Alex K. – who appears to be providing me with a lot of blogging fodder these days – has written a post about the propaganda being fed to the Russian population which they appear to be swallowing wholesale. This – coupled with this post of mine – got me thinking about how little the Russian population queries what they are told by their government compared to that of the UK, for example.
Now don’t get me wrong. We have plenty of gullible idiots in the UK, and a lot of those who query the government are both wrong and blithering idiots at the same time, so I wouldn’t say the quality of public discourse in the UK is high (just look at the level of debate over Scotland’s independence referendum, for example). But the inquiry is there, the desire to question and argue, even if wrong.
One of the most often repeated mantra over Russia’s annexation of the Crimea – one which I heard expressed by an educated, well-travelled, westernised, and intelligent Russian friend – is that Putin had no choice to intervene because Russia could not afford to lose its strategic base in Sevastopol, because it is “Russia’s only warm water port” on the Black Sea.
Except it isn’t. Russia has the port of Novorossiysk on the Black Sea, and it is both large and busy. What happened was that at the breakup of the Soviet Union the Russians inherited the Soviet fleet which was based in Sevastopol, which is part of Ukraine. And in the chaos and economic collapse, I’m guessing there was no money or will to move the fleet to Russian territory and so Russia and the Ukraine entered an agreement whereby Russia would rent the base for a fee. So in the 20 odd years that have passed since the Ukraine went its own way, Russia never bothered to invest the money and effort to move its Black Sea fleet to Novorossiysk, or any other Black Sea port. Yet they had no problem hosing billions on Sochi, also on the Black Sea, to host the Winter Olympics. And then in 2014 they decided the port was so vital to their strategic interests that they had to invade the Ukraine to secure it.
Seriously, are the Russians really buying this? Has nobody asked the question why, if the Black Sea base at Sevastopol was deemed so vitally important to Russia’s strategic interests, why Putin – who has held power for 15 years – didn’t see fit to move it to Russian territory?
There’s a parallel with the UK here. If Scotland goes independent in the next year or so, the status of the Royal Navy base at Faslane – which is home to the submarines used for launching the Trident nuclear missiles – becomes one of the main topics of negotiation. The most likely scenario is that the submarines will head to the US temporarily while the London government figures out where best to base them in England or Wales. But there is a possibility, albeit unlikely, that England could simply lease the base from Scotland in the way Russia leased Sevastopol from Ukraine. In this event, I rather think the English population would be somewhat skeptical if, after 20 years, England invaded Scotland and annexed part of the country in order to protect its strategic interests in Faslane. Whatever the merits of doing so, there would be a good portion of the country that would be asking what the hell such a strategic base was doing left in a foreign country for so long.
But in Russia? No such questions. My take is that most of them know it’s bollocks, but are happy with the land grab anyway. Gangster rule it is, then.
(Of course, the other elephant in the room is that Sevastopol is a pretty crap strategic location anyway. Good for a fleet patrolling the Black Sea perhaps, whoopee, but they still have to get through the Bosphoros and Dardanelles to get anywhere else. As a location from which to base Russia’s global military reach, it is hardly worth going to war over. Even the Soviets understood this.)