The myths and manoeuvres that allow Russia to get away with murder

As Russia threatens Ukraine with its overwhelmingly superior military might, some have tried to downplay the extent of Moscow’s aggression – or worse, excuse it.

Putin’s western fan club, the Stop the War Coalition, has been dusting off its placards. Jeremy Corbyn led its online webinar last week titled: No War in Ukraine: Stop Nato Expansion.

Moscow’s aggression against Kyiv has given the group something to do again after years defending Russia’s support of mass murderer Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

Russia, like most bullies, loves to play the victim; in Moscow’s case, the victim of Nato expansion; the victim of western conspiracy theories and US imperialism. It relies on myths and western naivete to avoid being held to account.

The truth is, Russia is a rogue actor on the international stage. It’s been breaking the rules and been getting away with things – with murder, in some cases – for years.

We were reminded by events in China last week. The Winter Olympics first major scandal involves a 15-year-old Russian figure skater, Kamila Valieva, who tested positive for using a banned heart medication.

Russia, the country, isn’t officially present at the Beijing games. Its national colours and flag are banned by the International Olympic Committee because of the massive state-sponsored doping operation during Russia’s own 2014 Sochi Games.

But Russians are still allowed to compete under the acronym ROC (Russian Olympic Committee). No one’s sure what the difference is.

In sport – in doping-plagued competition, and beyond – in diplomacy, politics, hacking or war, the recent history of Russia’s relationship with the world can be summed up in one phrase: breaking the rules.

Dmitri Alperovitch, the Russian-born chairman of the Silverado Policy Accelerator cyber security think-tank, said last week: “In Russia, the culture is generally that the ends justify the means, and the only thing that matters is the outcome.”

You might be sceptical of sweeping generalisation, but it’s hard to deny that the reign of Vladimir Putin has sped up the state-level transgressions.

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The Sochi Games was a Putin vanity project. Russian athletes had to win big. Hence the industrial-level cheating. But Russia is nothing if not a mafia state, so kleptocrats close to Putin were able to line their pockets. As much as $30bn (£20bn) was creamed off in the buildup to the games, Russian opposition leaders say.

Perhaps Putin was buoyed by all those (often undeserved) medals because within days of the Sochi Games he invaded Ukraine and seized control of the Crimean Peninsula and its strategic Black Sea ports. Nearly 15,000 have died in that (ongoing) conflict. Stop that War, Mr Corbyn!

Six years earlier, during the 2008 Summer Olympics (also held in Beijing), Russia invaded South Georgia and grabbed 20 per cent of its territory.

Russia’s nefarious activities are not confined, however, to its former Soviet empire.

In 2020, the US Justice Department charged six current and former Russian intelligence officers in a hacking campaign targeting the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, in apparent retaliation for the IOC’s decision to sanction Russia for the Sochi doping scandal.

“Time and again, Russia has made it clear: They will not abide by accepted norms, and instead, they intend to continue their destructive, destabilising cyber behaviour,” according to then-FBI Deputy Director David Bowdich.

Russian tried to undermine US elections by hacking the Democratic National Committee in 2016 to aid then-candidate Donald Trump and undermine his opponent, Hillary Clinton.

Russian government hackers were also blamed last year for a massive attack that breached federal agencies, including the FBI and treasury, and for interfering in elections across Europe.

Moscow might counter that western governments are in the hacking business, too.

But hacking isn’t even half of it.

Russia has killed dissidents overseas with chemical weapons and radioactive poisons.

Journalists are fair game. Kremlin critic and investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya, fell desperately ill after drinking a cup of tea in 2004 and recovered, only to be shot dead two years later. Opposition figure and vocal Putin critic Alexei Navalny, almost died from poisoning in 2020, and currently languishes in a Russian jail.

In addition to outright denials, the Kremlin pushes propaganda and relies on myths to justify its criminal behaviour.

We constantly hear that Russia was promised that Nato would not enlarge’. In reality, the USSR was received a formal guarantee on the limits of Nato expansion post-1990.

The Nato-Russia Founding Act signed in 1997 recognised the “inherent right” of all states ‘to choose the means to ensure their own security”.

Nor should we assume the Putin regime necessarily has an interest in reducing tensions. Presenting the West and Nato as a threat to “Fortress Russia” is a convenient ruse to maintain support from a Russian public increasingly fed up with the country’s poverty and corruption.

And there’s the lie that the peoples of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia are “one nation”, that Putin is heroically trying to reunite. Both Ukraine and Belarus have stronger European roots than the Kremlin likes to admit. Similarly, beware the myth that Crimea was always Russian.

Crimean Tatars are a Turkic ethnic group and nation who are an indigenous people of Crimea. Crimean Tatars constituted the largest ethnic population until the end of the 19th century. In May 1944, the USSR state defense committee ordered the deportation of all of the Crimean Tatars from Crimea.

Allowing Russia to maintain a “deserved” sphere of influence means accepting that smaller, less powerful countries are left to some degree at the mercy of Moscow. And that’s not much fun. Ask Finland.

The Scandinavian country survived as an unoccupied democracy in the shadow of the Soviet Union by handing the Kremlin outsized influence over its politics during the Cold War.

Some pundits are now touting that model – known in diplomatic circles as Finlandisation – as a solution to the standoff over Ukraine, which would effectively end its sovereignty and possibly allow Putin the large sphere of influence he craves.

But by sacrificing a sovereign nation like a pawn on a chessboard would western leaders be behaving any better than Putin and his reactionary Soviet-era security chiefs now threatening Kyiv?

“It [Finlandisation] has for Finns a negative ring to it,” Mika Aaltola, the director of the Finnish Institute of International Affair, told the New York Times this week. “It has to do with a very difficult period in Finnish history.”

All the evidence suggests that for the foreseeable future Russia will continue to flout internationally accepted norms of behaviour and commit further acts of aggression if it thinks it’ll be able to get away with it

Knowing this might make grim reading. But in geopolitics and security, like everything else, it’s best not to be under any illusions about who or what you’re dealing with.

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