Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Peter, Catherine, Vladimir: Russian Facts vs Fantasy

When today’s pundits talk about Russia as the greatest threat since Hitler’s Germany, it’s time for a look at Russian history.  

The first crucial piece of information in the present context is the fact that Russia began in Kiev.  Kievan Rus was “a loose federation[3] of East Slavic tribes in Europe from the late 9th to the mid-13th century,[4] under the reign of the Rurik dynasty. The modern peoples of Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia all claim Kievan Rus' as their cultural ancestors.” No rational discussion of the present crisis is possible without this knowledge.

Now picture the world’s largest landmass, (nine time zones to the US’s three), much of which lies in the same northerly latitudes as Canada, but, in a crucial difference, with access to the ocean only on its Eastern tip, while the areas bordering on southern seas are inhabited by Muslim peoples.  Add now that Russia is the seat of Orthodox Christianity, which in the 13th century was repeatedly attacked from the Roman Catholic and Protestant North and West. (Sergei Eisenstein made a famous film about the attacks by the Teutonic Knights, titled Alexander Nevsky.) According to Wiki, to the Orthodox Church and most princes, the fanatical Northern Crusaders seemed a greater threat to the Russian way of life than the Mongols, who protected and assisted Alexander Nevsky in fighting them.

Russia had been subjugated by Ghengis Khan’s  Golden Horde’s from 1223 to 1240, to which it paid tribute for another four hundred years. For more on the lasting impact of that subjugation see my book review of TIbor Szamuely’s The Russian Tradition (In a similar scourge, the Ottoman empire took over half of Europe, their advance only halted with an unsuccessful siege of Vienna in 1529. More on that later in this article.) 

Starting with Kievan Rus, Russia, Poland, the Baltic princes, Sweden and Iran fought each other for centuries, so there is no historical record of a specifically ‘aggressive’ Russia.  For hundreds of years, today’s Baltic countries, facing onto the northern sea, were Russian principalities, as were Ukraine  - and at times, Poland.  Following are excerpts devoted to Russia’s interactions with its neighbors, from the Wikipedia article on Russian history:

<blockquote>In the 15th century, the grand princes of Moscow went on gathering Russian lands to increase the population and wealth under their rule. The most successful practitioner of this process was Ivan III[41] who laid the foundations for a Russian national state. Ivan competed with his powerful northwestern rival, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, for control over some of the semi-independent Upper Principalities in the Dnieper and Oka River basins.[45][46]

Ivan refused to pay further tribute to the Tatars and initiated a series of attacks that opened the way for the complete defeat of the declining Golden Horde. Ivan and his successors sought to protect the southern boundaries of their domain against attacks of the Crimean Tatars and other hordes.[49] Although his long Livonian War for the control of the Baltic coast and access to sea trade ultimately proved a costly failure,[54] Ivan managed to annex the Khanates of Kazan, Astrakhan, and Siberia.[55] …. Through these conquests, Russia acquired a significant Muslim Tatar population and emerged as a multiethnic and multiconfessional state. Also around this period, the mercantile Stroganov family established a firm foothold at the Urals and recruited Russian Cossacks to colonize Siberia.[56]
At the end of Ivan IV's reign the Polish–Lithuanian and Swedish armies carried out a powerful intervention in Russia, devastating its northern and northwest regions.[60] During the Polish–Muscovite War (1605–1618), Polish–Lithuanian forces reached Moscow. The Seven Boyars, a group of Russian nobles recognized the Polish prince Władysław IV Vasa as the Tsar of Russia on 6 September [O.S. 27 August] 1610.[63][64] The Poles entered Moscow on 21 September [O.S. 11 September] 1610, setting the city on fire.[65][66][67] This "Time of Troubles" resulted in the loss of much territory to the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth in the Russo-Polish war, as well as to the Swedish Empire in the Ingrian War.  Fortunately for Moscow, its major enemies, the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth and Sweden, were engaged in a bitter conflict with each other, which provided Russia the opportunity to make peace with Sweden in 1617 and to sign a truce with the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1619. Recovery of lost territories started in the mid-17th century, when the Khmelnitsky Uprising in Ukraine against Polish rule brought about the Treaty of Pereyaslav concluded between Russia and the Ukrainian Cossacks.

According to the treaty, Russia granted protection to the Cossacks state in the Left-bank Ukraine, formerly under Polish control. This triggered a prolonged Russo-Polish War which ended with the Treaty of Andrusovo (1667), where Poland accepted the loss of Left-bank Ukraine, Kiev and Smolensk.[41]

Peter the Great’s first military efforts were directed against the Ottoman Turks. His aim was to establish a Russian foothold on the Black Sea by taking the town of Azov.[76] Peter still lacked a secure northern seaport except at Archangel on the White Sea, whose harbor was frozen nine months a year. Access to the Baltic was blocked by Sweden, whose territory enclosed it on three sides. Peter's ambitions for a "window to the sea" led him in 1699 to make a secret alliance with the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth and Denmark against Sweden resulting in the Great Northern War.

