I’ll say one thing for Poo-tin and his government: they never cease to amaze me, thereby discouraging complacency.
Just when I settle into the comfy chair of supposedly knowing all there is to know about Russia, a bolt strikes out of the blue.
The latest one came courtesy of Sergey Lavrov, minister in charge of Poo-tin’s foreign policy. Mr Lavrov has kindly taken it upon himself to teach the US State Department the fine points of international law.
In his response to the assassination of Gen Soleimani, Mr Lavrov said that: “deliberate actions by one UN member aimed at eliminating an official of another UN member on the territory of a third sovereign country without prior notification flagrantly violate the principles of international law and are therefore to be condemned.”
Though clumsily expressed, this is a valid point invalidated by its provenance. Or, putting it in the language of a Russian classic with which Mr Lavrov is doubtless familiar, “And who are the judges?”
For the preacher’s identity affects the credibility of the sermon, unless of course we’re talking about a priest who’s supposed to be merely a conduit for divine revelation. In the lay world, however, we tend to consider the source.
For example, we may welcome lessons in democracy, but not from Kim Jong-un. An argument against theocracy would lose some of its poignancy if delivered by Ayatollah Khamenei. And, on balance, we’d rather hear an appeal to fiscal responsibility from someone other than President Maduro.
In the same spirit, when the subject of international law comes up, the best thing Minister Lavrov could do is shut up. On his watch, Russia’s foreign policy has shown as much respect for international law as Stalin and Hitler showed for Poland’s territorial integrity.
In 2014, Russia claimed the distinction of becoming the first country since 1945 to steal the territory of a sovereign European nation. More than 13,000 Ukrainians have since been killed defending their country from this champion of global legality.
In the same year, the Russians shot down in cold blood the airliner MH 17 flying passengers from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. All 298 people on board were killed.
This propensity for wholesale murder in no way cramps Russia’s style in piecemeal action. Her hitmen rummage through Europe, murdering “without prior notification” anyone who crosses Poo-tin in one way or another.
In the process, they parade Russia’s technological advances by using nuclear and bacteriological weapons, albeit so far of small yields. That doesn’t mean they forswear the more traditional expedients of bullet, garrotte or defenestration – with nary a prior notification anywhere in evidence.
That fusion of the old with the new is by itself sufficient for anyone to gasp at the latest display of Lavrov’s cynicism. But let’s also not forget the less sanguinary violations of international law also favoured by Poo-tin’s Russia.
Such as blatant interference in the electoral politics of countries that, unlike Russia, still take democracy seriously. This is done by the electronic, disinformation and propaganda arms of hybrid war, a concept pioneered by Gen Gerasimov, head of Russia’s General Staff.
All in all, I’d suggest that Russia with her KGB government is ill-qualified to teach civilised countries how to conduct their affairs. Yet Poo-tin and his henchmen simply can’t contain their didactic urge. This is displayed not only in jurisprudence, but also in history.
Poo-tin himself recently provoked Poland’s PM Mateusz Morawiecki into a rare undiplomatic gesture: accusing the head of a major country of lying, in this case about Stalin’s crimes against Poland and Poles.
Poo-tin denies them all, including these days the murder of over 22,000 Polish officers in Katyn and elsewhere – this, although the two previous presidents of Russia acknowledged the crime. Yet that was far from being the worst offence Stalin committed against the Poles.
In the 1930s the Soviets pioneered genocide, beating the Nazis to it. The targets were all Soviet people of Polish and Finnish descent, especially the former. More than 111,000 Poles were killed by the NKVD, and thousands more perished during and after their deportation.
Mr Morawiecki was rightly incensed about Poo-tin’s lying denials, as he was about the claim that the Soviet Union didn’t attack Poland on 17 December, 1939, and if it did, Poland had only herself to blame.
As proof of Poland’s culpability, Poo-tin cited her record of anti-Semitism that indeed was far from spotless. However, if mistreatment of Jews were sufficient grounds for military intervention, few countries would have escaped that fate in the 30s.
In any case, Poo-tin chose a curious focus for his anti-Polish invective, in the person of Józef Lipski, Poland’s pre-war ambassador to Nazi Germany. Mr Lipski apparently agreed with Hitler in welcoming the plan to deport all Jews to Madagascar.
With the benefit of hindsight, one could say that such an action, hideous as it was in abstract terms, could have saved millions of Polish Jews from the alternative solution. As it was, half of the six million Holocaust victims were murdered in Poland.
Yet Poo-tin sports blinkers on his hindsight. Using the kind of language that naturally rolls off his lips, he called the late Mr Lipski “scum and anti-Semitic swine”, explaining why he felt so strongly:
“Honestly, I should tell you I was stunned about the manner in which Hitler and Polish officials discussed the so-called ‘Jewish question’. Imagine, expelling Jews to Africa in 1938! They would’ve been doomed to extermination!” As opposed to what actually happened, one assumes.
Perhaps, when their tenures come to an end, Messrs Poo-tin and Lavrov could have profitable academic careers in Western universities. The former could teach history and the latter international law. Our intellectual life would be so much the better for it.