Chapter 5: Soviet Union to Russian Empire
In Episode 5 of A Red Line in the Sand, a companion podcast to the book of the same title, author David Andelman surveys Russia and its past and present environs: Estonia, Ukraine, Georgia, East Berlin, and more. He explores Vladimir Putin’s ambitions and their impact on his neighbors and the world.
David Andelman: In Dominic, a small, dark restaurant in Tallin, Estonia, two well-dressed gentlemen sat across from each other, whispering in Russian. They were whispering because the Russian language is hardly well-received in this Baltic nation. Estonia shares a 200 mile border with Russia and was once a vassal of the Soviet Union. They still see an existential threat from across the frontier that has become a fraught red line. I first mentioned these two gentlemen in my CNN column headlined “Could World War III start here?” The column was published just three days before Donald Trump was elected President of the United States. And my answer then was yes. World War III could start there. And that is still my answer today.
I’m David Andelman, author of the new book A Red Line in the Sand. I’m your host as we hopscotch around the world in this 12-part podcast. Together, we’re examining the red line boundaries that have changed history, set political agendas, spilled blood and smoothed paths toward peace.
Today, in episode 5, we’re in Russia and its environs, exploring Putin’s ambitions and their impact on his neighbors and the world.
I traveled through the three Baltic republics - Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania - in the weeks leading up to the 2016 election. It was quite clear that they all feared the same thing , from the halls of government to the most humble workers. They feared that a Trump presidency would empower Vladimir Putin to work his will on their nations.
The morning after meeting the two men speaking Russian in the restaurant, I drove out to the Tallinn airport. There I met Marju Lauristin, Estonia’s representative to the European Parliament, as she returned from their latest session in Strasbourg. She said: “We have been a neighbor of Russia not for 100 years but 1,000 years.”
She understood profoundly what those years meant to Estonia, oppressed by the Soviet Union until its dissolution. Nursing her horror of this system for two decades, Marju Lauristin leapt at the chance to break her people free in 1988. She launched the Popular Front in Support of Perestroika, a mass popular movement agitating for full-blown independence. The movement attracted some 60,000 members within weeks of its debut. One evening in August of 1989, two million people joined hands to form history’s longest human chain—their own red line. The line of people began in Tallinn, Estonia, and wound its way through villages, up hills and down valleys. It spanned 420 miles across all three Baltic nations to its terminus in Vilnius, Lithuania. Marju was there and in charge…..
Marju Lauristin: Unanimous will of three nations of people—people coming without any arms in their hands against the most powerful system……And people were standing, holding hands.
DA: It was a stunning visual and emotional image, which the Soviet Union promptly dismissed as “nationalist hysteria.” But by the end of 1991, all three Baltic republics had declared their independence. The red line the Soviet Union had built around Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania had been replaced. There was a new one now surrounding Russia, with the three new nations on the outside.
How those red lines came to be —snaking 500 miles along the Baltic frontiers with Russia—is a lesson both in red lines and the contrast between democracy and autocracy. In many respects, there is little in common between the three Baltic people. Estonians speak a language more similar to Finnish in the north and west and Hungarian in the south. It has few links to the languages of Latvia and Lithuania. The Lithuanian language may date back to Sanskrit, thanks to vast medieval migrations across northern Europe. The first inhabitants of the Baltics are believed to have arrived as early as 9,000 BC.
Fast-forwarding to the 16th century, Russian Czar Ivan the Terrible sought to take over some of these territories. By 1721, Russia was dominant across the Baltics. It had won access to the Baltic Sea - the ultimate goal that still motivates it to this day.
For the next three centuries, Russia would attempt to impose or restore many red lines along the fringes of its empire—all for the same reason. That reason is access to the sea, whether the frozen reaches of the Baltic or an outlet through the Black Sea to the Mediterranean.
The October Revolution of 1917 brought an end to imperial rule in Russia, leaving the Bolsheviks to spread their revolution across the continent from Asia through Georgia, Armenia, and Ukraine.
After World War II, Soviet armies overran the Baltic republics, completing the final configuration of the Soviet Union: at least 15 independent nations combined into a single autocracy. Heavily patrolled by armed troops, this red line isolated its 300 million people from the outside world.
