Putin on the Baltic

The Ruskies are coming! And you thought the Cold War was over? Well, the “cold” bit might soon be. We better leave it to the pundits in their infinite wisdom to decide whether we’ve progressed into a Lukewarm or even a Kind of Balmy War already.

As I write, the NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland, has just wrapped up. On the discussion agenda was “the growing threat posed by Russia”. Meanwhile, the Pentagon is ramping up its military spending on the “European Reassurance Initiative”. This means, in plain English, that the US military is increasing the resources needed for possible operations on NATO’s “Eastern Flank”, the area encompassing all Baltic coastal nations. And as the incessantly blinking Tony Blair was being grilled about the Iraq invasion after the release of the Chilcot Report, the UK began to employ hundreds of troops in Eastern Europe, near the Russian border.

Tempers are certainly rising. Putin’s annexation of Crimea didn’t help much, ditto the downing of a Russian warplane by the Turks. The Western bloc hasn’t been too eager to de-escalate tensions, either — the US-led meddling in Ukraine being a prime example. What was hailed as a “flowering of democracy” by propaganda outfits like The New York Times was, in fact, the ugly culmination of a struggle between a pro-EU oligarch faction against a pro-Kremlin one. And as if the political turmoil hadn’t wreaked enough havoc in Ukraine, the European Central Bank was quick to present the new pro-Western government with a hefty emergency loan, tied to austerity measures extreme enough to give each and every EU technocrat a raging boner.

The power vacuum left by the ousting of President Yanukovych was partially filled by actual neo-Nazis. Well done, EU, ECB, and CIA! The post-coup government, formed in February 2015, included three ministers from the notorious Svoboda party. In western mainstream media, Svoboda is usually politely described as “nationalist”, or, at the most, “far-right”. No Nazis here, its all just Russian propaganda! Move along!

Here in Finland, anti-Russian sentiment runs pretty deep, partly for obvious historical and geopolitical reasons. During WWII, Finland fought two wars against the neighboring Soviet Empire: the Winter War (1939-40), followed by the Continuation War (1941-44). Before the second showdown, Finland had aligned itself with the Third Reich. Not quite the winning strategy, as it turns out. But despite a crushing defeat in 1944, followed by harsh conditions imposed by Moscow in the peace treaty, the Red Army never occupied Finland. Nor did Stalin or his successors seek to rule the small neighboring state by proxy, i.e., by a Kremlin-controlled puppet regime, which was the modus operandi in Eastern Europe.

All democratic institutions were left intact, except perhaps for one: the institution of the presidency. Most Finnish historians now believe that Urho Kekkonen, Finland’s four-term post-war head of state — a hugely popular, controversial, and authoritarian figure — was closely aligned with the KGB. According to the Soviet defector Anatoliy Golitsin, Kekkonen had been a KGB agent since 1947.

The term “Finlandization” was coined during President Kekkonen’s second term. It refers to a small, ostensibly neutral and sovereign nation doing, out of necessity, its powerful neighbor’s bidding in the global political arena. In Finland, though, it went much deeper than that. A form of “mental Finlandization” permeated all strata of society, not just the political establishment and the self-censoring press.

It was fear, plain and simple. It had a local and a global dimension: the former was caused by the hovering nightmare scenario of a possible Soviet aggression and occupation. The latter was just the general Cold-War-era dread of nuclear holocaust. Obviously, this wasn’t a sentiment shared by all of humanity with the same intensity. A Muscovite friend of mine, Dimitri, told me a story of how his father found himself posted in a nuclear submarine, as a teenager, in a fleet positioned near the territorial waters of New York State. And then the Cuban Missile Crisis happened. The crew could even see the skyscrapers of Manhattan through the periscope. Talk about fear.

Finland, due to its geographic location, was potentially in the line of fire. But at least Finnish schoolchildren weren’t made to go through duck-and-cover drills like kids in America in the 50s and 60s.

