Staunton, April 2 – Neither Russian elites nor the Russian people accepted the demise of the USSR and occasionally signaled that throughout the Yeltsin period, according to commentator Sergey Shelin. But in every case, the West preferred not to take notice of that reality and only now with Vladimir Putin’s actions is being forced to deal with it.
According to the Rosbalt blogger, “the difference between today’s great power policy and that which was conducted over the preceding 23 years is only the difference between thoughts openly expressed” and acted upon “and those that remain thoughts alone.”
The recent declaration of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation that it had been responsible for the adoption of a Duma measure on 15 March 1996, denouncing the 1 December 1991 Belovezhskaya accords that led to the demise of the USSR, is a clear indication of that reality, Shelin says.
The 1996 resolution was passed because “the then-deputies themselves started from the proposition that no one would take their verdict” on Belovezhskaya “seriously.” And no one did. Boris Yeltsin’s Kremlin said that this was the action of “irresponsible people” and irrelevant. And diplomats and leaders in the West were quite prepared to accept that judgment.
But that was a mistake, Shelin continues, and would have been obvious to all if people had been paying closer attention to what even Yeltsin was doing. Even before the March 1996 resolution, he made Yevgeny Primakov, foreign minister “the principle supporter of the Soviet policy of opposing the West.”
“Many then mistakenly concluded that this was only a game directed at a domestic audience,” the Rosbalt writer says. They also ignored the 1997 treaty about the Union of Belarus and Russia and the 1999 decision of Yeltsin and Alyaksandr Lukashenka to rename that grouping “a Union state.”
Moreover, in November 1999, Yeltsin himself delivered a speech in Istanbul “extremely similar in content to the Munich speech of Vladimir Putin. And in December 1999, Yeltsin in Beijing “threatened America from there with Russian nuclear rockets.”
To be sure, Shelin says, “at that time, the Americans and the Europeans preferred to interpret all these threats as something ritualistic.” And they even welcomed Vladimir Putin’s coming to power with a certain relief, confident that he would be an even more committed “Westernizer and extraordinarily constructive partner.”
As a result, “the seriousness of [Putin’s] great power intentions was recognized only gradually and always with a delay,” the Rosbalt blogger continues.
“Already in the mid-1990s,” Shelin says, “it had become obvious” that a significant portion of Russia’s “ruling class” and “the majority of ordinary Russians” had “refused to recognize the fact of the liquidation of the Soviet Union.” More than that, he says, “in the minds of people, the Soviet Union as it were continued to exist.”
Some Westerners did understand, Shelin says. One Western diplomat said of his opposite numbers in the Russian foreign ministry: “They are not patriots of Russia! They are patriots of the USSR!” And that reality meant that they interpreted what the West did the way the Soviet leadership would have rather than the way a truly new Russian one might have.
Thus, for such people in Russia, the expansion of NATO eastward was “incomparably more terrible than any challenges from the south or the east,” precisely because the latter challenges had been viewed in Soviet times “as second-order ones,” while the threat from NATO was always primary.
Why did the attachment to the Soviet Union continue? One reason, Shelin suggests, is that no other empire in the 20th century collapsed so quickly and easily and on the supposed basis of the agreement of its constituent parts. But “to say that in 1991, the public opinion of Russia was ready for the collapse of the USSR is simply laughable.”
Two years before that, no one thought that such a thing was possible, he points out, and consequently what has been presented by some as “an historical inevitability” was a complete “political surprise” to many Russians and thus interpreted by them as the act of evil forces behind the scenes.
After an initial shock of two or three years, Shelin continues, Russian society began to think and even to say that “the divorce” of 1991 was not “real” and that steps must be taken to reverse the collapse of the empire. This “parallel world” existed even under Yeltsin, he says. Now, it has reemerged, and its strength reflects the fact that such views never really went away.