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Face to Face With Russia

Face to Face With Russia

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Face to Face With Russia

233 pagine
3 ore
Jul 12, 2019


While there are many books published in English about Russia, the vast majority of them are written from the perspective of Western academics and journalists. Very few studies are conducted by people who live at the frontiers of this newly constituted Russian empire, under the leadership of Vladamir Putin. Face to Face with Russia offers this critical perspective to English-speaking audiences worldwide.
Jul 12, 2019

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Face to Face With Russia - Vilis Vitols



Awakening the sleeping beauty Russia has long been an important country for Europeans, but since its annexation of Crimea and orchestration of a separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine in 2014, it has become, once again, a dangerous and unpredictable player on the world stage. Whether we like it or not, Russia is our neighbour, and we must deal with this reality. People who live in countries that border Russia now feel more endangered than before. For the time being, this is more of a psychological feeling than a tangible threat in places like Latvia, which has the privilege of being a member state of the European Union and NATO. Yet, we in Latvia still feel a sense of insecurity, as has been revealed in many publications, research papers, conferences, military analyses and political debates. Vilis Vītols’ new book Face to Face with Russia: A Neighbour’s Experience is another attempt to comprehend the incomprehensible and to look into the near and distant future.

Vītols has written a courageous book that is easy to read. I expect that it will draw the scorn of many intellectuals, because it contains none of the political correctness that is associated with the writings of scientists and academicians about Russia. Vītols is not a political scientist, lawyer or professional historian, and so he writes in an uncommonly direct and unsparing manner about an elephant whose shadow can be felt in Europe. The directness of the author dispenses with the usual practice of softening the blow of forcefully presented arguments. I enjoy Vītols’ directness, because it is sincere. This directness reflects the striking personality of a man who has led an eventful life that is now in its ninth decade. As a doting patriarch with a large family of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, Vītols is seeking to warn his compatriots about the falsehoods and deception that our unfriendly neighbour is propagating. Face to Face with Russia: A Neighbour’s Experience has been written by a patriot of Latvia and a concerned citizen of Europe.

Vītols is worried about the inability of Europeans to look into the eyes of the truth when it is uncomfortable or unpleasant, which in turn is making them unable to evaluate it properly and join together in response. The author is certainly an optimist, because he hopes that his new book – which can now be added to the mountains of written works about that country – will awaken Europe as a sleeping beauty, and help to put idyllic European dreams and illusions about Russia to rest. There is no scarcity of such dreams, illusions and myths in Europe.

One of the most enduring and frequently heard assumptions is that Russia is special. Therefore, everyone must co-operate with that country. Europeans have been ready to accept this tenet again and again, even after Russia cut its gas supplies to Europe through Ukraine in 2008 and 2009, and even after the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008. The annexation of Crimea, the fomentation of a war in eastern Ukraine, and hybrid provocations in various Western countries have not been sufficient to convince some people in the West that it is time to stop repeating this almost unconditional mantra of co-operation.

I used to think that the inability of Europeans to understand Russia’s true intentions was due to naïveté and misplaced good faith. Indeed, there is no lack of naïve people in Europe who propound favourable views about Russia and who claim to be familiar with the country. Unfortunately, many self-proclaimed idealists who constantly talk about the need for dialogue and the defence of European values are actually creating a smokescreen that masks cynicism and greed. The Russian market is vast and profit opportunities are extensive, so why not say some nice things about Russia?

A fairly recent example of such talk involves very specific plans for very real profits that materialized in the Nord Stream pipelines, through which Russia is sending natural gas directly to Germany across the bottom of the Baltic Sea. While energy giants successfully came together to bring this project to fruition, their private initiative stands in stark contrast to the EU’s goal of lessening energy imports. As a result of the project, the political influence of Ukraine, Poland and the Baltic States has decreased, and Russia has been able to strengthen its dominance of the European gas market. Politicians under the influence of natural gas lobbyists pretend not to see the alarming geopolitical aspects of the Nord Stream project, making the excuse that the pipelines are purely economic in nature and that governments have no right to interfere in private enterprise. Really?

After years of work as a diplomat and as an elected member of the European Parliament for two terms, I feel a deep sense of despair every time that I come across the numerous illusions and totally false assumptions about Russia. These have been propagated in the largest countries of Western Europe ever since the rule of Catherine the Great in the 18th century, and they have taken such deep roots that they continue to flower even as blood is shed and lives are lost in eastern Ukraine.

However, some illusions about Russia are gradually dissipating and Europeans are awakening to the true situation. The fact of the matter is: since Russia’s annexation of Crimea and thinly disguised invasion of eastern Ukraine, the era of coexisting with Russia on the basis of international law and signed treaties is over. That is an uncomfortable and worrying truth. Power politics have returned to Europe, and generations of Europeans who grew up during peacetime find it difficult to accept this new reality. We have to accept it if we want to protect our countries and the very model of our societies.

