The change in European perceptions of Russia caused by its annexation of Crimea feels familiar: It reminds me of what happened to views of the United States after its decision to invade Iraq.
As with Iraq, it isn’t just disagreement with the particular military aggression that is changing ideas about Russia, but the brazen way in which senior officials appeared to lie in justifying it: Knowing what we know today about Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the image of former Secretary of State Colin Powell holding up evidence of nonexistent weapons of mass destruction in 2003 at the United Nations Security Council lingers.
Iraq and Crimea, of course, are not the same. Whatever the U.S. goals were in Iraq, they did not include annexation. But this is about the lying, and for many the image of President Vladimir Putin denying that Russian soldiers in Crimea were Russian will also linger.
Putin clearly doesn’t much care much what the rest of the world thinks. Yet this kind of mistrust has an impact.
Russia, for example, said this week that it had arrested 25 Ukrainian citizens in connection with a suspected terrorist plot on targets within Russia, by the Ukrainian ultranationalist group Right Sector. I suspect that few outside the bubble of Russian propaganda will give that claim credence until they see ironclad evidence.
Similarly, when Russia next says that its natural gas monopoly Gazprom doesn’t use exports as a political weapon (after further raising the price to Ukraine to roughly 40 percent more than it charges rich European Union countries), those claims will meet with simple derision.
An intercepted phone call between two Russian diplomats posted recently on YouTube also appears to show, in colorful language, the challenge Russia now faces. In the tape, the ambassador to Eritrea, Igor Chubarov, and the ambassador to Zimbabwe and Malawi, Sergey Bakharev, appear to discuss their efforts to get Russia-friendly countries in Africa to oppose last month’s UN resolution against the annexation of Crimea.
Chubarov congratulates Bakharev on getting Zimbabwe to show “let’s say, the correct understanding of the situation in Ukraine.” Eritrea, however, surprised the diplomats by refusing. Are they crazy? Bakharev asks. The two men go on to lament that only two African countries — Zimbabwe and Sudan — could be persuaded. Of 193 UN members, Russia could get only 10, including Syria, Belarus, Cuba and Venezuela, to support its position.
U.S. diplomats have also been intercepted in embarrassing and profane phone calls. But the cynicism of the two Russian ambassadors will do nothing to repair the damage to perceptions of Russia in Europe. Next for annexation after Crimea will be “all those frontier states, like Latvia, Estonia and other Europeans, as well as Romanians and Bulgarians, we’ll kick their a——- in the right direction — where they have to be,” Chubarov jokes.
Putin really may not care. But the damage to Russia’s image will last and infect all kinds of other issues. If he thinks it won’t, he should ask the U.S. Department of State.
Marc Champion is a Bloomberg View editorial board member. Follow him on Twitter at MarcChampion1.