Since the fear that generated the mental Finlandization had a perfectly rational basis, it would be incorrect to describe it as mass hysteria. But it did manifest in many forms of weird and erratic behavior. President Kekkonen’s cult of personality was one. He was the great Bear Tamer, the Shaman who negotiated with the Underworld, the Commie Whisperer. Like a nosy and manipulative parent, a Gandhi-like Father of the Nation, he sought, with a stick and a carrot, to keep Finnish intellectuals, authors, journalists, and fellow politicians in check, making sure that they never challenged his realpolitik-driven newspeak. Surprisingly few did.

I even remember my mother comforting me — her 5-year-old son — by invoking a Fenno-Soviet treaty imposed on us right after the war! “There will never be a war here, sweetie. No one would ever dare attack us; we have an Agreement of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance with the mighty Soviet Union.”

After Stalin’s death, the adversary behind the Iron Curtain was for long perceived as a non-anthropomorphic entity, a faceless, gray mass of politburo and Red Army machinery. The General Secretary was just a cog in that automated machine — until the emergence of Gorbachev and the reformist perestroika policies he spearheaded. As Margaret Thatcher famously noted: “I like Mr. Gorbachev. We can do business together.”

Some western leaders, like the German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, strongly supported Gorbachev over his rival Boris Yeltsin, another pivotal figure in the final collapse of the Soviet Empire. Yeltsin was the one advocating for much more radical reforms, especially on the issue of private ownership. In a phone conversation between Gorbachev and Kohl, the latter remarked: “I’ve thought about it: What would happen if Gorbachev would suddenly leave and Yeltsin would take his place? I must say that the mere thought of it horrified me. Of course the country cannot be left to such a man.”

Some prophetic words there. Yeltsin oversaw the “liberalization”, i.e., the pillage, of post-Soviet-era Russia, as the western press swooned over him. They applied makeup to his greasy, bloated face, placed the Russian tricolor in his hand, and uncovered one of his man-boobs. Voilà! He was the Goddess of Liberty! As long as the geopolitical balance of power was tilting in the West’s favor and our crony capitalists were making a killing, the jolly old drunken Boris Nikolajevits could do nothing wrong.

Except maybe for one thing: he chose Vladimir Putin as his successor.

Vlad the Terrible

In present-day discourse, identifying any gray areas or nuance in the power politics between the East and West is often branded as pro-Kremlin shilling. So here’s the mandatory caveat: No, I’m not suffering from Stockholm Syndrome. Putin should strike any rational and decent person as a monstrous figure. But here’s the great heresy: the same applies to Turkey’s Erdoğan, Israel’s Netanyahu, India’s Narendra Modi, and the half-demented, warmongering and utterly corrupt presidential hopeful, Hillary Clinton.

Ever wonder why the diabolic Putin has genuine popular support in Russia, while more than half of the US public wants to see Clinton indicted? Let’s forget domestic politics for a moment and focus just on geopolitics. In some sense, Putin has it easy. It’s good to be the Tsar. When you practically own a country, its geopolitical advantages tend to benefit you directly.

Take the case of Rosatom, an atomic energy corporation owned by the Russian state. In 2013, Rosatom acquired the ownership of Uranium One, a uranium mining company with operations in several countries, including on US soil. This happened during Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State. As uranium is classified as a strategic and militarily significant asset, the chain of command in green-lighting such a controversial transaction went all the way up to Clinton’s office. Before the signing of the deal was made possible, the company’s former Canadian owners woke up one morning feeling very philanthropic. The charity of their choice was, of course, the Clinton Foundation

So, here’s Putin, the Great Patriot, working tirelessly to enhance Russia’s strategic position in the world at large. And in the opposite corner, we have Mrs. Clinton, expertly pimping America. Which one of these leaders would you prefer, as a citizen?