It took another seven decades for this red line to shatter with the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the 1970s, my beat for The New York Times was the so-called “satellite nations” of Central and Eastern Europe. At that time, the Warsaw Pact monolith looked like the “thousand year Reich” at the peak of Hitler’s power. But already the seeds of its destruction were being sown. There was discontent on the fringes—uprisings like the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and the Prague Spring of 1968.
During this period, Vladimir Putin was learning the value of red lines. In East Berlin, where he served as a KGB agent, the Berlin Wall was part of the Iron Curtain red line. Soviet troops rolled through Poland, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. The communist leader Tito seized power in Yugoslavia. In all of these nations, boots on the ground established the red line the Soviet Union would defend for half a century. As Milovan Djilas, the leading Yugoslav dissident, told me years later: "Everyone imposes his own system as far as his army can reach.”
The Soviets wanted to extend their reach as much as the U.S. wanted to shrink it. Berlin was one of the earliest tests. At the end of World War II, Germany was divided in half. So was Berlin - split between allied-controlled West Berlin and a grim, gray communist East Berlin. The dividing line between the two sectors became ever more rigid through the years. East Germany and its capital, East Berlin, became the most tightly controlled of Moscow’s satellites.
With the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961, the red line was firmly in place. Until then, it had been only barely pink. East Berliners crossed that line to work, attend sports games, and go to concerts banned in the east. West Berliners would cross the other direction for cheap haircuts and clothes that were a fraction of the price in the West. But too many decided to stay in the West. In the first seven months of 1961, over 150,000 made the one-way trip, permanently leaving the Soviet orbit. Finally, the Soviets were moved to action.
Late in the evening of August 12, 1961, swarms of East Berlin police descended on the border, sealing it with 25 miles of barbed wire. East Berliners near the wall threw themselves out of windows to reach the west before it was too late. By 1965, it was a fortress. When I first traversed it 20 years later, interlocking segments of steel and concrete were firmly implanted.
I took a path through the wall that wound through heavily armored, windowless corridors. It occurred to me only after the gate had clanged behind me that there was no way to get any word to the outside world. At the checkpoint, a grim border agent examined my American passport with suspicion. After an interminable moment, he handed it back and gestured rudely to another door. Through it, I walked into the bright lights and chattering crowds of a West Berlin evening. Few East Germans ever had that opportunity.
In 1978, I visited the Soviet-controlled red line 10 miles from the Hungarian frontier with Austria. Along that border were tall guard posts spaced closely enough so each could see the next. Every morning, the earth along the border was carefully raked so footprints of anyone foolhardy enough to have tried to escape would be clearly visible.
But despite the barbed wire and guard posts, the red line was becoming porous. In the gymnasium of the local college, a few students wandered in. I asked if they read the local newspaper. Every day, they said. It printed the programs on Austrian television. What tanks or armored cars could not pierce, ideas could.
Vladimir Putin learned first-hand just how red lines might function. Putin, a KGB officer, was posted to East Germany until the Wall came down. One of the few world leaders with personal contact with red lines and their consequences, Putin was determined any such red line would never come down again. His life’s mission would be to reassemble the Soviet Union’s imperial reach as best he could. He held Peter the Great as a role model - the commander of a large unitary Russian empire. Achieving this goal would mean a substantial redrawing of red lines.
Red lines of varying shades have long existed between Russia and its many nationalities spanning 11 time zones. From the moment the transition began from a monolithic Soviet Union into a splintered collection of 15 independent states, each has been a subject of barely stable red lines of their own.
Several of these states have joined NATO, presenting both a defiance and a barrier to Russia’s 21st century ambitions. An attack on one NATO member is an attack on all. Vladimir Putin has only tested this at the margins. But he has mounted some muscular challenges across other red lines on Russia’s borders.
By the early 21st century, oil prices soared and with them rose Putin’s power. He began testing some of the red lines he saw as standing in his way. The first was Estonia. In 2007, the Estonian government removed a Soviet memorial from a small park in the center of the Estonian capital and on the site of Russian war graves. It was seen by one million native Estonians as an affront - a tribute to a half century of Soviet oppression. But to the 300,000 ethnic Russians who still lived in Estonia, this war memorial represented lives lost fighting for their country. When Estonia’s Russian population found their beloved monument gone, they took to the streets.
