Those who know me, know that almost 20 years ago I started running a blog (in Italian) about the Russian-Chechen conflict. I narrated for seven years the horror of the conflict in Chechnya, from July 2003 to August 2010. Not only to draw attention to the conflict but because I considered it the litmus test for what Putin’s Russia would become and how it would affect the future of international balances in the future. An autocratic and authoritarian system that, even then, should have been evident how it would have plunged Russia into a despotic neo-Soviet militarist apparatus, even though in a capitalist version.
Also in Chechnya, there was once a democratically elected President, Aslan Mashkadov, whose legitimate and secular government was quickly destroyed by Moscow’s destabilization (not least by backing Islamic extremist groups) followed by a war that killed about 150k people (i.e., ca. 10% of its population – As a comparison guess how many killed that would amount in your country). Since Putin presented it as a war “against Wahabism” the Western world welcomed it. After complete destruction and reconstruction, he then appointed Ramsan Kadyrov, who actually rules the little South-Caucasian republic with a brutality unparalleled throughout the rest of the Russian Federation. In the last decade, Kadyrov has created an army of Chechen mercenaries, the so-called Kadyrovtsy, ready to perpetuate the worst war crimes wherever the Kremlin needs them to deploy. The blind eye of the world and the success to “establish order” gave Putin a great self-assurance that similar experiments against new but weak democracies could be repeated on a greater scale also elsewhere.
What I found particularly troubling was the blindness and complete indifference to what was unfolding before our eyes. In which direction Russia was going was clear as early as 1998-99 with the Kosovo war, when Moscow openly sided with the Serbian authorities. With some friends, I even founded a small association called the “Caucasus Peace Committee”. These were times when the whole world, exceptions aside, celebrated Putin as a great statesman aligned with the democratic values of the West. And whenever Putin denied this fantasy, we thought of returning to a Realpolitik and the politics of appeasement, mindful of that one Chamberlain practiced with Hitler. Clinton openly admitted that he pretended not to see what was happening in the North Caucasus because he hoped that Yeltsin first and Putin then would give him carte blanche in the former Yugoslavia. G.W. Bush looked in Putin‘s eyes and sensed his soul and found him trustworthy. Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder called him an “impeccable democrat.” Obama and Biden himself took issue with those who said that Russia was still a danger. And I leave Trump aside for obvious reasons. Legions of “experts”, journalists, and “think tanks” convinced us to practice for 25 years the politics of pretending not to see. Evidently without having learned much from history.
Those few who dared to point the finger at the new tsar, saying that it was not just an internal affair but that the brutal methods he practiced in Chechnya were only dress rehearsals, and that he would sooner or later apply them even beyond the Russian borders for imperial conquests, were branded as ‘Russophobics’ who lost themselves in the days of the Cold War.
I was just an insignificant blogger, yet I remember the Italian embassy from Moscow called me asking what were my intentions. I also remember how we met a delegation of Belarusian students in Turin. We were projected into the future, we lived and breathed today’s present.
At that time, however, we were told that it was necessary to “understand Putin” (I am told that in Ukraine they laugh at the Germans with the slogan “Putin verstehen”, that is, “understand Putin”.) We had to understand that the former KGB agent turned into a champion of human rights and that he was doing his best to turn Russia into a democratic and liberal country with the rule of law. But, we also had to understand that he has to fight against internal opponents who prevent him from making the necessary reforms. For this reason, we had to be on his side. His opponents were killed? Of course, he has nothing to do with it because it is not in his interest to get negative attention, probably it is all about the secret services that want to put him in a bad light. “You have to respect him”, “you have to talk to him”, “you have to treat Russia as an equal”, he is the victim, not the aggressor.
I remember the comments that accompanied my blogposts. That relativism that justified for years an authoritarian involution in Russia with arguments such as: “In Russia, there is no democracy? But there is no real democracy here either.” – “Is there no freedom of the press? Well, but also our media depend on the strong powers.” – “Putin’s opponents end up poisoned with tea, strangely they ‘commit suicide’, are they eliminated by the ‘bandits’? Well… even here we have the mafia.” – “The Duma is practically dominated almost exclusively by a single party that never contradicts the president? Well, even here the parties and the opposition suck.” And any atrocity committed by one side was justified by the atrocities of the other side: “In Chechnya, they exterminated 10% of the population? Did they invade Georgia? Has some part of the Caucasus become a police state where people ‘disappear’ and/or end up in the torture chambers of the secret services? Well, even by us the police ….. Crimea? Oh well, but what about the US in Iraq and Afghanistan?” All the same thing, all the same everywhere.
