The end of the beginning?
Having occupied Crimea, Russia is stirring up trouble in eastern Ukraine
Mar 8th 2014
DONETSK, MOSCOW, SEBASTOPOL AND SIMFEROPOL
UKRAINIAN fascists, nationalists and anti-Semites, sponsored by America, seize power in Kiev, overthrowing the legitimate (if ineffectual) president, Viktor Yanukovych. These new overlords humiliate Russian-speakers by outlawing the language and stand poised to sack Russia’s naval base in Sebastopol. Ethnic Russians run to Vladimir Putin for protection; he duly comes to their rescue. Mysterious military men with Russian rifles save the peace-loving people from the fascist threat.
So runs the plot invented by Russian propagandists to plunge Ukraine into chaos and seize the Crimean peninsula. Surreal as it sounds, the plot has been given some substance: parts of it only in the rantings of Russian politicians and journalists, parts—notably the bit about the rifles—in boots-on-the-ground reality. This spectacle of deception has jeopardised European security and pushed Russia into a confrontation with the West unlike any seen since the cold war.
On February 27th, four days after the end of the Sochi Olympics, Russia in effect occupied Crimea, part of the sovereign territory of Ukraine, under the pretence of protecting its Russian-speaking population. Russian forces based at various installations on the peninsula seized airports, government buildings and broadcasters within hours, and blockaded Ukrainian military bases. In Sebastopol, home to Russia’s Black Sea fleet, local people celebrated their liberation in the central square, waving Russian flags to the accompaniment of Cossack songs, a Soviet-era pop group, and the fleet’s choir.
There was only one thing missing: the enemy. Everyone in Crimea. and now across eastern Ukraine, is talking about Ukrainian fascists, but nobody has actually seen one. “We have not seen them here yet, but we have seen them on television,” said Stanislav Nagorny, an aide to the leader of a local “self-defence” force in Sebastopol. The confusion was understandable: Russian television had unleashed a propaganda campaign impressive in both its intensity and cynicism, stoking ethnic hatred and exacerbating historical divides, mixing half truths with outright lies. Right-wing extremists and nationalists did take part in the revolution, but they do not control the government.
Russia struck when Ukraine was at its weakest—mourning the deaths of those who died on the Maidan, Kiev’s Independence Square, during an abortive crackdown by Mr Yanukovych, and struggling to form a new government. The Kremlin was greatly assisted in its task by Ukraine’s parliament which, despite the obvious tension between the Russian-speaking east of the country and the Ukrainian-speaking west, irresponsibly passed a bill (later dropped) that repealed the status of Russian as an official language on a par with Ukrainian. Parliament also failed to bring politicians from eastern Ukraine into the government.
Into the soft underbelly
On March 1st Mr Putin asked the upper house of Russia’s parliament to grant him the right to use military force in Ukraine. It dutifully did so, in a lurid and theatrical session that evoked the days of Soviet grandstanding and grand pretence. Senators competed to evoke to the greatest effect the horrors being visited upon Russians in Ukraine. Thus, under the guise of fighting fascism, Russia achieved a bloodless takeover that could not help but remind the West of the Nazi annexation of Austria and the Sudetenland in 1938-39.
Still, not everything has gone quite to plan. Ukrainian troops in Crimea were put under enormous psychological pressure to defect, their officers blackmailed with threats of retribution to their families if they did not surrender. Thugs surrounded the Ukrainian naval headquarters, cutting off its water and electricity.
But if Russia was hoping to follow the scenario of the Georgian war in 2008, when it managed to provoke the Georgians to fire first, it flopped. Ukrainian forces remained calm, the vast majority refusing to budge. As a Russian speaker who serves in the Ukrainian fleet put it ironically, “Russians do not surrender.”
Dogged, as yet non-violent resistance seems to have given them a new sense of purpose and unity. Yet the tension could still result in violence. If it were to do so the Tatars, the indigenous Turkic people of Crimea, would fight on the side of the Ukrainian army.
The clash of civilisations
Asked about the possibility of a wider war in Ukraine, Mr Putin sounded indifferent: it didn’t seem necessary, he said, but if he chose to invade eastern Ukraine, the move would be entirely legitimate. And as for the Budapest memorandum of 1994, under which Russia, America and Britain guaranteed Ukraine’s integrity in exchange for the country giving up its nuclear arsenal, Mr Putin no longer felt bound by it. Ukraine’s revolution, he claimed, has produced a new state with which Russia has no binding agreements. Later on the same day, Russia tested a ballistic missile.