[archival tape of riots]
These were the worst riots since Estonia declared independence from the Soviet Union. The Russian parliament even suggested that this could be cause for war. Would Estonia’s red line hold?
Putin’s foreign minister warned that Russia would “take serious steps” against its tiny neighbor. It didn’t take long for Russia to follow through. A viciously coordinated series of cyber attacks whipsawed the Estonian Internet system - among the most highly networked in the world.
The unprecedented cyber barrage continued for 22 days. Even the Estonian prime minister's personal website and e-mail were shut down by the Russian “invaders” - a three-week electronic carpet-bombing of an entire nation. The campaign had shattered what Baltic leaders believed to be an unbreachable red line. But there were none of the consequences of an armored assault that might have led to a NATO response. So NATO did not step in.
And there were other underbellies neighboring the Russian Federation where Putin might strike. One of them was the nation of Georgia.
Late one night in 2008, Georgian forces launched an artillery barrage on Russian forces who had already infiltrated its province of South Ossetia. It was a dangerous moment that ultimately sparked the first full-scale shooting war in Europe in the 21st century.
The roots of this exchange had been brewing for two decades. When the Soviet Union fell apart, a red line went up between Georgia and Russia. Georgia had a long and proud history, utterly distinct from Russia’s. 8,000 years ago, wine was produced there by Georgians. It was said to be the site of the legendary Golden Fleece, sought by Jason and the Argonauts. But the wine and mythological items are not the only things that attracted people to Georgia. It commands a stretch of the Black Sea's eastern shore and has long been attractive to Russians seeking warm water ports. A series of invasions from foreign armies led to the kingdom fragmenting into a collection of tiny kingdoms and principalities. By 1801, Russia had pledged to take Georgia as a protectorate, but instead simply seized much of the territory.
Georgia had a brief flirtation with independence during the Russian Revolution. But by 1922, it was incorporated firmly into the Soviet Union. Stalin himself was a proud Georgian. In the late 1980s, Georgia won its independence. But it faced other issues. Most importantly, what actually was Georgia? What were its boundaries and what were its red lines?
Today's Georgia is a stewpot—more than 80 ethnic groups live within its boundaries, including two quasi-independent provinces, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Quite a clear red line was drawn between Russia and the tenuously united nation of Georgia. An uneasy truce held for more than a decade.
But eventually Russia grew uneasy. Suddenly, the Kremlin feared the arrival of NATO and a red line like that in the Baltics: a new threat right on its frontier.
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It took four more years for it all to come apart in Georgia. The trigger, as with so many such red line conflicts, was a trivial incident. In 2008, a Georgian unarmed drone was shot down over Abkhazia, not far from the Russian frontier. Quickly, Georgian troops moved in force, while Russians poured into the provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two border territories with long ties to Russia. Four days of battles opened on land, sea and air as the Russian navy beat back Georgian forces in the Black Sea.
This was the first European war of the 21st century. French president Nicolas Sarkozy and the European Union stepped in to negotiate a ceasefire. Russia acknowledged the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and began withdrawal of its forces from Georgia.
What Russia planned to do was simply to redraw the red lines of the region to its own advantage. It was and remains an approach virtually unique to Putin. He simply overlays the red lines recognized by the rest of the world with his own. We’ll see this again in a moment when we turn to Crimea and Ukraine.
In Georgia, the Russians kept pressing on, bit by bit. One elderly farmer observed that he “went to bed in Georgia and woke up in South Ossetia." He was peering through a stretch of barbed wire that overnight had replaced the old boundary strung across farmland. The Russians told him he was no longer allowed into what they suddenly called “occupied territory.” This went on, day by day, week by week. Red line creep - or borderization, as it became known.
You might ask why such a red line has been established and defended in such a god-forsaken corner, where Europe and Asia come together? The value to Russia is minimal. There's only a small outlet to the Black Sea. A few miles up the coast is the resort town of Sochi, site of the 2014 Winter Olympics. At the time, it appeared Putin wanted to build a tourist destination the Kremlin could control. That never happened. So, the answer can only be explained by hubris and corruption. Part can be attributed to Putin’s territorial ambitions and his goal of restoring the old Soviet empire. But if he were balancing costs against benefits, he would see that this would not be a fruitful path. His experience in Crimea and Ukraine proves that.
