MOSCOW — Earlier this week, all of Russia's ambassadors were called home from their stations abroad to attend an event with members of the Russian Parliament and, of course, President Vladimir Putin. The only ambassador missing at the event was Mikhail Zurabov, ambassador to Ukraine. Apparently, the time he spent in Moscow after being recalled in protest earlier this year allowed Putin to bring him up to speed on his changing vision for the nation’s diplomats.
Now, Zurabov is better off staying in Kiev, where he is needed — or, perhaps, more visible.
The ambassadors gathered in the hall near Smolenskaya Square in central Moscow where they were greeted by good news for all of them, that the President had finally issued a directive to increase their pay and the compensation for retirees from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The focus of Putin's keynote address was clearly on the events in Ukraine, although he did not actually pronounce the word "Ukraine." No doubt it was the authorities in Kiev he was referring to when he said that "they are not respecting international law, basic principles of decency, there is a total absence of authority."
He brought up the same subject again, in relation to the annexation of Crimea. "Our fellow nationals were threatened, their language, their culture, their rights." These were themes heard many times in recent months, but what stood out in the discourse to the diplomats was how, as the speech progressed, Putin's references to "Russians" broadened.
Eventually, it included "everyone who considers themselves Russian."
That would mean that Viktor Yanukovych, who is now living in Sochi, is a "Russian." Or, for example, Barack Obama could be a Russian as well if he were to suddenly "feel Russian" deep inside.
"What sort of reaction did our partners expect from us as the events developed in Ukraine?" Putin continued. "Of course we couldn’t leave the Crimeans at the mercy of violent nationalists."
Still, Putin also conceded that Russia's behavior regarding Crimea was at least as motivated by military pragmatism as the aforementioned feelings of national solidarity. "We could not allow our access to offshore areas of the Black Sea to be restricted, and for the Crimean area to be under NATO’s influence, which would have changed the balance of power in the Black Sea area," Putin said. "That would mean that practically everything that Russia has fought for since the time of Peter the Great would be erased."
Cards on the table
The Russian President seems to be melding the pursuits of national pride and national interest, especially in the face of Kiev's decision this week to resume open military action in Eastern Ukraine. "I want to make sure that everyone understand that our country will, above all, insist on protecting the rights of Russians, and will use all the means at our disposal to do so, from political and economic means to humanitarian actions and the right of self-defense."
It’s clear what he meant by that. Russians, defined in the broadest possible sense, have a right to self-defense, and Putin intends to make Russia responsible for providing that protection.
In this intimate environment, among people who absolutely agree with his point of view, the Russian president was open in a way he hasn’t been about many things in relation to Ukraine. As his speech continued, he talked about the supposed "reversal" of gas flowing through Ukraine, coming from the West. He called the "reversal" false.
"It’s impossible to send gas in two directions in the same pipeline. Ukraine is getting our gas, which is being paid for by our partners, who are not getting everything they paid for," Putin said.
Before this, Putin had not said any of this out loud. But it seems that he no longer sees a reason to hide his cards. Now we will see who is bluffing.
Before the meeting ended, I managed to catch up with Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s Permanent Representative at the United Nations. I asked him if things were difficult for him in New York.
"It’s tough," he sighed. "They’ve already tried to play a dirty trick on us in my absence. Oh well, I’ll go back and we’ll have a response!"