Streetwise Professor

July 21, 2021

Travis Putin

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 1:28 pm

Vladimir Putin penned–or at least posted–a long disquisition about how Russia and Ukraine really, really, really belong together. They are meant for each other. They are one soul ripped apart in a great historical injustice.

The most charitable way I could characterize it is that it reminds me of Pepe LePew (Putin LePew?) trying to sweet talk a reluctant female feline into falling for his historical charms. But that would trivialize what is really a weird and creepy and threatening missive. More Travis Bickle than Pepe LePew.

Putin portrays Russia and Ukraine as being spiritually connected and wrongly separated by malign Western actors (the Lithuanians, Poles, and Austrians at one time, the EU and US today), and misguided Bolsheviks who dismembered Holy Russia. Thus, they belong together. They need to be together. They are a single soul separated by cruel fate, who need to be reunited. And Putin is just the man for the mission.

But this begs the question: why don’t Ukrainians feel the same way? If the historical and spiritual ties are so deep, so mystical, why aren’t most Ukrainians equally desperate to be reunited with their Russian soulmate?

Putin’s answer, such as it is, is that malign forces–again Western–are conspiring to keep them apart. They have bewitched Ukrainians, or somehow fascistically intimidated them (which seems like a clear case of projection). Moreover, the underlying Western purpose of separating Ukraine from its spiritual kin is to attack Russia itself. And thus, Russia is justified in using force to unite Ukraine and Russia–it is an act of self-defense!

Yes, Putin and Travis Bickle have a lot in common. The paranoia and obsessions and delusions in particular. Except Travis only had Smith & Wessons and Walthers, not tanks, Buks, and nukes.

Putin goes on and on about how history, over a thousand years of it, means that Ukraine and Russia are destined to be as one. This argument is apparently quite persuasive to him, but not to most Ukrainians. Nor is anyone else in the world likely to be persuaded. Such historical arguments–especially ones stretching back to well before the First Millennium–are almost never persuasive or even plausible to those not steeped in that history. What seems self-evident to Putin seems bizarre to anyone who does not already believe in the Third Rome view of history. And especially so to anyone who views Russia as a historically predatory, imperial power.

Which would include Poland. Yes, Poland attempted to exploit Russian (Muscovite, actually) weakness during the Time of Troubles, but examining the sweep of history one must conclude that Poland has been far more the victim of Russia than the victimizer thereof.

Poland comes in for much criticism from Putin, but look at the benign way that he characterizes Russian connivance at the dismemberment of Poland:

After the partitions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Russian Empire regained the western Old Russian lands, with the exception of Galicia and Transcarpathia, which became part of the Austrian – and later Austro-Hungarian – Empire.

The partitions just happened, I guess. And for someone who emphasizes the importance of language and religion, it is striking how Putin somehow happens to overlook that the partitions brought in Polish-speaking Catholics into the Russian Empire when it “regained the western Old Russian lands.” I would love to hear historian Putin’s explanation of say the January 1863 insurrection in the Polish parts of “Old Russian lands.” Somehow he left that out. Huh.

Indeed, reading this, I would say that not only Ukrainians should be put on notice as to Putin’s ill intent: Poles should be as well.

Another example of Putin’s selective history:

I would like to dwell on the destiny of Carpathian Ruthenia, which became part of Czechoslovakia following the breakup of Austria-Hungary. Rusins made up a considerable share of local population. While this is hardly mentioned any longer, after the liberation of Transcarpathia by Soviet troops the congress of the Orthodox population of the region voted for the inclusion of Carpathian Ruthenia in the RSFSR or, as a separate Carpathian republic, in the USSR proper. Yet the choice of people was ignored. In summer 1945, the historical act of the reunification of Carpathian Ukraine ”with its ancient motherland, Ukraine“ – as The Pravda newspaper put it – was announced.

Yes, elections held in the presence of Soviet tanks and bayonets and NKVD executioners are clearly an expression of the will of the people.

And if we want to go all historical, it is also sickly amusing that Putin’s tract was published 550 years to the month after Muscovy won a decisive victory that culminated it its subjugation of Novgorod the Great, which sort of harshes the entire image of the deep fraternal, linguistic, historical, and spiritual bonds between Russian peoples.

The question is whether Putin intends to reprise Ivan III, this time in Ukraine. The threatening tone surely suggests this. He gives the impression of trying to persuade Ukraine to embrace Russia willingly. But he is abundantly clear that should his advance be rejected, it is due to the fact that the country is ruled by local stooges of malign Western powers who threaten Russia, hence reunification may only be accomplished by force, which is (according to him) fully justified and which he is willing to use.

Empty threat or real? It would be unwise to discount it. Operationally and logistically, it would be difficult, and would likely result in a stalemate and vicious guerrilla warfare (as occurred in the aftermath of World War I during the Russian Civil War, and in the aftermath of WWII) that could well stop any Russian drive well before it reached Kiev/Kyiv. It would sharply increase tensions between Russia and the West, far more than the Crimean anschluss did. Poland and the Baltics–Nato members–would clearly consider such an invasion a mortal threat. This sharply raises the odds of a Russia-Nato confrontation.

But despite these obstacles and risks, Putin is clearly obsessed with Ukraine. He has been throughout his presidency. He clearly views the 2004-2005 Orange Revolution and the 2014 Maidan as devastating personal defeats. Megalomania and the knowledge that he is aging and thus doesn’t have long to achieve what he believes to be a historical mission may push him to act, sooner rather than later.

