Vladimir the Great, and the Ukrainian arena

Ghassan Charbel

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The recent developments are not just about the Ukraine itself, but they rather involve additional far-reaching and more dangerous dimensions. Russia feels obliged to settle its scores at the right time, and that right time is marked by the presence of an exceptional leader who is capable of leading his nation at dangerous historical junctures. Yet again, the issue is not solely that of the Ukraine as a country, but it is related to an old European dream of subjugating Russia and diminishing its prestige, a dream to force Russia - which lies beneath its snow - to open up its files, and adopt the prescriptions of the West, given that the latter proclaimed itself as the winner. We are witnessing a cultural duel that is mixing up weapons, fears, interests, and greed-obsessed roles.

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On its part, the Ukraine is a country afflicted by a geographical curse, as one part of its people is aspiring to join the European garden, leaving behind the Russian steppe to its natives, while another part believes in a common and mutual destiny with Mother Russia considering both to be ‘one people in two countries’. Geography inflicts injustice, and the Ukraine is fully aware of that curse, like several other world countries are.

It is not just about the Ukraine, but it is a chance to undermine the image of Biden’s United States, which has already been somewhat undermined when American troops left Afghanistan. It is a chance to put the US to a test it probably cannot pass, since Washington is already preoccupied with confronting the Chinese competitor, and probably would not risk waging a world war for the sake of the Ukraine.

All Western threats warn of dire consequences if Russian troops storm the Ukraine, indicating economic and diplomatic sanctions, but the Tzar of Moscow is not afraid, particularly since he might manage to topple the Ukrainian government from inside without having to invade the country. He is testing the nerves of leaders of the West and NATO generals through moving his border troops and stirring fears, then he comes out with difficult conditions on the table. It looks as if he is attempting to deprive the NATO member states from the gains they reaped following the collapse of the Soviet Union. He even demands that they return to their positions prior to that historical transition, which they had trespassed thinking that Russia has become defenseless.

However, the game is not that exciting as it used to be, because recurrent victories strip them of their festive flavor, and the lack of risk erases the euphoria of the golden prize. Throughout this vast and spacious land area there isn’t any single fearful rival or worrying ally, as if one goes to a duel with himself and wins the cup every time, surrounded by ceremonial clapping and official smiles.

The entire game is under control, and the door to surprises is tightly sealed, as no one has the guts to defy the Constitution, and all heads bow without reluctance, including the ministers, MPs, province governors, army generals with their medals, and the barons of business institutions with their office heads. Reports indicate that no one would raise a finger to warn or protest, and the harmful grass is trimmed early on before it starts to grow. In the same vein, media outlets perform according to an already preset editorial line, and the same applies to social media platforms. Equally, the opposition is stripped of all its potence, and reduced to a ceremonial façade, like a Christmas tree, to appease the West and human rights trade houses. To sum up, when someone becomes the one and only uncontested leader, the Constitution will be customized to become the manager of his office affairs.

It is such a deep and worrying silence that prevails there, and no one would dare think of residing in the Kremlin, whose current resident has an open-ended stay, especially as constitutional presidential terms turn to nominal procedures under such a leadership. However, there is just one rival that can never be beaten or tamed; namely, age, as the Tzar’s years are approaching seven decades by next year. Age is the only subject that would never bow to the will of the Tzar.

To the Russian people, the last 10 days of each year recall bitter memories, not just as a reminder to anyone of the passage of lifetime, but because they evoke all kinds of remembrances. It was at this time of the year three decades ago when Michael Gorbachev was toppled – along with the entire Soviet Union. That collapse bore the signature of Boris Yeltsin and the then emerging new leaders of separatist republics, which altogether constituted the grandest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century, and the historical Mother Russia has been defeated, albeit under the name of the Soviet Union.

It is not easy for the then 39-year-old young man to wake up to the fact of becoming orphaned, as his country has lost its compass; the very same country that crushed Napoleon Bonaparte and his army, keeping some of his debased cannons at the Kremlin Garden, and the very same country that obliterated a mad European man named Adolf Hitler, thwarting his Wehrmacht away from the gates of Moscow as a heavily wounded wolf, then chasing that wolf back to its own den, thereby altering the face of Europe.
Sometimes he is preoccupied by worrying thoughts, such as summoning the old Gorbachev and demanding him to offer a public apology to the peoples of the former Soviet Union regarding the great downfall. He probably also considers exiling the old man after his apology to Siberia, to let his numbered days freeze like the walls of his dungeon. He chuckles to himself a bit, thinking: “Time cannot be reversed.” He then imagines what Gorbachev would say to Comrade Joseph Stalin if the two meet up in the afterlife? He grins, as the scent of the glorious seventies stirs these obscure images in his mind.

His physical well-being cannot conceal the wounds of the soul, which are numerous. Vladimir Putin was near to the former Berlin Wall as it collapsed. Just before that scene he still thought that the KGB – with which he was affiliated – would never sleep on such events or be overtaken by them. He still had the illusion that the Soviet Union was born not only to survive, but also to win. However, the comrades of eastern Europe betrayed the years of brotherhood between the nations, just as they relinquished the Warsaw Pact.

Those former comrades have jumped from the Soviet train and rushed to the Western dream. The turmoil was still pregnant with several unpleasant surprises, as each of the former Soviet republics also betrayed the common communist cause and made use of the very first chance to declare independence. All the comrades have washed their hands off the party of Lenin, considering their ties with the former Soviet security apparatuses a stain of shame that cannot be purified. Afterwards, all those who for decades used to clap their hands ceremonially for the Communist Party and its Secretary General confined their ambitions to attempting to appease the US ambassador who, in turn, wore the cloak of a guru and a mentor who gives advice and warning and has the final say on things, showing everyone the path out of this rubble.

There are still several other wounds that obsess the soul of that former KGB agent, as when the then West German Republic offered aid to Russia in exchange for Moscow’s abandonment of the German Democratic Republic. Such events of humiliation run deep inside him, as they equate a scene of someone selling his own children. Further on, the industrial countries promised aid to Russia, but in return they demand reforms, and the Soviet ruble succumbed, as did the entire country. The Red Army officers were selling their uniforms and military medals for a handful of dollars. However, the most agonizing memory was that of splitting the Slavic bloc that included Russia, Belarus, and the Ukraine.

Putin has already punished the Ukraine and Georgia by annexing parts of their territory, and the invasion of the Crimean Peninsula is still green in our minds. However, the current game entails an admission by the West that Russia has regained its vital sphere, and demanding Europe to pledge not to have any military presence within that sphere. It is a message to the Ukraine, all the neighboring countries of Russia, as well as the West.

The current Tzar of Moscow has expanded his duel arena, letting it include the Ukraine, Syria, and some parts of Africa, relying on the Russian Army, experts, or the mercenary Wagner Group. Three decades following the great downfall, the owner of the revenge project is counting his successes. He is not worried by the current conditions, but by how history will remember him! Will he be regarded as an equal to Peter the Great or Empress Catherine the Second? What would Stalin say to him in the afterlife?

This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.

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Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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