It is not fully remembered or appreciated—to some degree it’s been forced down the memory hole—that a primary reason the American people opposed the Soviet Union and were able to sustain that opposition (and bear its costs) was that the Soviets were not only expansionist but atheistic, and aggressively so. It was part of what communism was about—God is a farce and must be removed as a force. They closed the churches, killed and imprisoned priests and nuns. Wherever communism went there was an attempt to suppress belief.
I think we got a deep look at Mr. Putin’s attitudes and goals in his speech last week at the Kremlin, telling the world his reasons for annexing Crimea. It is a remarkable document and deserves more attention. It was a full-throated appeal to Russian nationalism, and an unapologetic expression of Russian grievance. (The translation is from the Prague Post.)At the top, religious references. Crimea is “where Prince Vladimir was baptized. His spiritual feat of adopting Orthodoxy predetermined the overall basis of the culture, civilization and human values that unite the people of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.”
Crimea has always been an inseparable part of Russia. Yes, in 1954 “the Communist Party head, Nikita Khrushchev” decided to transfer it to Ukraine. “What stood behind this decision of his—a desire to win the support of the Ukrainian political establishment or to atone for the mass oppressions of the 1930s in Ukraine—is for historians to figure out.” But Khrushchev headed “a totalitarian state” and never asked the Crimeans for their views. Decades later, “what seemed impossible became a reality. The U.S.S.R. fell apart. . . . The big country was gone.” Things moved swiftly. Crimeans and others “went to bed in one country and awoke in other ones, overnight becoming ethnic minorities in former [Soviet] republics.” Russia “was not simply robbed, it was plundered.” Crimeans in 1991 felt “they were handed over like a sack of potatoes.”
Russia “humbly accepted the situation.” It was rocked, “incapable of protecting its interests.” Russians knew they’d been treated unjustly, but they chose to “build our good-neighborly relations with independent Ukraine on a new basis.” Russia was accommodating, respectful. But Ukraine was led by successive bad leaders who “milked the country, fought among themselves for power.”
“I understand those who came out on Maidan with peaceful slogans against corruption,” Mr. Putin said. But forces that “stood behind the latest events in Ukraine” had “a different agenda.” They “resorted to terror, murder and riots.” They are “Nationalists, neo-Nazis, Russophobes and anti-Semites.” “They continue to set the tone in Ukraine to this day.” They have “foreign sponsors” and “mentors.”
He declared that “there is no legitimate executive authority in Ukraine now,” that government agencies are controlled by “imposters,” often “controlled by radicals.” In that atmosphere residents of Crimea turned to Russia for protection. Russia could not abandon them. It helped them hold a referendum.
“Western Europe and North America” now say Moscow has violated international law. “It’s a good thing that they at least remember that there exists such a thing as international law—better late than never.” And Russia has violated nothing: Its military “never entered Crimea” but was already there, in line with international agreements. Russia chose merely to “enhance” its forces there, within limits previously set. There was not a single armed confrontation, and no casualties. Why? Because Crimeans wanted them there. If it had been an armed intervention, he said, surely a shot would have been fired.
In the decades since the Soviet Union’s fall—or, as Mr. Putin called it, since “the dissolution of bipolarity on the planet”—the world has become less stable. The U.S. is guided not by international law but by “the rule of the gun.” Americans think they are exceptional and can “decide the destinies of the world,” building coalitions on the basis of “if you are not with us, you are against us”—Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya. The “color revolutions” have produced “chaos” instead of freedom, and “the Arab Spring turned into the Arab Winter.”
Mr. Putin cleverly knocked down the idea of European integration. The real problem, he said, is that the West has been moving against “Eurasian integration.” Russia over the years has tried to be cooperative, but the U.S. and its allies have repeatedly lied and “made decisions behind our backs.” NATO expanded to the east; a missile-defense system is “moving forward.” The “infamous policy of containment” continues against Russia today. “They are constantly trying to sweep us into a corner. . . . But there is a limit to everything.”
Russia does not want to harm Ukraine. “We do not want to divide Ukraine; we do not need that.” But Kiev had best not join NATO, and Ukrainians should “put their own house in order.”
What does this remarkable speech tell us? It presents a rationale for moving further. Ukraine, for instance, is a government full of schemers controlled by others—it may require further attention. It expresses a stark sense of historical grievance and assumes it is shared by its immediate audience. It makes clear a formal animus toward the U.S. It shows he has grown comfortable in confrontation. It posits the presence of a new Russia, one that is “an independent, active participant in international affairs.” It suggests a new era, one that doesn’t have a name yet. But the decades following the collapse of the Soviet Union were one thing, and this is something else—something rougher, darker and more aggressive.
It tells us this isn’t about Crimea.
It tells us this isn’t over.