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Why Russians Are ‘Paranoid’

| by Peter Hitchens
 Courtesy: Daily Mail

( March 4, 2014, London, Sri Lanka Guardian)  Let us first raise the level of debate:

This will take a bit of muscular effort. For the level of some contributions is quite low. For instance, Mr ‘skh.pcola’ writes: ‘Herr Hitchens is an anachronism. He would have fit right in the gang with Neville and the other quislings back in 1939 or so. Idiots that don't learn from history doom the rest of us to repeat it. What a misanthropic microencephalitic moron Hitchens is.’ 

And I took part (at about 9.30 this morning) in a brief discussion on BBC Radio 5 Live, in which a listener raged for some time against Russia and Russians, diagnosing that country as ‘paranoid’(I do not know what her qualifications were to make this diagnosis).

By contrast, I would urge readers to study an article by Sir Rodric Braithwaite, the best ambassador this country ever sent to Moscow, profoundly knowledgeable about Russia, who is also more than fluent in Russian, and the author of ‘Afgantsy’, a fine study of the Soviet involvement in Afghanistan, writing in yesterday’s ‘Independent on Sunday’.

Sir Rodric gives a well-informed and thoughtful explanation of the origin of the dispute, and a cool assessment of our ability to intervene in it. How refreshing this is when compared to the temperature-raising coverage by journalists who cannot even pronounce ‘Simferopol’ , and the alarmist pronouncements of various schoolboy foreign ministers, who really ought to be forced to wear short trousers when speaking in public.

And I would also urge them to look at an article by Sir Christopher Meyer, who also served twice in Moscow (though not as H.M. Ambassador) and later became British ambassador to the USA, in today’s London ‘Times’. Alas, it is behind a paywall, but it contains a good deal of cool, clear thinking, and points out that it is up to us how much of a crisis we make of this event.

Jonathan Steele in the Guardian is also interesting and a corrective to much of the shouting and screaming going on:

He rightly points out that public opinion polls in Ukraine have shown a consistent nationwide opposition to NATO membership, not just among Russian-speakers, but in general.

Mr ‘pcola’ has done me a favour by making ( as someone was bound to do) the Hitler-Chamberlain-Czechoslovakia parallel.

I have argued unceasingly here that the World War Two myth has made serious discussion of foreign policy very difficult. So few people really understand what happened during that era, but that does not stop them from believing that they do.Thus they say idiotic things, over and over again. Worse, they think these things are clever.

If we really did believe that Czechoslovakia was such a good cause, and the world should have been plunged into years of slaughter, misery, privation and destruction for the sake of the inviolability of its frontiers, why is nobody nowadays interested in the following facts?

Czechoslovakia (a country I often visited and very much liked when it was still there) has ceased to exist. It simply doesn’t have enough of the features of sovereignty to make this claim, though it is polite to pretend otherwise just as we like others to pretend that we here in the Ukay are a sovereign country.

It no longer has any national borders, though I believe Slovakia still enforces some sort of border with Ukraine. In its Slovak section it no longer even has its own currency. The traveller can cross into and out of the divided chunks of former Czechoslovakia from Austria and Germany (from my personal experience) without any customs or border checks. I imagine it is the same with its other EU borders, thanks to the astonishing Schengen Agreement, which has abolished all the Versailles frontiers which World War Two was supposedly fought to restore, and quite a few other borders as well. I am always amazed that this Treaty is not more studied, or more understood as what it is – an immense revolution in European diplomacy and power.

The former Czechoslovakia’s defence, economic and other policies are entirely subject to the EU. It has been cut into two pieces not dissimilar from the partition imposed on it by Germany in March 1939. Its far eastern province, Transcarpathia, is now (quite amusingly) part of Ukraine, having been stolen by Hungary in 1939 and then re-stolen by Stalin in 1944-5.

Similar things could be said of Poland, which is also an EU vassal, and whose borders bear almost no relation to those it possessed in September 1939. Once again, the objectives for which we went to war in 1939 have not merely not been fulfilled, but actually trampled upon, first by the Yalta redivision of Europe, imposed by Stalin, and later, when the USSR collapsed, by the almost immediate absorption of former Warsaw Pact countries into the EU.

