Sometimes, just sometimes, you should pay attention to annoying things said by tiresome people at worthy conferences.
In 1994, I was half asleep at a round table in St. Petersburg, Russia, when a short, thickset man with a rather ratlike face — apparently a sidekick of the city’s mayor — suddenly piped up. Russia, he said, had voluntarily given up “huge territories” to the former republics of the Soviet Union, including areas “which historically have always belonged to Russia.” He was thinking “not only about Crimea and northern Kazakhstan, but also for example about the Kaliningrad area.” Russia could not simply abandon to their fate those “25 million Russians” who now lived abroad. The world had to respect the interests of the Russian state “and of the Russian people as a great nation.”
The name of this irritating little man was — you guessed it — Vladimir V. Putin, and I know exactly what he said back in 1994 because the organizers, the Körber Foundation of Hamburg, Germany, published a full transcript. For the phrase that I have translated as “the Russian people,” the German transcript uses the word “volk.” Mr. Putin seemed to have, and still has, an expansive, völkisch definition of “Russians” — or what he now refers to as the “russkiy mir” (literally “Russian world”). The transcript also records that I teased out the consequences of the then-obscure deputy mayor’s vision by saying, “If we defined British nationality to include all English-speaking people, we would have a state slightly larger than China.”
Little did we imagine that, 20 years later, the St. Petersburg deputy mayor, now uncrowned czar of all the Russians, would have seized Crimea by force, covertly stirred up violent mayhem in eastern Ukraine and be explicitly advancing his 19th-century völkisch vision as the policy of a 21st-century state. Today’s Kremlin has its own perverted version of the Western-developed and United Nations-sanctified humanitarian doctrine of the “responsibility to protect.” Russia, Mr. Putin insists, has a responsibility to protect all Russians abroad, and he gets to decide who is a Russian.
We should, of course, avoid what the philosopher Henri Bergson called the illusions of retrospective determinism. History seldom moves in straight lines. After Mr. Putin’s rise to supreme power in the Russian state, starting when he became prime minister in 1999, he experimented with other models of relations with the West and the rest of the world. For some years, he tried modernization in cooperation with the West. He embraced membership in the Group of 8 — one of several inducements that the United States and Europe offered to help Russia down its inevitably difficult post-imperial path. President George W. Bush got Mr. Putin wrong when he “looked the man in the eye” in 2001, but it would be bad history to conclude that the Putin of 2001 was already secretly planning to take back Crimea and destabilize eastern Ukraine.
Although historians should explore those paths not taken, it is nonetheless fascinating to see how the essentials of Mr. Putin’s resentment-fueled protector state doctrine were already there in 1994 — even if they were not then buttressed by ideological quotations from Russian thinkers like Ivan Ilyin.
Once upon a time, there was the Brezhnev Doctrine, which justified as “fraternal help” such actions as the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Mikhail S. Gorbachev replaced it with the Sinatra Doctrine —You do it your way, as Gennadi I. Gerasimov, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, put it — toward Eastern Europe. Now we have the Putin Doctrine.
It is impossible to overstate the degree to which this is a threat not just to Russia’s Eastern European and Eurasian neighbors but to the whole post-1945 international order. Across the world, countries see men and women living in other countries whom they regard as in some sense “their people.” What if, as has happened in the past, Chinese minorities in Southeast Asian countries were to be the targets of discrimination and popular anger, and China (where, on a visit this spring, I heard admiration expressed for Mr. Putin’s actions) decided to take up the mother country’s burden, exercising its völkisch responsibility to protect?
To make clear why such actions are totally unacceptable, and a grave threat to world peace, we also have to agree on the legitimate rights and responsibilities of a mother country. My British passport still carries the resonant old formula that Her Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State “requests and requires” foreign powers to let me pass “without let or hindrance,” and if I got into a spot of local difficulty in, say, Transnistria, I would hope (though not necessarily trust) that he would very earnestly require it. More relevant, Poland has expressed concern for the position of Polish speakers in Lithuania. Hungary has handed out both passports and voting rights in national elections to citizens of neighboring countries whom it deems to be members of the Hungarian people. To pin down what is illegitimate, we have to explain more clearly what is legitimate.
As of Friday, American and Ukrainian officials were saying it was likely that a Russian-made antiaircraft missile had brought down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, in yet another harvest of sorrow on Ukrainian fields already blood-soaked by history. It was not clear who fired it. But it is hypocrisy on an Orwellian scale for Mr. Putin to maintain, as he did on Friday, that “the government over whose territory this happened bears the responsibility for this terrible tragedy.” There is undoubtedly bitter discontent among many self-identified Russians in eastern Ukraine, but the violence of their protests has been stirred by a massively mendacious narrative on Russian television, and their paramilitaries have been supported, to put it no more strongly, by Mr. Putin’s Russia — including the presence of members or former members of Russian special forces.
It seems plausible already to suggest that a regular army (whether Ukrainian or Russian) would usually have identified the radar image of a civilian airliner flying at 33,000 feet, while a group made up solely of local militants (even ones with military experience) would not ordinarily have had the technology and skill to launch such an attack without outside help. It is precisely the ambiguous mixtures created by Mr. Putin’s völkisch version of the “responsibility to protect” that produce such disastrous possibilities. He subverts and calls into question the authority of the government of a sovereign territory, and then blames it for the result.
So if an obscure deputy mayor starts sounding off in alarming terms at some conference you are attending, my advice is, Wake up. Of course, most such ranters do not rise to the top. But when they do, their ideologies of resentment may be written out in blood.
Timothy Garton Ash, a professor of European studies at Oxford University, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of Facts Are Subversive: Political Writing From a Decade Without a Name.