation peacekeeping contingent in Transdniestria is planning to conduct military exercises. Do you know the scenario? Escorting humanitarian goods to the PMR! Never before have exercises been conducted based on such a scenario. That a military component is being plugged in suggests that since there is a blockade, it needs to be eliminated, broken. And with the involvement of armed forces, possibly,” complained Ambassador Pirozhkov [Ukraine's ambassador to Moldova].

Whereas Russian peacekeepers only intend to conduct exercises, the PMR military is already training vigorously. Last week the defense ministry of the unrecognized republic announced live gunnery for tank crewmen, artillerymen, anti-aircraft crews, and anti-tank men, and also exercises for combat engineer units, which practiced laying of a floating bridge across the Dniester. The PMR Defense Ministry emphasizes that all the exercises are planned, their explanation is: “defense against an aggressor”.

Russia also is prepared for the defense of the Transdniestira, it would appear. Commenting on the situation surrounding the unrecognized republic on the Russkiy Vopros program on the Center TV channel, Deputy Premier Dmitriy Rogozin said: “We will employ the entire arsenal of political, diplomatic, economic, and, if need be, power, pressure against any aggressor to enforce on the aggressor peace, tranquility, and the observance of democratic standards.” This statement was relayed to Transdnistria instantly.

At this point Kommersant drops any subtlety and explains what’s likely to happen next, à la Crimée:

Authorities in Tiraspol, inspired by the way in which Moscow settled the “Crimea question,” are making no secret of the fact that they would like to share the fate of that peninsula as soon as possible. And they are looking to Russia. “The residents of Crimea decided their fate in the most democratic fashion - at a referendum. Transdniestria supports the position of the leadership of Russia in defense of its citizens – this is how all civilized countries behave. At the PMR referendum in 2006 more than ninety-seven percent of the electorate supported independence with subsequent annexation to Russia. We believe that, considering the rapidly changing situation in the world, our international partners who are involved in a Transnistria settlement will arrive at the opinion that a just solution is possible only via the wishes of the people here,” Yevgeniy Shevchuk is convinced. Transniestria is thus prepared to become part of Russia. Yevgeniy Shevchuk will today be addressing the people – it is not inconceivable that he will talk about this too.

As Kommersant predicted, Shevchuk yesterday addressed the people of the PMR, telling them, “Our dream is a prosperous independent Transdniestria together with Russia…The time for solutions over Trasndniestria has come,” calling on PMR leadership to prepare the path to unification with Russia. Having just witnessed the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea, it’s not difficult to predict what will happen next.






Putinism and the Anti-WEIRD Coalition

Vladimir Putin’s slow-rolling conquest of Ukraine has restarted openly today, with calls for an “independence referendum” for the newly declared “People’s Republic of Donetsk” in the East. It’s clear that Moscow intends to conquer something like half of Ukraine – through quasi-covert means if possible, by overt invasion if necessary. Regardless, this will place the West on a course for something like the Cold War 2.0 I’ve written about.

That notion is not accepted yet by many in the West, who seem not to understand Putin’s agenda. Among the doubters is President Obama, who dismissed the idea of a new Cold War with Russia, on the grounds that Putin has no ideology, so what’s there to fight about? As Obama put it recently“This is not another Cold War that we’re entering into. After all, unlike the Soviet Union, Russia leads no bloc of nations. No global ideology. The United States and NATO do not seek any conflict with Russia.”

While it’s certainly true that the U.S. and NATO don’t seek confrontation with Russia, it’s worthwhile remembering Trotsky’s line that you might not be interested in the dialectic, but the dialectic is interested in you. As for the rest of Obama’s statement, it’s simply wrong, and that matters, because the U.S. and many of its allies at present are unable to see the rising conflict with Russia and its friends for what it actually is. And it’s hard to craft a counter-strategy when one side doesn’t even understand the stakes or the issues.

Putinism is a far cry from the Marxism-Leninism that animated the Soviet Union, Putin’s Sovietisms and undisguised affection for some aspects of the USSR notwithstanding. That said, it’s good to remember that Soviet ideology, as practiced, was a pretty cobbled-together edifice too that only had intellectual coherence if you were standing firmly inside the bubble.

I’ll elaborate what Putinism actually is, but before I do, it’s important to understand why President Obama and countless other Westerners cannot see what is right before them. Putin and the Kremlin actively parrot their propaganda, they are doing anything but hide it, yet we still cannot make it out.

This is simply because we are WEIRD. That’s social science shorthand for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic – and nobody is WEIRDer than Americans. In the last several decades many Americans, and essentially all our elites, have internalized a worldview based on affluence, individualism, and secularism that makes us unique, globally speaking. So much so that we seem unable to comprehend that there actually are opposing viewpoints out there.

Barack Obama, by virtue of his diverse ethnic and religious background and elite education, is almost an ideal stand-in for the WEIRD demographic, as he embodies so many things WEIRDos admire: education, affluence, diversity, progressive social views, etc. He comes close to being almost the perfect post-modern American, which perhaps is why so many Americans of that bent adore him deeply. Thus when President Obama says he detects no ideological rivalry with Putin’s Russia, he undoubtedly speaks the truth as he sees it.

Americans of all stripes have a well-honed ability to ignore inconvenient facts, and our better educated citizens seem particularly prone to this (as I noted with our “expert” inability to see what North Korea believes, even though they aren’t shy about it). At root, I suspect Obama and many Americans refuse to accept the in-our-face reality of Putin and his regime because they represent a past version of ourselves, caught up in retrograde views that are entirely unacceptable to our elites, therefore they pretend they do not exist, because they don’t actually exist in their world.