Not long after Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, the European Union quickly returned to its business as usual relationship with the powerful aggressor state, continuing to see Russia as a strategic partner and closing its eyes to the fact that part of Georgia is now occupied. Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea, however, business as usual has no longer been possible, because Russia’s aggression has openly violated existing agreements about borders in Europe.

Russia used force to annex the territory of a neighbouring European country, and a veritable Pandora’s box has now been opened. This is understood even in those EU member states that have enjoyed traditionally close political relations and economic contacts with Russia, and that do not want to go beyond stern political denunciations of Russia’s unacceptable actions. For this reason, the debates in the European Union about the measures that should be imposed upon Russia are very fierce. Given this background, the fact that the EU has actually managed to agree on sanctions against Russian government officials and businesses should be seen as an achievement in itself. Pressure from Russia’s devotees to end the sanctions has increased month by month, and it is hard to predict how long it will be possible to maintain unity among the EU member states in this regard.

The greatest challenge for the EU is not Russia, China, a demographic boom in Africa or climate change. No, it is the lack of political will to reach agreements on collective responses to pressing issues, and then to implement the relevant decisions in a purposeful manner. This chronic lack of agreement among the EU’s 28 member states is due to very different historical experiences, different views about external threats, and different political cultures.

Also, warnings of experts about new Russian threats against the West and its unity have often fallen upon deaf ears. One can’t accuse politicians of not understanding the findings that have come from reputable research institutes regarding Russia and the Putin regime. Most politicians do understand the grave message that these institutes are conveying, but because they wish to be re-elected every few years, they adapt their political decisions and activities accordingly. Sadly, strategic decisions cannot be implemented in a time frame as brief as the one that stands between elections.

Hence, it has proven very hard for politicians to assign sufficient resources for the achievement of long-term goals and for the prevention of external threats from countries like Russia. Voters often seek simple and quick solutions that yield immediate and tangible results. That is particularly true when economic growth is sluggish. Europe’s political leaders should listen more to the forecasts of experts and be bold in their decisions, instead of yielding to the far more comfortable approach of surely somehow, some day. That attitude is costly in both the direct and indirect sense. If Europe, for instance, had assessed the possible consequences of Syria’s five-year drought (2006-2010) in a timely manner and had devoted more resources to help the country, then perhaps we would have been able to mitigate the rising discontent of the country’s inhabitants and avoid a destructive civil war that has seen vast numbers of refugees flood into Europe.

Fortunately, Europe is waking up, albeit still too slowly. I had the opportunity to write a report for the European Parliament about the European Union’s internal and external security issues. I ignored warnings from so-called realists, and included in the draft of the paper a series of theses that I knew would be hard to pass with a majority of votes in a plenary session. I wrote about self-evident components for a sensible security policy, such as closer co-operation between the EU and NATO, national defence budgets equal to 2% of the GDP, the establishment of a collective intelligence service for the EU, assistance aimed at preventing armed conflicts in neighbouring regions, and a unified border control system for the EU.

For many leftist and more radical members of the European Parliament, these were lines in the sand, and it had never been possible before to include such positions in parliamentary resolutions. I was happily surprised to find that after long negotiations, these theses did receive majority support in a plenary session. This means that there have been changes in outlook at the European Parliament regarding foreign policy and security issues, and these changes are moving in the direction of action. MEPs feel that a European Defence Union should be established in the foreseeable future, and have called for a review of the existing premise that the EU should have no defence functions. The European Defence Union is necessary and must be financed from the EU’s budget. We must understand that the interests and security needs of the United States of America have been pivoting towards Asia and the Pacific region, which means that we ourselves must care for our security and for the stability of the neighbourhood in which we live.

In conclusion, I wish to stress that no matter how complicated and difficult it is for the member states of the European Union to arrive at agreements on various issues, we have been able to do so in the face of pressing external threats. Crises such as unregulated mass migration, the changing of European borders with brute force, the crimes of jihadist terrorists, and the rise of destructive populism have helped to forge common understandings more quickly than is the case during times of relative peace and tranquillity.

The EU is facing an existential choice. If, in the very near future, Europeans and the political leaders of European Union’s member states do not come to the understanding that we must work together in the pursuit of common and sustainable security solutions, then the EU may very well fall apart. In that case, every former member state will remain alone against the nefarious forces that are seeking to reorganise the world. That is particularly dangerous for Latvia, which might again find itself alone and defenceless alongside Russia – an aggressive country that would not hesitate for a second to reimpose its imperialist yoke upon the small Baltic nation, as it has done on more than one occasion in the past.