The war ended in 1721 when an exhausted Sweden sued for peace with Russia. Peter acquired four provinces situated south and east of the Gulf of Finland, thus securing his coveted access to the sea. Russian intervention in the Commonwealth marked… the beginning of a 200-year domination of that region by the Russian Empire. In celebration of his conquests, Peter assumed the title of emperor as well as tsar, and Russian Tsardom officially became the Russian Empire in 1721.

By this time, the once powerful Persian Safavid Empire to its south was heavily declining. Taking advantage of the profitable situation, Peter launched the Russo-Persian War (1722-1723) in order to be the first Russian emperor to increase Russian influence in the Caucasus and Caspian Sea. After considerable success and the capture of many provinces and cities in the Caucasus and northern Persia, the Safavids were forced to hand over the territories to Russia. However, 9 years later they would be ceded back to Persia, as part of a Russo-Persian alliance against the Ottoman Empire.[77]

Catherine the Great extended Russian political control over the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth and successfully waged war against the decaying Ottoman Empire[80] advancing Russia's southern boundary to the Black Sea. Then, by allying with the rulers of Austria and Prussia, she incorporated the territories of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, and during the Partitions of Poland, pushed the Russian frontier westward into Central Europe. Catherine waged a new war against Persia in 1796 after they had again invaded Georgia, expelling the newly established Russian garrisons in the Caucasus. By the time of her death in 1796, Catherine's expansionist policy had made Russia into a major European power. This continued with Alexander I's wresting of Finland from the weakened kingdom of Sweden in 1809 and of Bessarabia from the Ottomans in 1812.

After the Russian armies liberated allied Georgia from Persian occupation in 1802, they clashed with Persia over control of Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Dagestan, and also got involved in the Caucasian War against the Caucasian Imamate. To the south west, Russia attempted to expand at the expense of the Ottoman Empire, using Georgia at its base for the Caucasus and Anatolian front. In the 1828-29 Russo-Turkish War Russia invaded northeastern Anatolia and occupied the strategic Ottoman towns of Erzurum and Gumushane and, posing as protector and savior of the Greek Orthodox population, received extensive support from the region's Pontic Greeks. Following a brief occupation, the Russian imperial army withdrew back into Georgia.

In 1826 another war was fought against Persia, acquiring Armenia, Nakhchivan, Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan, and Iğdır.By the 1830s, Russia had conquered all Persian territories and major Ottoman territories in the Caucasus.[91] In 1831 Nicholas crushed a major uprising in Congress Poland; it would be followed by another large-scale Polish and Lithuanian revolt in 1863.</blockquote>

One can see this history as that of a conquering power, or more accurately, as that of powerful neighbors vying for control over various parts of the great Eurasian plain.  Europe was no different, the problem being the presence on a very small peninsula of some fifty different nationalities and languages, but Americans do not study either European or Russian history. When the US reluctantly entered the first world war, the common wisdom was that the Europeans couldn’t stop squabbling, and the same was true in spades with the Second World War.  Although Germany was fingered in both as the aggressor - and by the French as the aggressor in the war of 1870 - Russia was never seen as ‘the aggressor’ of the Eurasian plain.  And for Russians, the problem has always been that of encirclement and access to warm waters.

 Napoleon attempted to conquer Russia in the early nineteenth century, courting an ignominious defeat. In the early twentieth century, Russia lost a war with Japan over access to the warm water port of Port Arthur in southern Manchuria.  The West tried to roll back the Russian revolution in a war that lasted in various phases and fronts from 1917 to 1925 was invaded by Hitler in World War II, prompting it to hold on to the Baltic States and the countries of Eastern Europe that had been his allies. It was because of the history of attacks on Russia that Roosevelt and Churchill agreed at a meeting with Stalin in Yalta that Eastern Europe, through  which these attacks came, would be a Soviet sphere of influence after the war. (Notwithstanding today’s revisionist allusions, Russia did not ‘conquer’ Eastern Europe, but rather liberated it from the Nazi occupation.  Most historians now admit that without Russia, Germany would not have been defeated.)