With the economy in the dumps, his personal popularity declining and discontent rising, Mr Putin needs to mobilise the country and tighten his control over its elites. Entering the 15th year of his reign, he lacks a narrative to carry him through until 2018 and beyond. A war with Ukraine could provide a boost if it led to the de facto annexation of Crimea, which in the Russian imagination is a storied, cherished territory, the place where Vladimir I adopted Christianity as the state religion of ancient Rus, and a part of Russia until 1954.
It might equally backfire. If Mr Putin’s confrontation with the West results in isolation and real economic pain, it could further alienate the elites and the public at large—rather as the war in Afghanistan did. On March 3rd Moscow’s MICEX index fell by 11% (rebounding a fair bit the next day). The central bank spent $11.3 billion of its ample reserves defending the rouble; even so capital flight is likely to surge.
After talking to Mr Putin Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, reportedly described him as “in another world.” It is a place where Mr Putin appears to see himself not as an aggressor, but as a defender of all Russians (including Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine). He is an historic figure who is reversing the course of history that brought the Soviet Union to its knees, a hero standing up to the alien West.
When Mr Putin came to power in 2000, he was guided by the post-Soviet idea that Russia was converging with the West, albeit slowly and on its own terms. Membership of clubs such as the G8 mattered to him. This no longer seems to be the case. He appears to be driven by the idea that Russia is fundamentally different and morally superior. The fact that the Russia elite, dominated by former KGB men, is corrupt and cynical only strengthens the need for such an ideology: extraordinary corruption requires extraordinary justification.
Maria Snegovaya, a scholar at Columbia University, argues that Mr Putin’s thinking is influenced by the writings of Ivan Ilyin, an émigré Russian philosopher of the first half of the 20th century, whose grave he has visited and whose works he often cites. “We know that Western nations don’t understand and don’t tolerate Russia’s identity…They are going to divide the united Russian ‘broom’ into twigs to break these twigs one by one, ” Ilyin wrote. A book of his essays, along with the works of like-minded philosophers, was given by the Kremlin as Christmas reading to its apparatchiks. Another favourite is “Third Empire: The Russia that Ought to Be”, a Utopian fantasy set in 2054 that features a ruler named Vladimir II, who integrates eastern Ukraine into a new Russian Union.
In this world view, Ukraine’s revolutionary bid to escape to the West is a betrayal of Slavic brotherhood. Russia’s attempts to destabilise and split Ukraine are driven by a desire to “save” what it still considers to be part of the Russian world from Western annexation. This is the Kremlin’s way of punishing a traitor, demonstrating strength to the West and to its own population and preventing the emergence of an alternative civilisation on its territory.
Repeating the Crimean scenario in the east of the country would be harder. One reason is the reluctance of local elites, including the oligarchs, police chiefs and criminal bosses, to cede their territory to their Russian counterparts. The interim government in Kiev has already appointed powerful tycoons to run the vulnerable areas in eastern and central Ukraine.
Russia is already sending tremors through the industrial east. In Donetsk, the Ukrainian and Russian flags have alternated atop the local administrative offices. The pro-Russian crowds are warmed up by agents provocateurs and supported by “volunteers” from across the Russian border. Russian social networks have been used to recruit volunteers to go to Kharkiv, Donetsk and Odessa for “moral support” and to participate in anti-Ukrainian rallies. “We need men aged 18-45 who are already in Ukraine, or are ready to go,” says a page called Civil Defence of Ukraine. “Don’t take anything…with you. Remember you are just a tourist”.
There are also strong rumours of the involvement of the Russian security services and forces loyal to Mr Yanukovych. On March 3rd a 1,000-strong crowd of pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk stormed the building of the local administration and nominated as governor Pavel Gubarev, a marginal politician who was previously unknown in Donetsk. Mr Gubarev is an activist of the Eurasian Youth Movement, a Russian nationalist outfit set up after the Orange revolution of 2004 to counter the spread of Western ideas. Two days later Mr Gubarev was pushed out and the Kiev-appointed governor, the oligarch Sergei Taruta, walked in.
On March 5th Mr Gubarev’s mob gathered again, 2,000 strong, some of them aggressive looking young men, many of them older. They shouted “Russia, Russia” as second-world-war anthems called on the Soviet country to rise against fascists. They retook the building only to be removed again the following day.
Their “enemies” gathered a few hundred metres away by the church of St Michael the Archangel: largely Russian-speaking, mostly young and cosmopolitan. Yulia Kubanova, a 28-year-old who works in advertising, held a banner saying “Ukraine is United”. “I never asked whether I was ethnically Ukrainian or Russian,” she said. “I am a Ukrainian…I am proud of my country where people know what dignity is.” Ms Kubanova had been to lay flowers by for those who died in Kiev. A middle-aged woman attacked her: “She called me a Nazi and a whore.”