The truth, of course, was that we thought we could do big business (gas, oil, etc.) by pretending that we wouldn’t have to pay any bill at the end of the grand banquet. For 25 years we wanted to believe in the naivety of a Russia with which it was enough to talk, practice diplomacy to the bitter end and treat it on an equal footing, but always doing business. A naivety, an illusion that now becomes clear in its full dimension.
Everyone says you can’t know what’s going on in Putin’s head. By telling us that we cannot know, we have not even tried to know and we have told ourselves the fable that a Soviet dictator may think like us. And yet, at the end of the day, it is not so difficult. We too, in Europe, have gone through fascism and nazism. It’s not that hard to see why, and how we got to this point.
Today we say that Putin fears the expansion of NATO. That is not correct. What he fears much more is the expansion of democracy. What he fears most is that the virus of a free and pluralistic conception of society may seep across Russia’s borders. It is actually a clash of forces on a planetary scale between an autocratic and authoritarian vision of the world on the one hand (not to forget China) and a democratic and libertarian conception of the state, nation, and society on the other (not to forget India). When he declared that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the worst tragedy of the 20th century, he meant it. In the autocratic mentality of the strongman, human rights, freedom of the press, pluralism, multi-party politics, the separation of powers, etc. are inventions of the West that mean nothing to him. They are ideals and principles that are not seen as a solution but, on the contrary, the cause of all evils. In the minds of people like him (there are many) these ideals have only created chaos, poverty, and corruption, and that he believes he must fight with all means, with authoritarianism and repression, often and willingly even with military intervention. And, always according to the same mentality, all the countries of the former Soviet block had no reason to join NATO other than being forced by the US. This is Putin’s theory and worldview. Ukraine’s military neutrality from NATO might have paused animosity for a while, but in the long run, it wouldn’t have changed much. It is the expansion of these ideals that Putin and his fellows fear more than any military expansion. Because they know that if these would infect their society, it would mean their end.
Of course, this war also serves to create the ‘external enemy’ so that we do not talk about internal problems (stagnant economy, poverty, corruption, etc.). Then one must reinterpret history in order to be able to justify military interventions to one’s basis. Ukraine for Putin is an “inherent spiritual space” with which Russia has “blood ties”. The principles of self-determination with which the post-Soviet republics were created are for him forms of “radical russophobic nationalism”. The revolution in Ukraine in 2014 has nothing to do with a desire for a more open and free society that comes from the people. Those who went to demonstrate on the Maidan Square were all paid by the Western powers who perpetrated a coup. Zelensky’s Ukraine is a ‘junta’, a colony and puppet of the West that sought to appropriate nuclear weapons, a gang of Nazi and ungrateful criminals who took advantage of the openness and goodwill of Russia that did so much for a brother country that now turns its back. Honest Ukrainians would all like to return to the Russian borders. And, of course, the Russian army has now stepped into ‘de-nazify’ Ukraine in the name of friendship and mutual help with the Ukrainian people.
State propaganda tells the Russians that in the Donbas there is an ongoing ‘genocide’ by the Nazi Ukrainians against the Russian-speaking community. A ‘Blitzkrieg’ that supposedly filled eastern Ukraine with mass graves, with women and children tortured or burned alive by saboteur terrorists who would foment Islamic fundamentalism and kidnap people with the help of foreign special forces that prepare a confrontation with Russia. All financed by Western powers and criminal and corrupt Ukrainian oligarchs, etc. One lie after another. Yet the Kremlin did not invent this scenario. It is not a fantasy. What Putin described in his speech full of historical revisionism a few days ago was an accurate description of what his army was doing in Chechnya (they back, finance, and arm the Ukrainian separatists against Zelensky’s government as they backed Islamic extremists against Maskhadov’s one).
This is, however, the version of events Putin himself now firmly believes (a mechanism well known in psychology: by lying continuously you end up believing your own lies). A version of events that does not provide any evidence of all this, but that is the hammering propaganda presented to the Russian population that for the most part passively accepts it. A constant brainwashing takes place every day without admitting alternative versions since the alternative media in Russia are almost absent. One lives in an ideological and media bubble separate from the rest of the world (most Russians do not know English and the internet is not yet a media that can compete with the state) and in which many truly believe. They can be forgiven since they have no alternative. Unforgivable are those who see Putin as a model of the statesman to be imported in Western countries (including certain politicians and parties who have sympathized with him and his regime) and who, more or less directly, support similar theses in countries where there is an information and pluralism instead. With these people, I stopped having any interaction for reasons of mental hygiene (see final note).