At present, ‘fears’ of Russian ‘aggression’ center on Poland, the Baltic states, and Moldova (Bessarabia), all of which were the locus of wars in centuries past. With the end of the Cold War, the Baltic States were let go, and the countries of Eastern Europe resumed the task of building independent polities they had started after World War I.  Rule by the Ottoman Empire from the sixteenth to the early twentieth century, had contributed in no small measure to their economic and political backwardness with respect to Western Europe.  I witnessed the psychological effect of that history first hand when I lived in Poland, then in Hungary, from 1965 to 1971.  Poland carries the added burden of having been literally carved up by its European neighbors no fewer than three times over the centuries.  All the European countries I have lived in had an acute sense of history, but none so much as Poland.  Poland’s current attitude toward the conflict in Ukraine is as much tributary of that history as it is of European Union politics, which is why it is so contradictory, ultimately coming down on the side of Ukraine, yet unable to resist bashing it at the same time.

This brings us to the crux of the fabricated dispute that currently risks turning into World War III, complete with nuclear weapons:  the accusation, repeated enunciated by President Obama and Secretary Kerry, that by respecting the referendum of the inhabitants of Crimea in favor of rejoining Russia, Vladimir Putin has arbitrarily modified the post-World War II borders.  The border between Crimea and Russia was modified in 1954 when Khruschev ‘gave it’ to Ukraine, which at that time was one of the Soviet Socialist republics that constituted the Soviet Union.  As the above history shows, Crimea had been part of Russia since the time of Catherine the Great, AND IT REMAINED SO AT THE END OF WORLD WAR II. So the return of Crimea to Russia cannot be construed as a modification of the borders agreed upon by the US, Great Britain and the Soviet Union, the latter maintaining a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe, while Great Britain retained an upper hand over Greece, preventing that country’s strong Communist Party from gaining power. 

Notwithstanding these historical facts, the Putin-bashing continues. On Fareed Zakaria’s GPS Sunday, Christa Vreeland, a journalist who is also a member of the Canadian Parliament, painted a picture of a struggling Russia, claiming that Putin had thought Yanukovich would bring the Ukraine into his Eurasian customs union and ‘all would be fine’.  But the coup put intolerable internal pressures on Putin, ‘his cronies were unhappy, the bourgeoisie destroyed. He didn’t want this crisis.’  We are expected to believe that without notoriously backward and corrupt Ukraine, Russia would be doomed! Apparently, Vreeland hasn’t heard of the BRICS, the Silk Road, and the deepening Russia/China alliance….

On the same program, Bill Browder, grandson of the one-time leader of the American Communist Party and (no small irony) Chief Executive Officer and co-founder of the investment fund Hermitage Capital Management, had this to say: ‘Putin is entirely rational but he has no morality. He will kill, start wars if it makes him wealthier, or saves him from being arrested.  He started a war in Crimea, and says the Ukrainian leaders are fascist nazis backed by US, provoking nationalist fervor.’  

To decide how much credibility to grant this man’s testimony, starting with his apparent ignorance of the weight of the Neo-Fascist Right Sektor and Svoboda parties within the Ukrainian government, notwithstanding the many videos featuring their thuggish behavior, I suggest you read the lengthy interview he gave to Barrons  in which he details his business dealings in Russia starting in the nineteen-nineties.  Readers will be familiar with the death of Barron’s lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in a Russian prison, but whatever the circumstances of that death, they do not change Barron’s participation in the rape of that country, which he relates with undisguised gusto. Claiming that he wanted Russia to become a normal country where ‘the valuations (of stocks) were the same as the West’, he is not talking about the rule of law.  And this is the man who accuses Putin of being an oligarch!

Finally, as France, Germany and Russia try to resolve the Ukraine crisis through diplomacy, Washington, oblivious to the fact that it is the Europeans who would be on the front-line in a war with Russia, continues to insist that it must ‘protect’ these allies from Putin’s ‘aggression’!  Possible presidential candidate and uber hawk ally of John McCain, Senator Lindsey Graham made the following astonishing statement a few days ago, referring to his colleagues who are against arming the Kiev government:  (They) “don’t see how arming those who are willing to fight and die for their freedom makes things better (my emphasis).”

On RT this morning, anticipating tomorrow’s crucial meeting in Minsk between Ukraine, Russia France and Germany, a retired  Deputy Ambassador to NATO and Ambassador to Germany, John Kornblum, echoing Victoria Nuland’s famous quip “F.. the EU!”, affirmed that ‘the real power lies in Washington’. But it doesn’t look like a convincing sign of power to claim, as Washington is currently doing, that Vladimir Putin suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome, a mental condition whose main symptom is an inability to read social cues!  Distancing itself from this latest ‘stupid stuff’, the psychiatric community is probably wondering why Washington failed to diagnose the severe alcoholism of Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, to whom the Browders of this world are beholden.

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