In his speech on Monday justifying Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, President Putin gave voice to the hurt and bafflement Russians felt as the Soviet Union fell apart. “The USSR broke up so fast,” he said, “that hardly anyone understood the nature of those events.” The implication was that the break-up was caused by the old imperial powers, whose mischief persists today in Ukraine. “The policies that prevailed in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries,” as he put it, “are still continuing.” This time, though, the bold Mr Putin has called their bluff.
This is a grotesque rewriting of history, as the Russian president is doubtless aware. The Soviet Union did not break up because Nato brought it to its knees but because it was politically and economically bankrupt, and millions of people within its subject states – possessed of the same courage as the crowds confronting Viktor Yanukovych in Kiev’s Maidan Square these past months – seized the opportunity to radically refashion their destinies.
Tragically, Russia has maintained the Soviet Union’s disastrous trajectory, its population shrinking, its best brains fleeing abroad and its political system sinking ever deeper into corruption and gangsterism. What has changed is that the nation’s youth have no personal memory of the communist system’s miseries, while too many of their parents have drugged themselves with false, saccharine nostalgia for those bad old days.
Western analysts this week have been wringing their hands over the West’s failure to stand up to Putin’s revanchism and demanding a bold Nato response to deter him from taking similar action elsewhere. But these hawks need to be forcefully reminded that it was not Western gunboats at Sevastopol that ended the Cold War but the prosperity and freedoms of the West that contrasted so starkly with conditions in the East. Of course Europe must make diplomatic representations and impose sanctions. But ultimately, its most useful response to the crisis in Crimea is to do everything in Europe’s considerable power to help Ukraine become what the martyrs of the Maidan died for it to become: a beacon of freedom and prosperity.