Framing Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama

The story is as important as its teller
Framing Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama
Framing Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama
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By Chitra Subramaniam

If you had watched the reportage of the Sochi Winter Olympics in Russia earlier this year, you may have noticed one thing. For large sections of the American and British media, Sochi was war, while European media reported on the competition with battle-like fervor. 

That difference is called history, a history which now sums up the noise and the sabre-rattling emerging from Europe, Russia and United States of America (USA) over the last past few months. The “excuse” for want of another term is Ukraine, but the reason is the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). Western irritation and anger with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s walking into large parts of Ukraine and annexing Crimea has less to do with protecting democracy in that country and more to do with the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) looking for allies and fronts in a Europe that is very different from 1949 when the Alliance was created. Its members were those countries who won the war, a united Germany came on board later and countries from eastern Europe have been taken in during the six times the group has enlarged itself. 

Ask any young European (18-35 yrs) in Europe if they prefer to live under Putin or American President Obama and the answers reveal the dilemma. They have memories of grandparents or family who perished in the wars, of USA saving them twice and the Russians protecting them from the Nazis. In this framework Putin is the classical 20th century Soviet general and strategist who moves around the region as if playing a game of chess. His language is that of goose marches, brass bands and trumpets as bugles sound and flags wave. He is part of European history – the good, the bad and the future. 

Contrast this with Obama who recently said he has no strategy for Syria. He comes across as weak and indecisive. In the meantime, threats by the ISIS are sent to European capitals, people see severed heads of American journalists dressed in orange overalls bringing memories of the un-kept promises of Guantanamo where Obama had said he would free the detainees during his first term. Not all is bleaknews though from the other side of the Atlantic. The economy is turning around, the next google will most likely come from the land of opportunity and the America is a huge market for the world’s exports. So where’s the problem? 

The problem is in the conventional repetition which would have the world believe that NATO was formed as a response to threats posed from Russia. The alliance’s real agenda was immortalized in the words of its first head Indian-born Lionel “Pug” Ismaywho said it was to keep the Americans in, the Russians out and the Germans down. The spin on the sin or conventional repetition would say NATO was formed to deter Soviet expansion, stop nationalist militarism in Europe (read Adolf Hitler) and boost and bolster the integration of the European continent.
Democracy is not Putin’s favourite word and America was built on it. So why is Obama not an obvious choice for a leader? This is where the importance of how we frame an issue comes in. Frames do three things – they decide what is at stake, who is responsible and where solutions can come from. The way the current crisis has been framed leads people to believe it is all Russia’s fault brought about by an expansionist Putin who annexed Crimea as part of another plan. It is based on the assumption that Putin wants to return to the glory of the former Soviet Union and one of these days he will swallow an east European country. Europeans find this framing very simplistic. 

There has been much toing and froing in European capitals this summer. Ultimatums have been given, embargoes have been imposed and troops have been moved in giving the impression that Putin was on his way to annexing another city. Mired in their own logic and blinkered to other realities, western powers illegally overthrew Ukraine’s democratically-elected pro-Russian leader and continued to sniff around in the neighbourhood fomenting trouble. Many European strategists say the western nations were hoping to convert Crimea into a NATO base and that was probably the last straw that broke the camel’s back. 

The Germany of today is not that of 1945 and maybe by the end of this week if Scotland votes to go its own way, the 300-year history of the United Kingdom will be different. Putin’s pushback should not have come as a surprise to people who understand the region, especially at a time when new lines and newer friendships are evolving between Russia and China, China and the USA, and all of them with Germany.
Once, just once in the mid 1990’s when unemployment was high, the west’s promises to Mikhail Gorbachev (whose decision to break the Berlin Wall in 1989 changed the world) remained unaddressed and Russian nationalism was on the rise, it appeared to people Putin-watchers that all the conditions were similar to that between the two world wars that led to the rise of Hitler and maybe Putin would head that way.
Putin is no fool. He knows his limits and his strengths one of which is oil. Western Europe depends heavily on Russian oil and most if not all of it is routed via Ukraine. When the EU imposed a food ban on Russia, European businessmen circumvented the ban by exporting via a third country. 

There is no business like good business. On this one though, frames have been steady and constant for centuries.

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