Many Western countries have become very popular destinations for both Russian expatriates seeking a new and probably more pleasant life, whether for work or retirement, and for oligarchs and other wealthy individuals seeking to invest or otherwise salt money away unhindered by zealous tax or anti-money laundering authorities. For example, according to Statista, some 40,000 Russian nationals are resident in the UAE, and a similar number in Cyprus, some 73,000 in the UK, and over 235,000 in Germany. In addition, the new middle class of the Russian post-perestroika era has contributed increasingly to tourist and visitor numbers in the West, for example in Cyprus some 782,000 in 2019 (i.e. pre-Covid) or some 19% of the total, 180,000 in the UK in 2018, and 82,000 in the US in 2021.
All this mutually beneficial bonhomie came to an abrupt end with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s declaration on 23 February 2022 of a so-called “special military operation” against Ukraine, which turned out to be an attempt to annex at least part, if not the whole, of Ukraine into Russia. At best, Ukraine as a sovereign territory would be a reduced rump, at worst its existence as an independent sovereign state would cease. Although Putin has had to make major revisions in the face of military setbacks and stiff Ukrainian resistance, his overall expansionist vision of crushing Ukraine to the point of non-viability as an independent nation remains intact. His military annihilation of Ukraine will just take longer and will involve ruthless deployment of more powerful weapons of near-mass destruction against urban centers. In addition, widespread terror tactics and atrocities against the civilian population, as authenticated by the UN, the International Criminal Court and other official investigators will almost certainly continue. Murder, rape and looting have been characteristic and apparently tolerated by Russian military commanders and political leaders. War crimes trials of individual perpetrators and the chains of command above them seem inevitable, even if such trials may often be in absentia and convicted individuals may evade apprehension and punishment for considerable periods of time.
Putin’s stated arguments for the “special operation” against Ukraine entail several assertions and justifications. For example, he considers that historically, Ukraine was always part of Russia and has no right to independent sovereignty which, in any event, only came about as a result of Russian mistakes during the late Soviet period and the dissolution of the Soviet bloc.
Putin also claims that the existence of Ukraine as an independent nation threatens Russia’s national security, because of its close ties with the EU and its stated potential membership of NATO. He adds the accusation that Ukraine is infested with fascists and Nazis, especially in the government, the organs of state, and the armed forces, and that this presents both an overall existential threat of aggression against Russia and actual mistreatment of ethnic Russians who are present in large numbers in the local population of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine.
History will judge whether these assertions in the form of threats that inspire fear are genuinely felt, or are simply fake hyperbole to somehow justify a preemptive conquest of a smaller non-aggressive neighbor. Nevertheless, Putin does have a track record of broadly similar invasions since coming to power in 2000: Georgia in 2008, Crimea in 2014, Eastern Ukraine in 2014. He also carried out mass destruction bombardments of towns and cities and terrorization of civilians in Chechnya (e.g. Grozny 1999-2000) and Syria (e.g. Aleppo 2015-2016).
Moreover, Putin has copied a lot of earlier Russian leaders’ terror tactics from Afghanistan (1979-1989) and from Stalin’s advance westwards through Eastern Europe and into the Third Reich against Hitler in 1944 and 1945. There is a long history of Russian leaders using rape, murder and looting as weapons of war to terrorize and subdue civilian populations. Anyone doubting the facts should read William Shirer’s chilling history ‘The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich’, and Antony Beevor’s The Fall of Berlin 1945, both of which chronicle the savage depravity inflicted by Soviet troops on the German population and other nationalities as they swept towards Berlin and beyond. An estimated more than 1 million females of all ages were raped in Berlin alone. When challenged by Allied leaders to stop this atrocity, Stalin refused.
Creating a Nazi-Free Greater Russia
In summary, Putin’s stated argument is that Ukraine has no right to exist as a sovereign nation, that Ukrainians are really unentitled occupiers of territory that was always Russian and they should be grateful to be considered Russian vassals. Putin himself may not see the issue in racial terms, but when evaluated in conjunction with the overtly racist exhortations of one of his ideological gurus, the far-right polemicist Alexandr Dugin, it begins to sounds remarkably like Hitler’s Untermenschen and Lebensraum justifications for invading all lands to the east of Germany and for subjugating or expelling their native populations. Hitler annexed Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia in 1938 on the pretext of protecting the Sudeten Germans, and invaded Poland in 1939 on the pretext of saving ethnic Germans in Danzig (Gdansk), Stettin (Szczecin) and elsewhere, but with the ulterior motive of vastly extending the Third Reich. Similarly, the Russians have already announced that beyond Ukraine they intend to ‘protect’ militarily the Trans-Dniester Russians within Moldova, yet another pretext for extending Greater Russia. Further pretexts for invasions may well involve the sizable ethnic Russian populations of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania.
