THE VOICE OF INTERNATIONAL LITHUANIA
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By Mikhail Iossel
Professor of English at Concordia University, Canada
Founding Director at Summer Literary Seminars
The likelihood of Putin’s invading Lithuania or fomenting a Donbass-style counterfeit pro-Russian uprising there, at this point, in my strong opinion, is no higher than that of his attacking Portugal, say, or Ecuador. Regardless of whether he might or might not, in principle, be interested in the insane idea of expanding Russia’s geographic boundaries to those of the former USSR (and I for one do not believe that has ever been his goal), he knows this would be entirely unfeasible, both in near- and long-term historical perspective, for a variety of reasons. It is not going to happen. There will be no restoration of the Soviet Union as a geopolitical entity.
In tacit recognition of that immutable fact, the word combination “the Russian world,” which Putin had brought into political existence ever so triumphantly back in the Spring of 2014, in the immediate wake of the Crimea annexation, has been taken out of circulation completely quite months ago, along with any mentions of the mythological “Novorossiya” (the eight large administrative areas of South-Central and South-Eastern Ukraine which — again, according to the glowing, fever-minded post-Crimean Putin — supposedly, as per some unverifiable historical sources, used to belong to pre-historic, pre-Russian Russia thousands of years ago).
Putin finds himself at this point in a terrible bind of his own making. The simple truth of the matter is this: Russia’s economy is in a shambles, and in a free-fall. Its decline started at least three years ago, prior to Putin’s escapades on the international arena, and subsequently was further exacerbated to a great degree by the drastic slump in oil prices and, of course, the imposition of the Western sanctions against Russia (and, in a remarkable development of breathtaking inanity, along the lines of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face, Russia’s reflexive imposition of “food” sanctions against… itself). Simply put, Putin just cannot afford any more large-scale military ventures abroad, if only on purely fiscal grounds. Additionally, he knows now he wouldn’t be able to get away with anything minimally extracurricular there anymore. Having failed to blackmail the West into submissive torpor by indicating his supposed willingness to use Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons in Europe — in effect, attempting to call the West’s bluff thusly: “In Russia, we don’t value our own lives as much as you do, the enfeebled westerns. Well, America and Germany and all the rest of you westerners, are you sure you’d be willing to sacrifice the lives of your young men and women in uniform for the sake of Daugavpils, say, or Narva or Klaipeda?” — he knows full-well now, even based on the immediate subsequent deployment of the US tactical and airforce detachments in the former Soviet Baltic republics, that yes, indeed, NATO most certainly will abide unwaveringly by its charter on common defence, chapter and verse, and will perceive an attack on any one of its members as an aggression against every one of them at once. Putin’s attempt at intimidating the West, thus, ended up in the form of an egg on his own face. And he knows now, too, and only too well, that the West will not hesitate to impose the further, considerably more stringent still, sanctions against his regime, in the case of any slightest display of aggressiveness on his part in Ukraine, let alone anyplace else in Europe. Russia’s economy will not be able to withstand any amount of further punishment, no matter how minute. Such previously discussed steps as, for instance, banning Russian financial institutions from using the SWIFT interbank payment system, would quite literally bring down to its knees the country’s entire financial system.
It is, then, for a combination of above-state reasons that Putin has been hamstrung in South-Eastern Ukraine, forced to freeze the active phase of the conflict here, initiate the removal of Russian troops from the former battle zone, “disown” (or in their view, betray) the local pro-Russian separatists he himself had created and trained and armed to the teeth; and hence, his, ever more insistent efforts to force Ukraine into “taking back” that, thoroughly and pointlessly devastated, war-ravaged region of defunct coal mines and pauperized, angry and confused populace.
It is important to understand that Putin has suffered a devastating, humiliating defeat in Ukraine. None of his overarching original goals for tat endeavour have been achieved. There will be no mythical “Novorossiya,” and therefore no land corridor to the annexed Crimea, which is cut off from Russia geographically and, representing a sort of metaphorical piece of luggage without a handle, already is suffering dramatic price increases and conspicuous rise in the levels of corruption. There will be no wholesale destruction of Ukraine as a form of punishment for her having rejected the corrupt, criminal, authoritarian, dead-end ways of Putin’s fascist regime in Russia. Ukraine is drifting away from Russia, moving decisively in the European direction; and despite the massive current difficulties of economic and structural nature, it will be fine in the end, it will be all right, it will survive, because the western world is on her side, and it will help to pull her through the current hardship. Russia, on the other hand, is getting progressively weaker, having enmeshed itself in a hopeless new “cold war” with the West. Putin’s vanity, his burning desire to be perceived as an equal to the western leaders (and first and foremost among them, the US President) and, impossibly enough, to have the clock of history turned back to the Yalta and Potsdam agreements era, with the world divided between the US and Russian spheres of influence — they have gotten the best of him. There is not a single conceivable scenario whereby Russia could come out the winner in this present confrontation with the West, whose economy collectively is 15 or 20 times stronger than that of Russia, and whose combined military power is vastly superior to Russia’s, as well.
What is Putin to do? His overriding goal in life, at this point, it appears, is to end up dying in his own bed. And since Putin has been proclaimed by his propagandists synonymous with Russia, in terms of his physical and spiritual existence, the above goal has also become Russia’s ultimate strategic goal, for now. He has lost in Ukraine, but he cannot admit that fact publicly. The one hundred million-strong army of Russian TV-viewers, having been subject over the past year to the most extraordinarily intense and toxic media propaganda campaign in human history, continues to be in a highly chauvinistic, belligerent, beclouded state of mind. It wants to keep being assured that Russia is kicking the West’s butt everywhere in the world. Putin, thus, needs to have his populace’s attention switched away from the failure of his Ukrainian campaign, as well as from the catastrophic state of the country’s economy (food prices rising exponentially from week to week, inflation going through the roof, people’s incomes shrinking faster that the portrait of Dorian Grey at its fastest, and millions of people falling into extreme poverty over the last year alone). Enter Syria — Russia’s last ally in the Middle East. Enter the show of Russia’s reclaiming its lost status of a global superpower: “We’re back in the Middle East! The West can no longer keep ignoring us! We’re a superpower again!” It is a virtual war, largely, one made for TV: with no Russian boots on the ground and the Russian planes bombing away at will at random targets, with no perceptible results. Now it’s Syria around the clock on Russian TV-screens — and barely a peep about Ukraine.
It is not difficult to predict the way this latest, Syrian campaign is going to turn out for Putin. Virtual wars have progressively shorter shelf lives in modern world. And then what? Then there will be something else — but already inside Russia, where the new, weaker edition of Stalin-era terror is already being introduced. Putin is desperate. What we are witnessing now is his political agony.
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