I lived in Siberia for four years shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Until that time, my feelings and perceptions of the Russian people were vaguely neutral — I respected them as fellow human beings and lamented their fates as prisoners of a repressive government.
Ironically, as the daughter of a fighter pilot, their government’s actions had shadowed my father’s career — first in France and Germany as the Berlin Wall went up, then in Alabama during the Cuban Missile Crisis and finally, in Vietnam, where he flew 100 missions over Saigon. The Cold War was a very real specter throughout our lives.
When I arrived in Vladivostok in November 1992, I was stunned . This could not possibly be the country that the Western world feared for more than 75 years. The city was in shambles. The endless rows of crumbling apartment buildings perched on the hills of the Russian “San Francisco” were shrouded by massive clouds of steam escaping from gaping holes on the road.
This was the “evil empire”? After catching my breath, I realized that it could not have been any other way. Communism, as interpreted by the Soviet Union, was a dead end — and it showed. The Russian people were profoundly dispirited — even the surrealistic lives they led in a totally dysfunctional political and economic environment were gone.
I witnessed retired engineers and professors rummaging through dumpsters to find plastic bags to wash and sell at the central market. Babushkas (grandmothers) sported casts on their arms and legs because the perennial icy streets were not swept. It was a human tragedy of epic proportions. In Moscow, babushkas were being murdered for their apartments. Chaos reigned. Greed reigned. Try to imagine if the U.S. government suddenly shut down — for real.
On the last New Year’s Eve of the 20th century, Boris Yeltsin, visibly exhausted from his turn at bat in the wild and woolly Russian political landscape, sat before the nation in a televised address and announced his successor, Vladimir Putin.
A KGB functionary who never saw any action when he served, Putin materialized from nowhere. In fact, he was such an unknown that he immediately hired several writers to hurriedly create his biography. It was published two months later, a testament to the depth of both the book and its subject.
He was chosen for a very specific purpose: to protect Yeltsin and his family from political enemies in his remaining years. As a bonus, Putin’s physicality and European suits represented a stark contrast to the aging, overweight Communist Party leaders who haunted the Kremlin. He was a one-dimensional man without history who would be made emperor.
He did not and does not have a clue about how to run a country except to follow in the path of previous dictators and to bluster — a lot. Oh, and to become so fabulously wealthy that he can build a compound on the Black Sea featuring an Italianate palace of tens of thousands of square meters with casino, winter theater, summer amphitheatre, church, swimming pools, sports grounds, heliports, landscaped parks, teahouses and staff apartments.
Many influential Americans ascribe a chess master mentality to Putin — a strategist of the highest order. Nothing could be farther from the truth. He is on autopilot, aping the same old posturing tactics of his predecessors, bolstered by an oil-rich economy.
So when I first heard about the Ukrainian crisis, I instantly recognized that the absorption of the Crimean Peninsula was a fait accompli.
Why is Putin so hell-bent on keeping the Crimean Peninsula?
National pride. For more than 200 years, the base at Sevastopol has been home to the Black Sea Fleet of the Russian Navy. As their only viable warm water port in a country that is land-locked most of the year, it has played a vital and historic security interest. As Americans surrounded by friendly countries and two vast oceans, we struggle to understand its impact on the Russian psyche. Just to test your knee-jerk reaction, how about giving up Galveston to Mexico? Thought so.
Most denizens of the peninsula, both Ukrainian and Russian, remember when everyone was a citizen of the former Soviet Union, so it doesn’t exactly feel like barbarians at the door. Putin risked some international condemnation but rightly concluded that European dependence on Russian oil would cripple any U.S. efforts to stoke any real resistance.
There are several Russian political “experts” here in the U.S. who are melodramatically summoning the ghosts of crises past — the Cold War. I suppose it sells papers and conveniently telegraphs a well-digested sentiment, but I witnessed the Cold War, and this is not it. They are wrong.
The only sensible alternative is to study the Russian political environment today. Putin isn’t Stalin; Russia isn’t evil; and the U.S. isn’t saintly. Let’s recognize the complex nature of our relationship with Russia for what it is in 2014 and act accordingly.
Barnes is an Austin writer and blogs at www.oneshoeforsale.com.