Fascists and far-right groups exist in all countries but, despite Putin’s insistence, there is no convincing evidence that they have any dominant or pivotal influence on government or society in present-day Ukraine. Indeed, it is ironic that far-right and neo-Nazi groups have flourished inside Russia under Putin’s rule. The Fair Observer article by Atul Singh and Glen Carle – prior to the Ukraine invasion – details the extensive backdrop to Putin’s worldview. For example, Putin claims to be a fervent anti-Nazi yet is known to have been heavily influenced by Alexandr Dugin, the far-right Russian ultra-nationalist ideologue, whose books e.g. The Fourth Political Theory (2012) and The Great Awakening vs. The Great Reset (2021) include both rabidly racist rants that many would judge as neo-Nazi and exhortations for Russia to annex vast territories to the south and west. Putin appears to have heeded Dugin. He was also well disposed towards the late Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of the far-right Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) party. In 2019, Zhirinovsky’s LDPR hosted a special roundtable session in Moscow of far-right and neo-Nazi political delegations from across the globe and held in the Russian State Duma. Such a conference in the Duma would have required Kremlin approval and authorization.
Global Response and Russian Reality
As the civilized world recoiled in horror and revulsion at the relentless bombardment of cities and the atrocities by Russian forces across the northern, eastern and southern areas of Ukraine, an overwhelming vote at the UN General Assembly confirmed global condemnation of Russia. Putin, his Kremlin henchmen, his military commanders, and his troops on the ground are accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Increasingly severe sanctions continue to be applied to Russia, which are likely to endure possibly for years to come. Even pro-Putin oligarchs say that Putin’s Ukraine adventure has already set the Russian economy back to its 1990 level, and continued sanctions may set it back further.
Nevertheless, recent polls show that two-thirds or more of Russians back Putin’s Ukraine policy. Some may be brainwashed, but others are likely to hold pre-existing beliefs of Russian superiority and entitlement. This situation is little different to the German population’s adulation of Hitler and pride in supposed German national superiority that lasted from the early 1930s and well into 1944, when major military reversals began to deflate popular confidence in the Fuehrer. In Russia’s case, it may be that its global isolation and economic decline over the coming years, resulting from Putin’s Ukraine and Greater Russia projects, will deflate his stature among Russians.
Putin’s boast of a Russian national rebirth and new economic miracle, while happily cut off from the West inside a new Iron Curtain, sounds like delusional bravado. Most Western brands and major corporations have already quit Russia indefinitely and, as 2022 progresses, sales of Russian gas to European countries will fall dramatically, further crippling the Russian economy. The embargo of Russian oil cargoes on the London insurance market will virtually stop Russian oil supplies to foreign customers by sea, thus adding to Putin’s woes. Modern Russians will hate a return to Soviet-era empty supermarkets, long queues for basic goods, high prices, a subsistence lifestyle, poor quality apparel, few luxury goods, and limited foreign travel.
Putin himself, at age 70, is likely to remain in power for some time by virtue of his totalitarian methods and his ‘removal’ of potential political challengers. He will never accept accountability for his Greater Russia invasions. International isolation and sanctions will therefore remain in place. When he finally leaves office, there is no guarantee that a new Russian president would be any better than him and maybe even worse. Russia’s pariah status may well last for decades, unless and until a ‘clean skin’ regime takes over in the Kremlin. After World War II, it took at least 50 years, including an Allies-imposed denazification program, before the “all Germans are Nazis” perception outside Germany had waned. Any de-Putinization program would have to be driven from within and would take decades against much opposition from vested interests.