So here we are, now, in Crimea and Ukraine—our final stretch of contested Russian border. And Ukraine is Russia’s ultimate prize. If ever there was a red line worth shattering, this was it.
Ukraine was a major power straddling Europe and Asia for a thousand years. In the 10th century, the prince of Kiev invaded the powerful Byzantine Empire, making it the largest state in Europe. It was a major trading hub connecting Europe, Constantinople and Baghdad. At its peak in 1200, its population was equal to Paris and nearly double the size of London. But none of this glory was destined to last. Ukraine was a wealthy and fabulous prize. Its farmlands were the richest in Europe.
By gradual settlement and expansion, rather than massive invasions, Lithuania, Poland, and Russia took over much of Ukraine. Again, creeping red lines. They approached from opposite directions and Ukraine was ground between these powers. Eventually, Ukraine was entirely conquered by the Russian czarina, Catherine the Great.
At its peak, Russian territory was expanding through Ukraine at a rate of three square miles per day. Russia moved south toward the warm waters of the Black Sea and its year-round ports. But along the way were millions of vast, rolling acres with fertile soil. And the soil became more and more fertile the farther South the Russians pushed. Wheat, corn and potatoes would be plentiful there, along with thousands of watermills and windmills.
Ukraine accounted for 40 percent of the world’s entire barley crop and its beets were the main source of sugar for European tables. Massive deposits of coal and iron ore also sparked a critical industry. Russia was coming to realize that Ukraine was essential to the very life of the motherland.
The end of World War I brought a brief flirtation with independence, but Bolshevik forces soon roped Ukraine into the USSR and behind the Red Line of the Iron Curtain. Things were difficult behind that line. First came a series of harsh winters and famines in the early 1920s. And then there was the Holodomor—Stalin's Ukrainian holocaust. He desperately needed Ukraine’s grain to feed his urban workforce, so he sent police and troops to seize every morsel of grain in villages across Ukraine. The result was a famine of unparalleled proportions.
Those who did not die of famine were executed, often for stealing a handful of grain destined for Russia. Whole villages died. Estimates place the Ukrainian death toll between three and six million people. In 1937, Stalin quietly exterminated the leadership of the Ukrainian government and communist party—170,000 people, including entire families. The Holodomor has been permanently seared into the DNA of Ukrainians to this day.
And then, there was World War II. Some 5 million Ukrainians died during the war, while 2 million more were shipped to Germany for forced labor. 30,000 villages were wiped out or damaged, killing ten million more. In all, nearly a fifth of the population was gone.
Nikita Khruschev was raised in Ukraine. He recognized that this was the most significant corner of the Soviet Union with four times the output of any other republic. He understood the horrors to which this land had been subjected. After he succeeded Stalin as the Soviet leader, he tried to right those wrongs.
In February 1954, Khruschev gave a gift to Ukraine to strengthen brotherly ties between them and Russian peoples. The gift was territory: a strategically critical region of Russia called Crimea. You may recall from Episode 2 that it was in Crimea a century earlier where Russian forces found the red line of British soldiers at the height of the Crimean War.
Let’s fast-forward now to Vladimir Putin’s regime. Ukraine was definitively on the outside of Putin’s red line frontier. Putin, like centuries of Russian rulers before him, saw Ukraine as an integral part of the Russian heartland. The fact that this nation was independent was simply an accident of history. Ambassador Kurt Volker, a leading expert in East-West relations put it to me this way:
Kurt Volker: Russia still sees itself as the center of a larger Empire Russian Empire was there the Soviet Union was there it looks at surrounding states like Ukraine like Georgia like Kazakhstan as lesser entities and not quite fully sovereign and to the extent that Ukraine, including eastern Ukraine, is able to prove that it is a successful democracy, a market economy, a prosperous country and integrating with the rest of the world, well that is damaging to Russia's self-perception and the image that Russians have of Russia.
DA: This was the state of affairs in February 2014, when Putin decided to take action. For much of the post-Soviet period, Ukraine and its province of Crimea had remained in reliable hands. While there were flirtations with membership in the European Union, even NATO, no real steps were taken. But then matters began to get out of hand and Russia got nervous.
