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Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Back in Russia once again: what a difference an invasion makes.

What a difference a day made
And the difference is you

In about a month I will visit Russia once again, because of the 75th birthday of my mother-in-law.

In spite of the mounting international tensions and the jawboning, warmongering and muscle-rolling of the former archenemies Russia and Europe/ US, it is a visit to which I look forward very much.

In my opinion, there is nothing that beats wintertime in St-Petersburg.

It is a time of intense cold weather and warm clothes; of being in a classic, beautiful city, lit up like an X-mas tree (check out my pictures in the article behind the next link - EL); of numerous visits to friends and family and of endless talking with a cup of tea or a bottle of vodka in hand.

And perhaps, when I’m lucky, a visit to a ‘Banya’: a Russian sauna, heated up to red-hot temperatures; it will yield a few hours of relaxing and talking with friends, eating whole (!) dried fish and drinking Russian beer, before jumping in a small, iced pond to get rid of the intense heat.

Still, at this moment I feel so intensely ‘how much difference an invasion made’.

My last visit took place in a time of relative optimism in Russia, in spite of the economic crisis. Of course, it were still the crisis years and the list of things that did not change for the better in Russia was undoubtedly longer than the list of things that did change. Yet, the middle-class Russian people I knew seemed quite optimistical and in a good mood.

In those days Russia still had the Olympic Games to look forward to and Putin seemed to work on his reputation of ‘enlightened despot’: far from a genuine democrat, but nevertheless someone who gave Russia self-confidence and a glimmer of hope for a better future. As the short-lived attack in Georgia was almost forgotten after 4.5 years, Russia was not considered to be a pariah state and an agressor against its neighbours anymore in those days.

And now? The reckless invasion of Crimea and the actions of the sponsored insurgents (most probably endorsed by Russia) in the rebellious East-Ukrainian regions, culminating in the terrible attack at the MH17 airplane of Malaysian Airways, seems to have changed everything for the worse in the relations between Russia and the Western world.

Europe, the US and Russia are fighting eachother in an economic war, which hurts themselves almost as much as it hurts the ‘enemy’. The tone-of-voice between these countries is becoming increasingly aggressive, spurred by the increasingly nationalistic national media, and listening to eachother seems definitely a virtue from the past among these now-archenemies and former trade partners.

Once again, gas has been used as a weapon of mass intimidation by Russia. This time by withdrawing the plans for the European South-Stream gas pipeline at a glance and by moving this gas pipeline to Turkey, as latest-best-friend-without-questions for Russia, (although I suspect that the diminishing rationale of the South-Stream pipeline, under pressure of the dropping oil prices, could also have something to do with this decision - EL) .

And in the background, China ponders about how to take as much advantage out of the Russian situation as possible. This is quite easy for a country with a history and national memory of dozens of centuries and an operational overview and patience that can last for decades, instead of weeks and months.

The NATO is increasingly banging the drums of Cold War, through its actions and through the speeches of its ‘leaders’, as this organization needs its former and current archenemy as a raison d’etre. It is putting a quick response-force at the Russian borders, to protect the new East-European member states and the Scandinavian countries against the mounting Russian aggression: a deed that itself can be and will be seen by the Russians as blatant NATO aggression. And all the time almost everybody is escalating and virtually nobody is de-escalating the situation.

Spurred by the continuing crisis and the mounting nationalism in all countries and in a blatant attempt to shout down the continuing political failures and drawbacks in the national and European economies, the politicians and media fire up the European/Russian crisis – in Europe, the Ukraine and the US, as well as in Russia itself – with the enthusiasm and drive of a kamikaze pilot.

And now the question is: who will pull the plug out of the mounting tensions? Who will take the initiative for straight and firm talks about de-escalating the crisis and solving the situation in the Ukraine once and for all.There is simply too much at stake in Europe and in the rest of the world to let the situation get out of hand completely. All involved parties know it, but everybody seems to forget about that.

Those are my ponderings in the eve of my visit to Russia’s second city St-Petersburg. It will be cold, when I go there; our friends and family will be as kind and heart-warming as ever, the city will be beautifully lit anyway and the shops will probably be a tiny bit emptier than two years ago. Summarized,  the country will be beautiful, heartwarming and (still) surprisingly different for me, as a visitor. 

Nevertheless, the thoughts that things could run out of hand so easily, still bug me at night, as I worry for the world and for the future of my wife and children and myself. These are not very heroic thoughts, but who needs a hero when heroes can do crazy stuff at exactly the wrong time. What a difference an invasion makes!

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