There's a surreal quality to the conversations you have traveling through Central and Eastern Europe these days. A young Czech journalist eagerly tells me over breakfast in Prague of conversations his grandmother had with him when he was a young boy. "Never trust Russian rulers," she said, "always have a valid passport, know to bury your jewellery in the forest, and if have you have family and potatoes you can get by." Prior to the Olympics in Sochi, a senior East European official told me three things keep him awake at night: the Russians, the Russians, and the Russians. From wiki leaks we know that some U.S. officials had thought some East European leaders paranoid. That was pre-Crimea.
If you live in Russia's neighbourhood, no wonder you're concerned. Russia invaded Georgia a half dozen years ago. Estonia was massively cyber attacked in 2007, with the pro-Putin youth group Nashi taking credit for an assault that plunged Estonia's parliament, media, and banks into disarray. Through black money and political and media pressure and manipulation, Bulgaria -- a member of NATO and the European Union -- has become in effect a wholly owned Kremlin subsidiary. Then there was the case earlier this month when Russia's deputy prime minister threatened to bomb another EU and NATO member, Romania. That was the taunt in any case of Dimitry Rogozin, one of the Russian officials sanctioned by the EU and U.S. after Moscow's annexation of Crimea. Angry over being barred from entering Romanian airspace -- Rogozin's plane was returning to Moscow from Moldova's breakaway Transdniestria region, an area widely believed to be next in line for Russian take over -- the deputy PM tweeted he'd be back, in a TU-160 strategic bomber.
Russian belligerence has been turning Central and Eastern Europe into an anxious and confused mess. In Bratislava, I attended a recent gathering of leaders and sundry pundits from the region. On the subject of Ukraine, the temporising was striking. It's starts with Crimea. Did the Russians perhaps not have a point in this instance about cultural and historical links?
By any measure, the March 16th referendum that awarded the territory to Russia was a farce. There were no negotiations between stakeholders preceding the vote. There were no international observers. There were no voting booths for Crimea's indigenous Tatar population. For those who did vote, there was no option to select the status quo. Yet Russia snapped up Crimea, and we've all moved on, including most who live closest by. Now we're all hoping the Kremlin doesn't swallow Eastern Ukraine.
There's method to the Russian madness. "We know this ploy," says senior State Department official Victoria Nuland, who participated in the Bratislava conference: "You light the fire, then come in as the fireman and then occupy the building."
There's more to the method. Russian President Vladimir Putin's Russia has been up until now about money, violence and power. That's appalling enough. But now an insidious ideology is starting to come to the fore. Putin and his cronies have been evolving as kleptocrats with values. That's why so many right-wing demagogues across Europe find this Russia so attractive. It's the same in America.
Pat Buchanan, the former Nixon speechwriter and populist pundit -- who struggles mightily with things like homosexuality and cultural diversity -- applauds Putin's "tribal defense of lost Russians" abroad. He praises Putin for "planting Russia's flag firmly on the side of traditional Christianity in what Buchanan calls "the culture war for the future of mankind." Indeed, here's how Putin puts it:
Many Euro-Atlantic countries have moved away from their roots, including Christian values. Policies are being pursued that place on the same level a multi-child family and a same-sex partnership, a faith in God and a belief in Satan. This is the path to degradation."
Ever heard of the third Rome? Says Buchanan:
The first Rome was the Holy City and seat of Christianity that fell to Odoacer and his barbarians in 476 A.D. The second Rome was Constantinople, Byzantium, (today's Istanbul), which fell to the Turks in 1453. The successor city to Byzantium, the Third Rome, the last Rome to the old believers, was -- Moscow.
This is surreal. You might think it all quackery and fringe nonsense. Except that Mr. Putin was referenced positively in the manifesto written by Anders Behring Breivik, the anti-immigrant extremist responsible for the mass killings in Norway in 2011. Except that the presumptive leader of this creepy cause, whom the likes of Pat Buchanan and Europe's Le Pens get excited about, has nuclear weapons, a seat on the UN Security Council and much of Europe now by the throat through dependency on Russian natural gas.
No one wants confrontation with Russia. But what happens when Russia insists?