FRENCH cynics have a phrase for progress. ‘Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose’, they sneer, which roughly translates into, ‘The more it changes, the more the same old claptrap.’
So, for those who imagined the collapse of Soviet repression was an overture to genuine democracy in Russia, the straightjacket and funny farm awaits.
Granted, there was a brief flush of hope in the early 1990s, when, for all his boozy buffoonery, Boris Yeltsin wrested power from the fading, old Red Guard and promised liberal reforms.
Fast forward to New Year’s Eve, 1999, when a 47-year-old ex-KGB officer and political rookie called Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin suddenly emerged as Russia’s new boss and the truth dawned on realists that progress, Kremlin-style, was a transient mirage…the leopard merely reshuffling its spots.
In the decade-and-a-half since, even the last pipe-dreamer can no longer doubt Putin’s take on democracy is whatever he says it is and Siberia welcomes dissenters.
Because, after centuries of unrelenting brainwashing, like Pavlov’s dogs, Russia’s masses are conditioned to respecting a strongman, who fans their raging national pride, not to say endemic paranoia.
Western statesmen appear to have overlooked this glaring trait. Or, in the case of that most malleable of US President, Barack Obama, they’ve lulled themselves into the misguided belief Russians are just as much residents of the global village as everyone else, therefore abide by the same norms.
They don’t. And the code Putin applies – recently slammed as ‘19th Century rules’ by American Secretary of State, John Kerry – is little changed from the policies of Ivan the Terrible, Lenin and Stalin.
In a nutshell Moscow believes might is right and actions speak louder than words.
So, following his diplomatic coups in mesmerising Obama into imagining Iran’s devious mullahs were peace-seeking pussycats and Syrian butcher, Bashar Assad, was really a much- maligned nice guy, poker-faced Putin has scooped the ultimate jackpot over Ukraine.
Of course, it could have been mere coincidence weeks ago that goons, in green uniforms minus military flashes and brandishing hardware far more lethal than anything the local militia toted, suddenly turned up, en masse, and land-grabbed the Crimean peninsula.
And, just perhaps, the insurrection by Ukraine’s 17% ethnic Russians in the east was simply a spontaneous poke in the eye to the interim Kiev regime that had booted out pro-Moscow brigand, Viktor Yanukovych.
But when Putin branded the upstarts a ‘fascist junta’ eager to cosy up to the European Union, the mantra fell on willing ears, since it rang with poignant echoes of WW2, when too many western Ukrainians queued up to join Hitler’s SS.
Which is why the West-backed presidential election in a week’s time will be a waste of polling paper. However transparent, Russia has already trashed the outcome by blessing last Sunday’s ‘plebiscite’ in Donetsk, where a massive 89% voted to split from Kiev and demand self-rule.
And if that result doesn’t deter Western adventurism into what Russia sees as its backyard, Putin’s banker bet is that NATO won’t mix it – just as it failed to do in Georgia in 2008 – if he orders phalanxes of T-95 tanks and Spetsnaz Special Forces to pour over the border and annex eastern Ukraine, as a postscript to Crimea.
Meantime, if this is the prelude to a new, Cold War world order, the big money’s on Putin saying, ‘Bring it on – see if I care.’
So no amount of Obama sanctions against his henchmen – which, tepid as they are, have rattled EU states reliant on Russia energy – will deter the expansionist, Russian bullyboy.
Notably, last week Germany signalled its mounting fears by warning its nationals in eastern Ukraine to beat a hasty retreat, foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, warning that the country is only a ‘few steps’ away from ‘military confrontation’.
The chief twerps in creating this stand-off are the EU. As America’s diplomatic eminence gris, Henry Kissinger wrote – during what I guess was an severe attack of verbal diarrhoea – ‘The European Union must recognise that its bureaucratic dilatoriness and subordination of the strategic element to domestic politics in negotiating Ukraine’s relationship to Europe contributed to turning negotiation into a crisis.’
That might sound utter gobbledygook, but the master tactician of realpolitik is stating the blindingly obvious: the EU was too slow, too stupid and too arrogant in imagining it could prise free a cornerstone of Putin’s defensive rampart.
And the procession of Western big wigs, who rushed to Kiev to congratulate the rebels for bravely ousting Yanukovych – including Britain’s silly Billy Hague – made a colossal misjudgement in thinking they could de-claw the Russian bear.
Putin was not only expecting EU meddling, Kremlin-watchers reckon he long ago hatched a cunning plan to spark, then check it, by skyrocketing the price of Russian gas to Ukraine in anticipation of the West charging in like Custer’s Seventh Cavalry (and no reminders about what happened to them!).
Now, no amount of diplomatic embroidery will patch up the beleaguered country, even if some dodgy fudge is fashioned, whereby the eastern provinces are granted autonomy – under Moscow’s protective wing, naturally.
All this runs counter to the 1994 deal hammered out in Budapest, whereby Russia, the EU and US guaranteed to respect Ukraine’s borders.
However, since this was five years before his Kremlin putsch, Putin isn’t inclined to honour it; besides, Vlad The Invader has invented the perfect excuse for intervention: defending ethnic Russian minorities.
That same logic applies to Estonia and Latvia, where some 25% of their populations are descended from detested Russian incomers, transplanted during the communist era to slap down local aggro.
Unlike Ukraine, though, both states are NATO members, which is why the West is growing increasingly edgy over the future of its Baltic flank.
Though in no mood for military confrontation, Obama and friends must know if they don’t face down Russian thuggery there, they might as well shut up for good.
Because, while the Kremlin’s bully has changed faces from Soviet times, he still spouts the same old claptrap.
‘Plus ça change, etc…’ as the French say.