What are Vladimir Putin’s true intentions?
That question, and the need for a dependable answer, will likely monopolize for some time the attention of the U.S., its allies and the now independent European nations that formerly were captive parts of what used to be the Soviet empire.
The Russian president was born in 1952, and for the first 39 years of his life, much of eastern Europe was ruled from Moscow.
Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, East Germany and the Baltic republics — Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia — were independent nations in name only. In fact, they were subject to dictates of the Stalinist regime.
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For all of them it meant a degree of humiliation and suffering. The brutal suppression of the 1956 Hungarian uprising — a spontaneous revolt against Soviet-imposed policies — and the 1948 invasion and occupation of the Czech republic made clear to the world the Kremlin hard-liners’ contempt for commonly accepted standards of international conduct.
Worst abused were the Baltic republics, occupied in 1944 and illegally declared territories of the Soviet Union. It was not until a half century later, 1994, that their independence was restored.
During the period from 1945 to 1958, the people of those nations on the northern rim of Europe endured almost unimaginable pain.
In the Stalin and post-Stalin years, more than a half million Baltic nationals were forcibly exiled — many of them to the tundra region of Siberia, well above the Arctic Circle.
Deposited there by the shiploads, without food or any means of creating shelter, tens of thousands perished of starvation and exposure, many of them children.
We passed through that area during our 1991 expedition on Siberia’s Lena River. Remnants of frail lodgings the exiles managed to construct still could be seen. How anyone could have survived there in winter temperatures of minus 70 degrees and colder defies imagining.
It was only the failed coup attempt we witnessed in Moscow during August 1991 — an event that resulted in the final fracturing of the Soviet empire — that enabled the Baltic peoples and citizens of other Soviet-ruled territories to reclaim their independence as nations reborn.
It is for Europeans who shared these experiences that Putin’s despicable grab for the Crimea must evoke unsettling memories.
Will he be satisfied to annex the Eastern Ukraine? Or does he have grander and more objectionable ambitions?
It is important that no time be wasted in making clear — not as threats but simply as statements of fact — what the consequences for Russia and its reckless president might be.
One would hope that the diverse and often fractious members of the world community would have the wisdom and the courage to serve Mr. Putin notice — in a unified voice — that any effort to create a new Soviet empire of the oppressed will not be tolerated.
For more of C.W. Gusewelle, go to gusewelle.kansascity.com.