Nick Allen in Berlin -
Box office takings could be phenomenal: A movie that fuses the essence of Apollo 13, Red Dawn, Wag the Dog, Mad Max and Zoolander, packed with suspense, action, tragedy, a few laughs, bikers, twerkers and a catwalk full of military models. Look at – and around – Russia today, and you’ll see that it’s already been scripted to the hilt.
With more than 6,000 people killed in the conflict in eastern Ukraine, and thousands more injured and displaced, the calamity unfolding there is no joke. This writer spent a happy year in this same region learning Russian as the Soviet Union unravelled in 1991, and watching its destruction now is truly heartbreaking. But the surreal spectrum of Russia-related events in recent months lends itself to some cheeky extrapolation too, with a Siberian-sized pinch of salt.
Some day, year or decade, a geopolitical balance will again be achieved, albeit on a very different footing, providing we don’t go down the MAD route of mutually assured destruction. But if the bloodshed in Ukraine is now halted, some things cannot be undone. The country will remain de facto split in its east and south, if not officially. And with Russia probably having weathered the worst that Western sanctions and low oil prices can throw at it for now, there will be no backing down. Crimea is an integral part of its history and national identity, and Moscow will never give up the annexed peninsular, no matter how many governments and post-1991 maps continue to declare it part of Ukraine.
This forced reunification in March 2014 was as important for Russia as the fall of the Berlin Wall was for Germany, and there was “no other way”, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said in April.
“There are such milestones in the history of each country, which mark the start of a new epoch,” Medvedev told the Russian parliament. “For modern Russia it was the year 2014.”
Despite the turmoil, inflation, lost jobs and international isolation of the last 15 months, Russians have seldom been as upbeat and chest-beating proud since the 1991 Soviet collapse – “the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th Century”, as President Vladimir Putin termed it.
According to an April survey by VTsIOM, people are more positive about their country now than they have been since the [okay, state-run] pollster began its ‘social sentiment index’ five years ago. And as Putin steers Russia away from the West towards new or deeper alliances elsewhere, possibly intent on driving deep rifts into the 28-nation bloc of the EU in the process, his popularity rating has risen beyond 80%.
As this piece was being written, Putin and China’s Xi Jinping had a warm meeting in Moscow ahead of the May 9 celebrations of the 70th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany. Before Xi leaves, the leaders are due to sign or signpost a raft of major deals in energy, commerce and infrastructure, with Russia ready to roll out more pipelines and trade links to the East with the zeal of a late-night ‘Risk’ player.
So, returning to that new movie, let’s look at some of its inspiration.
Red Dawn. The 1984 classic about a Soviet invasion of the US never satisfactorily explained how the Red Army could deploy such forces across the prairies in the blink of an eye. Let’s not nitpick though. Thirty years on, Moscow’s hordes of armed, unmarked ‘little green men’ materialised just as fast in Crimea, until the land grab was done and dusted.
Whatever your politics and allegiances, it goes down in the history books as one of the most brilliantly executed conquests in history. Barely a shot was fired before the brass bands were welcoming Crimea back to the Motherland, while the West stood by transfixed and impotent. It still doesn’t know how to react to what is clearly a full-fledged, Moscow-run operation to also wrest the eastern Luhansk and Donetsk regions permanently away from Kyiv’s control.
Wag the Dog. None of the above is happening. Russia has no combat forces in Ukraine, not even one of the 40,000-plus troops believed to be massed at the border, taking turns by units to supplant amateurish rebel forces in Blitzkrieg assaults on Ukrainian government positions before withdrawing across the border as fast as they came. None of that is true. The Nato satellite images are fake, the eyewitness accounts lies. Just as there were no unsanctioned Russian forces occupying Crimea beyond those allowed there under 1994 agreements with Kyiv. Until Putin admitted they were a year later, that is. “We monitored the situation and had to bring in our equipment,” Putin said in the documentary, "Crimea: Path To The Homeland", broadcast on March 15. “[Russian troops already stationed in Crimea] would have been wiped out after the first salvo,” he said.
If there’s a take-home message from the 1997 political spin doctor comedy starring Robert de Niro and Dustin Hoffman, it’s that reality is what you insist and paint it to be. Up is down and black is white if the objective dictates the need. It is found the world over, but it is a very Soviet legacy, especially prevalent in politics, defence and space exploration, where reports of accidents were not helpful as “the Russians had always presented their march to space as a smooth road to glory”, ex-Nasa engineer James Oberg observed after realising that vanished cosmonauts were being air brushed out of official photos.
