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Obama misfires on Russian 'threat'


Obama at SOTU

In his otherwise excellent State of the Union address last week, President Obama drew rare bipartisan applause when he said:

We’re upholding the principle that bigger nations can’t bully the small – by opposing Russian aggression, supporting Ukraine’s democracy, and reassuring our NATO allies. Last year, as we were doing the hard work of imposing sanctions along with our allies, some suggested that Mr Putin’s aggression was a masterful display of strategy and strength. Well, today, it is America that stands strong and united with our allies, while Russia is isolated, with its economy in tatters.’

Obama was misadvised to speak so boastfully and contemptuously of Mr Putin and Russia.   

The Cold War ended 25 years ago in 1991, yet the desire in certain quarters to weaken Russia has never gone away. I still feel that to write anything in defence of Putin’s Russia is aiding and abetting the enemy. But this is nonsense. Russia now poses no ideological or strategic threat to the West. It is just another country, albeit a very large and nuclear-armed one, trying to make its own way in an unfriendly world. 

To its west and south-west, Russia faces unrelenting hostility and suspicion from the governments of Poland and of former Soviet member republics Georgia, Ukraine, and the Baltic states. By contrast, relations with Finland, Byelorussia, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, the Central Asian post-Soviet states, Mongolia and China are quite normal. 

The shaky Ukrainian successor state has lost Russian-populated Crimea to Russia, for good reasons and almost certainly irretrievably. A largish part of the Russian-speaking formerly rich industrial eastern Ukraine, the famous Donbass region, is controlled by rebel forces demanding human rights and autonomy within a looser federal Ukraine, or political separation from Ukraine and integration into Russia. 

Russia’s role in the conflict has ranged from cross-border humanitarian aid, through reported tacit approval of entry of trained Russian ex-military volunteers, up to alleged covert large-scale military advice, troops and munitions support. This increasingly bitter and bloody fratricidal war defies political settlement so far. This civil war. marked by ongoing human rights abuses, is an open wound largely ignored by the West.  

US-supported President Poroshenko in Kiev blows hot or cold in negotiations, according to whether his forces seem behind or ahead at the time. This could continue, as with the long porous border, war materiel and fighters could keep filtering in from Russia as needed to keep the rebels viable. 

Russia is united behind Putin on this war, and feels it has right on its side. In his Christmas homily, Russia’s most senior Orthodox churchman Patriarch Kirill noted that 2015 is the 1000th anniversary of the death of the holy man Prince Vladimir – the baptiser of Rus – who linked Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and all countries of historical Rus. He said: ‘No temporary trials, no hardships, no external forces can sever these centuries-long spiritual and cultural ties between heirs to the Kiev baptistery.’

Obama should have reflected on these words before putting the boot into Russia. They evoke Tsarist’s Russia’s determined pan-Slav diplomacy and 19th century military pressure in the Balkans, resisted by Turkey and supportive Western powers trying to maintain the status quo of a corrupt and cruel Turkish Empire, suppressing by force southern Slav aspirations to sovereignty. 

Ordinary Russians now feel the same kind of rage as they see television footage of Kiev’s army shelling helpless civilians in cities like Donetsk – with NATO support – as Kiev attempts to retake the rebel-controlled Eastern Ukraine region. Kiev is shelling its own claimed citizens.  

Since last February’s Maidan rising in Kiev – which ousted pro-Russian President Yanukovich – Ukraine joins the ranks of nations with vehemently anti-Russian governments. Many Russians see this as a US-backed coup d’etat, with Kiev seeking to join NATO and to impose a harsh 19th century style centralist Ukrainian nationalism on this linguistically divided, politically weak Soviet successor state. In this, Kiev has had considerable support, overt and covert, from NATO members US and Poland. German and French efforts towards a more balanced diplomacy have been swamped by Washington, London and the East Europeans. 

Moreover I believe evidence will emerge that points to the United States egging on Saudi Arabia to drive down oil prices by flooding the world market is a powerful lever of economic warfare against Russia. This is because the US and Canada now have enough exploitable Arctic oil shale for Europe to survive without Russian oil or gas. Russian export revenues have fallen sharply, and the rouble has lost much of its value. Russia is being forced back towards autarky and a lower living standard. Russians will cope with this, but they will not forget Obama’s rash words.    

