Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump moves Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton's chair during the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner at Waldorf Astoria Oct. 20in New York. / AFP PHOTO / Brendan Smialowski
Photo by AFP
Former car wash attendant and later warlord Arsen Pavlov, better known by his nom de guerre Motorola, was recently blown up in his apartment building in Donetsk by persons unknown. Separatists naturally accuse Kyiv, even though in the past they had been known to do away with each other in various turf wars.
Nor can the possibility be dismissed that Pavlov was killed by his own people, i.e., the Russians. Although he has been called by foreign media outlets such as CNN a separatist leader, he was a Russian citizen, part of a shadowy band of Russian nationalists and military operatives who crossed into Eastern Ukraine in 2014 to foment separatism. The fact that execrable State Duma member Vitaly Milonov proposed to name a St. Petersburg school after Pavlov doesn’t absolve the Russians. First of all, many Red Army commanders, who were Motorola’s real precursors, were quietly exterminated by the Cheka once the Russian Civil War was over, had their names then given to cities, collective farms and factories. Secondly, even though at one point there were lots of Russian irregulars fighting in Eastern Ukraine, most of them have been sent home or killed - once again, by persons unknown.
Be that as it may, there have been recent developments around Ukraine, including the first summit meeting within the Normandy format in over a year. The conflict may be entering a new stage and it is probably closely related to the US presidential election. In particular, Vladimir Putin may have decided that his guy Donald Trump - called his puppet by Hillary Clinton at the last presidential debate - is a goner. Putin will have to live with Clinton and, as she moves back into the White House, he may make a few goodwill gestures.
It will never be anything more than pretense, certainly in the case of Ukraine. The truth is that Russia will never really acquiesce to the loss of Ukraine. Russia is fundamentally an imperial state. Its national ideology, history and even raison d’etre are territorial expansion. The Grand Duchy of Moscow began expanding in the 1450s and until the start of World War I it grew at an average pace of 3 square kilometers an hour. That’s a continuous land grab that extended to all points of the compass twenty four hours a day every day, for nearly five hundred years.
Unlike many other empires that were proud of their imperial project, Russia always cast itself as a victim of other nations’ aggression. It was always peaceful and peace-loving and always invaded by hostile forces, prompting it to defend itself. Russia’s meddling in Europe prior to Napoleon’s invasion was conveniently forgotten, as were the Russian role in unleashing World War I and the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact which started World War II. Today, Russians sincerely believe that their confrontation with the West was provoked by NATO’s expansion and that the Kyiv Maidan was was run from Washington specifically to harm Russia. Typically enough, NATO aggression against Russia has so far resulted in a Russian land grab in Crimea.
While single-mindedly focused on expansion, Russia paid far less attention to settling and improving the territory it already held. On the contrary, an attempt early in the 20th century to turn inward and develop its economy, triggered a horrendous reaction. While the Bolsheviks criticized czarist imperialism, they proposed what in reality was an even more massive expansionist project: to turn the entire world into a single Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, which the ultimate worldwide victory of communism was supposed to create.
Having failed to trigger a world revolution, Stalin returned to a more traditional Russian imperialist expansion. The communists pushed Moscow’s reach beyond anything the czars had been able to do, but they also weakened the country, turning it into a technological, military and cultural backwaters and laying the foundations for the collapse of the Communist Empire in 1989-90.
The fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the Soviet Union represented the worst rollback for Muscovy in its history. Most Russians found hard to accept it. They also proved incapable of shifting toward cultivating their own garden, despite the fabulous oil wealth that rained on them during the first decade and a half of the 21st century. Moreover, they took their sudden wealth as a sign that Russia needs to go back to its age-old mission of territorial expansion. They loved it when Crimea was annexed and welcome their country’s military involvement in Syria. Monuments are being built to Ivan the Terrible and Stalin, the men who laid the groundwork for Russia’s geographic greatness while devastating its economy and depopulating the country.
Putin declared patriotism Russia’s national idea - which is understood as unconditional support for territorial expansion.
Ukraine is a geographic, political, cultural and psychological foundation of the Russian empire. Either with Putin as its president or without him, Russia will be on the lookout for a chance to reconquer or completely dominate Ukraine.
In the current US elections Putin has gone to bat for Donald Trump. He is convinced that he could manipulate the ignorant narcissistic lout and get him to recognize Russia’s special interests in Ukraine as well as everywhere else on the post-Soviet space.
So far, Trump has not disappointed. He continues to express admiration for Putin as a strong and effective leader, and has surrounded himself with traitors who are feeding him misinformation directly from the FSB and the Kremlin. Even during his last debate, Trump refused to disavow his connection to Moscow. Unlike John Le Carre’s Cold War-era spy novels, Trump quite openly positions himself as a Moscow stooge - a stance that doesn't seem to faze his flag-waving followers.
Alas, surefire revelations about Hillary Clinton’s iniquities obtained by hacking various US email servers have failed to give a boost to Trump. Not that they weren’t damaging, but Trump completely negated their effect by keeping his own bloopers in the headlines.
As usual, Putin failed to think through the consequences of his actions: not only has he been caught hacking American political institutions and trying to influence US elections, but he also earned the emnity of the winning candidate. That’s why he may change his original plan to wreak havoc in the final months of Obama’s presidency and will try instead to propitiate Hillary by appearing to be more cooperative.
This has been a crazy election. There have been plenty of surprises and numerous attempts to predict how things would turn out have been frustrated. Trump has been given up for dead but in the two weeks that are still left before Nov. 8 everything can happen. Putin may have to adjust his policies once more.
Clinton has at times sounded hawkish and as president she might be called upon to demonstrate her toughness. But if we know anything about her is that she is a pragmatist and often changes her stance on important issues.
She'll be facing a very difficult time at home, with the insane fringe of Trump supporters - a surprisingly numerous group, it turns out - in an open rebellion against Washington and her personally. Trump is likely to add to her difficulties if he doesn’t accept the result of the election and continue to claim that it was rigged. She would have to address domestic concerns before she could respond to challenges abroad. If Putin does start out cooperating, she might take the bait and end up sacrificing Ukraine to domestic political expediency.
On the other hand, a Trump victory, while unlikely, could turn into Putin’s worst nightmare. Trump is extremely quarrelsome and has fought with everyone he has been dealing with - his partners, suppliers, clients, wives and beauty pageant contestants. He and Putin suffer from weird inferiority complexes, they're brittle, vengeful and petty while also pretending to be dominant alpha males. That's a recipe for a massive falling-out.
If Trump wins, Putin will likely push on Ukraine and perhaps the Baltics too far too fast and he may end up antagonizing Trump. Trump the businessman would have sued Putin. Trump the president of the United States might start a nuclear war.