One European country was ruled for many years by a dictator who relied on support from abroad. Let’s just be frank: from Moscow. But when Moscow changed its attitude toward him, he could no longer hold on to power. His closest allies refused to support him and thousands of ordinary people took to the streets demanding freedom. The dictator fell from power and fled the country. To Moscow.
Those who came to power in his stead tried to begin some democratic reforms, but the state quickly began to crumble. In just a year it had ceased to exist, and its land was absorbed by a neighbor which was stronger, both militarily and economically. This absorption was peaceful because the people living on both sides of the border spoke the same language, believed in the same God, and considered the same history, from ancient times until today, to be their own.
If you think that I’m retelling the official Kremlin version of recent events in Ukraine, you’re mistaken. It’s all much more interesting than that. The dictator who fled to Russia in 1989 was Erich Honecker. The country, absorbed in 1990 by its neighbor, was the German Democratic Republic. Nobody remembers this now, but there was once such a state in Europe. It was a member of the United Nations and its capital had embassies from every country in the world—including the United States and the Federal Republic of Germany. We’ve become used to thinking of the disappearance of the GDR from the maps as the unification of Germany, that is, as a positive process, and that’s how it’s described in textbooks. But formally speaking, it was a merciless absorption of one state by another. The German republic founded by Konrad Adenauer in 1949—the same German republic headed today by Chancellor Angela Merkel—simply absorbed several provinces of the disbanded GDR. For some reason, no one today thinks to accuse the BRD of annexing the GDR, though the GDR didn’t even hold a referendum on the question of whether to join.
I understand very well that such a description of what’s happening in eastern Ukraine today may seem very simplistic, but if you called the annexation of Crimea by Russia a “unification of Russia,” by analogy with the German unification, this would not be so far from the truth. Borders between states take centuries of wars, deaths, and government collapses to establish. The borders between Russia and Ukraine were delineated by decision of the two states’ leaders in 1991. Millions of Russians and Ukrainians were left on either side, and it would be naïve to expect these borders to last for centuries.
This is how my theoretical report justifying Russia’s actions in eastern Ukraine—particularly in Crimea, which has been occupied by Russian troops for almost two weeks—might read. But I did not invade Crimea. It was President Vladimir Putin, who has developed his own unique style of political management—based on lies and manipulation—over his fifteen years in power.
As presented by Putin, the picture looks quite different. In his opinion, power in Kiev has been seized by Nazis, the direct descendants and associates of those who fought on the side of Hitler in World War II, and also those who, together with the Islamic terrorists, fought against Russia in the Caucasus during the Chechen wars. (Recently, Russia’s Investigative Committee even initiated a criminal case against a member of Kiev’s ultra-nationalistic “Right Sector,” now accused in Russia of helping the terrorist Shamil Basayev kill people.) These Nazis are just about to start killing the peaceful population of eastern Ukraine, and that’s why Russia—oh, wait, not Russia. According to Putin, no troops have entered Crimea. He says there are no Russian troops there at all, and those soldiers wearing Russian uniforms without insignia who everyone—myself included—have seen in Crimea are just locals who managed to buy uniforms and weapons somewhere.
So it turns out that someone in favor of “unification with Russia” has no one to support: Any patriotic rhetoric on the Crimean issue in Russia becomes out of the question. After all, you can’t say “Glory to the anonymous heroes in uniforms without insignia, who are achieving God-knows-what in a battle with non-existent Ukrainian Nazis.” It’s absurd, isn’t it?
This absurdity is opposed by the authentic patriotic spirit of the Ukrainian military, who have refused to come over to the side of the separatist government in Crimea, formed under Russian control. The anonymous soldiers come to the Ukrainians and call for them to come over to the anonymous side—not to the Russian side!—and in response the Ukrainians sing their national anthem, or, like the sailors of the frigate “Hetman Sahaidachny,” they line up on the deck in the form of the letters UA—“Ukraine.” Through its clumsiness, Russia has given the Ukrainians a winning image: that of a small defenseless country which has become the victim of aggression by a cruel, strong neighbor, as Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia were in 1940. The Ukrainians, who have thus far been unable to boast of a rich national mythology, are writing their new heroic myth in real-time, about which films will be made and songs composed. This is often more important than any weapon.
Putin's lie could be attributed to the particularities of international diplomacy, but in a situation where the entire world has already seen the Russian soldiers blockading Ukrainian bases on the Crimean peninsula, it’s hard to believe that the lie has any diplomatic subtext. Really, it’s just habit. A culture of propaganda has formed over the last fifteen years in Putin’s Russia, and even in the most critical moment, telling the citizens the truth would, for Putin, be a violation of some kind of personally sacred taboo. The Russian inhabitants of Crimea may be dissatisfied with the new authorities in Kiev, but as an alternative Putin is suggesting anonymous soldiers and a government formed under their control and headed by Sergei Aksenov, whose party won 4 percent of the Crimean vote in the last election. It’s as if he is warning the Crimeans in advance that, should their region become part of Russia, they can forget about fair elections or freedom of speech. Such a proposal may be unacceptable even for those most loyal to Russia.
It’s still unknown how Vladimir Putin’s game in Crimea will play out for him: international isolation or victory, a strengthening of his regime or its downfall. But since Russian’s invasion of Crimea, Putin has for some reason been unable to acquire any symbolic capital. And if he wanted to lie on TV about Ukrainian Nazis and Crimean militiamen, buying their uniforms in stores, he could have done so without invading Crimea.
Translated by Ilya Lozovsky.
Oleg Kashin is a prominent Russian journalist and political commentator. In November 2010, he was savagely beaten for his coverage of Kremlin-sponsored youth groups. He spent several months in a coma. He is currently covering the crisis from the Crimea for the Russian nationalist publication Sputnik + Pogrom.