Thoughtful political and opinion leaders are resisting the US-NATO’s demonising and bullying Russia. These include Angela Merkel, Francois Hollande, former Soviet President Gorbachev, former Czech President Vaclav Klaus, Henry Kissinger, scholar John Mearsheimer, as well as commentators such as Tom Switzer in Australia.

Yet the Anglosphere’s media and political rhetoric continue to clamour to demonise and insult Putin and his nation. Normandy-format (Ukraine, Russia, Germany, France) quadripartite peace talks are now in the balance, possibly boycotted by Kiev. Lithuania recently released a pamphlet recently advising its citizens what to do if Russia invades. Poland, in a calculated insult, Poland did not invite Putin to commemorations of the 70th anniversary of the liberation by Soviet forces of Auschwitz (Oswiecim, Poland). 

And so the demonisation of Russia continues, strongly kicked along by Obama. I don’t know where it will end. I will continue to argue that Russia should be treated with civility and respect as a normal country – and former indispensable World War II ally – and that Kiev’s irresponsible provocations - supported by goodness knows which elements in NATO – not be further encouraged.

Tony KevinTony Kevin is a former Australian Ambassador to Poland.

Topic tags: Tony Kevin, Russia, Putin, Obama, Ukraine



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Existing comments

I wholly agree with this excellent analysis of Tony's. Yesterday's news reports were particularly troubling, noting that the US is despatching troops to train Ukraine's National Guard ( which includes units like the Azov Battalion - acknowledged as Neo-Nazi even by pro West papers like Britain's Telegraph ). Firstly, it is unclear why they have chosen to support such units over the army - assuming that intervening in someone elses' civil war is seen as a good idea in the first place, especially in the light of all the good countervailing reasons set out by Tony. Morality aside, such escalation is only likely to provoke Russian ire. It sometimes seems to me that some old cold warriors in Washington only have one song.

Justin Glyn | 24 January 2015  

Begs the question, is it being suggested that we should trust Russian democracy, transparency and Putin based on...? Further, I would not agree that relations with neighboring states are cordial, and especially in the case of Central Asian states, has the writer any sources for this? Most would agree that both Ukraine and Russia have been badly governed with corruption centring round energy and resources (just to get started), but not just Ukraine, and how is Putin or Russia any more reliable in negotiations? Prince Vlad from Kiev helped grow the Orthodox Church and send Russia, including the Soviets, on their 'Byzantine' path reflected in orthodoxy, autocracy, nationalism and god like status of Tsars, something Turkey stills struggles with, not helped that the Age of Reason was largely missed by both (thus the mystical paranoia and conspiracy thoeries that abound in both orthodox and moslem culture). There is also the suggestion that Russian media is to be trusted over all other sources? Another conservative, keep the status quo viewpoint that seems to put all responsiblity on western democracies, Russian propaganda does work, or at least acting as a courtier for Tsar Vlad? Remember, respect is earned not given because it is demanded.

Andrew Smith | 25 January 2015  

I also wish to express my agreement with Tony Kevin’s analysis and my thanks to Eureka Street for publishing it. With the coming of the northern spring and the likely escalation of hostilities in the Dombass (and perhaps elsewhere) we need honest reporting and knowledgable commentary more than ever. Our major media routinely reduce Eastern Europe’s complex historical and cultural realities to stark black and white depictions, perpetuating ignorance and fostering a latter day Jingoism. I am dismayed at how readily such sloppy journalism slips (often by the sin of ommission) into what looks like deliberate misinformation, and how so many of my fellow citizens accept this perilous drift without question.

H.A. Willis | 26 January 2015  


Quite fascinated with your comments and would love to hear more. Your present a perspective that seems to be missing from the current discourse. Thanks

Matt Casey | 28 January 2015  

I beg to differ to Tony's analysis and the support given by earlier commentators .I do agree with Andrew Smith. While I agree that Obama's comments were irresponsible ,it must be recognised that Russia has for centuries enforced its domination of the region in dispute , often militarily as well as by transmigration of Russians into the disputed regions . We forget that in indigenous inhabitants have their own cultures and history. Many Russians moved into the Donbas region during the Soviet era under Stalin, therefore there is no historical basis for their wish to secede from Ukraine .Russia has a strong distrust of the west, as the Soviets suffered far worse than any other allied nation during the "Great Patriotic War (World War Two) .There is little doubt in my mind that the expansion eastwards by NATO is deeply disturbing to the Russian politicians and Military . I can understand the hostility of some of the former soviet vassal states to Russian moves in Ukraine and the Crimea. There are still many people who remember the brutal Soviet Occupation. It will take a generation for this attitude to change. I conclude that respect is required on all sides.