Simply put, Vladimir Putin is the stuff of Western progressive nightmares because he’s what they thought they’d gotten past. He’s a traditional male with “outmoded” views on, well, everything: gender relations, race, sexual identity, faith, the use of violence, the whole retrograde package. Putin at some level is the Old White Guy that post-moderns fear and loathe, except this one happens to control the largest country on earth plus several thousand nuclear weapons – and he hates us.

Of course, this also happens to explain why some Westerners who loathe post-modernism positively love Putin, at least from a safe distance. Some far-right Westerners – the accurate term is paleoconservatives – have been saying for years that the West, led very much by America, has become hopelessly decadent and they’ve been looking for a leader to counter all this, and – lo and behold – here he is, the new “leader of global conservatism.” Some paleocons have stated that, with the end of the Cold War, America has become the global revolutionary power, seeking to foist its post-modern views on the whole planet, by force if necessary, and now Putin’s Russia has emerged as the counterrevolutionary element. Cold War 2.0, in this telling, has the sides reversed.

I’m skeptical of all that, but it is important to note that the post-modernism about cultural and social matters that has become the default setting in the West in the last couple decades has had a hard time putting down roots in Eastern Europe. It’s an odd fact that living under the Old Left (i.e. Marxism-Leninism) inoculated Eastern Europeans from much of the New Left of the 1960s and after, with its emphasis on gender, sexuality, and race. “Critical Studies” didn’t get far with people who had to live under the KGB; indeed, East Bloc secret police in the 1980s viewed all this – the feminism and the gay rights stuff especially – as bourgeois deviance and a subversive Western import. Since 1990, Western countries have made actual efforts to import that, but it’s met a lot of resistance, and doesn’t make much of an impression outside educated circles; which is why when educated Westerners meet, say, educated Poles, “they seem just like us” – because they have accepted, verbatim, what we’ve told them is normative in a “developed” society.

Resisting Western post-modernism on a cultural level is but one component of Putinism, albeit an important one. What comes first, however, is an emphasis on national sovereignty, meaning a more traditional, indeed Westphalian, view of state power and non-interference in others’ affairs. That Putin has stolen Crimea indicates that Moscow’s views on this are highly conditional. Nevertheless, it should be noted that Putin’s regular incantations of the need for respect for sovereignty, which are of course aimed directly at the United States, which Russia views as a hypocrite of the highest order in international affairs, are popular among other regional powers who fear U.S. military might, especially China and India. Moreover, Putin would no doubt argue that his seizing Crimea is in no way a violation of sovereignty since Ukraine is not a legitimate country in the first place (an interview last year where Putin referred to Ukraine as a mere “territory” did not get the attention abroad that it merited). For most Russians, all this falls under the need to restore national honor after the disasters of the 1990s, and is to be applauded heartily. Additionally, there are plenty of people in the world who don’t like Putin or Russia, yet who are happy that someone, somewhere is standing up to American hegemony.

Nationalism matters too. This is a tricky issue in Russia, which possesses some 185 recognized ethnic groups and many religions, with ethnic Russians making up but four-fifths of the population, and that figure is declining. Until recently, Putin had done a good job of promoting state patriotism and a Muscovite sort of multiculturalism that celebrates citizens of the Russian Federation, of any ethnicity or religion, as long as they accept Kremlin rule; that this bears little resemblance to post-modern Western notions of “tolerance” and “diversity” should be obvious. All the same, hardline Russian ethno-nationalists, local equivalents of David Duke, have regularly faced arrest in Putin’s Russia, which has feared setting off ethnic disputes that could turn explosive quickly.

Yet the reconquest of Crimea has caused a clear change of tone in Moscow, with celebration of old fashioned Russian nationalism coming into fashion. In his speech to the Duma announcing the triumphant annexation of Crimea, when speaking of Russians, Putin specifically used the ethnic term – russkiy –  not the more inclusive rossiyskiy, which applies to all citizens of the Russian Federation. This came among incantations to the full Great Russian program, with a Moscow-centric view of Eastern Europe seemingly endorsed by mentions of great Orthodox saints. Unstated yet clearly, this was all of a piece with “Third Rome” ideology, a powerful admixture of Orthodoxy, ethnic mysticism, and Slavophile tendencies that has deep resonance in Russian history.

Westerners seemed shocked by this “Holy Russia” stuff, but Putin has been dropping unsubtle hints for years that his state ideology includes a good amount of this back-to-the-future thinking, cloaked in piety and nationalism. Western “experts”  continue to state that a major influence here is Aleksandr Dugin, an eccentric philosopher who espouses “Eurasianism,” an odd blend of geopolitical theory and neo-fascism. While Dugin is not irrelevant, his star at the Kremlin actually faded a decade ago, though he gets some Kremlin attention because his father was a GRU general. Far more important to divining Putin’s worldview, however, is Ivan Ilyin, a Russian political and religious thinker who fled the Bolsheviks and died an emigre in Switzerland in 1953. In exile, Ilyin espoused ethnic-religious neo-traditionalism, amidst much talk about a unique “Russian soul.” Germanely, he believed that Russia would recover from the Bolshevik nightmare and rediscover itself, first spiritually then politically, thereby saving the world. Putin’s admiration for Ilyin is unconcealed: he has mentioned him in several major speeches and he had his body repatriated and buried at the famous Donskoy monastery with fanfare in 2005; Putin personally paid for a new headstone. Yet despite the fact that even Kremlin outlets note the importance of Ilyin to Putin’s worldview, not many Westerners have noticed.