Ukraine is hard to love. It is the most Sovok of the Soviet successor states–a painful illustration of how decades of Soviet oppression wreaked havoc on psyches and institutions. Some of Putin’s criticisms of it have more than a grain of truth. But that does not mean that it should be consigned to Putin’s tender mercies. Especially since there is no guarantee that Putin’s pining for Russian lands will stop in Ukraine.

The situation is fraught. A man obsessed with a messianic mission, be he Travis Bickle or Vladimir Putin, is not easily deterred.

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13 Comments »

  1. If Vlad wants to go back to the year 1000, I’d remind him Kiev was the center of Slavic culture and Moscow was an outpost of thieves and traders. After all the word Russia derives from Kieran Rus. That said, the Poles and Ukrainians need to be watchful of German-Russian cooperation, the last this happened Russians were helping Germans train for war and Germans were helping Russians industrialize after a revolution created chaos. Maybe, you’re right we didn’t bomb the Germans enough and stopped too far west in 1945.

    Comment by The Pilot — July 21, 2021 @ 4:54 pm

  2. Just think: if the US hadn’t just destroyed its own reputation for honest elections it could suggest a referendum in Ukraine without the rest of the world bursting out with horse laughs.

    Comment by dearieme — July 21, 2021 @ 4:54 pm

  3. Pepé Le Pewtin?

    Comment by Timothy — July 21, 2021 @ 6:15 pm

  4. The referendum in Ukraine happened in 1991. It’s all been downhill for the dream of restoring the Russian Prison of the Nations ever since.

    Sadly, the German idea of ideal Ostpolitik seems to never have changed since the time of Molotov-Ribbentropp pact. But Biden’s Nordstream-2 pact opening the way for a large-scale invasion in the wake of Putin’s article that all but promises said invasion is something else entirely.

    Comment by Ivan — July 21, 2021 @ 11:30 pm

  5. It’s important to note that Putin considers Bolsheviks’ decisions about borders of Soviet republics to be their worst acts, not mass murders carried out by them.

    Comment by mmt — July 22, 2021 @ 12:05 am

  6. Meanwhile, amid foolish and inconsistent decisions made by the Russian government rating of ruling party United Russia drops to historic low. What to do? Maybe Putin should write another article about Ukraine? It will surely restore Russian people’s confidence in their government!

    Comment by mmt — July 22, 2021 @ 12:42 am

  7. Vlad needs conflict and angst to remain current, to give him some reason to talk to the people, to continue to try and persuade ordinary Russians that the evil West is out to get them. The tribulations in various of the ‘Stans and Armenia just don’t cut it – they don’t have the same headline power as Novorossiya.

    The fact is he continues to be outplayed – and out-spent – by the West in Ukraine. Our tactics, such as they are, are spot-on, in effect mirroring what he is doing in the east, albeit with greater aplomb and efficiency. It must be driving him nuts. Threats of force are his only remaining option.

    I’ve probably said it before but the footage of him at Sochi in 2014 is one of the highlights from the past decade. That rictus grin, knowing his dreams of empire have gone to sh*t – 24 carat comedic gold.

    Comment by David Mercer — July 22, 2021 @ 4:38 am

  8. The Pilot, for accuracy sake: there was no Moscow in year 1000; it was mentioned in chronicles about 150 years later.

    Comment by LL — July 22, 2021 @ 5:37 am

  9. What a lot of crap. The best thing that could happen to the Ukraine is that it separates into two countries reflecting the facts on the ground of the current stalemate, and the will of the people.
    Crimea voted overwhelmingly to return to Russia.. there’s zero doubt where the allegiance and loyalty of the population lies.
    Western Ukraine is far more dominated by the Ukro-Nazi Banderist types that undoubtedly loath Russia for historical reasons.
    Treating Ukraine as a homogenous entity basically guarantees stupidity of conversation.. but.. sadly that’s the standard.

    Comment by Huskynut — July 22, 2021 @ 10:45 pm

  10. @Huskynut Why do all people, who call all western Ukrainians Neo-nazi, ignore the fact that so-called ‘Novorossiya’ is ruled by Stalinists?

    Comment by mmt — July 22, 2021 @ 11:40 pm

  11. @mmt–Good point!

    Comment by cpirrong — July 23, 2021 @ 5:33 pm

  12. @Timothy–I was thinking Putin LePew but I like yours better.

    Comment by cpirrong — July 23, 2021 @ 5:33 pm

  13. There’s a reason Susanin figures large in Russian folkloric memory.
    And the first day of a visit to Kiev will persuade even the most cynical of the preeminent place the city plays in the development of Russian Orthodox culture/civilization.
    Putin knows his audience.
    The scary part of the tract is not so much the ill-digested content but that each and every member of the Russian Armed Forces has received a copy and its study is required.

    Nonetheless, I doubt a full-scale invasion is on the cards (subject to one proviso). Putin engineered the Crimean takeover with nary a casualty. He stepped back from an invasion of the Georgian heartlands. Invasion and occupation of an overtly hostile populace requires massive investment of manpower and willingness to suffer significant casualties – which might imperil regime stability. Crimea/Ossetia – plenty of locals willing to do the job with only minimal force application required. Donetsk and Lukhansk have not been so easy. Going further west would involve a very risky escalation.

    The sole proviso? If the US were temporarily disabled/unbalanced, Russia might take advantage just as China might seize the opportunity to occupy Taiwan. Now what could unbalance or disable – even if only temporarily – the States??

    Comment by Simple Simon — July 25, 2021 @ 10:40 am

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