The other day, watching the Eurovision Song Contest – Europe’s equivalent of the Super Bowl, only with bad songs instead of a football game – we reflected on how odd it was to see performers from Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland taking the same stage as an act from Russia. This was, after all, going on at a time when the people living in the countries on Russia’s Western border have serious, growing, and thoroughly legitimate concerns that Vladimir Putin, any day now, may order Russian troops to march across their borders. As one observer noted a couple of weeks ago, the Baltics may be “model states for democracy, respect for human rights, and transparency,” may “have the highest standard of living among the former states of the Soviet Union,” and may be the only former Soviet states in the Eurozone, but “the mood in all three countries is dark.”
Consider this: in a single week earlier this month, NATO military exercises were held in Poland, Lithuania, Georgia, Estonia and the Baltic Sea. Such is the air of menace Putin has created in his neighborhood, reported the Guardian in May, that “[e]ven Sweden and Finland have started musing aloud about joining NATO.”
Missing from Eurovision this year was Ukraine, which already has Russian troops on its soil. (In fact, the financial challenges caused by the conflict in eastern Ukraine were reportedly the reason why Ukraine pulled out of this year’s Eurovision.) One is reminded of the notorious 1936 Berlin Olympics, at which countries soon to go to war with one another engaged in “friendly” athletic competition under the very eyes of Hitler; only the comparison would be even more apt if the Berlin Olympics had taken place not in the summer of 1936 but three years later, after the Anschluss and Germany’s annexation of the Sudetenland.
Putin has been rattling sabers for months. According to recent reports, he’s informed Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko that if he wanted, he “could have Russian troops not only in Kiev, but also in Riga, Vilnius, Tallinn, Warsaw and Bucharest” within two days. He also told European Commission President José Manuel Barroso: “If I want to, I can take Kiev in two weeks.” In mid May, the heads of the Baltic countries’ armed forces asked NATO to station on their territories “a new unit similar to the Berlin Brigade that was stationed in Germany during the Cold War.” The danger is real.
And yet even as things heat up along Russia’s western border, Putin’s apologists in the West hold firm.
Take action-film heavyweight Steven Seagal, who not only calls Putin a pal but considers him “one of the greatest world leaders, if not the greatest world leader alive.” This month, when Putin held a celebration of Russia’s World War II victory – at which he gave a speech accusing the U.S. of seeking “to create a unipolar world” – Seagal was there in the audience, cheering him on. We’ve already noted Seagal’s curious friendship with Putin, but recently there have been some fresh tidbits of news from that front. It was reported in April, for example, that Putin, back in 2013, asked the U.S. to recognize his movie-star buddy as an “honorary consul of Russia” who would act as “a potential intermediary between the White House and the Kremlin.” (The U.S. response, according to one unnamed official, was: “You’ve got to be kidding.”) Although U.S. and European officials boycotted Putin’s VE-Day anniversary event in protest against his actions in Ukraine, Seagal was able to rub shoulders at the shindig with some of Putin’s other international comrades – including Raul Castro, Robert Mugabe, and Xi Jinping.
Even some people who don’t really seem to be full-fledged Putin fans have been infected by those fans’ disingenuous rhetoric. Take British journalist David Blair. He doesn’t appear to possess any great affection for Putin, but in a recent article, after snidely mocking Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves for having grown up in New Jersey and for speaking English with an American accent (horrors!), Blair actually characterized Ilves’s distaste for Putin as rooted not in an understandable concern about Kremlin belligerence, but in an indignancy over “Putin’s disregard for post-World War II international rules (and, by extension, his disrespect for post-Cold War American hegemony).”
American hegemony. Yes, in the lexicon of Putin’s Western fans, that’s what this is all about. Not the reality of Russian aggression, but the fiction of “American hegemony,” a nonsense term used to make a good thing – the banding together of democracies for mutual protection against a warmongering tyrant – look like a bad thing.
Blair went on to note that even though the Baltic countries are full NATO members, “no American or NATO soldiers are permanently defending the Baltics.” If Putin invaded, “these countries could not protect themselves” and “NATO would not be able to reinforce them.” But while Ilves calls for NATO to put permanent NATO troops in the Baltics, Blair warned against it, maintaining that “Russia would regard this as a grave escalation.” Again, Blair doesn’t seem to be a Putin fan, but he’s speaking their language – referring to a purely defensive measure as if it were an act of aggression. Nobody, including Putin, seriously believes that NATO would station troops in the Baltics with an eye to invading Russia. That being the case, the word “escalation” is utterly out of place here.
The hypocrisy factor in all this is through the roof. How many of the Western politicians, journalists, and others who defend Putin would want to ply their trades in Russia? Even one of Putin’s top domestic media stooges, it turns out, no longer lives in Russia but – guess where? In the U.S., naturally. We’re talking about Ashot Gabrelyanov, who, with his father, has “built a tabloid empire” and is believed to “wor[k] closely with Russia’s intelligence services” to promote the Putin regime and defame its enemies. A few months ago, as Mashable reported on May 1, the younger Gabrelyanov, founder of Russia’s top news (or “news”) site, LifeSite News, moved to New York City – and ever since then he’s been busy on social media gushing over the same country he routinely demonizes on his website. “NYC is incredible,” he enthused on Instagram. Meet the new poster boy for hypocritical Putin fandom.