And blames the United States for the just (maybe) completed battle of the Russo-Ukrainian gas war. Putin’s remarks are a variant on Gazprom’s Aleksandr Medvedev’s, but represent a somewhat broader indictment. Putin blames the US, and the Bush Administration in particular, for the political instability in the Ukraine which Putin argues that is the root cause of the War. Putin also denigrates the US role in Georgia.
In a nutshell: Putin’s view is that the US (and its Sancho Panza, the EU) encouraged the Ukrainians and Georgians to get all uppity. This, in turn led to a shooting war in the Caucusus, and a Gas War between Russia and Ukraine. If the hot headed Georgians and the upstart Ukrainians would only remember their proper places, that corner of the world would be all sweetness and light. For the Russians, anyways. And presumably for the Europeans too, for why should they have to worry their pretty heads about where their gas is coming from, and whether the national aspirations of former imperial subjects are crushed to ensure the steady flow of that gas?
This is just another manifestation of the Russian elite worldview that refuses to acknowledge that the post-1991 settlement is in any ways final. Indeed, they believe it to be an aberration; an affront to Russian dignity; and a geopolitical mistake to be reversed.
Further illustration one: Putin’s remark to Bush that “Ukraine isn’t even a real country.”
Further illustration two: The ongoing efforts to delegitimize Ukrainian control over the Crimea.
Further illustration three: Russia’s outrage at Ukrainian insistence that they suffered uniquely under Soviet collectivization, and that the Ukrainian famine was genocide. (Dmitri Medvedev made particularly dismissive remarks about this.)
The Russian case on the latter episode is that all of the USSR’s peasantry suffered from collectivization, and that Ukraine is without justification in claiming either greater suffering, or an ethnic component to Soviet policy (thus transforming a mere mass murder into a genocide analogous to the Holocaust, or the Armenian genocide.)
But there is considerable evidence that Ukrainians did suffer more, were the particular object of Stalin’s ire, and that the Ukrainian famine was genocidal. In his authoritative Harvest of Sorrow, Robert Conquest writes:
Fifty years ago as I write these words, the Ukraine and the Ukrainian , Cossack, and other areas to its east . . . was like one vast Beslan. A quarter of the rural population, men, women, and children, lay dead or dying. . . . At the same time, (as at Belsen), well-fed squads of police or party officials supervised the victims.
. . . .
The events with which we deal may be summed up as follows: In 1929-1932 the Soviet Communist Party under Stalin’s leadership . . . struck a double blow at the peasantry of the USSR as a whole: dekulakization and collectivization. . . . These two measures resulted in millions of deaths–among the deportees in particular, but also among the undeported in certain areas such as Kazakhstan.
Then in 1932-1933 came what may be described as a terror-famine inflicted on the collectivized peasants of the Ukraine and the largely Ukrainian Kuban . . . . This action, even more destructive of life than those of 1929-1932 was accompanied by a wide-ranging attack on all Ukrainian cultural and intellectual centres and leaders, and on the Ukrainian churches. The supposed contumanciousness of the Ukrainian peasants in not surrendering grain they did not have was explicitly blamed on nationalism: all of which was in accord with Stalin’s dictum that the national problem was in essence a peasant problem. The Ukrainian peasant thus suffered in double guise, as a peasant and as a Ukrainian.
Thus there are two distinct, or partly distinct elements before us: The Party’s struggle with the peasantry, and the Party’s struggle with Ukrainian national feeling.
Conquest shows in telling–and heart-rending–detail how the Great Famine of 1932-1933 fits into the longstanding Muscovite ambition to extirpate the Ukrainian nation.
Putin is the heir to that policy. No, he is not Stalinist in his choice of means, but he is Stalinist in his goals. And he is a tsarist as well. Like both (bizarrely in the Georgian Stalin’s case) he is a Great Russian imperialist, and he views the Gas War as just another episode in Russia’s campaign to submerge Ukraine in a Great Russian empire.
It is not all about gas and dollars. It is not merely a commercial dispute. Sure, money matters to these people. But it’s not all that matters. Indeed, it’s not likely the most important thing. Putin wants to reverse the “greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century” and the most important step in achieving that ambition is reabsorbing Ukraine, either de jure or de facto.
It is essential, therefore, to put the gas war in its broader historical context. Putin certainly does. As for the Pomo Europeans, that’s doubtful in the extreme. Certain elements of the Bush administration did–and that’s why it earned Putin’s particular ire. (He probably thinks–I gave you free rein in Afghanistan, the quid pro quo was I get free rein in the Near Abroad, and you welshed.)
As for the Obama administration, the jury is still out. Putin’s remarks about Obama are clearly a signal. Putin’s “hopes” for Obama can be translated as “we have hope that you will see things our way; that you understand the natural order of things; and will sacrifice Ukraine and others in the sake of restoring that natural order.” It is also another effort at divide and conquer, suggesting to the Europeans that American intransigence and unrealism is why their cozy warm homes are at risk, thereby hoping to spark European pressure on a presumably pliable Obama to throw Ukraine under the bus. (A very likely possibility, as it is very crowded under Obama’s bus, cf. Jeremiah Wright, Bill Richardson, Susan Power, etc., etc., etc.)
In short, the Gas War is just the surface of things. Under the surface one finds the true dynamic–Russian imperial ambition resisted by a nation struggling to realize an independence long denied, but doing so under a confused, divided, and corrupt leadership.
And that’s just one reason why this is far from over. This is a real global test, one in which there is an acute imbalance between the test givers (Russia) and the test takers (US & EU) on such dimensions as importance, scruple, and will. Whether Russian advantages on these dimensions are sufficient to overcome that nation’s fundamental strategic and economic weakness, and its propensity to over-reach and self-destruct, remain to be seen.