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Opinion: Putin, a Prisoner of the Past | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Russia’s President Vladimir Putin looks on as he chairs a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, on May 7, 2014. (AFP Photo/RIA Novosti/Pool/Alexey Druzhinin)

While learning from history is the first duty of any statesman worth his salt, he should also be on guard against learning the wrong lessons.

One example is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attempt at building a national strategy around certain moments in history that are long gone, never to return.

In this context Putin ordered a big celebration for the 70th anniversary of the Yalta Conference of February 1945 in which US President Franklin Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet leader Josef Stalin carved post-war Europe into zones of influence. New bronze statues of the “Big Three” were unveiled in the Crimean resort, offering Russia another occasion to reaffirm its annexation of the Black Sea peninsula.

By coincidence, the 70th anniversary of Yalta also coincides with the 40th anniversary of the Helsinki Accords of 1975, an attempt at providing the so-called détente strategy with a legal backbone. While Putin beats the drums about Yalta as a means of promoting Russia’s special status in its “near neighborhood,” European Union leaders, especially Germany’s Angela Merkel, dwell on the importance of the Helsinki Accords.

The trouble is that neither Yalta nor Helsinki reflect the new realities of a Europe caught between a desire for re-unification and a thirst for national self-assertion as demonstrated by secessionist movements in Scotland and Catalonia among other regions of the European Union.

Under Yalta the ceasefire lines produced by Nazi Germany’s defeat transformed into permanent borders guaranteed by the powers that controlled them. In many cases these were artificial borders and in some instances, such as the division of Germany into two states, nothing but the victor’s diktat. Nevertheless, the Helsinki Accords insisted on full respect for those artificial frontiers.

In the past four decades, however, those frontiers have changed again.

The Soviet Union has been broken into 15 independent republics while the two Germanys have been reunited. Three of the USSR’s former republics have joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union. Yugoslavia has been broken into six separate republics with Kosovo as a seventh mini-state. Czechoslovakia has divided into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

The Helsinki Final Act represented a frame for an historic snapshot that no longer exists. Thus Merkel’s hopes of reviving it represent a waste of time at best and the taking of high risks with European security at worst.

Putin’s Yalta illusion is an even more dangerous gambit.

To start with, the idea of a Russian “zone of influence” enjoys little support among the peoples directly concerned. According to several polls, even in Russia itself, a majority are at best doubtful about what many regard as a high-risk strategy. To be sure, most Russians want their nation to re-emerge as a major power with great influence in the international arena. However, when asked if they are prepared to go to war in pursuit of that goal, a majority of Russians adopt an ambivalent posture.

Support for a revival of Yalta zones of influence is even less in the areas directly targeted by Putin. In Ukraine only 16 percent are favorable to a customs union with Russia, compared to 57 percent who want to join the European Union. More importantly, perhaps, a slim majority want Ukraine to join NATO. Even in Byelorussia, regarded by some as the most pro-Russian of the former Soviet republics, support for NATO and the European Union is twice as high as for closer ties with Moscow.

In Transcaucasia, support for NATO and the EU is between 70 and 80 percent in Georgia and Azerbaijan. Even in Armenia, the most pro-Russian of the former USSR republics, there is a two-third majority for closer ties with the European Union rather than Moscow.

Putin has often hinted that his next move would be against Moldova where the self-styled Transdniester republic is dominated by pro-Russian elements. However, there, too, a majority seek integration with the EU. The Russian cyber-attack against Estonia two years ago produced nothing but greater anti-Russian sentiments in that Baltic republic.

How could Putin hope to re-impose Yalta-style “zones of influence” when none of the former Soviet republics has been ready to endorse the Russian annexation of Crimea let alone the 2008 Russian occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Stalin was successful in carving out a zone of influence under Yalta because of a number of factors that no longer exist.

In 1945, many in nations in eastern and central Europe saw the USSR as a liberator that, regardless of its obnoxious aspects, had helped defeat the Nazi monster. At the same time, the USSR was regarded by a good segment of the European left as the heartland of Socialism in the uncertain post-war world. There were Communist parties in all eastern and central European countries, some with genuine popular bases of their own. In Western Europe, Italian and French Communist parties were major political forces dedicated to supporting Soviet influence against “American Imperialism.”

Putin’s empire-building project, however, has no such grassroots support anywhere in his coveted zones of influence. This is partly because Putin’s strategy is based on 19th century-style nationalism. Why should a Moldovan, to cite just an example, wish to lose his newly won independence solely to help Putin to build an empire?

We now know that the annexation of Crimea came as a result of a thinly masked Russian military operation, not a popular uprising by Russian-speaking natives. Russians call that type of operation “Maskirovka,” or “Warfare through deception.” This is why Russia is treating Crimea as occupied territory with checkpoints all over the place and restrictions on basic liberties of the inhabitants.

While Putin’s strategy in “near neighborhood” is based on the Yalta illusion, his forays into the Middle East are prompted by another illusion: the Soviet alliance with military-based Arab regimes during the Cold War. Putin imagines that Gamal Abdel Nasser is still in charge in Cairo while Hafez Al-Assad sets the tune in Damascus and Saddam Hussein leads the dance in Baghdad and Muammar Gaddafi in Tripoli.

Putin is seizing the opportunity provided by President Barack Obama’s policy of undermining the United States’ traditional post-Yalta leadership position. The effect of the American retreat was felt in Minsk last week when Putin managed to fudge the Ukraine issue in a marathon exercise in deception with Merkel, French President François Hollande, and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.

However, Putin has no guarantee that the US will always remain on its current rudderless course.

Having read history the wrong way, tovarish Putin is a prisoner of the past. And that is bad news for Russia, indeed for the whole world.