One January day 32 years ago, young KGB officer Vladimir Putin was sitting in a train compartment, en route from Berlin to the Soviet Union. With his wife and two children, he was literally expelled from East Germany.
It was only a few weeks since one after another Soviet-friendly regimes collapsed in Eastern Europe. The whole communist world where Putin grew up, where he planned a career, is collapsing.
Many experts point to this defeat in explaining the reflexes of Putin’s political reaction. The theory is that the humiliation at the time was so intense that a large part of Putin’s life was about taking advantage of what was happening in the moment.
– Yes, it is clear that this is important, says Ståle Ulriksen. He is a researcher and teacher at FHS/Sjøkrigsskolen.
– Putin can rightly say that some of the things that happened at the end of the Cold War were unfair.
Senior researcher Helge Blakkisrud at Nupi emphasizes something else.
– Putin learned that a strong and apparently stable state can crumble. He understands that this could happen again if you are not careful, Blakisrud said,
Both he and Ulriksen were referring to what happened AFTER the Soviet Union lost control of the so-called “satellite states” in Eastern Europe. The countries are shaded on the first map.
Because Putin had just returned home before the Soviet Union itself, the world’s largest country with 286 million people, began to crumble.
At record speed.
In turn, 15 Soviet republics, including Ukraine, declared independence. Finally, the Soviet Union was dissolved in December 1991. Thus, Moscow is the capital of Russia alone, a country of 148 million inhabitants. Slightly more than half of the original great power.
The map that now appears (above) is untidy and not well thought out.
– The dissolution of the Soviet Union went too fast, says Ulriksen and points out as one example that one should take the time to clean up the Crimean problem.
– It is true that Crimea was placed under a Ukrainian province in 1954, almost as a gift to Nikita Khrushchev of Ukraine, who later sailed as the new leader of the Soviet Union, Ulriksen points out.
– This argument is often seen as Russian propaganda?
– Yes, but it’s also one of the few examples of areas where borders are drawn without regard to the fact that residents may have them differently. Had the referendum been held then, we might have seen less conflict today in what was then the Soviet Union.
– The problem is that Boris Yeltsin can’t handle this, says senior researcher Blakkisrud at Nupi.
He emphasizes that there are no natural boundaries.
– All boundaries are made more or less arbitrarily, there are always some that end up on the wrong side. Also within Russia’s borders, there are ethnic minorities who want independence. If Yeltsin started fiddling with the borders, the country could quickly weaken further, he said.
The next 7-8 years became chaotic for Russia and neighboring countries. An alcoholic Boris Yeltsin rules Russia as the economy deteriorates.
When Vladimir Putin took over as president on New Year’s Eve 1999, the NATO defense alliance was already expanding eastward. For the new president, it is a further humiliation that countries previously dominated by the Soviet Union are now joining forces with the long-time arch-enemy of the United States.
– NATO enlargement looks fierce on the map, is this NATO aggressive action?
– This is a big discussion, says Ståle Ulriksen and refers to America’s John Mearsheimer, who for years has warned that NATO expansion could eventually lead to war.
In particular, Mearsheimer has criticized NATO for launching long-term negotiations, the so-called “intensive dialogue”, on membership with Ukraine and Georgia.
– I think all countries have to decide for themselves. The big powers won’t decide who the smaller nations will cooperate with, Ulriksen said.
Helge Blakkisrud agrees that this debate looks very different from Moscow.
– Russian authorities believed that a promise had been made that NATO would not expand eastward in exchange for the Soviet Union agreeing that West and East Germany could join.
In the first years after NATO expanded eastward, the Alliance participated in several controversial wars.
The bombings of Serbia and Libya in 1999 and 2011 and the failed invasion of Iraq have provoked and intimidated Russia.
– The bombing of Serbia in particular must have made an impression on young Putin, says Ulriksen. Then NATO attacked Russia’s traditional ally in the Balkans without a UN mandate. Remember that it was to defend Serbia that Russia entered the First World War.
This conflict forced Serbia to give up the province of Kosovo. Less than ten years later, the country was recognized by the United States and a large number of countries. As a «one-time case».
For Blakkisrud, who is an expert on unrecognized countries, this is an important paradox:
– Residents of Crimea, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, provinces seeking to secede from Ukraine and Georgia, experience this as a double standard. That Kosovo recognized, but not them.
Putin’s first war was resolved with the separatists in Chechnya. Putin inherited the conflict from Yeltsin and the provincial capital Grozny was completely bombed when the war ended.
In the midst of the 2008 Summer Olympics, Putin invaded Georgia, aiming to defend the unrecognized states of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Here too, Ulirksen cautions that the crisis can be traced back to the chaotic collapse of the Soviet Union:
– Majorities in the two breakaway republics never wanted to belong to Georgia. And Georgia never really had control over them. A lot would have been different had the problem been resolved in 1991, he said.
Think train goes for Putin
How about today’s war. Can Putin win it?
– I think it’s too late. In 2014, things might have gone differently, as there was strong Russian support in cities like Mariupol and Kharkiv. But after eight years of war in eastern Ukraine, the wishes of the Ukrainian people have changed dramatically, Blakisrud said.
– Putin may be able to win militarily, but he will face big problems controlling the population
– Can Ukraine surrender?
– No, I think they will be standing for a long time in cities, quarter after quarter, says Ulrksen.
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