Russian officers 30 years ago presaged rise of Putin, Ukraine conflict

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The latter, a mountainous enclave which had long been a cauldron of simmering tension between Azerbaijan and Armenia, had become the site of a hot war between those two countries, now freed from the Soviet yoke. As with many other remote places, the facts on the ground hadn’t caught up with political change and a nearby Russian base remained, its soldiers occasionally caught in the cross-fire.

Our visits to these far-flung bases were not officially sanctioned. When we’d approached the Russian Defence ministry, the answer had been a firm “Nyet”. So, like journalists everywhere, we decided to wing it (making sure to pack some particularly fine bottles of vodka as a potential ice-breaker).

The interviews we obtained with these military men were stunningly frank: reflective, and angry. There was bewilderment among them, and a sense of humiliation, that an institution that had once been the pride of the Soviet “family” (as they saw it) was now a plaything of politicians.

Looking back on those interviews across the chasm of 30 years, I believe you can see, at least in part, the seeds of discontent – particularly within the military and security apparatus – from which Putinism and today’s brutal war between Ukraine and Russia would start to grow.

One of the most memorable interviews was with Colonel Alexander Garkusha, the commander of a Russian army base which was slowly being squeezed out of the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, by local authorities. A quietly spoken man, he stood out on screen by virtue of the livid scar snaking across the centre of his forehead.

Garkusha told me that many of his men, their wives and their children, had no homes to go to in Russia. They had lived on these bases for years.

Colonel Alexandar Garkusha, Russian army base commander in Vilnius, 1992Credit:ABCTV Peter Curtis

“The values we were brought up with have been torn away,” Garkusha said. “The goodwill and support of the Motherland – friendship, honour and dignity – all torn away by politicians aiming at only one goal, the grabbing of power.”

Lieutenant-Colonel Leonid Rudakov spoke of the difficulty of unscrambling the omelette that had been the Soviet army.

“We have many men whose mothers, say, come from Kazakhstan, whose fathers live in Ukraine; they might have been born and raised in Uzbekistan, studied in Moscow, and their wives come from Leningrad. Our families can be made up of not one or two nationalities, but four or five.”

A third officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Stanislav Perekhov, bemoaned the fact “our army was always the most powerful in the world, but now, it’s nothing, thanks to politicians”.

Others warned, presciently, of the potential for greater conflict between former Soviet neighbours.

“I’d like to think we could get by without bloodshed,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Andrei Akeshian. “But with conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, Moldova, and now between Russian and Ukraine (where tensions were already rising over possession of the Crimea) I have my doubts.”

Lieutenant-Colonel Yevgeny Bolitshev, told us: “We always used to say that the army was a binding of peoples and nations. Now, there is a very abrupt unravelling of the army along national lines. It will lead to a sharpening of inter-ethnic relations.”

Why do I return to these interviews now? In large part because I’ve only recently been able to see them again, thanks to the 30th anniversary special that ABCTV’s Foreign Correspondent team will air on Thursday night.

My reports were among some of the earliest for the program, which kicked off in 1992.

Deborah Snow reporting from Moscow in 1992.

Deborah Snow reporting from Moscow in 1992.Credit:ABC

Seeing these stories again after so long was a gift of recovered memory. I was particularly struck by the Soviet Army story because of the carnage being wreaked in Ukraine today.

It was a report tailor-made for Foreign Correspondent – the kind of story that could only have found a proper home on a program designed to appeal to those with a thirst for knowledge about the world beyond our shores.

My last words in that report were as follows: “There will be a growing temptation for military men to throw their weight behind a new force in politics here, perhaps an aggressively nationalistic one. If that happens, Russia could find itself marching to a dangerous new tune.”

Little did I, or anyone else at that time, anticipate that an obscure former spy named Vladimir Putin, then working as right-hand man to the mayor of St Petersburg, would rise to become the face of a new Russian authoritarianism.

The footage in these reports, captured by skilled ABC cameramen like Peter Curtis and Andrew Taylor, with whom I worked day in and day out, remains – like the work of so many later colleagues – a priceless archival record, a first draft of that tumultuous history.

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The freedom we had as reporters in those first couple of years across former Soviet territory was immense. People from all stations of life, who’d been forbidden contact with foreign media for decades, fell over themselves to tell us their stories – even army officers on military bases. We had no email, no mobile phones. We would often land with little idea of what we would find on the ground until we got there. The old rule book had been thrown out and no one was sure what the new rules were. The sense of discovery was limitless.

These days, of course, the Kremlin has pulled up the drawbridge and the ABC no longer has an office in Moscow.

When Yeltsin stepped aside in late 1999, naming Putin his preferred successor, he expressed the hope that Russia would “enter the next millennium with … new, smart, strong and energetic people”.

Instead Putin has reinvented himself as a new all-powerful tsar, deriding Ukraine’s very right to an independent existence, grinding down political opponents, and obliterating dissenting media voices, especially since launching the assault on his neighbour in February.

It’s hard to know exactly how the war is being seen inside Russia by the mass of ordinary citizens.

Whatever version of the “truth” they are being fed by state-owned media outlets – stories of Ukrainian “Nazis” and the like threatening the security of the motherland – the body bags coming home and the growing impacts of international isolation, will soon start to tell their own story. Putin’s reluctance to declare a general military mobilisation suggests the war is not as popular with his people as he proclaims.

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg warns the conflict could drag on for years. Onetime Cold War statesman Henry Kissinger believes there’ll be an attempt at a negotiated settlement in coming months and warns against the war being fought “to the absolute exhaustion of all participants”.

These are many possible scenarios as to how this may end, nuclear conflict being the most terrifying. The carnage and the bloodshed is indisputably on the Russian leader’s head.

But as I look back on those voices from 30 years ago, and draw a long arc to the present unutterable suffering in Ukraine, there are some lessons in the humiliations of the past.

The 30th anniversary special of ABCTV’s Foreign Correspondent program, A Wild Ride, will go to air on Thursday night at 8pm.

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