It is quite obvious that President Trump, for some reason or other, does not wish to dwell on his personal interests and dealings with Russia and has been using every imaginable distraction to deflect attention from it. Some are now speculating that the sending of tomahawk missiles into Syria is one such distraction. That in itself is an interesting conjecture.
Neither do Russia or its oligarchs, who have enriched themselves tremendously after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union, are that eager to entertain the subject, nor are those who may be presumably be agents and spies for the Kremlin and minimize Russian assertiveness and aggression.
It is also quite obvious that those who defend Trump and his policies (or perhaps “non-policies might be a better term) do not wish to discuss the Russian aggression against Crimea, the Ukraine, its alliance with a war criminal who gasses his own people including women and children, the New Cold War which may portent a new Cold War in the making, despite the mutual admiration society that Trump and Putin have created in the last two years or so. One wonders why. Let’s see.
I’d like to analyze the above mentioned issues in the light of a 10 episode TV series which has come out recently out of Norway with the title “Occupert” (Occupied). It can be taken as an alternate tale of the above described rosy scenario downplaying the idea of a new Cold War and a manifest Russian aggression, albeit it is a fictional account.
Some may call it “fake news” or disinformation, something the Russians are quite expert at. Why bring in fiction when we have documented facts to rely on? Well, because sometimes myths and fictions can be more powerfully real than factual historical accounts, especially when they ruffle too many feathers and probe into the essential truth or falsehood of a subject at hand. One thinks of Orwell’s “1984,” not to speak of Plato’s ancient myth of the cave.
While the experts challenge scholars to imagine a third alternative to pro-Russia (overt or covert) vs. pro-Us, one devoid of partisanship, nationalism and patriotism, almost devoid of ideologies, this film has in fact ruffled many Russian diplomats’ feathers including Vladimir Putin and have exacerbated tensions existing between Russia and the EU over the annexation of Crimea and the conflict in the Ukraine and the very meaning of democracy and human rights.
Russia’s ambassador in Oslo, Norway, Vyacheslav Pavlovsky, who being more sophis- ticated than Donald Trump, communicates via email, told the press via email that “It's definitely very regrettable that in the... 70th anniversary of the victory of World War II, the authors of the series -- as if they had forgotten about the heroic contribution of the Soviet army in the liberation of northern Norway from Nazi occupants -- decided in the worst Cold War traditions to frighten the Norwegian audience with a non-existing threat from the east."
One interesting response to that protest by the Russian ambassador was that of the director of the movie Erik Skjoldbjaerg who said this "They're commenting on a series they haven't even seen yet, they are opposed in principle". In other words, the ambassador, even before viewing the film, is saying that it is a piece of propaganda or a lie. The actual deviousness may actually consist in reviewing a movie one has not seen yet via ideological lenses. But let’s continue.
Let’s remember that the story is fictitious and its author is Jo Nesbo, a hugely popular crime writer in Norway. It depicts basically a Norway which in the near future (near because some of the events described in the movie are unfolding as we speak) plunges the world into a tragic international crisis by suddenly halting its oil and gas production following an environmental catastrophe. But again, why all the fuss over a piece of entertaining crime fiction? Are Norwegians and others too dumb to take it as such, as unadulterated entertainment? Obviously this fictional account has hit some raw historical or ideological nerves. Which ones?
Let’s begin with a quick look at the complex plot of the narrative. Russia takes over production of the black gold or oil being drilled in the North Sea which Norway wants to halt. In this it has the blessing of the European Union which has pulled out of NATO and the Atlantic alliance. Russia does what is now called a “silk occupation” of the country. It begins not with a military invasion but with an economic control of the oil, in effect an economic occupation with the Russian ambassador in charge in Oslo and the Norwegian Prime Minister, Jesper Berg, forced to play second fiddle in other to retain a modicum of dignity and sovereignty.
This sounds eerily similar to the Finlandization of Finland after World War II during the Cold War. Something like that is being attempted by Putin in the Ukraine and even in Crimea before its outright annexation. That may explain the angry protest of the Russians. The film may be fictitious, the ideas expressed in it may have preceded the Ukraine crisis, but it appears all too real when it assignes to the Russians the role of aggressors. That may be one of the raw sensitive nerves that has been hit. It is the nerve of the accusation by the EU of military interference in the Ukrainian conflict which some see as the beginning of a new Cold War, or at the very least as the beginning of the frostiest relations between Russia and the West since the collapse of the USSR.
On the other hand the Norwegians insist that the story is about what happens in an occupied country where life appears quite normal but some are ready to sacrifice themselves in a fight for freedom. The Russians are not buying it and have in fact increased their activities off its Arctic coast, close to Norway. This concerns the Norwegians who do not belong to the EU, they never joined, but are in sinc with it when it comes to sanctions against Russia because of the Ukraine crisis in which Russia is heavily involved despite its denials.
