It may have opted out of the Eurovision Song Contest, but the USSR nevertheless competed in competitions of a more sporting bent during the Cold War, mining the athletic riches available in the countries that had been involuntarily absorbed into the sprawling Soviet Union. The national football team of the USSR had a vast geographical pool of talent to draw from in this period and made use of it. Imagine if the England national team had chosen to call upon players from across the British Empire in the pre-War era and label all of them Englishmen; chances are the World Cup might have fallen into English hands a good deal earlier than 1966. The Soviets essentially did just that and were eventually rewarded with the inaugural European Championships in 1960, as well as ending runners-up on three other occasions; in the World Cup, the team’s best finish was the semi-final loss to West Germany in ’66. On the domestic front, Iron Curtain countries competed in the club competitions of the European Cup, UEFA Cup and Cup Winners’ Cup throughout the tournaments’ formative years. Whenever a team such as Dynamo Kiev played an English side, they were referred to as a ‘Russian club’, just as the likes of Belarus gymnast Olga Korbut was referred to as a ‘Russian athlete’ when scooping multiple gold medals at the 1972 Olympics.
The existential crisis many Russians experienced as former Soviet states declared independence from their ex-masters in the 1990s was exacerbated by the symbolic blow of the expansive landmass that had been known as home shrinking back to merely Russian soil. Not unlike the demoralising loss of international prestige felt by Brits as one overseas colony after another lowered the Union Jack during the 1950s and 60s, Russians took the reduction of territory personally; the chaotic drop in the standard of living at home as Yeltsin sought to transform the Russian economy to a free-market Western model overnight and facilitated the sudden rise of the multi-millionaire Oligarch in the process hardly helped matters. Therefore, when the old soak was succeeded by a former KGB colonel who’d earned his spurs in East Germany, a man determined to ‘make Russia great again’, it was no great surprise that the Russian people responded favourably to the reincarnation of the Strong Leader so admired in cultures beyond the West.
Putin flexing his macho muscles has cleverly tapped into the grievance of many Russians over the independence of the old Soviet republics; when Ukraine first tentatively sought to join NATO in 2008, Vlad made it clear he didn’t approve, and following Ukraine’s so-called ‘Revolution of Dignity’ in 2014, Putin effectively annexed Crimea from Ukraine as a means of expressing his disapproval. The annexation was internationally condemned, though other than the token sanctions imposed by the UN and the EU, little else was done by those who condemned it. Putin has repeatedly emphasised he has no interest in further incursions into Ukrainian territory, yet with an estimated 100,000 Russian troops camped out on the border and threatening talk emanating from Moscow whenever Ukraine expresses its desire to be welcomed into the NATO family, it’s no wonder the Ukrainian Government has been more than happy to accept military assistance from Western nations, just to be on the safe side. Putin’s response is to regard any Western presence anywhere near Crimea as a sign of ‘NATO expansion’.
The ‘NATO expansion’ into Eastern Europe basically translates as nations with a history of being subjugated by Russia understandably seeking protection from history repeating itself; the likes of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Poland know that being members of NATO means any aggressive actions on the part of their volatile neighbour will result in their newfound military partners running to their aid – in theory, anyway. Whichever way Russian eyes view the move, this is the reality of it; Ukraine still wants to join the club, something that Mr Putin sees as ‘NATO expansion’. Some of the language that has been aired in recent months is straight out of some dusty old Cold War manual; Dmitry Kiselyov, the media personality-cum-propagandist known as ‘Putin’s mouthpiece’, issued a threat against the US sticking its nose into Ukrainian affairs, promising that Russian warheads could reduce America to ‘radioactive ash’. At the moment, however, Russia is certainly in a strong position to issue such melodramatic threats, sensing the weakness of the West when led by such an ineffective patsy as Joe Biden.
Sleepy Joe held a press conference this week in which he stated Russia would pay ‘a serious and dear price’ for invading Ukraine, yet underlined the toothless response of the West towards Putin’s regime by adding the caveat that ‘a minor incursion’ might be treated differently to a full-on invasion. One wonders how far Russian troops have to encroach onto Ukrainian soil before a minor incursion is rebranded an invasion, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky wasn’t impressed by Biden’s comments about minor incursions, tweeting ‘There are no minor incursions, just as there are no minor casualties and little grief from the loss of loved ones.’ Tellingly, the US President’s characteristically incoherent statement was later altered by White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki once Joe had been put back to bed, declaring any Russian military forces moving across the Ukrainian border would be instantly interpreted as a renewed invasion, met with a ‘swift, severe and united response from the United States and our Allies’.
The US claims that Russian Intelligence has been engaged in recruiting current and former members of the Ukrainian Government to take over as a puppet administration in the event of an invasion, though with so much rumour and propaganda circling this story, it’s hard to differentiate between truth and speculation. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has this week met with foreign ministers from France, Germany and the UK in Berlin to co-ordinate strategy should Russia do what the West seemingly expects it to, though if that amounts to a ‘minor incursion’ the Western strategy probably won’t have much of an impact. Even before the meeting with Blinken, the British Government had announced it was providing Ukraine with extra troops for training purposes, whilst both Denmark and Spain are sending warships to the Black Sea. This willy-waving was a response to the unveiling of plans for Russian naval drills featuring over 60 aircraft and more than 140 warships, as though Putin was intending to stage some sort of Mayday Parade throwback on the Ukraine border. Any sign of a peaceful resolution via talks between Blinken and his Russian counterpart in Geneva today has so far been drenched in the ambiguous diplomatic description of ‘open and useful’.
As with China’s stealthy economic and cultural infiltration of Western governments and institutions, Vladimir Putin is smart enough to exploit the West’s current crisis of confidence and comparative weakness as it allows itself to be torn apart by a combination of self-loathing and ideological polarity; he’s seeing how far he can push the West before provoking a more serious response which he evidently doubts will come, though to be fair, he’s been doing that for most of his reign and has got away with it time and time again. Even if his tactics continue to find favour with a large section of the Russian public, the unlimited powers that come with his persona as a Strong Leader also allow him to crush opposition and silence his critics – often with a nice cup of tea. Biden is little more than the saccharin to Putin’s polonium. From the perspective of a man raised in a Soviet Empire that spanned a landmass of 22,402,200 square km and housed 293 million people in eleven time zones, the West has no business in the East; to him, Eurasia is Russian and always will be. And, to paraphrase the title of this post, those are the bare facts.
© The Editor