Besides, Putin is at least generating some entertainment value for the general public. It’s almost as if he’s deliberately playing the role of a James Bond villain — or rather, all of them merged into one. He’s a poker-faced, blue-eyed ex-KGB officer, a mysterious media mogul, an oil and gas tycoon, a megalomaniac oligarch with billions stacked away in offshore accounts. He’s the leader of a powerful criminal syndicate, and, like any self-respecting movie baddie, he’s adept at martial arts. He assassinates his enemies with polonium and likes to hang around with his biker gang buddies, “The Night Wolves”. You can’t make this shit up.

But surely one single Vladimir Vladimirovich can’t be responsible for all the evils in the world? Not so, if you go by the tripe that gets published in the western media, which makes Putin come across as even more invincible than Russian propaganda does. Every upheaval, it seems, is part of his master plan. The European refugee crisis? Putin. The mysterious disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370? Putin. The Panama Papers? Putin. Soccer hooligans? Putin. The Brexit vote? Putin again. The DNC hack? Putin. Donald Trump?! You guessed it, all the work of Putin!

To top it all, Washington hacks have the audacity to accuse the Russians of supporting jihadism in the Middle East, while American officials are pressuring them to quit bombing the militants of the al-Nusra organization, those wonderful “moderates” fighting Assad. The Americans aren’t even trying to hide it anymore: the Syrian-based al-Nusra, closely affiliated with al-Qaeda, is now a US ally. Let that sink in.

Finnish media has conjured up equally ridiculous narratives. Apart from the fact that Russophobia sells here, there’s an obvious tendency to push NATO-friendly narratives. Unlike our media establishment, though, the general public isn’t too keen on the idea of Finland making its relationship with NATO official. During the slow summer news season, hysteria is sometimes generated over rich Russians buying small-scale real estate in Finland. You don’t even have to understand the language to grasp that some sinister plot has been uncovered in this graphic. The Ruskies are coming!


Notice the cluster of little Red Army stars in the lower left-hand corner of the picture, about 150 miles west of the capital Helsinki? These Russian spies, posing as holiday-makers in swimming trunks, have apparently positioned their newly-acquired summer cottages strategically along some of the main maritime routes! To do what, exactly? To monitor the sailing boats as they glide by? Or perhaps to distribute grilled sausages to the occupying Russian marines?

This is not to deny the huge strategic importance of the Baltic Sea. As the 2016 NATO review outlines in its corporate-sounding tone:

Finland and Sweden are not members of the Alliance and are therefore not covered by NATO’s collective defence clause. However, the Allies are working closely with both countries — two of NATO’s most active partners — to assess security in the Baltic Sea region, to expand exchanges of information, including on hybrid warfare, coordinating training and exercises, and to develop better joint situational awareness.

Putin, from his side of the fence, is echoing a corresponding sentiment. As Reuters reported on June 22:

Russia must boost its combat readiness in response to NATO’s “aggressive actions” near Russia’s borders, President Vladimir Putin said on Wednesday. Addressing parliament on the 75th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s attack on the Soviet Union, Putin berated the West for being unwilling to build “a modern, non-bloc collective security system” with Russia.

Speaking of the Devil, the busy Mr. Putin took the time to pay us a visit just last week. After the mandatory pleasantries, presidents Putin and Niinistö exchanged some half-friendly, half-hostile verbal jabs in front of the Finnish media. The waves of the Baltic Sea were washing on the shores of Kultaranta, the Finnish presidential summer residence.

Thanks to the relatively cool weather this summer, the grayish-green, poisonous cyanobacteria gruel hadn’t yet appeared on the sea surface. Apart from being a waterway of military significance, the Baltic Sea is also one of the most polluted seas in the world. Whether NATO’s eastern flank will witness the beginning of a third world war or not, one thing is sure: the unique ecosystem that defines the whole region has already been utterly destroyed.

Such factors seldom fit within linear political narratives, though, despite the fact that even the CIA considers the impending ecological catastrophe as the greatest security threat of our time. This is a “known known”, to borrow a term from the former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. But where’s the drama in that, and whose team can you root for? Besides, looking at the bigger picture might distract us from the things that really matter: geopolitical chest-thumping and keeping the global arms trade up and running.

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