They should, however, because Putinism includes a good amount of Ilyin-inspired Orthodoxy and Russian nationalism working hand-in-glove, what its advocates term symphonia, meaning the Byzantine-style unity of state and church, in stark contrast to American notions of separation of church and state. Although the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) is not the state church, de jure, in practice it functions as something close to one, enjoying a privileged position at home and abroad. Putin has explained the central role of the ROC by stating that Russia’s “spiritual shield” – meaning her church-grounded resistance to post-modernism – is as important to her security as her nuclear shield. Meanwhile, Kremlin security agencies have publicly embraced Orthodoxy too, with the FSB espousing a doctrine of “spiritual security,” which boils down to the ROC and the “special services” working together against the West and its malign influences. Where Chekists once persecuted the church with fanatical fervor, now it’s de rigeur among Russian intelligence officers to be religious, at least publicly. The FSB basically kept the old KGB logo, the famous sword and shield, with St. George slaying the dragon in place of the former red star.

Putin, of course, is a public believer, and while there’s been skepticism expressed in the West about how this onetime mid-level KGB functionary suddenly became a pious Orthodox, it’s clear that, whatever he may believe privately, Putin’s regime benefits from the ROC giving it assistance for its neo-traditionalist state ideology. The Moscow Patriarchate, to use the proper term for ROC leadership, has been anything but shy in its support for Putin and his Kremlin, offering regular expressions of what exactly it believes about the West, often quite vehemently.

ROC propaganda portrays a West that is declining down to its death at the hands of decadence and sin, mired in confused unbelief, bored and failing to even reproduce itself. Patriarch Kirill, head of the church, recently explained that the “main threat” to Russia is “the loss of faith” in the Western style. The practices of “sexual minorities,” to use the Kremlin term for LGBT lifestyles, come in for harsh criticism. Fr. Vsevolod Chaplin, who is the MP’s frontman on these matters, explained about homosexuality, “it is one of the gravest sins because it changes people’s mental state, makes the creation of a normal family impossible, and corrupts the younger generation. By the way, it is no accident that the propaganda of this sin is targeted at young people and sometimes at children. It deprives people of eternal bliss.” Moreover, Chaplin explained, the triumph of same-sex marriage means that the West doesn’t even have fifty years left before its collapse, and it will be up to Russia then to save what can be saved,  to “make Europe Christian again, that is, go back to the ideals that once made Europe.”

Gay activists in the West have latched onto all this, but it’s important to note that Russia’s ban on “homosexual propaganda” ought to be seen as part of a full-spectrum assault by the ROC, and therefore the Kremlin, on Western post-modern values. (Westerners seem not to notice that Russia’s anti-homosexual laws are mild compared to many in the Islamic world and Africa, and Moscow continues to have a thriving LGBT scene.) Putinism rejects Western-style feminism just as strongly as homosexuality. As Patriarch Kirill explained recently, “I consider this phenomenon called feminism very dangerous, because feminist organizations proclaim the pseudo-freedom of women, which must appear firstly outside of marriage and outside of family,” adding that it’s no coincidence that most feminist leaders are unmarried and childless.

Faith aside, it’s not hard to see why Putin wants to fight off Western values based on individualism in the sexual realm that have unquestionably led to lower birthrates, which is something that Russia, which is already facing demographic disaster, cannot afford. The existence of the country itself is at stake, so we should not expect Putin to back off here, especially because he may actually believe all this as a matter of faith, not just natalist practicality.

The West, and the United States especially, have helped cause this by active promotion of the post-modernism that Russia now rejects. It is not a figment of Moscow’s imagination that the U.S. State Department encourages feminism and LGBT activism, at least in certain countries. When Washington, DC, considers having successful gay pride parades a key benchmark for “advancement” in Eastern Europe, with the full support of U.S. diplomats, we should not be surprised when the Kremlin and its sympathizers move to counter this. My friends in Eastern Europe, most of whom are comfortable with gay rights and feminism, have nevertheless noted to me many times that it’s odd that the U.S. Government promotes such things in small, poor Eastern European countries it can intimidate but never, say, in Saudi Arabia.

Moreover, there remains the question of just how universal post-modern Western values actually are outside educated elites. There is ample evidence that many average people in Eastern Europe who fear Russia nevertheless are closer to the Kremlin’s positions on cultural matters than to America’s. In Georgia, where loathing of Russians generally and Putin particularly is universal, resistance to LGBT rights and feminism remains deep and broad, with the support of the Orthodox Church, while much the same can be said of Moldova, where fears of Russian invasion are acute, but so are fears of Western social values. Neither is this resistance limited to the East. It can be found as well in Central Europe, among NATO and EU members. In Poland, the Catholic Church continues to resist post-modern sexual values – what they collectively term “gender,” meaning feminism plus gay rights - leading one bishop to term this “ a threat worse than Nazism and Communism combined.” Strongly Catholic Croatia last December in a national referendum rejected same-sex marriage by a two-thirds margin, to the dismay of progressives across Europe. One of the big talking points from the Kremlin and the ROC is that Russia represents the actual global consensus on such matters, while the West is the decadent outlier. Its postmodernism, proclaimed Fr. Chaplin recently, “is increasingly marginal,” adding that “it cannot cope with modern challenges,” while Orthodox Christian, Chinese, Indian, Latin American and African civilizations share opposite values and will play an active role in building peaceful relations between civilizational systems. Given recent trends in sexual matters globally, with India and countries in Africa enacting harsh anti-gay laws, it is worth considering if Moscow has a valid point.

We are entering a New Cold War with Russia, whether we want to or not, thanks to Putin’s acts in Ukraine, which are far from the endpoint of where the Kremlin is headed in foreign policy. As long as the West continues to pretend there is no ideological component to this struggle, it will not understand what is actually going on. Simply put, Putin believes that his country has been victimized by the West for two decades, and he is pushing back, while he is seeking partners. We will have many allies in resisting Russian aggression if we focus on issues of freedom and sovereignty, standing up for the rights of smaller countries to choose their own destiny.

