20 years under Putin: a timeline

The fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 signaled the end of the Cold War. According to writer Alexander Podrabinek, over the last quarter-century, most Western democracies have been indulging in wishful thinking by considering Russia to be a modern nation governed by law. The time has come to face the stark reality.


The mural depicted above is a part of the Berlin Wall (East Side Gallery). Art by Kani Alavi. Photo: facesofberlin.org.


The autumn of 1989 marked the collapse of the Communist regime in Eastern Europe. The demolition of the Berlin Wall that separated free Germany from its socialist counterpart became the symbol for that historic event. The Berlin Wall fell in a surprisingly simple manner—without bloodshed or people defending the German Democratic Republic and its socialist “values.” For many years, the Wall had been the symbol of Cold War tensions, and after its demolition, the area has finally enjoyed some peace.

The event was initially marked by euphoria, enthusiasm, and a sense of triumph. There was no doubt that in the Cold War of democracy versus totalitarianism, the former had prevailed. However, the peaceful times that settled on the ruins left in the aftermath of the Cold War have not been as stable as the echoes of war that reverberated across the world. The communist monster was quasi-vanquished, but not completely crushed. Its ghost was alive in the Soviet Union, and it is still breathing in China, Vietnam, and Cuba.

So strong was the temptation to declare and believe in victory and begin a peaceful life without communism, that after the collapse of the Soviet Union two years later, the world anticipated the beginning of a golden age of democracy. No more would people dread nuclear threat, arms races, military standoffs, aggressive rhetoric, and mutual accusations. Was this not the epitome of European happiness? Was this not representative of a truly democratic world?

Often our wishes supersede our capabilities, and the West’s wish for peace superseded common sense and prudence when Russia started receiving abundant Western support and financial assistance upon declaring its adoption of a democratic path. The European Council, international political organizations, and financial clubs stepped in to offer Russia membership. The Russian government’s baffling unwillingness to establish and develop democratic organizations in the country was viewed by the West as part of the difficult transition and Russia’s flawed mentality, financial issues, and economic sluggishness.

The first troublesome sign came very soon, when Russia went back on its earlier commitment to introduce a death penalty moratorium in peacetime and abolish the death penalty in its Criminal Code. The West failed to notice that sign. It was followed by the war in Chechnya, an act by Russia that did not align with the globally accepted notion of democracy, let alone the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. Nevertheless, Western democratic countries continued to act as if nothing extraordinary had happened and Russia were still part of the world’s democratic community.

It is time to tell the truth and stop dwelling in wishful thoughts of an illusory peace. The new Cold War is a necessary and appropriate response by the West to the Russian threat.

After KGB lieutenant colonel Vladimir Putin came to power, the situation in Russia took a nosedive: civil rights were drastically curtailed; the nascent free enterprise sector was under constant threat of heavy corruption; the country’s foreign policy grew increasingly aggressive; and Kremlin rhetoric became imperialistic and openly anti-Western. Even the 2008 war with Georgia, which exposed the antagonistic nature of the Putin-led regime, was not enough to change the West’s sympathy toward Putin’s Russia.

In the wake of the Crimea annexation and Russia’s involvement in Ukraine, the West has finally come to its senses. The long-overdue epiphany had been followed by sanctions and deteriorating relations. What should have been done in 1996 was finally accomplished eighteen years later—during which time, Russia has successfully done away with the majority of its democratic institutions and boosted its imperialistic ambitions.

Today, twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the triumphant end of the Cold War, we are facing a situation that strongly mirrors that which existed at the end of the 1970s. Currently, Russia is assertively expanding its sphere of influence by resorting to its army and special reconnaissance and sabotage tactics. A subservient court system is effectively suppressing any opposing views, and the government is closely monitoring Russian mass media. Large-scale propaganda is extensively used to inculcate notions of “great-power” pride and national exceptionalism in the Russian people, as well as to instill in them fear of a foreign enemy that threatens the country’s natural resources and traditional values. Russian military forces are demonstrating their readiness to begin military operations in another country, while TU-160 long-range strategic bombers fly conspicuously along the borders of Western countries.

The resurgence of the Cold Was is no longer a threat looming in our future; it is a reality of today’s world. It is time to tell the truth and stop dwelling in wishful thoughts of an illusory peace. The new Cold War is a necessary and appropriate response by the West to the Russian threat. The unattractive alternative would require the West to defect from its democratic values, capitulate, and make peace with the Kremlin on any terms.

Russia is already facing a cold civil war and its telltale signs, including an increasing number of political prisoners and a new wave of political exodus. For almost a quarter of a century, Russian society and Western democracies have been under a hypnotic spell, having viewed Russia as a modern country governed by law—a country that would occasionally stumble along its difficult path to democracy. Russia has finally awoken from this illusion, and it is time for the West to do the same.