A tale of two speeches

Vladimir Putin's vision of Russia's destiny has parallels with George W Bush's of the United States in the aftermath of 9/11. This makes the existing crisis over Ukraine even more acute.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
21 March 2014

George W Bush delivered his first state-of-the-union address to both houses of Congress on 29 January 2002. The United States president could report that, only twenty weeks after the 9/11 atrocities, the Taliban regime in Afghanistan had been terminated and the al-Qaida movement dispersed with its leaders in hiding. The speech was permeated by a fierce American exceptionalism, reflecting the main aspirations underlying the Project for a New American Century. At the heart of both speech and project was the notion that the United States was - after the shock of 11 September 2001 - already reclaiming its role as the natural leader of a global, free-market, liberal-democratic order. 

In context and tone, Bush's performance resembled a declaration of victory (something reflected in the over seventy standing ovations that punctuated it). Equally striking is that this aspect was combined with an effective declaration of war. The “war on terror” had already been announced, but the address extended the enemies beyond al-Qaida and its Taliban hosts into something much greater: a global campaign against rogue states that supported terror and sought weapons of mass destruction. The named candidates of this “axis of evil” were Iraq, Iran and North Korea.

Bush made the case in a way that appealed both to assertive realists and neo-conservatives:

“States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. By seeking weapons of mass destruction these regimes pose a grave and growing danger. They could provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred. They could attack our allies or attempt to blackmail the United States. In any of these cases, the price of indifference would be catastrophic.”

The president sought cooperation but emphasised the need for action:

“We’ll be deliberate, yet time is not on our side. I will not wait on events, while dangers gather. I will not stand by, as perils draw closer and closer. The United States of America will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most dangerous weapons.”

He went on to announce the largest increase in the defence budget in two decades and a near-doubling in spending on homeland security. Just over a year later, the Iraqi regime had gone and Bush could deliver his “mission accomplished” speech on the flight-deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln.

At the time, it seemed to most Americans that the United States had rightfully reclaimed its world mission. In the event, two bitter wars were to follow. In the thirteen years after Bush’s speech nearly 250,000 people died in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, and more than 8 million people were displaced. A decade on, the US and its allies had retreated from Iraq and were in the process of withdrawing from Afghanistan. The al-Qaida idea had not just retained its potency but was spreading across the middle east and parts of Africa (see Patrick Cockburn, "Al-Qa'ida, the second act: Why the global 'war on terror' went wrong", Independent, 17 March 2014). Now, many analysts talked of a superpower now in decline.

The Russian version

Turn now to Vladimir Putin’s speech on 18 March 2014 to both houses of the Duma. In this instance, the immediate background was the crisis over Ukraine, but the larger context was the Russian president's interpretation of the steady encroachment of Nato and the European Union into Russia's rightful sphere of influence. In a thoughtful analysis, Bob Dreyfuss describes the speech as scary, mixing “politics, national resentments and nationalism, all overlaid with a religio-mystical tone that sounds, at times, almost messianic” (see "Full Text and Analysis of Putin's Speech", Nation, 19 March 2014)

Putin said:

“Everything in Crimea speaks of our shared history and pride. This is the location of ancient Khersones, where Prince Vladimir was baptised. His spiritual feat of adopting Orthodoxy predetermined the overall basis of the culture, civilisation and human values that unite the peoples of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. The graves of Russian soldiers, whose bravery brought Crimea into the Russian empire are also in Crimea.”

When the Soviet Union collapsed it lost its satellite states in eastern Europe, now largely consolidated into Nato and the EU. This for many Russians was bad enough, but their old state also went on to lose the many republics that were initially linked together in the Commonwealth of Independent States. Its influence in central Asia has much diminished as China’s has grown. But it is the European states of Belarus and Ukraine that from a Russian standpoint are the key regions of encroachment - especially Ukraine, where the fall of the pro-Moscow government is seen as heavily US-influenced.

Putin sees this as part of a worldwide process led by Washington. In one of the most significant passages he argues:

“Our western partners, led by the United States of America, prefer not to be guided by international law in their practical policies, but by the rule of the gun. They have come to believe in their exclusivity and their exceptionalism, that they can decide the destinies of the world, that only they can ever be right. They act as they please, here and there, they use force against sovereign states, building coalitions on the principle 'If you are not with us you are against us'”.

These words also reflect the accumulated bitterness and grievance felt by many Russians about the disastrous fate of their country in the 1990s, when its empire dissolved and economy came near to collapse even as it embraced “turbo-capitalism” and was viewed as little more than a basket-case by the west. Putin cleverly plays to these feelings by invoking a battered Russian exceptionalism and championing its regeneration.

On the border

A vital element of Russia's experience, and of understanding it, is the speed of collapse at the beginning of the 1990s. Britain lost an empire over many decades, and has still not fully come to terms with it. It was a gradual process that stretched from the Boer war, through crises of ungovernability in the pre-war India of Gandhi and Nehru, to the debacle of Suez in 1956 (still referred to a “crisis” not a war, since Britain doesn’t lose wars), and rapid retreat in the 1960s.

This British experience does much to explain its current ambivalence over Europe, and certainly explains the Falklands/Malvinas war of 1982. More than a decade after decolonisation had ended, Britain sent a huge task-force to protect the livelihoods - not the lives - of 1,800 islanders and their half a million sheep. In the process nearly 1,000 young men were drowned, burned alive, blown up or shot; but our sense of destiny was preserved.

Britain’s empire took seventy years to disappear; Russia’s was gone in less than seventy weeks. What makes the Ukraine crisis so dangerous is that Putin is determined not to give way. There are also clear signs that his forces have prepared the means to go further. Russia, for example, was claiming in early March 2014 that the paramilitaries in Crimea were local armed forces (rather than Russian), even as an OSCE team were indicating that many were using current Russian equipment. This included specialised sniper-rifles normally issued to Russian special forces (Spetznaz) for clandestine operations (see Peter Felstead, “OSCE evidence lifts lid on ‘Little Green Men’ in Crimea”, Jane’s Defence Weekly, 19 March 2014).

In the days following the referendum in Crimea on 15 March, Russian military exercises near the Ukraine border have been accompanied by reports of large-scale military deployments in the region. The latter include the amassing of numerous Su-25 attack-aircraft at the Primorsko-Akhtarsk airfield, south west of Roscov-on-Don (across the Sea of Azov from Crimea and south-east Ukraine). Moreover, the Russian air-force has based fighters and military transports at the Babruysk air-base in Belarus, a cold-war-era installation only 150 kilometres north of the Belarus-Ukraine border (see Reuben F Johnson, “War between Russia and Ukraine a ’50-50 probability, say intel officers’”, Jane’s Defence Weekly, 19 March 2014).

Perhaps most significant is that Putin is reported to be limiting his inner circle in this crisis to a very small group of people including foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and trustworthy legal officers; the latter constitute a legal team advising on just how far Putin can go if war with Ukraine becomes the chosen route.

It's not clear yet whether Putin will go the whole way. But his approach so far in the crisis has been very popular in Russia, with the additional benefit of diverting attention from current economic problems and the pervasive if disparate opposition to the autocracy of his rule.

Barack Obama and Angela Merkel, among western leaders, have received criticism for their apparent vacillation in the face of Russian aggression. But it is likely that their own intelligence analysts have been warning them of the real dangers of war. What Putin needs now is a strong western reaction which will play well at home. If he does not get it, then any determination he may have to escalate the crisis becomes that little bit more difficult.

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