However, too much emphasis on social and sexual matters – that is, telling countries how they must organize their societies and families – will be strategically counterproductive. Some Americans already believe that Putin, not Obama, is on God’s side in this struggle, and this will only get worse as Europe elects more far-right parties to power, many of which are sympathetic to Putinism, and some are secretly on the Kremlin payroll. If we choose to resist Russia because Putin rejects gay rights and feminism, we will have fewer allies and well-wishers than if we instead focus on matters of national sovereignty and dignity. The choice is ours. The Internationale famously promised, “this is the final struggle” (c’est la lutte finale), and now perhaps we are in that very conflict; there is no doubt that post-modern Westerners feel their social beliefs are the endpoint of all human development, and we may soon find out if they are right. The first step is accepting that we are in fact the WEIRD ones.

[As always, the opinions expressed here are the author's alone.]

Understanding Provocation

One of the most powerful tools the Kremlin has in its secret arsenal of Special War is provocation, what they call provokatsiya. While Moscow cannot claim to have invented this technique, which has existed as long as there have been secret services, there’s no doubt that Russians have perfected the art and taken it to a whole new level of sophistication and deviousness. At times, it can become a strategy all on its own (not always, mind you, with edifying results).

Provokatsiya simply means taking control of your enemies in secret and encouraging them to do things that discredit them and help you. You plant your own agents provocateurs and flip legitimate activists, turning them to your side. When you’re dealing with extremists to start with, getting them to do crazy, self-defeating things isn’t often difficult. In some cases, you simply create extremists and terrorists where they don’t exist. This is causing problems in order to solve them, and since the Tsarist period, Russian intelligence has been known to do just that.

While this isn’t a particularly nice technique, it works surprisingly well, particularly if you don’t care about bloody and messy consequences. Credulous Westerners are a big help. Perhaps the most infamous Kremlin case of provokatsiya was the TRUST operation of the 1920s. In the aftermath of the Russian Civil War, Bolshevik control was incomplete and Moscow faced the problem that a large number of Whites, their recent enemies, had gotten sanctuary in Europe, where they plotted the reconquest of Holy Russia.

Soon the White emigration klatched in the cafes of Paris and Berlin was invigorated by tantalizing rumors that there existed a secret anti-Bolshevik movement underground in the USSR, calling itself the Monarchist Union of Central Russia. Before long, prominent Whites gave this shadowy group their political and financial support, as did several Western intelligence services who desired the end – or at least the harassment – of Bolshevism. Intelligence from inside the Soviet Union was a scarce commodity at the time. Some emigres were even prompted to clandestinely return to Russia in the hope of aiding the resistance. Among them was the famous revolutionary Boris Savinkov, who had broken with the Bolsheviks and was one of Moscow’s top public enemies.

But word of Savinkov dried up once he reached Russia, as it did for all the emigres and spies who tried to enter the Soviet Union to establish contact with the underground resistance. They were dead. The TRUST operation was all a mirage; there in fact was no Monarchist Union of Central Russia, it was a front for Soviet intelligence. By 1926, Western intelligence began to suspect the truth, but by that point the Soviet secret police had been running their false-flag operation for five years, during which time it had eliminated or neutralized several of its top enemies while causing them, and several Western spy services, to waste time, money, and energy on a mirage that was actually Soviet-run.

Russians have employed this crafty model countless times since, as have the many intelligence services that have received training in the dark arts from Moscow. Cuban intelligence is notorious for this – it can be reliably assumed that many of the most hard-line anti-Castro exiles are actually on their payroll – while in the 1990s the Algerian military intelligence service, the feared DRS, executed an enormous version of the TRUST operation against its Islamist foes, defeating them in detail, but at the cost of thousands of innocent lives.

This model must be kept in mind during current discussions of Ukraine, where the Kremlin assures us that the government in Kyiv are “fascists” planning a “Nazi” takeover. While there are right-wingers in Ukraine who have troubling views, their numbers are inflated for effect by Moscow, something which too many Westerners accept uncritically. Moreover, some of the most hardline Ukrainian nationalists are secretly under Moscow’s control, and there’s nothing new about this.

The Soviet secret police infiltrated far-right Ukrainian emigre groups in the 1920s and 1930s, provoking them into self-defeating acts and killing off their leaders. Similar provocation was employed after the Second World War by Stalin’s secret police to crush resistance in Western Ukraine, which lasted into the early 1950s, while throughout the Cold War, Ukrainian rightists abroad were targets for surveillance, harassment, and sometimes assassination by the KGB.

Since the Soviet collapse, similar Russian provocations in Ukraine are broadly understood by security circles in Kyiv, which is part of why the SBU, Ukraine’s Security Service, is now attempting to reign in far-right groups like the Right Sector (Pravyy Sektor): not only are they potentially dangerous to democracy, they may be on Moscow’s payroll too. This has come to a head due to the death this week of the notorious far-right activist Oleksandr Muzychko, AKA Sashko Billy, a vocal hater of Russians and Jews, who fell in a murky shootout with police in the Western Ukrainian city of Rivne. Muzychko was so extreme that he actually fought in Chechnya in the 1990s with the local resistance – Moscow accused him of war crimes there – and his funeral turned into a far-right rally against the government in Kyiv. Predictably, all this got huge coverage in Russian media, which is eager to demonstrate the “fascist” nature of all Ukrainians who do not wish to be ruled by the Kremlin.

Unfortunately, we can expect more provocations as this crisis continues. A directly relevant example of what may happen is a series of events in Croatia in 1991, another country where the position of Jews is politically sensitive due to the Second World War and the Holocaust. As Yugoslavia was collapsing, Slobodan Milosevic and his Serbian allies constantly parroted the line that the government in newly independent Croatia was really “fascist” and they planned to resurrect Nazi-era war crimes against minorities, including Jews, and intervention was required from outside the country to prevent “genocide” (if this all sounds to you remarkably like Kremlin propaganda now against Ukraine, it should). As in Ukraine today, there were neo-fascists in Croatia in 1991, but they were politically marginal and considered a threat by the government.