And nobody cares at all. Nor did they care when both those countries were subjected, for more than 40 years, to Communist secret police tyranny. Nor did they care when the Sudeten Germans (pretext for the original row) were driven with kicks and blows from their ancestral homes after 1945, in scenes of terrible cruelty which we had promised, as a nation, to prevent. I think we can make a new rule: The more people posture about foreign affairs, the less they really care about the people involved.

So Neville Chamberlain’s unwillingness to go to war over either matter (it was Halifax, as far as I can discover, who got us into the Polish guarantee) seems, in retrospect, to have some merits, and to be in line with our own modern behaviour. I might add that Mr Chamberlain understood, as modern commentators in this matter often don’t, that in 1938 and 1939 the British Army was a tiny, feeble thing, and we had no means of imposing our will on continental Europe anyway.

To call him a ‘Quisling’ is a simple insult. Chamberlain was a patriot who acted honestly according to his own view of national interest. Vidkun Quisling was an active traitor to his country, during a period of foreign occupation.

So that’s that dealt with.

Now, what about Russian ‘paranoia’?

As I sometimes point out, Russia has good reason to be nervous. It has many possible threats to face. One contributor recently chided me for saying that the USSR faced a threat from Japan in the late 1930s and early 1940s. This is a forgivable error. Very few people are even aware of the undeclared war between Japan and the USSR which raged from 1938-1939. It ended (temporarily) at the widely-unknown battle of Khalkin Gol (also known as Nomonhan) in which Georgi Zhukov made his name and learned how to use tanks. Few also recall the severe tensions between the USSR and China which erupted in the 1970s, and may well erupt again, as China regards much of far eastern Russia as stolen territory, and eyes it keenly. Then of course there is the little problem with Germany, as often discussed here.

Any visitor to Sevastopol will find it contains many monuments to genuinely heroic defences of that city against invasion (one of those invasions was our more or less incomprehensible incursion into the Crimea 160 years ago, which achieved a good deal less than nothing and cost a great deal of lives). The biggest memorials commemorate the 1941-44 invasion by Germany, which was resisted and eventually expelled at great human and material cost, in battles whose names and nature are unknown to most in the ‘West’.

If they knew more about it, they might understand why Russians are ‘paranoid’. The country has no natural defensible borders. A street in southern Moscow, Ulitsa Bolshaya Ordinka (the street of the Great Horde) commemorates to this day the five-yearly visits to Moscow of the Great Horde, to collect tribute from that frontier city. We tend to think that the Urals, supposedly mountains but really rather unimpressive hills, form Russia’s eastern boundary. But it isn’t really true. From every direction, the heart of Russia lies open to invaders. Moscow has been invaded or occupied by Swedes, Poles, Lithuanians, The Golden (or Great) Horde, Crimean Tatars, Napoleon, No wonder the Russian word for ‘security’ (Byezopasnost) is a negative construction (‘Byez’ means ‘without’ ; ‘Opasnost’ means ‘danger’). The natural state of things is danger.

This is why Russians were alarmed and perturbed by the NATO meddling in the Balkans, the outer edge of Slavic, Orthodox influence. And several readers have rightly pointed out that the NATO intervention in Kosovo (1998-9) provides an interesting precedent for Russia’s intervention in Crimea. The province was lawfully part of Serbia. But its majority population desired independence. NATO thereupon lent its air force to the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), so securing Kosovar independence from Serbia (recognised by the USA, Britain and most EU states), which will perhaps end in a merger with Albania.

One might add that states which supported the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the attack on Libya, cannot really get very hot under the collar about Russia’s intervention in Ukraine. It’s also interesting that Ukraine, while giving Crimea a great deal of autonomy, always strove to prevent a referendum on the region’s future, knowing for certain that it would lead to open calls for a return to Russian rule. Were I a Ukrainian politician or citizen, I would actively support the return of Crimea to Russia, because it was always bound to lead to trouble . Khrushchev’s transfer of the area to Ukraine in 1954 was a gesture, utterly unimportant in the days of the USSR. It made no real difference. But actual Ukrainian independence meant that it was always bound to lead to trouble. I can, (unlike most of the current 'experts’) show that I was aware of this difficulty years ago, here

This is why I knew instantly that the immediate decision of the Kiev putsch government, to attack the official status of the Russian language, was a significant act of aggrandisement and stupidity. If anyone doubted that fanatics were now in charge in Kiev, this decision dispelled all such doubts. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if it didn’t trigger Mr Putin’s sarcastic counter-putsch in Simferopol and Sevastopol.