Putin will continue to see the West as his worst enemy and will resist by any means against what he considers the poisonous expansion of the values of a free and democratic civil society. In his imagination (in which he sincerely believes) and in the Russian media narrative, the West, obviously the USA in the lead, is only intent on plotting against Russia to invade, destroy and humiliate it, because it does not want to see it independent. A West that continues to ‘provoke’ Russia and that sees it only as a ‘barking dog’. This is the dominant Weltanschauung, not just Putin’s. It is a way of thinking and seeing reality. On the other hand, can we blame them? Napoleon tried to invade Russia, and it went wrong. Germany tried to invade Russia, and it went wrong. Now they see that NATO is positioning itself on their borders. What should they think? It looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and swims like a duck. Therefore it must be (a quite evil) duck. But the question is, could the world, which they currently see as a band of deadly russophobic enemies, look a little different if they are allowed to get alternative versions of the facts?
Now we are told that Putin has changed, he has lost the sense of reality. We finally realize who really is the one left behind in the Cold War. But he is the only one who has always remained true to himself. Today’s Putin is the same KGB man as ever. Those who followed the Chechen conflict are not at all surprised by what they are doing today. He only changed the scale, not the methods.
Trying to treat him well, will not work. Trying to make befriend him, will not work. Trying to change his mind with money, business, gas, or oil, won’t work. It didn´t work until now and it won’t work in the future either. Few people said this 20 years ago (e.g. Anna Politkovskaya and who was silenced by the ‘bandits’) but, fortunately, there are many of us who realize this state of affairs now. And it is, again, simplistic and naïve to believe that halting NATO expansion would have made that big difference. It would not have worked out, or at least it would not have been enough. Because that is not the real reason that moves the mind of those who are in the Kremlin. And yes, … in those heads, we can get into.
It is evident where we are going. The second Cold War began quite a while ago, and until Russian society (with or without Putin) opens up to a pluralist system, and does not feel the need for a radical change that goes beyond the creation of yet another form of tsarism, little can change. But the collapse will come from within. And a financial collapse will not be enough, there will have to be a radical change in how they see the world and the means by which they look at the world. Maybe because of a disastrous war that may not go as planned, and that will leave deep wounds in the Russian society itself (not to forget that most Russian soldiers are not much older than 18-year-old boys that their own army sees them only as cannon fodder). This same war could turn into the worst mistake and boomerang for Putin (there are people who already go to the streets to protest). There is no stratagem with which the problem can be fixed from the outside. They will have to find their way on their own. But, sooner or later, even this despotic system will fall.
Meanwhile, perhaps, it will also be up to the Western world to do the same thing. And in fact, we finally see a Europe a little more united (according to Lavrov it is only an appearance, in reality, we were forced by Washington). We realized that the good times of appeasement are over. If nothing else, not all evil comes to harm. Will it last? I don’t know, but the move is brilliant. Certainly not wanted by Putin, but at least for this we should thank him: that long-awaited European unity, social unity, unity, unity, unity … that everyone talks about, not everyone wants, and that no one knew how to create, now it is imposed on us by the facts on the ground and that we have ignored for at least two decades.
For now, the only possible policy of the West is that of the definitive end of a real-political illusion based on appeasing diplomacy, replaced by that of containment and isolation. It will take counter-information (and NOT Western-style counter-disinformation). And as soon as this nightmare will be over, immediately begin with assistance and activities of common and mutual interest, such as in space exploration, in culture, in the exchange between the younger generations and in the things that, despite everything, unite us, such as music, art, fundamental non-applied science, etc. Only if we know each other and meet, we minimize the danger of falling into ideologies that see each other as a lethal enemy. Because at the end of the day we are one human family.
I pray for the Ukrainian people but also for the Russian people. They are victims as well, as the Ukrainians are.
If there’s one reason I’ve written about this after a dozen years, it’s only because, as you can see, I identify myself too much with this theme. Part of my soul is Russian. But this falsehood had entered my brain, the cells of my body, and it was poisoning me inside. When you identify with certain planetary movements of lies, in the East as in the West, it devours you inside. Therefore, I focused on something else. And I will continue to do so, I am not going to resume this subject. The international situation regurgitates from my personal subconscious a whole series of issues that had to be let go of. Now I’ve done so. Sorry for the outburst.