WORLD AFFAIRS.  Is President Vladimir Putin readying the rhetorical groundwork for a full-scale attack on international norms regarding the inviolability of borders and state sovereignty? Could be, if the recent comments of two of his closest advisers are any indication of what the Kremlin is thinking.

In early September, Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin told the Moldovans that Moldova “would lose Transnistria, if Moldova continues moving toward the European Union.” Then, in a sudden onrush of poetic sentiment, Rogozin added: “Moldova’s train en route to Europe would lose its wagons in Transnistria.” Transnistria is the breakaway part of Moldova, sandwiched between Ukraine and the Dniester River, that declared independence in 1990 and enjoys Russian military and diplomatic backing.

Then, later in September, President Putin’s adviser on economic integration, Sergei Glazyev, took part in the 10th annual summit of the Yalta European Strategy, a non-governmental group founded and funded by the westward-leaning Ukrainian oligarch Viktor Pinchuk. Here’s how the Times of London reported Glazyev’s comments:

Russia has threatened to support a partitioning of Ukraine if it signs a landmark co-operation agreement with the European Union in two months’ time. Sergei Glazyev, one of Vladimir Putin’s top advisers, said that Ukraine’s Russian-speaking minority might break up the country in protest at a move that European, Russian, and Ukrainian politicians see as a shift away from Moscow’s influence. He said that Russia would be legally entitled to support them.

Take both sets of comments together and what have you got? A not-too-veiled threat to revise Europe’s postwar borders—in violation, by the way, of United Nations principles and the Helsinki Accords. Significantly, both Rogozin and Glazyev are close to Putin; their sentiments may therefore be interpreted as reflecting his. Until now, the only people who expressed such destabilizing views tended to be loony demagogues such as Vladimir Zhirinovsky. No more. Neo-imperialist, revisionist rhetoric has clearly become mainstream, at least within Putin’s regime.

When I visited Kyiv last summer, a German colleague expressed concern that Russia might stage a provocation in order to annex parts of Ukraine as payback for Kyiv’s pursuit of integration with Europe. As we kicked around possible scenarios, we ended up agreeing that, if such an event were to take place, it would resemble the infamous “Gleiwitz incident,” which served as Adolf Hitler’s pretext to attack Poland. Here’s the Wikipedia account of how the Nazis staged a provocation in the city of Gleiwitz (today’s Gliwice), which lay just to the west of the German Reich’s border with Poland: 

On the night of 31 August 1939, a small group of German operatives, dressed in Polish uniforms and led by Naujocks, seized the Gleiwitz station and broadcast a short anti-German message in Polish (sources vary on the content of the message). The Germans’ goal was to make the attack and the broadcast look like the work of anti-German Polish saboteurs. To make the attack seem more convincing, the Germans brought in Franciszek Honiok, a German Silesian known for sympathizing with the Poles, who had been arrested the previous day by the Gestapo. Honiok was dressed to look like a saboteur; then killed by lethal injection, given gunshot wounds, and left dead at the scene, so that he appeared to have been killed while attacking the station. His corpse was subsequently presented as proof of the attack to the police and press.

Change the year to 2014 and the setting to a place such as Sevastopol or Luhansk. Russian secret-police operatives dressed as rabid Ukrainian nationalists and chanting patriotic Ukrainian slogans and waving the blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag attack some peaceful Russians, perhaps housewives standing in line outside a grocery store. Blood is spilled. A few women lose their lives. The supposed Ukrainians parade their triumph in the streets, threatening to destroy all Russians. (The Soviet secret police, by the way, staged just such provocations in the aftermath of World War II, in its efforts to destroy the Ukrainian underground resistance movement.)

If this happens in Sevastopol, locally based Russian sailors will obviously have no choice but to rush to their compatriots’ defense. If the setting is Luhansk, “spontaneously” formed militias will suddenly appear. Both will claim to be resisting crude violations of human rights by dastardly Ukrainians. They’ll appeal to Moscow for help. Kyiv will appeal to Brussels and the United Nations for intervention. What choice will the Kremlin have but to save its brethren from genocide by fascists? The European Union and the UN will, in the meantime, dither over the meaning of the words they’ll use to express their concern. Luhansk and the Crimea will request annexation by Russia. Moscow, reluctantly, but in full awareness of its sacred commitment to humanity, will agree.

To be sure, both scenarios are premised on a pretty big If, but that If no longer seems all that iffy in light of Rogozin’s and Glazyev’s comments.

The following joke used to make the rounds in Soviet times:

A Frenchman, a Brit, and a Russian are captured by some tribe in Africa and are about to be killed. The chief asks them if they have any last requests. The Frenchman asks for a glass of wine and gets it. The Brit asks for a cigar and gets it. The Russian asks for a punch in the nose and gets in. Thereupon he removes a gun from his pocket and shoots the chief. The Brit and the Frenchman are astounded. “If you had the gun all along,” they say, “why didn’t you use it immediately?” The Russian smiles: “We are never the aggressor.”

In Ukraine and Moldova, they’re not laughing.

Alexander J. Motyl's blog

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