What continues to strike me about this whole row is the inability of most people to view Russia as a country, or Russians as people. Russia is portrayed as a bogeyman, and its people as either oppressed or as tools of a new Hitler.

Let me remind readers that Russia existed as a civilisation long before Lenin turned it into a Communist slum. This is the country of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky as well as of Stalin. The Leningrad Radio orchestra gave an astonishing performance of Shostakovich’s seventh symphony, in August 1942, after the city had endured months of starvation and bombardment (several musicians actually died of hunger during rehearsals, some collapsed during the performance, all were shivering from malnutrition). The Russians broadcast it through loudspeakers to the besiegers (they had shelled them first to silence their batteries during the concert) which was when the more intelligent Germans realised that they would never take the city, and that they had lost the war. For me, there are few more moving episodes in the history of warfare.

Russia still contains a large, educated, cultured middle class, who of necessity care more about history, literature and patriotism than their complacent, spoiled, semi-conscious western equivalents. They, their parents and their grandparents have seen with their own eyes what can go wrong with a happy life, how suddenly it can happen, how little you can do about it, if invaders come, or if fools are in charge of your country, or both.

For years now, trivial-minded, historically ignorant, efficient, glinting people have tried to turn Ukrainian independence into an attack on Russia. They did it in the ‘Orange Revolution’ and failed because the victors turned out to be as corrupt and divided as those they replaced (a problem which may well emerge again now they have had a second go). And now they have done it again.

And they feign surprise, and outrage, when Russia eventually takes the opportunity to stand up for its interest, certainly no more aggressively than the pious ‘West’ has acted in Kosovo, Iraq and Libya

I ask again, what Washington would do if, in a moment of national weakness, the lands the USA seized from Mexico by force in 1848 seceded, and Russian politicians came to Albuquerque to give their open support for rallies supporting an alliance between the new state and Moscow?

Or what we would think and do, if Russian politicians turned up in Belfast, Cardiff or Edinburgh, openly supporting those who wanted those parts of the country to break away from London’s control?

You only need to ask to know.

I still hope this will end without tears or blood, but the overblown, piously shocked rhetoric of western politicians and media is making that much harder.

But I must just address one question that is (rightly) bound to be put to me. I have said many times that Vladimir Putin stands against globalism and for national sovereignty. How , in this case, can he be said to be supporting Ukraine’s national sovereignty.

To begin with , I suspect that Mr Putin, and most Russians do not really regard Ukraine as a proper sovereign state, and I think they may be on to something. They view its existence as an artificial and accidental result of a moment of Russian weakness, which has since been maintained, for cynical reasons, by Western interference. Is Ukraine really sovereign, economically, diplomatically, militarily or in any other important way? Has it ever been?

I might add that Russia, bound by the modern rules of diplomacy, has refrained from compelling Ukraine to return to Moscow rule by naked force, as it would not have hesitated to do 50 or 100 years ago. Instead the Russians have sought to ensure that Ukraine remains very much under their influence, while Kiev retains formal independence. Something very similar can be said of the EU’s treatment of many of the former countries now under its rule, including our own. The polite fiction of sovereignty is maintained for the convenience of ruler and ruled.

But, because of the EU’s (and NATO’s, and the USA’s) aggressive and repeated attempts to disrupt this tactful arrangement, Russia feels the need to take some firm concrete action, both to stop this going further, and to deter future attempts to disaffect areas which Moscow believes are in its sphere of influence.

Such disaffection has gone quite far enough already, thanks to the weird, selective anti-Russian prejudices of so many in the USA. What exactly do these people see as the concrete reason for their hostility to Russia? What is it actually about? They don’t seem to care at all (for instance) about China’s takeover of Tibet and its very aggressive colonisation of Sinkiang. Is there any *American* interest involved? Or does it flow from the USA’s new role (often conducted against that country’s own best interest) as the pioneer of the new global border-free world? That, I think, remains the real issue. No British or American national interests are involved here (though German ones may be) . If they were, I’d be all in favour of defending them. This is about globalism versus national sovereignty, and the curious anomaly of Russia, an old-fashioned European country that is too big to be sucked into the EU, too small to be a superpower (and so invulnerable, like China) , too patriotic to be persuaded to dissolve itself.