Taking on Putin: The Gessen Plan
NGOs, not bombs – an embittered expatriate has an idea
The Obama administration, for its part, seems content to get up on its high horse and issue feckless denunciations which aren’t all that convincing even to those who have joined the rapidly-expanding Russia-Haters Club. Sanctions aimed at top Russian officials and businessmen are part of the "package," but aside from not allowing some apparatchik to visit his children while they go to school in the US these actions only underscore the simple fact that there is very little the US and its European sock-puppets can do in the short term that will make much difference.
Washington’s impotence in the face of Russian assertiveness only served to further enrage our political class, which is used to having its whims treated as immutable edicts. This is doubtless what drove the Wall Street Journal editorial page as well as neocon pundit Charles Krauthammer to demand the President deploy the Sixth Fleet to the Black Sea. As to what would follow from this show of force the assembled neocons did not say: a reenactment of the charge of the Light Brigade? World War III?
The economic sanctions crowd is depressed because Europe depends on Russia for a great deal of its energy in the form of oil and natural gas: the Germans would stand to lose billions if they got on board with the sanctions and the loss of jobs would be significant. The sanctioneers will probably have to be content with mostly symbolic actions, such as a Western boycott of the Sochi G-8 summit and/or kicking Russia out of the G-8 entirely.
In all the brouhaha over Crimea, only one Russophobe had the imagination to proffer a long-range and perfectly viable plan to get back at the Russians and that was Masha Gessen, author of Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot. Writing in Slate, she averred that the whole course of history had been changed with the Crimean annexation – but that this was merely a delayed reaction to the bombing of Serbia during the Kosovo war. Russia was now taking "revenge" on the West for the Serbian strike: that’s the "real" reason the Crimeans demanded accession to Russia and Putin accommodated them. Kosovo, she believes, augured a "catastrophic historic change" in the course of events as they should have unfolded, but it "has taken 15 years" to show itself. "Russia’s invasion of Ukraine," says Gessen, "completes that story."
But what is this "story"? It all started with Kosovo, when the US didn’t even warn the Russians that the US assault on the former Yugoslavia was coming – just as Yevgeny Primakov was en route to Washington for talks. Primakov turned his plane around upon hearing the news and headed back to Moscow:
"From this point on, Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s administration, already weak and embattled, would be unable to justify its friendly, perennially de-escalating posture toward the West. Anti-American feelings ran so high you would have thought the U.S. were bombing Russia."
And this anti-Americanism led directly to Putin’s rise:
"When I returned to Moscow in mid-May, the liberals’ panic and the nationalists’ fervor had subsided, but I found signs of the nationalists’ newfound strength – and wrote my final dispatch about that. And then history followed its changed course. In August, Yeltsin anointed as his successor, a virtual unknown named Vladimir Putin. Within a few weeks, Putin became spectacularly popular by launching a new war in Chechnya. Politicians formerly known as liberals praised the Russian army for its performance there; one said it was ‘regaining its dignity.’ He did not mention Kosovo, but he was referring to the general sense of humiliation that had stayed with Russians since the spring.
"In December 1999, Putin became acting president, and the following March, he was elected to the office. Over the course of the following 14 years, he nurtured in the Russian public a sense of nostalgia for the Soviet Union and especially for the fear it inspired in the rest of the world."
Note how we are supposed to believe Putin simply "launched a new war in Chechnya" merely on a whim: terrorist attacks on Russian cities, their destructive power and viciousness roughly comparable to what happened in Manhattan on 9/11, apparently had nothing to do with it. According to Gessen, Weimar Russia was so "humiliated" by the loss of the Soviet empire that it elevated Putin to the Russian presidency – just like another wannabe tyrant had done the same in Germany during the 1930s after a humiliating defeat. No, she doesn’t pull a Hillary on us by openly comparing Putin to Hitler, but the implication is clear.
Yes, Putin appealed to Russian nostalgia, albeit not for a lost empire or the Leninist project but for a country that didn’t have a rapidly shrinking birth rate, didn’t have a reeling drunk at its head, and didn’t allow a rising class of oligarchs to steal the nation blind. Gessen’s hate for her own country doesn’t allow her to see this: she sees only a "catastrophe," never acknowledging that the corruption of the Yeltsin years was the real catastrophe. She views Russia only in relation to the US government: before Putin, Russia was "friendly" and "de-escalating." Yeltsin knew his place. Putin, who refused to accept subordination to Washington’s diktat, was a Hitler in the making. And now he’s on the march:
"Revenge has been sweet, but when other opportunities present themselves – and this will happen more often now, at least from Putin’s point of view – he will deploy Russian military force or the threat of Russian military force in other neighboring countries. He will take his revenge not only cold but plentifully."
