WARSAW – Russian President Vladimir Putin is behaving like a Mafia boss. In invading, occupying, and finally annexing Crimea, he pointed Russia’s guns at Ukraine and said: your territorial sovereignty or your life. So far, extortion has worked – and Putin knows it.
Indeed, in his speech announcing the annexation of Crimea, Putin spoke his mind: his regime fears no punishment and will do whatever it pleases. Crimea is just the first step toward realizing his dream of revived Russian greatness.
His address in the Kremlin was a tissue of lies and manipulation, though a subtle analysis would be a waste of time. The simple fact is that the president of one of the world’s most powerful countries has embarked on a path of confrontation with the entire international community. His speech smacked of the fevered, paranoid world of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Demons, conjuring as it did a delusional alternative universe – a place that does not exist and has never existed.
What does Kosovo, where the Albanians suffered persecution and ethnic cleansing, have in common with the situation in Crimea, whose people have never been oppressed by Ukrainians? What is the point in displaying open contempt for Ukraine’s government, parliament, and people? Why label Ukrainian authorities “fascist and anti-Semitic”? Crimean Tatars pay no heed to the fairy tales about fascists ruling Ukraine; they can still remember the brutal and murderous mass deportations of their parents and grandparents, ordered by Stalin and carried out by the NKVD.
In Putin’s mind, the whole world has discriminated against Russia for the last three centuries. Russia’s bloody despots – Catherine II, Nicholas I, or Stalin – apparently never discriminated against anyone.
Putin also warns that “you and we – the Russians and the Ukrainians – could lose Crimea completely.” Yet he fails to specify who – perhaps Poles and Lithuanians again? – are setting their sights on Sevastopol.
Russia could not, according to Putin, leave the people of Crimea “alone in their predicament.” These words prompt a sad smile; Leonid Brezhnev used precisely the same phrase in August 1968 to justify the Red Army’s intervention in Czechoslovakia to help beleaguered Communist hardliners there crush the Prague Spring reform movement.
“We want Ukraine to be a strong, sovereign, and independent country,” says Putin. Stalin said the same thing about Poland in 1945. Brave Russian democrats who have not yet been silenced have already remarked on the similarity between Putin’s appeal to ethnic solidarity in annexing Crimea and Hitler’s stance during the Anschluss and the Sudeten crisis in 1938.
This is the real end of history – the history of dreams about a world governed by democratic values and the market economy. Unless the democratic world understands that now is not the time for faith in diplomatic compromise, and that it must respond strongly enough to stop Putin’s imperial designs, events could follow a logic that is too dreadful to contemplate. It takes force to stop a thug, not sharp words or cosmetic sanctions.
I commend and take pride in Poland’s prudent and determined policy and the attitude of its public, which do us great credit. But we must recognize that the best quarter-century in the last 400 years of Polish history is about to end before our very eyes. A time of tectonic shifts has begun. We must appreciate what we have managed to achieve – and learn to protect it.
Mafia bosses often meet an unhappy fate, and I do not think that Putin will fare much better in the end. Unfortunately, many people are likely to be hurt in the meantime, not least those who now support him.
Adam Michnik was one of the leaders of Solidarity and is the founding editor of Gazeta Wyborcza.
First published by Project Syndicate, March 20, 2014.
© Author / Project Syndicate