But there may be another raw nerve and it is historical. Okkupert, while never even mentioning the word “quisling,” does evoke the Nazi occupation of Norway when Vidkun Quisling collaborated with the invaders and so in some way evokes the trauma of that era. Quisling’s for all intent and purposes was a puppet government which revoked the authority of the Norwegian King (who was exiled to England after he refused to abdicate), banned the entry of fleeing Jews, and committed Norwegian soldiers to the Eastern front under Nazi supervision. After the war the very name of “quisling” became an eponym for “traitor.”
So, the Russians see Okkupert as a modern version of Quisling’s shameful legacy, revisited on Russia for the near future. The question arises: is the revisiting, if indeed it is that, well deserved because of certain notoriously aggressive moves by present day Russia?
There is also the issue of environmental ethics. The Norwegian Prime Minister Jesper Berg is from the Green party which has succeeded in assuming power after a damaging global warming hurricane. He wants to introduce a new form of nuclear energy-powered chemical element called thorium, with Norway leading by example and shutting down gas and oil production. This action is found unacceptable by the EU and Russia which threaten Norway with a full scale invasion unless it commits to maintaining fuel extraction under Moscow’s supervision (the crew doing the extraction will all be Russian) while the US, somewhat similar to what may eventually happen soon, having withdrawn from NATO and achieved energy independence, sits this one out.
How relevant is all this to what has occurred in the Ukraine? Isn’t Russia occupation of parts of the Ukraine a so called friendly “velvet occupation”? In the film, when the Russians first come to Norway, they come as civilians, with no thanks or fighter jets. There are not even “little green men. Only those who care to notice see the subtle diminution of Norwegian sovereignty and the increasing assertion of Russian control. Thus Berg goes along with the temporary occupation hoping that nobody will take notice.
The book came out in 2012 but it became relevant and more relevant in the light of the forced annexation of Crimea, the subsequent Ukraine crisis in 2014 and the appearance of East-West tensions over Putin’s new-found assertiveness in Europe, an attempt to divide Europe from the US and finance its ultra-nationalist, fascist leaning parties inimical to the union of the EU, the violation of Baltic and Scandinavian airspace and seas which have become routine. Trump, up to now has played right into this scenario refusing to criticize Russia in any way, for dubious reasons. War games are being played in the Kremlin in which Russian troops seize the Estonian capital of Tellinn in 60 hours. It all lends authenticity and relevancy to the present situation in Europe and the US too.
Indeed, there is little about this show that feels unrealistic and implausible. The human drama that it reveals feels very real. One of its deepest insights is to show how a democratic society, because of its compromises with democratic principles aimed at “getting along and surviving,” slowly but inexorably gets transformed, willy nilly, into a morally corroded polity. This society wished to continue its normalcy and end up thinking of the “Free Norway” secret underground para-military movement as a terrorist movement, but in reality it is the only movement which retains its patriotic fervor in the face of humiliating compromises.
The show also portrays an admirable journalist, Thomas Eriksen, who repeatedly risks his life to expose the truth. Also Martin Jjupvik, a security detail agent who believes he is helping his country by working with the Russians in rooting out his fellow Norwegians. That of course raises the specter of Quisling. It also raises the specter of Finnish neutrality during the Cold War which allowed that country to remain independent but subservient to the Russians and thus avoid the fate of the Baltics which were forcefully incorporated to the Soviet Union. Finland made “Finlandization” a dirty word describing what happens to a small country when it lives next to a big and territorially expansionistic one. It ends up trading a reduction of its sovereignty in exchange for self-rule. That is another raw nerve in the Norwegian psyche. They wish to avoid a repetition on “Finlandization” in Norway, the equivalent of a “lion in a cage” according to the Estonian-Finnish novelist Sofi Oksanen. And so do most of the democratic EU nations, I dare say. They do not wish to become satellite with the illusion of independence and sovereignty.
It was therefore quite predictable that the Russian government of Vladimir Putin would not be very pleased with Occupert. It intimates that Russia can be friendly with neighboring democratic governments but only when they are on a leash. In other words, it reveals too much of the game of “divide and conquer” which Putin is playing as we speak. He wants to keep in place the Russian propaganda with its sense of victimhood at the hands of the Bullying West, remind the world of Russia’s role in the Great Patriotic War, and continue its vehement denial that Russia poses any kind of threat to any of its neighbors.
The EU for one is not buying. It remains to be seen if Trump, who is capable of pivoting on a dime, since he has little if any ethical and democratic principles, also comes around. A Gallup poll among Norwegians a couple of years ago reveals that 89% of Norwegians disapprove of Russia’s leadership. As Lincoln said: “One can fool some of the people all the times, and all of the people some of the times, but one cannot fool all the people all of the times.” Putin and company will eventually discover that.