Apollo 13. “Moscow, we have a problem.” Since it is harder to cover up failures today, Russia’s legendary space programme just received a large dollop of egg on its face at a very awkward time. The recent inability of an unmanned ‘Progress’ freighter to dock with the International Space Station (ISS) will have drawn fury in Moscow, as the survival of the crew on the orbiter now probably depends on a US craft bringing food and water before current stocks runs out in September.
Worse still, the lost Progress and its 2.7 tonnes of cargo had to be burned up in the Earth’s atmosphere a day before the Victory Day celebrations. The forced incineration added a further twist of the knife: The craft was reportedly carrying a Soviet Banner of Victory and a set of St George ribbons to the ISS for the May 9 occasion. So Russia had to burn one of its most symbolic emblems amid preparations for one of the greatest fanfares to the war victory in 70 years.
Eyes then turned to Red Square for the parade and aerial show involving thousands of troops, old and ultra-modern tanks, and 140 aircraft. While unarguably saluting the Soviet Union’s huge war effort and human losses, the bristling displays of military muscle are also a clear assertion of the new ‘don’t mess with us’ Russia. The run-up produced some notable failures, though. A keen aviation enthusiast spotted that the photo of a Soviet WWII aircrew shown on billboards with the caption “They fought for the Motherland” was actually shot in a Luftwaffe plane, meaning they were Germans. The large hoardings vanished as fast as the little green men had appeared in Crimea.
Then at a rehearsal on May 7, a top secret Armata T-14 heavy battle tank appeared to break down on Red Square and defied attempts to move it with a recovery vehicle. It later restarted and a loudspeaker announcement palmed the incident off as a planned demonstration of tank repair procedures.
The Armata has been cloaked in secrecy for years, and appeared in public for the first time in the rehearsals, with its turret still covered with tarpaulins to thwart premature analysis of its features. The measure prompted wits to predict the final unveiling will reveal the ‘На Берлин!’ exhortation painted on Soviet tanks in WWII during the final push – To Berlin!
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One fearsome vanguard of the new no-nonsense Russia did reach the German capital, but to only pay its respects to the war dead at local sites. With echoes of Mad Max, scores of grizzled bikers from the “Night Wolves” motorcyclists’ club set off for Berlin in late April in a reprisal of the Soviet advance in 1945.
Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu wished the bikers good luck before they left, writing on his private Twitter page that actually, "a ride through Poland should be taken on tanks". The gang’s numbers were steadily whittled down by detentions and border entry refusals, until only about a dozen finished the last leg of the ride on May 8.
They did not include club president Alexander ‘The Surgeon’ Zaldostanov, a former medical assistant in facial reconstruction who is a chum of Putin. Very nationalistic, homophobic and a big fan of Joseph Stalin, the 52-year-old biker was one of the official torchbearers for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. He also received the Russian Order of Honour, from Putin for "activity in the patriotic education of young people" in 2013. Since that time, opposition activist Alexei Navalny claims the Night Wolves and their associated groups received $1.1mn of taxpayer money, some of which was allocated for staging anti-Western shows for children.
The biker and Putin are remembered for riding abreast through the Black Sea port of Novorossiisk in 2011 on Harley Davidsons (distinctly American creations, no?). Pals or not, hierarchy prevailed: Zaldostanov rode a two-wheeler, Putin got the three-wheeled “trike” during their spin through town.
That just leaves Zoolander. Russia may be stuck in the past in some respects (nostalgia for the USSR and Stalin are still strong and growing), and way ahead in others (as space pioneers and champions of surreal PR, for example). But it also can touch the pulse of today’s Zeitgeist in vivid fashion. While the military engineers were beavering away on the Armata, the Defence Ministry launched a new range of trendy military-themed clothing for men inspired by the annexation of Crimea and “patriotism and love of Russia”, it said.
Me-oh-Miley, what have you started?
When it seems it can’t get any odder, it always does. The clue to this final West-East blip lies in a recent headline referring to the crouched, butt-wiggling dance famously promoted by US actress-turned-singer Miley Cyrus, and now a favourite among teens in conservative Russia: “Kremlin chief of staff says twerking is ok under right circumstances”.
Somewhat understandably, “right” circumstances for “twerking” are not seen to include doing it beside or on memorials to Russia’s war dead. Women filmed in the act by a monument in Novorossiisk were jailed for two weeks. Or while wearing orange and black leotards reminiscent of the Victory insignia colours.
But the lessons still didn’t sink home for male military cadets in that city yet again. Several are now under investigation after performing a raunchy wash routine in their underwear on a T-34 battle tank monument.
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