The hubris of democratizing Russia

The views expressed here are the author’s opinions, which do not necessarily reflect the views of the Finnish Defence Forces or any other government authority.

The 9th of May, celebrated as Europe Day, but also as the Victory Day, serves as a stark reminder of the volatility of international relations, especially when concepts built on Western values are applied to foreign policy. I shall approach the subject from a Nordic view looking at some decisive points in Swedish and Finnish security policy during the time of abated Russian military capability.

The bear tamers

I invite you to take a look at the acme of this hubris – the Victory Day Parade of 2010 with soldiers from Britain, France, Poland and the US marching alongside Russian troops through Moscow’s Red Square.

The Victory Day Parade 2010 was a celebration of firsts – it was the first time:

  • Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) soldiers joined Russian forces on Red Square for the parade, with units from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan and Ukraine.
  • the parade included military units from the Western allies of the Soviet Union during World War II, with representation from France, Poland, the United Kingdom and the United States.

The words of president Medvedev in his address were those of a Russia sharing values and ideals with the West.

”Today at this solemn parade, the soldiers of Russia, the states of the CIS and the anti-Hitler coalition march together.”

”Only together can we counter present-day threats. Only as good neighbors can we resolve problems of global security in order that the ideals of justice and good triumph in all of the world and that the lives of future generations will be free and happy.”

The years of the Medvedev presidency were the final years of hope for the democratization of Russia. After the switchback with Putin, this hope was lost. In the late 90s and the beginning of the new millenium there was misplaced trust in the ability to influence Russian democratic development with economic and political means. The biggest leaps of faith were taken by Sweden – it began demolishing its defence in 2000, much based on the finding that Russian military capability didn’t exist.

”An invasion, aiming to occupy Sweden, does not seem possible over the next ten years, provided that we have a basic defense capability.”

The goverment proposal for the future Swedish defence is a sobering read today. While taking note of uncertainty in Russian developments, it mainly downplayed the risks and stated:

”A stable, democratic and thriving Russia is of a crucial significance for lasting peace on the continent.”

The proposal went on to suggest that end of the Kosovo War and the subsequent agreement was actually a positive sign of Russian engagement.

”The Kosovo crisis has demonstrated the importance of Russian participation in European crisis management in a constructive and responsible manner.”

The Finnish goverment Security and Defence policy white paper of 2001 was also very optimistic on Russia.

”Russia is striving towards an economic reform and an organized and democratic society […] Russia is seeking its role as an actor in international relations and security policy.”

This optimism and hope in Russian develpoment resulted in a self amplifying feedback loop with reports and accounts serving as sources and corroboration of each other and future analyses.

The bear unleashed

Four years later, in his 9th of May address, Putin only mentions Europe as being saved by the Soviet people.

The Soviet people’s iron will, fearlessness and steadfast courage saved Europe from enslavement.

The Victory Day Parade this year bore a sombre note of a nation in war, preparing for more aggression. The marchpast on foot was joined by three units in battle dress and combat gear, noteworthy as all other units wore their parade kits. Gone are the white hubcaps, rails and other details on vehicles. Compared to parades of earlier years, the current display clearly shows off a more combat-oriented force. Matte green is widely used and the only decorations were the orange black Saint George ribbons with a Red Star. The bear has been unleashed and he’s been training for the better part of last year.


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