Sandra Kalniete, MEP

Russian History and Ivan the Terrible

Ido not intend to write a book about the history of Russia, but if we are to understand the behaviour and future plans of that country, then we cannot ignore its past. I will discuss several episodes and individuals who, I am convinced, laid the foundations for the expansion of Russia’s territory, and who had a far-reaching influence on shaping the Russian nation. That’s why approximately one third of this book is devoted to historical events that are of crucial importance for understanding the current situation. The history of Russia can be studied in countless books, but one must be wary of publications by historians who are close to the Russian regime and who consequently twist, conceal or simply make up facts. Their work is full of disinformation and is designed to promote Russia’s imperialist ideology.

To make things clear from the very start, I wish to explain that when I use the words Russian nation, I refer to the majority of those who identify themselves as being Russian. As is the case in any society, Russia has people with different viewpoints. It goes without saying that many Russians are good and kind-hearted people.

In the book Democracy in America, French diplomat Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) described and analysed the United States of America, which had only recently been founded. He aptly pointed out that in order to gain a firmly grounded understanding of a country, it is not enough to study that country’s present. It is equally important to analyse the country’s origins, along with the characteristics, customs and laws of its initial founders. De Tocqueville concluded that the Pilgrims, as the founders of the first permanent European settlement in New England, had a large influence in the future traits of what would later become the United States. These were people with a highly developed sense of morals. They wanted the freedom to practice their religion and they wanted to live in a democratic environment, with no social class distinctions or special privileges. The Pilgrims sought to found a community that was based on equality and the rule of law, as opposed to the rule of aristocrats or monarchs.

Similarly, if we are to understand present-day Russia, then we need to know about the country’s origins. If one analyses the initial events of Russia’s history and compares them with Russia’s behaviour in recent times, then a careful observer will not fail to notice that the 250 years during which Russians were subjugated to Mongol rule have left indelible marks on the character of the Russian nation, and particularly on the country’s governing elite. Genghis Khan became the ruler of the Mongols in 1206, and over the course of a single generation, he created the foundations for an empire that would soon become the largest realm that the world had ever seen. The armies of subsequent Mongol khans conquered Russian lands with unbelievable brutality and cruelty. Anyone in the cities or countryside who dared to oppose their onslaught, even to a minimal extent, was slaughtered without mercy. However, this brutal approach in conquering and ruling over other countries proved to be very effective, and the men and women who became Russia’s subsequent rulers would never forget this lesson.

There is imprecise knowledge about the origins of Russia, but historians agree that the first ruler of the Rus’ (a medieval group of Slavic people) was a Viking named Rurik (c. 830-879). According to legend, the locals of the Ladoga region themselves asked Rurik to become their ruler. Rurik established his seat of power in Novgorod, a large and wealthy town inhabited by merchants. Rurik’s relatives became rulers of the surrounding cities and towns, and two of his contemporaries, Askold and Dir, were allegedly authorized to rule Kyiv. No one knows whether Askold and Dir actually existed, but according to one legend, Rurik’s successor Oleg assassinated Askold and Dir in 882. He chose Kyiv as his seat of power, because the city had better links with Byzantium, being located further south on the banks of the massive Dnieper River.

Oleg is considered to be the founder of the Kievan Rus’, which encompassed the territory that stretches between Novgorod and Kyiv and which is viewed as the cultural cradle of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. The Viking origins of Rurik’s dynasty and Kyiv as the first capital city of the Rus’ are uncomfortable facts for the historians and ideologues of Russia’s current regime, who have tried in all kinds of ways to misrepresent or gloss them over. Oleg was the first to begin Russia’s expansion and to unite various Slavic tribes. If the story about Askold and Dir is true, then the Russian state began its life after its ruler Oleg committed a double murder.

The most important and far-reaching event in early Russian history is the occupation of the Kievan Rus’ by the Mongols. The troubles for the Russians began in 1223, when the forces of the Rus’ were all but destroyed during a battle at the Kalka River. Despite this major victory, the Mongols retreated, but they returned again in 1238, and two years later, they occupied Kyiv. Novgorod was protected by its distance, forests and swamps, but because the city had been weakened by endless wars with neighbours, it accepted Mongol rule without offering any armed resistance. Thus began a period of bondage that the Russians refer to as Tatar rule and that lasted for approximately 250 years.

For clarity’s sake, the Tatars were Turkic people that the Mongols subjugated and incorporated into their horde. Many Tatar soldiers joined the Mongols during their medieval period of empire-building and conquest. For this reason, the Russians have traditionally linked the Tatars with the Mongols and have used the term Tatar to denote Mongols as well as the Turkic peoples under Mongol rule. Today, the term Tatar refers to several distinct groups of Muslim Turkic people who inhabit different parts of present-day Russia and Ukraine.


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