The new START treaty officially called the Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms, was signed by Russian leader Dmitry Medvedev and American President Barack Obama in April 2010 in Prague. This nuclear arms reduction agreement entered into force, after being ratified, a year later. In fact, this agreement is the only remaining treaty between the U.S. and the Russian Federation on the subject of nuclear arsenal regulation. Yet, on February 21, 2022, President Vladimir Putin announced its suspension in an annual address to Russia’s Federal Assembly. According to Putin, this suspension is not a complete withdrawal. To resume its participation, Russia will have to account for NATO’s combined strike arsenal among other issues. What is the history and the implications of this move?
World War II
To understand the present, we must return to the past and the history of nuclear arms usage and control. The U.S. ran the secret Manhattan Project during World War II to develop nuclear weapons. President Harry Truman, who replaced Franklin D. Roosevelt upon his death in April 1945, was tasked with completing the war effort in the European and Asia-Pacific theaters. He learned about the first successful—and successfully destructive—atomic test in New Mexico at the last wartime Allied conference in Potsdam in July 1945. One of the key issues discussed at Potsdam was Japan’s unconditional surrender. Truman decided to inform Joseph Stalin about this new powerful weapon, but the Soviet leader seemed uninterested. Behind the scenes, however, Stalin was already aware of the American project through Soviet intelligence. Indeed, the Soviet nuclear-research counterpart began in 1942, and now Stalin, too, wanted to expedite his project.
The Soviet Union fought against the followers of a convicted terrorist and Nazi German collaborator Stepan Bandera in western Ukraine—first during World War II and then as an insurgency. As a result, many were tried and incarcerated in Kazakhstan, the Arctic Circle, and the Urals. Yet in 1955, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev pardoned and released Banderites in the tens of thousands. Why did this mass-scale amnesty happen, and what long-term consequences did it have?
This question is especially perplexing considering who Stepan Bandera was—a fascist leader of the terrorist OUN, Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (faction B named after Bandera), established in 1929. During World War II, the organization collaborated with Nazi Germany since the area was under their occupation as Reichskommissariat Ukraine from mid-1941 to late 1944.
In 2014, Kiev banned the Russian-made mini-series The White Guard (2012) based on Mikhail Bulgakov’s 1925 novel for “demonstrating disregard for the Ukrainian language, people, and statehood.” This ban turned out to be one of many after the Maidan that year in an attempt to root out the Russian language and culture in the region long before the 2022 military escalation. Yet what do Mikhail Bulgakov and The White Guard, specifically, have to do with the present conflict in Ukraine?
Mikhail Bulgakov, the Russian author best known for The Master and Margarita, was born in Kiev in 1891. His literary genius makes him one of the most famous historical figures from that city. Yet in 2022, there were even calls to close the Kiev Bulgakov museum.
Instead of the triumph of democracy and progress, we got violence, poverty and social disaster — and nobody cares a bit about human rights, including the right to life. I cannot help asking those who have forced that situation: Do you realize what you have done?
-Vladimir Putin addressing the United Nations in September 2015.
March 22, 2016 entered contemporary history as another day made dark by a new terrorist act in Europe. This time it took place in Brussels, Belgium roughly following the general pattern of its Parisian predecessor in late 2015 by targeting multiple heavily populated areas: a major metro station and the city’s airport. These violent acts resulted in dozens of deaths and hundreds of injuries and were later attributed to the so-called Islamic State terrorist group, although at the time of writing the criminal evidence is just making its way into the media.
SYMBOLS OF EUROPEAN POSTMODERITY
Whereas some described the Paris attacks as targeting the very heart of European culture and civilization, the 2016 bombing of Brussels symbolizes the war against the capital of the European Union and all it represents, as well as the NATO headquarters, the most powerful military alliance in the world. Indeed, border closures alone in the wake of such crises undermine the very idea of this Union and thus send a strong message. Terrorism’s raison d’être is to cause maximum disorientation and fear among the civilian population, which is why, it seems, the perpetrators chose public spaces rather than government buildings.
Bear-hounding is a hunting technique, in which a pack of dogs pursues a bear until exhaustion—at that point the hunter can make his kill. And that is to what Karen Shakhnazarov, a well-known Russian filmmaker of Armenian origin, compared Russia’s predicament in the current geopolitical situation.
As the Tariff-War Must End, Udo Keppler, Puck, U.S., 1901. Source: LOC.
The bear analogy in Russia’s case is a contrived and, often, derogatory image describing the barbaric Other outside the West. It has deep historic roots, as literary and artistic examples indicate. But it is also one that works metaphorically. As a large continental power spanning Eurasia including some of the coldest places on earth—one with nuclear capabilities—Russia is not unlike the bear. In fact, many Russians themselves have reappropriated this comparison.
Even President Vladimir Putin has used it on a number of occasions.
“There are no separate Russia or Ukraine, but one Holy Rus” – Elder Iona of Odessa
The year 2014 saw an unprecedented surge of patriotism in contemporary Russia, which resulted in popularizing the notion of the Russian World. One reason for the increased patriotic sentiment was Crimea’s return to the home port after the overwhelmingly positive vote by its majority-Russian residents in a referendum one year ago. The onset of the liberation war in Donbass from the West-backed Kiev regime was the other. This war truly delineated the stakes for the existence of the Russian World. The latter is not an ethnic, but a civilizational concept that encompasses shared culture, history, and language in the Eurasian space within a traditionalist framework. To a certain extent and despite the obvious ideological differences, the Russian Empire and the USSR embodied the same geopolitical entity. A particularly noteworthy aspect of the ongoing crisis in Donbass is the symbolism—religious and historic—that surpasses the commonly used, but outdated Left-Right political spectrum. In the Russian context, this also means overcoming the Red-White divide of the Communist Revolution. That this war pushed Russians to examine their country’s raison d’être is somewhat remarkable: for two decades its citizens did not have an official ideology, prohibited by the Constitution that is based on Western models. The emergence of a new way of thinking in Russia will become clearer once we refer to the meaning of religious insignia, wars—Russian Civil and Great Patriotic, as well as the question of ideology in the Postmodern world.