The Kremlin's man in Kiev, Viktor Yanukovich, managed to eke out a narrow win for Ukrainian president in 2010. But within a year, polls showed Yanukovich’s popularity had plunged to just 13 percent.
In 2013, Yanukovich was supposed to sign a long-awaited Association Agreement with the European Union. This would be a first step toward Ukraine joining the EU. Moving inside the enormous tariff-free red line of EU membership would boost exports by 50 percent with a double-digit rise in GDP. But Yanukovich didn’t sign. He had already begun pivoting sharply away from the EU and toward new and stronger ties with Russia, fulfilling his ‘mission’ as Putin’s inside man, but hardly endearing himself to most Ukrainians.
In November, Yanukovich had traveled to Russia to meet with Putin. Putin held out a carrot: Cheaper gas from Russia and avoiding trade sanctions. It was a pretty rotten offer compared to the EU’s.
But Russia had another persuasive tool in their belt. They began to deliver a taste of what life would be like if their red line did not hold. Armed Russian customs officers began arbitrary border checks on Ukrainian trucks crossing the frontier. Russia's state gas monopoly Gazprom presented Ukraine with an outstanding bill for nearly a billion dollars. So Yanukovich threw in his lot with Russia and failed to sign an agreement with the EU.
Within hours, a small group had gathered on Independence Square in Ukraine’s capital to protest Yanukovich’s choice. Within a week, it blossomed into a national violent uprising. A virtual civil war broke out and Yanukovych was forced from office. He fled his lavish estate in the dead of night with his girlfriend and a handful of guards. They boarded a Russian ship on the Black Sea and Russia received them with open arms.
Meanwhile, Putin was waiting for the end of the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi before launching his next move. Within weeks of the Olympics, soldiers occupied the local parliament in Crimea's capital. Elsewhere in Crimea, men in uniform stopped and searched every vehicle, while protestors from the region’s Russian majority shouted “Crimea is Russian.” Russian military forces swarmed through the province, surrounding government buildings, closing the main airport, seizing all communications facilities. Russia had the upper hand in Crimea. Then came the backlash from the West.
As in the case of most red lines, the consequences must be fully weighed. Are the benefits worth the potential cost of sanctions? In the wake of Russia seizing Crimea, Putin was about to find out. The United States and the European Union came down hard. Hundreds of Russian corporations, officials and business executives, from the head of the KGB, to Gazprom and oligarchs close to Putin were all on the list.
Eventually, these sanctions would bite, but by then Putin had already re-absorbed Crimea as a portion of Russia. The red line surrounding it was firmly in place. Maybe the benefit was worth the cost.
Putin immediately began cementing Crimea within his red line. And Russia tried to press its red line westward as deep into ethnic Russian regions of Ukraine as possible using special op forces. A West European observer mission saw some 30,000 camouflaged troops at just two border crossing points—a “ghost army” that fanned out across the region. The ultimate toll of this effort was some 13,000 deaths and a million displaced from their homes.
It's unclear how much further Putin might press his red line into Ukraine. If Putin is to be discouraged from even more pernicious activities, this red line must be held . France and Germany have sought to broker some permanent cease-fire, but there's little motivation for Putin to pull back. By now, Putin has succeeded in cementing Crimea and continuing to destabilize eastern Ukraine. It might now be time for him to test Russia’s ability to establish and maintain red lines further afield.
As we'll see in our next episode, that would put him directly in the middle of the world’s most deadly web of red lines. That intricate network is the one branching out across the Middle East, another region profoundly important to American interests.
Thanks for listening.
Meanwhile, I hope you’ll check out my new book from Pegasus, "A Red Line in the Sand: Diplomacy, Strategy, and the History of Wars That Might Still Happen."
If you’re enjoying the show, make sure to leave us a review on Apple Podcasts to help other fans of history and adventure find the show.
Red Lines is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. My special thanks to producer Isabel Robertson, engineer Sean Rule-Hoffman, and executive producers Michael de Aloia and Gerardo Orlando.
Visit evergreenpodcasts.com to access a transcript and get more info on the show. Subscribe to the podcast to see the next episode in your feed the moment it’s published. See you next time!
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