Just like the Soviet Union, Communist Yugoslavia had manipulated, harassed, and killed off Croatian nationalists for decades. In a Balkan version of the TRUST, in the late 1940s, Tito’s secret police lured would-be guerrilla fighters into the country – you knew this was coming - to support a shadowy resistance army: of course it didn’t exist, and it served to get the infiltrators killed. For decades, Yugoslav secret police kept close tabs on Croatian emigres involved in anti-regime activities, employing provocation to discredit them very effectively. Several dozen Croatian exiles in the West were also murdered by Yugoslav assassins. Croatians understood that many of their most radical nationalists were actually under Yugoslav control.

Fears that newly independent Croatia was under threat by “fascists” – just as Belgrade was telling everyone loudly – reached a fever pitch in the summer of 1991 with a series of attacks on Jewish targets in Zagreb. That August, bombs went off at a Jewish community center and the main Jewish cemetery; although there were no casualties, the explosions caused a panic in Croatia’s tiny Jewish community, particularly because there were other bombings at the same time on rail lines in several locations, leading to a sense of anarchy. Soon unverified reports emerged placing blame for the attacks on the government, explicitly fingering President Franjo Tudjman as the figure behind the bombings.

This was all strenuously denied by Tudjman and his government, which moved quickly to reassure Jews they were in no danger. This was all a significant distraction while Croatia was fighting for its life as Yugoslav troops and Serbian irregulars took over one-third of the country that summer and fall. The bombings and accompanying propaganda earned Croatia a black eye internationally when it least needed it, and before long Jewish groups were pondering a mass evacuation from the country, just in case.

It turned out it was all one big provocation engineered by the Yugoslav military’s Counterintelligence Service (KOS), which boasted a substantial agent network in Croatia, including several prominent right-wingers. The Zagreb bombings and accompanying anti-Croatia propaganda were termed Operation LABRADOR by KOS, which considered it to be highly successful. On the heels of the attacks, Zagreb security services worked hard to roll up the KOS networks in the country, but by that point the damage had been done. The false-flag bombings were a reminder to the world that Zagreb was “really” under the control of “fascists,” a lie that the Tudjman government never fully overcame in certain quarters.

Provocation combined with propaganda can be powerfully effective in transmitting Big Lies about people, places, and even whole countries, especially in times of crisis. The Kremlin has been honing this unpleasant skill for more than a century. The next time you hear about violence in Ukraine – and, sadly, you certainly will – it’s good to remember that provokatsiya is real.

Kremlin: “Russia Has Already Won”

Michael McFaul, who until recently was the U.S. ambassador in Moscow, published an op-ed in The New York Times last Sunday, “Confronting Putin’s Russia,” which rues how Vladimir Putin’s recent aggression in Crimea is upending the post-Cold War European order. In a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger mode, reflecting that Amb. McFaul is an academic, not the reincarnation of George Patton, the op-ed goes through the sad chain of events that has led Europe to the sorry situation it now finds itself in, thanks to the Kremlin’s opting for the sword.

Despite this mildly scolding tone, McFaul’s writing clearly upset Moscow, as it has spurred a forthright rebuttal that has appeared in Rossiyskaya Gazeta, the Kremlin’s official newspaper. Authored by the foreign policy analyst and Duma member Vyacheslav Nikonov – the grandson and namesake of Vyacheslav Molotov, the prominent Bolshevik and Soviet foreign minister who signed the non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany in 1939 –  this essay is as aggressive and biting as McFaul’s was measured and tactful.

Mincing no words, at the outset Nikonov, who also serves as chairman of the board of the Russkiy Mir Foundation, the Kremlin’s overseas propaganda arm, accuses McFaul of channeling George Kennan, the American diplomat who foresaw the Cold War in 1946: this despite the fact that the ambassador never mentioned Kennan in his piece. Hints of sinister Western aggression are thrown about like stale zakuski, leading Nikonov to point out, in language virtually indistinguishable from Glenn Greenwald’s, just who the real aggressor is:

One wonders, what did Russia do that was so monstrous that it must be contained by the whole world? Maybe it bombed Yugoslavia on its own initiative, supporting an internationally recognized terrorist organization — the Kosovo Liberation Army? Maybe it has been waging a war in Afghanistan for twelve years where the death toll is already in the hundreds of thousands? Maybe it occupied Iraq without any kind of mandate, leading to a million deaths? Maybe it uses drones to kill thousands in Pakistan? Maybe it arms al-Qa’ida and other terrorist groups fighting against the legitimate government in Syria? Maybe it bombed Libya into the Stone Age, turning it into a paradise for bandits? Maybe it possesses dozens of secret prisons where people are tortured without trial or investigation? Maybe it has sited some 800 military bases and facilities in 128 countries around the world? Maybe it works on the overthrow of legitimate governments in not very friendly states? Maybe it sites its troops and military infrastructure in other hemispheres? Maybe it organized the illegal surveillance of all humankind, including heads of state and government? No, it was not Russia that did all this. Its monstrous crime is that, without a single casualty, it ensured the free and democratic expression of will by the population of Crimea, who saw a threat to themselves in the new nationalist “authorities” in Kyiv, installed by our Western friends.

