Vladimir Putin stokes Russian nationalism, dreams of empire and a sense of victimization brought on by the “humiliating” collapse of the Soviet Union. He plays on the imagination of young people who have no personal memories of these things. At the same time he arouses the support of an older generation which remembers what it thinks of as the stability of the USSR. Between them is a growing middle class which, despite economic ups and downs, is generally much better off under post-Soviet Union Russia than before.
It is these people who provide the crowds that regularly protest the increasingly autocratic rule of the Putin regime which stifles free speech and assembly. While he diverts attention abroad (Crimea) and continues to threaten Ukraine — all to activate nationalistic patriotism — his regime condones widespread corruption.
Some mild sanctions have been applied to get Putin to back off his adventurism. The sanctions that will best lead to a change in Russian state behavior are those that directly affect Putin and his circle, especially the “oligarchs” who enjoy condominiums in Miami and shopping in New York. These, along with shipments of defensive arms from the West to Ukraine can cause Putin the think twice about massing troops on the border or demanding a change in Ukraine’s constitution that would create nearly independent areas of that country which would be permanently under Moscow’s spell.
The United States and the West have no greater potential allies than Russia’s middle-class protesters. The example of a Western leader using nationalism to bring down a Communist regime occurred 35 years ago and has lessons for today. That was when Pope John Paul II visited his native Poland for nine days.
In Warsaw, he gave a speech that ignited the Solidarity movement. It’s impossible to understand Polish history without realizing that the church played a crucial role in preserving Polish national identity when the country was overrun and then divided by the Nazi and Soviet conquerors.
While American politicians wear flag lapel pins, Lech Walesa’s was of the Black Madonna. Even for Poles who are not religious, the icon of the Black Madonna is a symbol of Polish resistance to invaders and occupiers. In 1655, the Black Madonna of Czestochowa inspired the monks at the Jasna Gora monastery to fight off a Swedish siege.
When Pope John Paul II came to Poland in June 1979, he spoke on the eve of Pentecost to inspire his people. As he spoke of how the Apostles found courage as Christians, the crowd understood that this was as much a speech for Polish freedom as it was a Mass. The Pope concluded his remarks with a prayer:
“I, who am a son of the land of Poland and who am also Pope John Paul II – I cry from all the depths of this Millennium, I cry on the vigil of Pentecost: Let your Spirit descend! Let your Spirit descend! And renew the face of the earth. The face of this land!”
The beginning of the end of Polish communism occurred during this Mass in Warsaw. In the middle of the speech, the people started clapping and they wouldn’t stop for 14 minutes. Pope John Paul II understood to wait. He knew that his people had endured decades of Communist rule and needed this expression of defiance. As over a million Poles clapped in unison, they understood there were more of “us” (freedom lovers) than there were of “them” (totalitarians).
Two years later, 10 million Poles joined the Solidarity movement. For something similar to happen in Russia, we must remember that there are two unique strands of Russian nationalism: Ivan the Great’s and Peter the Great’s.
Ivan the Great ruled as Grand Prince of Moscow from 1462-1505. He ended two centuries of Tatar rule. The lesson learned from his reign was that Russians need a strong leader to unite the people and fight off outsiders who would prey on the country.
Peter the Great understood that Russia could not be a great power unless it selectively borrowed ideas and technology from the West — and he did.
Russian nationalists, in the form of Ivan the Great, will gravitate to a man like Putin. They believe that only an autocrat can keep the country together. Russian nationalists like Peter the Great are willing to embrace any change to keep Russia strong and growing.
Our relations will improve when the Russian people see that Putin and his henchmen are adversely affected by economic sanctions. For our part, the U.S. must produce more energy and commit itself to exporting natural gas to Europe in order to displace Russia’s monopolistic Gazprom.
Sanctions will not be serious if they do not reduce the price of oil and natural gas. Gorbachev taught us that the Kremlin leaders will only reform when they have no other choice.
Reducing oil and gas revenues will give Russian nationalists the incentive to demand more freedom and the rule of law to modernize the economy. Instead of kicking Russia out of the G8 or denigrating her as a “regional” power, President Obama needs sanctions that will convince Russians that: “A recession in Russia is when your neighbor loses his job due to low oil prices. A depression is when you lose yours. A recovery will happen when Vladimir Putin loses his.”