Ukraine: the world according to Putin
President Vladimir Putin does not like Bolsheviks. Stalin was among those who divided up the Russian lands in stupid ways in the 1920s, Khrushchev inexplicably incorporated Crimea into Ukraine in the 1950s, and Gorbachev took the decisions which led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, an event which Mr Putin has famously characterised as the "major geopolitical disaster" of the 20th century.
"For the Russian nation, it became a genuine drama," he said in 2005. "Tens of millions of our co-citizens and co-patriots found themselves outside Russian territory." He developed these themes further in his question-and-answer session this week. Even as envoys of Russia, America, Europe and Ukraine were meeting on Thursday inGeneva to find common ground on the Ukrainian crisis, he was using the antique term "new Russia" to refer to eastern Ukraine and bemoaning the changes the Communists had made. Why had these lands been transferred to Ukraine, he asked rhetorically, answering that only "God knows".
It is possible to sympathise with the Russian president's view that the combination of Soviet nationalities policy and the demise of the Soviet Union left ethnic and national boundaries in a mess, the kind of mess that was ruthlessly tidied up further west in the aftermath of the second world war. The costs of that tidying up – the boundaries redrawn, the populations often brutally transferred – were high. Indeed, much of European history suggests that the attempt to get languages, ethnicities, and political frontiers to coincide is doomed to end in frustration, tragedy, or both. Ukrainians, for example, cut up and parcelled out among different empires and who have been subject to Russian, Polish and Austrian masters, know this better than most peoples.
But Mr Putin does not seem to have read that history. Pronouncing on world affairs in his usual assured, occasionally witty, and apparently reasonable way last week during his annual televised question-and-answer session with the Russian public, he said that it was "rubbish" to say there were Russian troops or agents in eastern Ukraine. That government was committing a "grave crime" in using force against the demonstrators.
But, on the other hand, recalling that the Russian parliament had granted him the "right" to use military force in Ukraine, he said: "I really hope that I do not have to exercise this right and that we are able to solve all today's pressing issues via political and diplomatic means." Falsity is piled upon falsity in this accounting. While the depth of feeling against Kiev in the eastern region may well be deeper than some had believed, the rolling seizures of government buildings in many small towns compellingly suggests the Russians were involved. Then, how is it a crime for a government, including an interim one, to attempt to reverse such seizures? Finally, how can the Russian parliament grant its government the right to interfere with force in another sovereign state to protect people who, whatever language they speak, are Ukrainian, not Russian, citizens?
Mr Putin, an intelligent man, must know all this. Yet it is clear that at some level he feels strongly that he is right, and in the right. He seems in any case to hesitate between the idea that Russia has a special right to protect Russian speakers in Ukraine and the idea that Russia has a right to supervise the affairs of the whole of Ukraine because historically it was all part of Russia. It is not surprising, given the messages which emerged from Mr Putin's question-and-answer session, that President Barack Obama immediately expressed doubts about Russia's sincerity in the Geneva talks. Mr Putin will not easily give up his ideas or his ambitions. Nor will Europe and the US abandon theirs. Ukraine will remain in contention. But the Geneva agreement, if even partially observed, should at least slow the rush toward confrontation.