Sunday, September 25

The borders of anxiety

Winston Churchill spoke at the beginning of the Second World War a phrase that sums up the difficulties that Western leaders have historically had in deciphering the russian foreign policy. “Russia is a riddlewrapped in a mystery, inside a enigma”. The aphorism has regained all its validity as a result of the invasion of Ukraine launched by Vladimir Putina war that few expected and that the Kremlin justified with a mixture of old misgivings towards the NATO and spurious arguments regarding the Ukrainian leadership or the “genocide” of the country’s Russian population. None of this has served, however, to unravel the ultimate ambitions of the Kremlin or elucidate whether Putin is a rational actor who has lost his mind to preserve the security of his country or a revisionist despot obsessed with restore the greatness of the Russian Empire.

Churchill wanted to give a clue. “Perhaps there is a key,” he said. “That key is russian national interest”. And that interest has historically been very conditioned by geography of the largest country in the world. Unlike Pyrenean Spain or Alpine Italy, Russia has no natural barriers west of the Urals that favor their defense. Quite the contrary. The Great European field gets into the kitchen of its main European cities, from Moscow a St. Petersburgwith no other obstacles than the harsh russian winters. From that route came the major invasions that the country has faced in the last 500 years: Poles and Lithuanians in 1605, swedes in 1708, Napoleon in 1812 and germans in 1914 and 1941.

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Russia’s traditional response, which also has no hot water ports with direct access to the oceanswhich greatly limits its projection as a great power and makes its control of crimea in the Black Sea and Kaliningrad in the Baltic, has been expand its European borders to the west for extend your margin of safety. During the Romanov Empire those borders included much of what is now Finlandthe Baltics, Poland or Ukraine, a country that has always been an indispensable piece for any Russian leader with imperial airs. During the soviet era They went even further, to the East Germany to the north and Yugoslavia by the south.

Maps in continuous mutation

This series of geographical and historical considerations may help explain why the European nations bordering Russia reacted with a gut fear to the invasion of Ukraine and the renewed Russian expansionism. Their maps have been a constant cut and paste in recent centuries, always at the mercy of the regional power of the day, outside Sweden, Poland-Lithuania, Prussia and then Germany or Russia, the most tenacious of all. They all reacted by turning to her support for ukraineincreasing your defense spending and changing its security paradigm. Finland has abandoned its non-alignment to join NATO. The Baltics have requested permanent Alliance bases on their territory and, in the case of Latvia, they have reactivated compulsory military service. While Poland, the most important country in the region, aspires to practically triple the size of your armywhich would go from about 115,000 active military to about 300,000.

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for his terrible experiences during World War II, when no European power was too quick to stop the Nazis and Soviets from occupying the region, their capitals tend to trust Washington more than Brussels to sleep at night. Perhaps with the exception of Helsinki, which spent the Cold War doing tightrope walks so as not to be engulfed by its Russian neighbor. A policy — the Finnishization— which one of his cartoonists described as “the art of leaning east without showing your ass to the west.”

The memory of Soviet communism, the last time the bulk of the region lived under the dictates of Moscow, is not particularly good. And most have chosen to educate their population so that they do not forget the purgesthe deportations and the hardships of that chapter of his story. In Riga you can visit the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia; in warsawthe Memorial to Stalin’s Political Prisonersto give two examples.

The vulnerability of the Baltics

Looking to the future, geopolitics also contains some clues about the prospects of each of them. The most vulnerable are the Baltic countries, linked to the rest of Western Europe by the 90 kilometers of Suwalki runneroften described as “NATO’s Achilles’ Heel”. Estonia and Latvia in particular also maintain a large Russian community among its population, close to 25%, an explosive factor given the tendency of the Putin regime to destabilize and justify its interventions in the “near abroad” due to the need to protect the Russian minorities.

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For Poles Ukraine is their security zonewhich explains why they have turned so generously to a neighbor with whom they had serious historical differences. ‘If kyiv fell, Warsaw would be next’, is one of the phrases heard in its streets. Of all the EU border countries, Finland feels the safest, either because it has the most powerful army in northern Europe or because it was never absorbed by the Soviet Union. Yes, the Baltic republics were, while Poland was a communist satellite.

What is evident in all of them is that the fear of the initial stages of the war has given way to a more restrained concern derived from the difficulties that the Russian army is having to impose itself in Ukraine. Moscow no longer has too many sympathies in the region, even though the Russian continues to be heard in its streets. Quite the contrary. Its people would like the warning that hangs from one of the skyscrapers of Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, to be fulfilled: “Putin, The Hague (court) is waiting for you.”

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