Not content to stop there, Nikonov then mocks Western sanctions, noting that all the cool kids in Moscow are competing to get on the U.S. and EU no-entry list: “Among the Russian elite it is unfashionable not to be on the list of those who are denied entry.” Economics, he explains, have changed since the Soviet era, and now a self-sufficient Russia can easily weather the storms caused by Western efforts to punish Putin; indeed, it is the West and especially the United States that is really vulnerable. At this point, the author decides to channel Ron Paul:

Enormous budget and trade deficits, enormous amounts of government debt, and the intolerable burden of already accumulated social commitments are making the Western economies much more vulnerable than others, including Russia’s. At the moment they are holding on through the endless outflows of dollars and euros, which at the moment are being used as the main currency reserves, and purchases of government bonds by developing economies with large budget surpluses. But this also will not continue forever, particularly when the example of economic sanctions against Russia is making everyone consider how safe an investment is offered by American securities and gold and currency reserves held in the U.S. Federal Reserve System. Losing its economic, moral, and geopolitical influence, the West, or rather the Anglo-Saxon part of it, is hurrying by any available means (preferably cheap, in view of the great financial situation) to change the world in its own favor.

Nikonov also points out that Russia is just fine because pretty much everybody outside the West thinks the Kremlin is great while they really hate America:

Democracy is when politics is based on the will of one’s own people, not foreign intelligence services and their clients. Argentine President Cristina Kirchner once answered the question: “Why will there be no coup d’état in the United States?” Because there is no American Embassy there. And so we ourselves will determine our own fate.

He then takes a messianic turn and notes that Russia today is less powerful than the Soviet Union yet more motivated and cohesive; moreover, anyone in Russia who dissents from the regime, taking the side of “fascists,” is obviously a “national traitor,” to use Putin’s approved term:

Russia is relatively weaker than the USSR. But it is much more monolithic in its understanding of its own nature, of good and evil, not distorted by Communist or pseudo-democratic dogma. There is no need to summon people to rallies in support of Crimea, they will come of their own accord. There is no need to explain to people the nature of Nazism, which is currently flourishing luxuriantly in Ukraine with Western support, or why it is dangerous. The force of spirit and truth is stronger than the force of evil and lies. You will have to confront not “Putin’s Russia,” but Russia. More than ninety percent of Russian citizens supported reunification with Crimea. Those “brave freedom fighters” who McFaul talks about with indrawn breath and with hope have in recent days, by marching with placards saying “The annexation of Crimea is Russia’s shame,” deprived themselves of a political future for a very long time, if not forever.

Nikonov then observes that Russia is not intimidated by American military might, it can take care of itself fine, and most of the world is behind it anyway:

Russia has far more allies than some people like to think. There are the members of the Customs Union, the Eurasian Economic Union, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and BRICS – Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa (these five alone account for forth-three percent of humanity). Russia has no image problems among the majority of countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. And even in the West, Russia has a great many friends.

Moreover, even if Russia does have to go it alone, that’s fine too, according to Nikonov, because that’s just how the Kremlin has always rolled. Employing a barrel of cliches, he again asks who’s really the isolated country in decline, while adding a novel theory, a kind of Russian Dolchstosslegende, of how the Cold War ended:

But one thing on which one can agree with McFaul is that America’s moral authority is indeed at rock bottom today. In every corner of the globe one can hear approximately the same thing: “We are sick of the Americans!” According to global polls by America’s Gallup, people worldwide consider the main threat to peace to be the United States, by a wide margin, and not Russia….But what if Russia really did not have any allies? It has previously found itself alone or almost alone against the forces of the united West. In 1812, the Grande Armee brought Napoleon to Russia. In 1941 Hitler did the same. You know the outcome. Let’s observe that in all these cases it was Russia that turned out to be on the right side of history. The West did not beat us in the Cold War. The USSR stopped it itself unilaterally, and it was the inadequacy of the then Soviet elite that led to the breakup of the Soviet Union. Today, reading the writings of American leaders and analysts, you come to the conclusion that in terms of the degree of inadequacy of their understanding of the world they are not far behind the Soviet elite in the years of its decline.

To conclude his diatribe, Nikonov adds a chest-thumping flourish that is equal parts taunting and mocking towards the West:

Russia has already won. And not only because it has regained Crimea forever. It has conquered the paralysis of will. It has conquered political apathy. It has conquered the sense of humiliation. It has seen clearly who its friends are and where its enemies are. And it will not allow itself to be drawn into the confrontation that the ex-ambassador is calling for. If you want containment, then do it. Did you think we had been doing anything else until now!? But at least, don’t strain yourself.

As Russian forces marshal on the border of Ukraine – whether to invade the country or merely to cow Kyiv into submission we will know soon enough – it’s more than disconcerting to hear such aggressive verbiage from the Kremlin. They are itching for a fight. Does anybody in the West care to notice?

How to Win Cold War 2.0

To beat Vladimir Putin, we’re going to need to be a little more like him.

The last two weeks have witnessed the upending of the European order and the close of the post-Cold War era. With his invasion of Crimea and the instant absorption of the strategic peninsula, Vladimir Putin has shown that he will not play by the West’s rules. The “end of history” is at an end—we’re now seeing the onset of Cold War 2.0.

What’s on the Kremlin’s mind was made clear by Putin’s fire-breathing speech to the Duma announcing the annexation of Crimea, which blended retrograde Russian nationalism with a generous helping of messianism on behalf of his fellow Slavs, alongside the KGB-speak that Putin is so fond of. If you enjoy mystical references to Orthodox saints of two millennia past accompanied by warnings about a Western fifth column and “national traitors,” this was the speech for you.

Putin confirmed the worst fears of Ukrainians who think they should have their own country. But his ambitions go well beyond Ukraine: By explicitly linking Russian ethnicity with membership in the Russian Federation, Putin has challenged the post-Soviet order writ large.

For years, I studied Russia as a counterintelligence officer for the National Security Agency, and at times I feel like I’m seeing history in reverse. The Kremlin is a fiercely revisionist power, seeking to change the status quo by various forms of force. This will soon involve NATO members in the Baltics directly, as well as Poland and Romania indirectly. Longstanding Russian acumen in what I term Special War, an amalgam of espionage, subversion and terrorism by spies and special operatives, is already known to Russia’s neighbors and can be expected to increase.