Meanwhile, Putin dismisses foreign reactions as being inconsequential – that somehow his fake news and propaganda will bamboozle and convince Western populations of the justness of his Greater Russia project and the essential purity of his ideology, the goodness and humanity of his armed forces, and the benevolence of his governance inside Russia and its conquered territories. He does not recognize the old public relations witticism that no matter how hard one tries to polish horse manure, it remains horse manure. He has created the mother of all image-and-credibility disasters for himself and for Russia. He imagines that his fake news and propaganda narrative, which either dupes the Russian population or reinforces their ultra-nationalist beliefs and prejudices, will also be successful outside Russia. The strict state control of the media he enjoys in Russia is rare outside his country, and the immediacy of smartphone videos and social media demolishes his attempts to cast Russian atrocities as humanitarian work. Putin really does believe that, despite its economy about to implode, its declining population, and its pariah status, Russia is destined to thrive and enjoy greater and greater glories in its own little domain ‘beyond the Pale’, disconnected from the normal international world. He craves to be another Peter the Great, yet history may remember him only as Vlad the Mad-and-Bad or Putin the Psycho.
Dilemma for Russian Investment and Tourism Destinations
Despite a reputation for often being stern and straight-faced, and not caring about what foreigners think of them, in reality Russians typically very much want to be liked. They want to be respected and even feared, but also liked. However, in the wake of Putin’s disastrous Ukraine adventure in which the quest for Russian hegemony has been exposed in all its ghastly manifestations, the rather narcissistic mix of Putin’s personal desires has now set Russians at odds with how the outside world actually sees them. The stigma, international pariah status and sanctions now affect all Russians to some degree. Foreign doors remain closed, and access and inclusion are denied.
Two areas immediately impacted are Russian overseas investment and Russian tourists. The former has been hit by international sanctions against Russian companies, and individual oligarchs and executives. Sanctions also cover foreign travel, financial transactions, money movements, and tax status. Russian tourists in Western countries are now scarce, owing to travel sanctions. For Russians who have become used to foreign holidays and being ‘liked’ by their hosts, the new situation is both a shock and an indignation. However, the loss of Russians also impacts foreign destinations.
With EU sanctions against Russia and its client state Belarus, most foreign destinations are forced to adjust to a ‘new normal’ in which huge numbers of Russian tourists have disappeared suddenly and possibly permanently. Cyprus, for example, has lost typically over 750,000 Russian tourists (782,000 in 2019), some 20% of its total annual figure. It would be tempting for such countries to fantasize that this is just a temporary setback and that Russian tourists, settlers and business people will soon be flooding back. For Russians, the ‘Skolko zim, skolko lyet?’ greeting between old friends – literally how many winters, how many summers [since we last met]? – may well be answered ‘a lifetime’s worth’ in relation to foreign destinations.
For a start, the incomes and savings of most Russians will be vastly depleted in hard currency terms for years to come. For them, foreign travel and holidays abroad will become unaffordable. Even Russia-friendly Turkey might eventually prove too expensive for Russian tourists. Even in the most optimistic scenario where sanctions are lifted, Russians recover from their financial losses and Russian tourists return to foreign destinations in 10-15 years, is it a certainty that they will be welcomed unequivocally? For the Russians, the opportunity to travel again might be joyous, but their hosts might have mixed feelings about their return. These hosts might find it hard to forget the imagery of Russian aggression and atrocities in Ukraine. Will increased revenue warm their hearts for returning Russians?
As Dr. Anton Shekhovtsov, the director of the Vienna-based Centre for Democratic Integrity, noted recently, “history will judge mercilessly” the Western countries that fail to support Ukraine. This will also apply to those who in any way deny, ignore, downplay or trivialize Russian war crimes and crimes against humanity, especially if their motive is to secure revenues from Russian customers while Russia has not relinquished Ukrainian sovereign territory or paid war reparations to Ukraine.
Consider also human nature in tourist economies. Imagine Western tourists finding themselves in the same place as Russian tourists. How will they know that the latter had not been involved in or still support the atrocities in Ukraine? If only to shield their children from unwelcome contact, the former may well boycott the offending venues hosting Russian tourists, if not the entire country itself.
Of course, some – perhaps many – Russians may be perfectly innocent and, in an ideal world, people would not rush to such sweeping negative judgements. But, in the real world, that is precisely what they do. It took 50 years after World War II for Germans not to be automatically cast as Nazis by far too many around the world. All the great contributions of Russia to civilization in all spheres are now unfairly relegated by many to the dustbin of history. This is one of Putin’s unintended legacies: the false perception that all Russians are hideous thugs and war criminals. Moreover, those in the West who may seek a too rapid rehabilitation of Russian tourists and visitors may be accused of sympathy, if not support, for Russian war crimes. A fast and easy way back for Russia from its current pariah image predicament is hard to envisage.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.