It must be quite interesting to know the future in advance, as
Nostradamus Gessen clearly does: perhaps she is counting on Transdniester deciding to go the way of Crimea, or perhaps a fresh provocation from Georgia will tease the Russian bear into taking another swipe at his tormentors, but this mystic prognostication is flawed by Gessen’s essentialist error. She thinks Putin is a stereotypical tyrant, clearly based on the 1930s German model, but this lazy analysis clearly misreads both the man and the nation he leads.
Russia is acting from weakness, not strength: that has been the case ever since the fall of the Soviet Union and the expansion of NATO to the very gates of Moscow. Gessen never mentions NATO, or its unjustified post-cold war expansion, because that would undermine her narrative depicting Putin as a Hitler-in-waiting, yet it is the key to understanding the distortion of Russo-American relations.
When Gorbachev agreed to the reunification of Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall, he did so on the condition that NATO would not expand eastward. That promise was broken long ago – but Gessen doesn’t see this as aggression. Putin is the only "aggressor" – America, and it’s Western allies are inherently benevolent and therefore anything they do is non-aggressive by definition.
Far from seeking to recreate the old Russian empire, the Russian leader is merely trying to consolidate the country’s Slavic core, reversing the disintegrative process that began in 1989 and has continued to the present day. His strategy, therefore, is necessarily defensive, not offensive – and Washington knows this, even if its journalistic camarilla are clueless on the matter.
However, Gessen, unlike John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and the editorial board of the War Street Journal, has a practical plan, a viable response to Putin, and that is the deployment of "soft power" in pursuit of Russian regime-change, just as we did in Serbia when Slobodan Milosevic was in power:
"After the bombing campaign, which strengthened support for Milosevic and weakened his opponents, the US poured cash into rebuilding the Serbian opposition. The funding was contingent on the disparate opposition groups agreeing to work together and attending regular coordination meetings held in Budapest, Hungary, and run by people whom participants understood to represent the State Department. The plan for the anti-Milosevic revolution was worked out in these meetings down to the smallest detail, including where the leaders of each of the 18 participating political organizations would be if mass protests broke out in Belgrade. They did, in October 2000, and Milosevic didn’t seem to know what hit him."
This is a very Soviet plan: a revolutionary project, directed by a foreign power "down to the smallest detail," aiming to subvert an elected government. Looks like Gessen couldn’t avoid her Russian heritage even if she wanted to. Yet she and many of her fellow expatriates despise their old homeland with a hot passion: Julia Ioffe’s Russia-hating tirades in The New Republic are typical of the genre. They blithely liken Putin to Stalin, ignoring that the latter killed as many as 60 million people, and also blanking out the great progress Russia has made in its long journey to democracy since the fall of Lenin’s heirs.
The Gessen plan, I fear, is already in operation: Gessen is merely describing what has already been occurring after the fact. Millions of US taxpayer dollars went into the forging of the Ukrainian
coup revolution, which were handed out to dubious "NGOs" of one sort or another in pursuit of regime change. This had been going on in Ukraine since well before the soured "Orange Revolution," and will no doubt continue in the Russian case on a much higher level – that is, a higher level of expenditure.
The United States government has been trying to get rid of Vladimir Putin ever since he was elected President the first time: the passage of Russian laws forbidding foreign-funded NGOs from operating was designed to head off Gessen’s preferred strategy at the pass. But there are ways around this, and no one should be in any doubt that the US is taking them: after all, how do you think "Pussy Riot" manages to travel all over Russia posing for Western photographers without any visible means of support? How does a political movement with more fans outside of Russia than inside manage to survive in spite of being held in contempt by most Russians?
The Russia-haters will not rest until Putin is overthrown by a Western-backed "opposition." And they aren’t all that choosy about which forces to back, as the Ukrainian events illustrate: Washington is about to send a cool $1 billion to a government that includes open neo-Nazis in top positions. And when it comes to Russia, there are even darker forces operating in the "opposition," such as Eduard Limonov’s National Bolshevik Party, which manages to combine the mystic evil of Nazism with the "scientific" malevolence of Marxist-Leninism. As leader of the activist base of the primary Russian opposition coalition, dubbed "The Other Russia," I wouldn’t be in the least surprised to discover that Limonov is on Washington’s payroll, along with the rest of the trash who will turn on their own country for a regular paycheck.
As there is no limit to the arrogance and hubris of US policymakers, so nothing is off bounds in their pursuit of global dominance – and collaborating with Ukrainian neo-Nazis is just the beginning.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
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You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.
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