Read the rest at POLITICO Magazine…

Honor and the Ukraine Crisis

Honor is an easily overlooked aspect of international relations among post-moderns. Although Thucydides told us that the three big motivators for war are fear, honor and self-interest, in recent decades the West has found little use for honor, while still grasping some of the importance of fear and self-interest. Indeed, to mention honor as a serious motivation for conflict, even war, is sure to generate mystified looks and perhaps snickers among the smart set that passes for our foreign policy-making elite of late.

This has not always been so, and until recently honor was indeed a serious motivation for war among European countries. One example was Poland in 1939. Remember that Hitler, like Putin now, did a commendable job of smash-and-grabbing regions and then whole countries under the guise of “restoring sovereignty” and “protecting ethnic kin.” First came the Rhineland, which Hitler reoccupied with the Wehrmacht in March 1936, getting little push-back because it was German territory anyway, and who in the West needed a fuss? The swallowing of Austria whole two years later, tactfully remembered as the Anschluss, didn’t get a rise out of London and Paris because, well, Hitler was an Austrian and the Austrians didn’t resist anyway (top generals who did want to fight back, hopelessly as a point of honor, were brushed off by scared politicos in Vienna), so what was to be done?

In the fall of 1938 this culminated in the Munich crisis, which has been mis-cited countless times in recent decades by jumpy neoconservatives, seeing Czechoslovakia give up its ethnically German territory, the so-called Sudetenland, in exchange for guarantees that, of course, this was all that Hitler wanted. To be fair to London and Paris, Prague was weak at the knees anyway, so buying off Berlin seemed reasonable, or at least the least-bad option on the table then. Except, of course, the following March the Wehrmacht took over the rest of Bohemia and Moravia, meeting no resistance, spelling the end of Czechoslovakia.

After that, it was clear to all that Poland was next, as it, too, had a German minority and Hitler was making noises about the mostly German Free City of Danzig, which the Versailles settlement had left awkwardly half-pregnant, belonging to neither Germany nor Poland. Having just seen the fate of Czechoslovakia, nobody in Warsaw took seriously Hitler’s assurances that a bit of land here and there was all that Germany wanted.

Besides, Poland was different. Having fought hard to reestablish their country in 1918, after having it disappeared from Europe’s map for almost 130 years thanks to rapacious neighbors, Poles were unwilling to give up their country again without a hard fight. Although there was little hope that Poland could defeat rearmed Germany, Warsaw did not shy away from the conflict that Hitler was forcing. Honor was enshrined in the national consciousness, often considered old-fashioned by Westerners, and was part of the national slogan emblazoned on all army colors: God, Honor, Fatherland (Bóg, Honor, Ojczyzna).

By the spring of 1939 it was clear that Hitler would keep pushing until he was stopped. London and Paris, finally frightened by Germany’s dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, gave Warsaw vague security guarantees in the event of war. When Hitler again pressured Warsaw about coughing up territory in exchange for “peace,” Poland’s foreign minister, Józef Beck, went to the floor of the Sejm, the parliament, on 5 May to give his country’s answer. This famous speech left no doubt where Poland stood. It concluded in a rousing fashion (which you can hear here in its native language):

Peace is a precious and a desirable thing. Our generation, bloodied in wars, certainly deserves peace. But peace, like almost all things of this world, has its price, a high but a measurable one. We in Poland do not know the concept of peace at any price. There is only one thing in the lives of men, nations and countries that is without price. That is honor.

Less than four months later, on 1 September, the Wehrmacht stormed across the border and commenced the annihilation of Poland. Although outnumbered and outgunned and harassed constantly from the air by the Luftwaffe, the Polish Army put up a tremendous fight and the situation did not truly become hopeless until 17 September, when Stalin joined the war as Hitler’s ally. The entry of the Soviet Army sealed Poland’s fate, and by the end of the month major resistance was crushed. Thus began Poland’s horrific ordeal of occupation that would last decades. Britain and France declared war on Germany in September 1939 but did nothing to actually help Poland. One-fifth of the country’s population was murdered during the Second World War, and Poland would not regain its freedom until the end of the Cold War, a half-century later.

Beck died in exile in 1944, a broken man. His stirring words made no difference to the military outcome in 1939. But those words would matter enormously in the decades after as an inspiration to the Polish men and women who battled against occupation and oppression, against hopeless odds, often at the cost of their own lives. Beck’s invocation of national honor would stir resistance not just in 1939, but for decades to come, and had something to do with Poland’s remarkable national fortitude, unparalleled in recent European history, in resisting and eventually overcoming oppression.

Looking at the sad scene in Kyiv today, where an interim government is in chaos, inspires little hope that the country can effectively resist Kremlin pressure and bullying. It’s easy to overdraw analogies between Putin and Hitler, but I am confident in stating that they share an inclination to get away with what the weakness of others allows them to.

A dearth of civic virtue and patriotism has been a regular theme in Ukraine’s history, as is so often the case in countries that have spent most of their history as the playthings of others. Poland demonstrated that it is possible to rebirth powerful patriotism, and an unshakable sense of national honor, even after more than a century of non-existence. Just as in 1939, we are hearing from Westerners eager to wish away the current conflict with incantations much like “Why die for Danzig?” Ukrainians should have no illusions. For the moment, they stand against rapacious Russia virtually alone. They have lost Crimea, and may soon lose much more of their country if they do not seriously prepare to resist Kremlin aggression.

How Ukraine responds to this aggression will determine not just the next weeks and months, but how much Ukrainians in decades to come think their country is worth saving and recreating in the aftermath of war and occupation. Honor matters more here than dry theories of international relations or theoretical appeals to human rights. There are some things worth dying for. If you don’t think your country’s existence is one of them, you probably won’t have a country for long, at least if you live next to Russia.



