Staunton, August 27 – After 20 years of assuming that Russia wanted to join the rest of the world and play by the rules (an assumption that was not without its own problems) many in the West now are governed by the opposite assumption: that Russia is capable of anything and therefore must be opposed, according to Yevgeny Gontmakher.
While Russians who now “spit on” Europeans may feel good about that, Gontmakher says, this shift creates a situation that is potentially extremely dangerous precisely because what Moscow has done and is doing in Ukraine touches the deepest beliefs that Europeans and Americans had assumed were beyond challenge.
For the last two decades, the Moscow commentator says, most Europeans focused primarily on the internal affairs of their own countries and assumed that Russia slowly but inevitably was going to do the same and that Moscow accepted its underlying values of “stability, predictability, and willingness to compromise.”
As a result and until this past spring, Europeans generally passed over in silence over the gradual reduction in civic freedoms in Russia, Vladimir Putin’s “harsh rhetoric” as in his Munich speech, and Russia’s “armed clarification of relations with Georgia” in 2008. Those were treated as something Europeans could safely ignore.
But the Crimean Anschluss changed all that, precisely because it happened not via military conquest but rather in the remarkably peaceful way that it did, Gontmakher insists. That had the effect of raising the spectre that similar changes in borders could happen in Europe regarding Catalonia, Scotland and elsewhere.
“The most important part of the European mentality is the unwillingness to change the existing rules of public life. The times of revolution and shifts in borders are for our Western neighbors something of the distant past which cannot be repeated,” the Russian commentator argues.
Now, however, thanks to Russia’s actions in Ukraine, Europeans are being forced to focus on foreign affairs and to think what had been for them the unthinkable. “Of course,” Gontmakher says, “one can only laugh over the fears of Estonians and Latvians concerning a hypothetical invasion of them by Russian tanks.”
“But,” the Moscow commentator says, “many residents of ‘old Europe’ sincerely believe in this.” Having thought that Russia had become like them, they now fear that it is capable of anything. “this is already a very serious trend, which must not fail to worry us because of what it means for relations between Russia and Europe now and in the future.
Russians can bleat on about how “Russia is not Europe,” he continues, “but they must understand that in the contemporary world the lines of division begin to pass not between different models of states (from the democratic to the authoritarian) but between the security of life of a resident and that which the Russian criminal world calls ‘a life without rules.’”
“A typical European cannot imagine” that basic communal services won’t work or that armed men will prowl the streets and steal anything they want (Gontmakher goes on saying that he thinks that “the resident of a Chinese city cannot imagine this either.”) But when Europeans look at what is happening in eastern Ukraine, they see that such things can happen and not far away.
To the extent that they draw conclusions that are too radical with regard to what Russia is now in fact capable of, Europeans will not find it possible to cooperate with Russians against what Gontmakher says is the common enemy of Islamist extremism. And that will be yet another tragedy arising from what Vladimir Putin has done in Ukraine.