Gavin O'Brien | 28 January 2015  

US seems to be creating countries where it can export its arm. It's military economy. EU enjoys it. Eastern Europe enjoys it. The middle east enjoys it tho they also buy from Russia and Europe. Then why did US stop France selling its ship to Russia. Well, France sucks. US oil company is still doing good business with Russia. Russia is also doing business with US in some ways. "U.S. Company Signs $1 Billion Deal For Russian Rocket Engines"

Min | 28 January 2015  

Two points please. First, I try to read all the agency reports before forming a view on events in this war: BBC, Reuters, Deutche Welle, AlJazeeera, Tass.ru (English). Second, of course there are deep historical wounds on both sides between Russia and the former East European satellites. I am not saying Russian conduct is or has been perfect. But 1991 was the time to bury the hatchets. Now 24 years later a new generation of E European Russia - haters seem to be digging them up again. This will end badly unless wiser counsels in West prevail. I cannot fault current Russian policy as stated by Putin& Lavrov. It is measured, clear and I believe broadly honest. Kiev on the other hand has been erratic, at times treacherous, and irresponsible in its words and actions over the past year. It's time for major NATO members to review their objectives and tactics in Ukraine.

Tony Kevin | 28 January 2015  

Is Tony Kevin aware of how the very large chunk of Europe lived during those years of Occupation, the control, the tortures, the hundreds of millions deported to Siberia to die there. Thatš why in countries like my parentš country, Latvia, the population is 50% Russian. It is a concern, that these Russians in all the once Soviet occupied countries could call for Putin to help them as he has helped those Russians in the Ukraine. I am writing from Latvia.

Vineta | 28 January 2015  

I am disappointed in Tony Kevins comments that 91 was 'the time to bury the hatchets'implying previously Soviet occupied countries should forget the devastating cruelties, the tortures, the massive deportations of millions to work camps in Siberia where old people women and children were allso sent to work till they died. Did anyone tell the Jews to forgive and forget Auchwitz? It is not about revenge, it is aout acknowledgement of what happened, ensuring it never happens again.

Vineta | 28 January 2015  

I am curious to know what Mr Kevin would make of the public inquiry into the murder of the former FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko, currently under way in London.

Michael Walsh | 28 January 2015  

I thought with first-hand experience as a former Australian Ambassador to Poland –a country which suffered enormously during the Soviet occupation and a Soviet-led communist regime, Tony Kevin could have had a more balanced view about Russia. But this appeasement reminded me about a professor from Cambridge, England, whom I met in Moscow more than ten years ago: “Our sacred duty is teaching the Russian people how to laugh.” I once lived under a communist regime and only the freedom I now inherit in democratic countries can make laugh again. “All the way with VVP” (Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin) and we will all be ended in Siberia. Russia’s apologists, therefore, must not advance unchallenged. Toan Nguyen.

Toan Nguyen | 29 January 2015  

Disgusting apologetics for Russian belligerence and Imperialism.

Adrian | 30 January 2015  

Tony is right. I like Obama, but his ill-advised notion that Russia poses any threat to the West is ludicrous. As an history Uni graduate, I believe the post Soviet breakup of the region, with little if any consultation of its inhabitants by the West, was thoughtless and stupid. The Crimea should have remained part of Russia. That is what Crimeans wanted. The West has so much to answer for in this troubled world. Putin has more grey matter than OUR current PM! Not that it would take much.

Louw | 30 January 2015  

The hatred of Russia in Eastern Europe is perfectly justified and understandable. It is the hatred a victim of rape might have for her assailant. This defence of Russian bumptiousness is vile. The Christian left really are the communists I had always suspected. They now take no trouble to hide it.

Adrian | 30 January 2015  

I believe Tony's insight into Russia's current difficult relationship with the West is quite realistic in terms of great power politics. Over the last two centuries. Russia has suffered terribly over successive invasions by Napoleon and Germany and has good reason to ensure that its border states remain friendly for political and economic reasons. We should remind ourselves that Hitler's rise to power and the World War that followed, could be traced back to the harsh war reparations imposed on Germany by the victorious allies after W.W.1. Germany was not given the opportunity to recover economically after the war. Is the West treating Russia in the same way with its severe economic sanctions ensuring that the Russian people will look up to Putin more and more as their saviour?

Paul Stinear | 01 February 2015  

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