“Putin is Putting Europe on the Verge of World War III”: Ukrainian Intel General

The Parisian daily Le Figaro has run an interesting interview about the situation in Ukraine with retired General Ihor Smeshko, who is well positioned to understand the realities at play. Once a Soviet Army officer, Smeshko served as Ukraine’s military attache in the United States in the 1990s, was promoted to general, then was head of military intelligence (HUR) from 1997 to 2000. He subsequently served as chief of the Security Service (SBU), Ukraine’s domestic intelligence agency, from 2003 to 2005. While Smeshko is a somewhat controversial character, he remains active in politics and his insights on the current crisis merit consideration. The interview follows in toto, with my comments after.

Q: Moscow has annexed Crimea, and Ukrainian troops are to leave the peninsula. How do you feel?

A: I feel enormous humiliation. I have been an officer, first in the Soviet Army, then in Ukraine’s. Never could I have imagined what’s going on. Vladimir Putin is making a terrible mistake. In the long term, the aggression that Russia has committed will catch up with it, and will perhaps lead to its disintegration. What is more, I do not want to come out against Russia in general, nor do I want to lump the great Russian people — Tolstoy, Pushkin, and the others — together with Putin. Putin has opened  Pandora’s Box by breaching the bilateral treaty that recognized Ukraine’s frontiers in exchange for our giving up nuclear weapons in 1994. What will Russia do if China decides to protect the millions of Chinese already living in Siberia by annexing that territory? As I see it, Moscow is very afraid of a European-style democracy in Ukraine, which would put ideas into the Russian people’s heads.

Q: Putin is asserting that Ukraine is a geographical concept, not a nation.

A: Putin understands nothing about Ukraine. When he dared to claim that Russia won World War II without the Ukrainians, it was a terrible slap in the face. What about the seven million Ukrainians who gave their lives? Putin knows nothing about it and surrounds himself with servile advisers. He is unaware that the Ukrainians are old Russians, but bred on the freedom of the Zaporozhian Cossacks, who never submitted to serfdom. He cannot conquer us, but he has wounded us and has thus fallen afoul of the nation that gave the Tsarist empire its best troops. I know something about that: We have been soldiers, father and son, for five generations on my mother’s side. Instead of acting with the European Union to help the young Ukrainian state become democratic and prosperous – to build a bridge between Europe and Russia and make de Gaulle’s fantastic dream of a Europe stretching from the Atlantic to the Urals come true – Russia’s leadership has conducted military aggression against the territory of a sovereign state. It is placing Europe on the verge of a Third World War.

Q: Could the Ukrainian Army hold out in the event Russian troops enter eastern Ukraine?

A: Russia stands no chance of winning a war against Ukraine. To be sure, Ukraine is weakened by the twenty years it has spent laying the foundations of its state and by the total corruption of the machinery of that state. That is why part of the population has risen up against [ex-President] Viktor Yanukovych’s regime. Of course, we lack well-equipped divisions for the time being, but Russian ground forces are not in great shape. Russia has mobilized 150,000 men on our borders, but it’s not in a position to wage an offensive war against Ukraine or to occupy our territory. When the USSR fell apart, there was a highly trained military force of one million men here. Ukraine, for its part, has 700,000 reservists it can mobilize. Mobilization is under way. My twenty-one-year old son, who is a reserve lieutenant, has dropped out of university to sign up. If it persists in its adventure, Russia will stand no chance against a defense force of partisans.

Q: You say Crimea will remain Ukrainian, but former Georgian President Saakashvili said the same about South Ossetia.

A: We are not Georgia. For instance, part of the Russian nuclear shield is currently undergoing technical checks in a Ukrainian factory, Yuzhmash. We have not said to date that we are going to cease all cooperation, but that might change. Given our scientific expertise, we could even decide to resume building nuclear weapons.

Q: Do you believe Putin will invade Eastern and Southern Ukraine?

A: That will depend on two factors. One is the response capability of the Ukrainian government, which has to make an urgent decision to appoint experienced generals capable of organizing our defense to our top military posts as soon as possible, at the same time countering Moscow’s propaganda and provocations in the East of the country. For the time being, these appointments leave something to be desired, as I see it. The other factor depends on what’s going on in Putin’s head, as he is the sole decision-maker in Russia, where he has enslaved society by overwhelming it with propaganda. Will he settle for Crimea? I am a general, not a psychologist.

Q: What can the West do?

A: The West must remember what [Zbigniew] Brzezinski said, which was, basically: “The Russian Empire can re-emerge with Ukraine, not without it.” Ukraine has to be a bridge, not a part of the Russian Empire. No attempt must be made to appease Putin, as that will lead to the Third World War. Let us not repeat Munich.

Rousing words, to be sure, but does General Smeshko’s viewpoint, however experienced, reflect reality? He’s surely correct that there is enthusiasm for defending the homeland among average Ukrainians now, who are being subjected to Russian violence and propaganda that is deeply offensive to millions of them. He is, however, far too optimistic about recovering Crimea anytime soon, and his mentioning of possibly regaining nuclear weapons for Kyiv is foolhardy in this crisis.

Yet I concur that Kyiv desperately needs better leadership, especially in the military and security realm, than it has at present. The Ukrainian Defense Ministry’s mishandling of the Crimea situation does not inspire confidence in its ability to successfully defend the whole country against 150,000 Russian troops in any conventional conflict. However, it is certainly true that Russia is wholly unready for the ugly and protracted conflict it would inherit if Putin decides to invade and occupy Central – much less Western – Ukraine. Smeshko is likewise correct that the danger of World War III is real if the Kremlin opts for a military solution to the crisis it has created in Ukraine. Putin, who has indeed opened up the Pandora’s Box of nationalism in a manner that Russia is sure to regret someday, must decide if he wants to run that risk. The fate of Europe may depend on his choice.


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