The Union of the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers has declared that there are “thousands” of Russian troops unofficially in Ukraine, despite overt threats from military authorities to mind their own business. The Committee was formed in 1989 to look into the thousands of “MIA’s” from the failed Soviet “incursion” into Afghanistan. Despite being utterly ignored by the Soviet government and military, and suffering from threats and repression, these Russian mothers persisted in their efforts and managed to raise public consciousness and shame the authorities in a wholly unexpected manner. They made the mistake of underestimating the power of the Russian mother.
Today, a new generation of Russian mothers is being confronted with the same situation their parents faced: official silence, threats, repression, 24-hour propaganda and ever more obvious lies. All the while, the “Cargo 200’s” continue to fly, bringing home the burnt and blasted bodies of Russian boys who were supposedly on garrison duty in Pskov or on routine maneuvers in Saratov. Mr. Putin doesn’t much care about the dead boys in pinewood boxes, but he must be concerned that his transparent denials of Russian involvement in the fighting is growing increasingly thin to his own people. The Pskov politician recently made the mistake of being to persistent in his enquiries about missing members of the local 76th Airborne Division: he was severely beaten by unknown assailants. (2)
A recent YouTube video posted by a passenger on a Ukrainian bus shows a long column of unmarked BMP-2 APC’s, T-72 tanks and Ural 6×6 trucks deep inside Ukrainian territory (using passed road signs as indicators). The voice-over counts 42 personnel carriers and 13 tanks: that’s very close to the combat strength of a Russian Motor Rifle battalion with an attached tank company. Missing are the artillery and mobile SAM vehicles, but the Ukrainian soldiers can attest to their presence, even if they are not on the video.
Mr. Putin convincingly demonstrates that you can take the boy out of the KGB, but you can’t take the KGB out of the boy. Yet he seems to have learned nothing from the criminal mistakes his mentors and colleagues made during the Soviet era, because he continues to commit them all. He will undoubtedly continue to get away with his flagrant disregard for international and Russian law, for while the Duma has not authorized the use of Russian troops inside Ukraine (beyond Crimea that is) no one in that body is going to stand up to their Master in the Kremlin. Yet the continuing stream of bodies will eventually take an even greater toll then the increasingly painful sanctions being discussed in the West.
As an autocrat, Mr. Putin is not exposed to the usual limitations imposed on the government by an active citizenry in a regular democracy. But he is perfectly aware of the fragility of autocratic governments, having lived through the inconceivable rapidity of the Soviet disintegration. As much as some journalists and pundits talk of Novaya Rossiya and the new Russian Empire, this is not 1956. Novaya Rossiya exists only in the fevered dreams of Mr. Putin and a small clique of deluded generals and elites. The majority of ordinary Russians, while being patriotic and supportive of Russian interests, have no desire to go to war with their neighbors and become international pariahs. So long as they believe the lies coming out of the state-dominated media about fascists in Kiev and Russian non-involvement, all is well: but as the body count rises, how will Mr. Putin maintain this fiction??? Even the far more authoritarian Soviet regime failed in a similar task.
I repeat: this is not 1956 and Ukraine is not Hungary. There was a time when the West was willing to accept, because it was unable to change, a Soviet-sphere of influence over their neighbors and armed interventions when a client government didn’t toe the Kremlin line precisely. Those days are long gone: today the West has a moral and political imperative to stop Russia from unilaterally imposing a sphere of influence over an unwilling and resisting neighbor. That means financial assistance, military equipment, real-time intelligence from electronic and space assets, everything short of actual NATO combat troops. A Lend Lease and Marshal plan for Ukraine, rolled into one.
Some may say that Ukraine just isn’t worth it; their leaders too corrupt and their economy too backwards to justify the costs and the risks. That is folly. This isn’t about the merits or demerits of one country: this is about stopping Mr. Putin’s gangsterism from extending to many other countries. Georgia too has already felt the weight of his iron fist, without any velvet glove to cover it. Today Ukraine: and there is no reason to believe that Mr. Putin will stop until he has recreated the Russian Empire, failed catastrophically in the attempt or been convinced to stop by the West. By far the least costly alternative is the last, and it must happen now, in Eastern Ukraine.
Whatever slight legitimacy the Russian leader may have had at one point from Western bungling of the EuroMaidan affair has long since evaporated. Putin is a gangster and a war criminal, by the laws of his own country. It is impossible to find excuses for a man who invades his neighbors and threatens others with nuclear attacks. (3)
Only now does the West begin to wake up to this reality and all too timidly. France has finally been shamed into suspending the transfer of the first Mistral-class helicopter carrier, but though welcome, this is far from enough. NATO leaders have agreed to a “coalition of the willing” – a phrase with awful connotations – to arm the Kurdish peshmerga and bomb ISIS in Iraq. But no one seems willing to send a crate of rifles or spare parts to the Ukrainians. (4) Without minimizing the importance of ending the Islamic State’s barbarous rein over central Mesopotamia, it is my opinion that Mr. Putin’s ambition represents by far the greatest and most destabilizing threat to the international order.
The European and American publics must be made to understand this. It is high time that the West strike back in the propaganda war, one in which the Russians have had an uncontested field so far. Only by preparing their citizens will Europe and America be able to undertake the wholly necessary measures, and bear the resultant burdens, that these times call for. The costs will only rise the longer we put them off.
Most importantly, the Russian people must learn of what is going on. The real hope of a peaceful solution lies not with Russian and European diplomats, but with the Russian mothers of dead sons. That is a terrible statement, but it is where Vladimir Putin has driven his country and the world. He clearly doesn’t fear the West, but he is most certainly wary of his own people. In involving his unwilling country in a new Afghanistan, Mr. Putin may be sowing the seeds of his own downfall.
Sources and Notes:
1 Shaun Walker, Oksana Grytsenko and Leonid Ragozin, “Russian soldier: ‘You’re better clueless because the truth is horrible’,” The Guardian, 03 September 2014
3 Damien Sharkov, “Russia Has Threatened Nuclear Attack, Says Ukraine Defence Minister,” Newsweek, 02 September 2014
4 Adrian Croft and Kylie Maclellan, “NATO chief, at summit, says Russia attacking Ukraine,” Reuters, 04 September 2014