The bear has a sore head and it is on the loose, out of its pit. Anyone who doubts bear baiting is cruel only has to see the suffering of Mr. Putin through his torment at the hands of Western powers. NATO has crept up to Mother Russia’s borders, the West arbitrarily pushed for Kosovan independence, through which it broke from Serbia – Russia’s ally. The United States invaded the sovereign state of Iraq (ruled by a brutal psychopath), ignoring Russian opposition. The West encouraged a crony capitalism to rise from the ruins of the Soviet Empire, allowing the hated oligarchs to prosper. Russia is smarting and now it is flexing its muscles. The Crimean crisis is of course about protecting a Naval base and pipelines, it is about extending its sphere of influence, it is about protecting Russian speakers in the Crimea, but it is also about Russian pride, even Russian hurt pride.
This outlook may seem like Russian paranoia to those of us in the West, but it could still be a genuinely-held world-view and it seems this is perhaps how the world does look and feel to Putin and his allies. I am sure there are many liberal Russians who would not see things this way. It does seem the case though that the rising tensions between the West and Russia are at root to do with a failure to understand each other.
It also seems difficult for the West to understand why the Crimean people should vote in a referendum to join Russia (having arbitrarily been given away to the Ukraine by Krushchev) and thereby avoid closer links with the apparently morally-good European Union. However, looked at dispassionately, the West might have offered material wealth, but it also offers spiritual poverty. The conservative society of Eastern and Southern Ukraine is presented with a liberal-individualist culture in Wetern Europe manifested through abortion on demand, same-sex marriage, secularism and materialism – is that really such an appealing culture to join?
The Slavic world has not done well out of contact with the West. Before the Napoleonic Wars, Russia was an agrarian society based around the institutions of Monarchy and Church. Invasion by France woke Russia up to its technological backwardness. It therefore embarked upon a programme of modernisation and industrialisation, with all the ugliness and brutalisation that industrialisation brings. We know in the West that industrialisation can lead to the loss of something precious – one only needs to think of Ruskin, Carlyle, the Romantic poets and the Distributists to hear the literary mourning for a lost world. There is a constant theme in our men of letters that a better world has been cast away for riches. Yes we have an easier life physically in the industrialised West, but are we not poorer emotionally and spiritually? Church attendance is down, marriages are fewer and break more often, teenage-pregnancy rates are high, employees often suffer mentally (stress, nervous breakdowns) from the demands made of them by corporate employers. What we have cast aside - the hard work of a traditional, agrarian life - might even have been the praxis leading to virtue. The Russians would understand that.
Hyper-modernisation in Russia went hand-in-hand with a sort of hyper-Enlightenment. Bolshevism reared its ugly head, throwing off the Church and tradition by taking the ideas of the Enlightenment to their inevitable conclusion – political violence and atheist values. Thus, while the West preserved the Church and its political institutions, Russia took the pseudo-science of Enlightenment theory seriously and plunged into bloody revolution, followed by brutal oppression by an atheist regime.
Russia as the Soviet Union oppressed its own people and its subject peoples brutally. People disappeared to the Gulag for opposing a regime that can only be regarded as evil, particularly under Joseph Stalin. Whole peoples were moved to different locations, as a means of undermining the concept of nation that binds us together. The West remained as a beacon of hope for many in that dark time.
The Cold War saw the West win, not only because of its economic strength, but because there was still virtue residing in its culture, handed down by its heritage – a heritage Russia had violently forsaken. However, during the latter part of the Twentieth Century the West became more and more detached from its own cultural values and developed a liberal-individualist anti-culture. Liberal individualism would not have defeated Nazism and neither did it win the Cold War.
A financially and morally bankrupt Russian Empire disintegrated in the 1990s. The West did not think it necessary to offer its heritage of political tradition and cultural values; rather, it introduced Russia to capitalism unlimited by values and cultural norms that still applied (however diminished) in the West. The hated Russian oligarchs prospered. Once again Russia was brought into contact with the worst aspects of Western culture. Selfishness and materialism, not tradition and religion, were seen as the alternative to Socialism.
The West might see itself as a bastion of the rule of law and political freedom. To Russians it probably looks like the preacher of selfishness, licentiousness and materialism. Western Europe was once built upon Church and Monarchy, now it appears to have subsided into moral turpitude. The only value that matters is individual freedom or rather selfish licence unconstrained by values or taboos. That at least is probably how we look to the Slavic world.
Of course it is difficult really to imagine how we look to others, if not impossible. Notwithstanding that, we must at least feel some unease at simply proselytising the post-Soviet world into value-less liberal-individualism. It really is a rather corrosive world-view and the Slavs, with their own traumatic history of destructive atheism and an all-powerful, oppressive State can probably see that.
Yet in the West we still presume that our earlier moral integrity means that even today, what we do is right because we are the ones doing it. Thus, invading Iraq or supporting the breaking away of Kosovo is the morally right thing to do, but for Russia to annex Crimea or for the Crimeans to choose to leave the Ukraine is wrong. Well perhaps it is wrong and certainly Russia is signed up to respect the Ukraine’s borders as part of the deal on nuclear weapons. The West is therefore on relatively firm legal ground in opposing the annexation and it is right to be concerned about the fate of the minority Tartar people. However, now that the modern West has descended into a value-less liberalism it is not in a position to preach to others. So perhaps it would be less hypocritical to see this international crisis as a battle to extend spheres of influence on the part of the West as much as the East, rather than trying to claim the moral high ground.