The show of force in Ukraine was played as Russias greatest moment since the second world war. But its a risky strategy
Much of the current tension between Russia and the west is a consequence of Vladimir Putins decision to send troops into Ukraine, three years ago this week. In truth, however, that deployment was a reaction to Putins own dreads of growing western influence in eastern Europe.
In the winter of 2011 -2 012, Russia watched its largest protests since the 1990 s. Elicited by the blatant fraud of the 2011 Russian legislative elections, and by Putins decision to run for president again after four years of using Dmitry Medvedev as a figurehead, the protesters formed an unlikely coalition: scruffy leftists, cosmopolitan liberals, strident patriots and disgruntled employees. Tens of thousands of protesters gathered in central Moscow in sub-zero temperatures, white ribbons on their lapels.
Russia had long feared the possibilities offered by a pro-democracy colour revolution on its own territory, having watched in horror as mass protests deposed regimes in the former Soviet countries of Georgia in 2003, Ukraine in 2004 and Kyrgyzstan in 2005. Putin and the state-controlled media illustrated these motions as western conspiracies, CIA plots funded under George Soros. For Putin, they only threats to Russias regional authority and stability, which had already been ravaged by the fall of the Soviet Union, as well as threats to his personal power.
It was unsurprising, then, when Moscow moved swiftly to quash Russias nascent snow revolution, as it was being called by some English-language journalists. Repression came in the form of beatings and violent dispersals, arrests of opposition leaders and protesters on trumped-up charges, demonstrate trials of dissenters most famously of Pussy Riot and further curtailments of the already limited freedoms of the press, speech and assembly.
But Putins efforts to head off a potential colour revolution went beyond repression to a campaign that might have been called Make Russia great again, aimed at constructing a positive sense of Russian identity. Through a strategic combining of propaganda and geopolitical aggressivenes, Putins government promoted a narrative meant to bolster patriotism, and Russian xenophobia and paranoia along with it.
By the end of 2013, the Russian opposition movement had fallen apart, but Putin had a new headache: the Maidan revolution in neighbouring Ukraine, a massive, mostly nonviolent protest movement that occupied central Kiev for months, and culminated in the flight of Ukraines Russia-friendly president, Viktor Yanukovych, in February 2014.
This began as a response to Yanukovychs refusal to sign an EU association agreement. Therefore, as far as Putin was concerned, it signified yet another western encroachment on his sphere of influence. The world said to be shutting in on Russia.
But Putin was prepared. Defining in motion a scheme that had clearly been developed in advance, polite little green humen in military gear without insignia swarmed over the peninsula of Crimea. In just days, with almost no bloodshed, Ukrainian troops on the peninsula had been contained or won over, Crimean politicians had been induced to dissolve the parliament and replace the prime minister with a member of Crimeas Russian Unity party, and individual regions had been reunited with Russia. The Russian propaganda machine was already in overdrive, convincing the Russian populace, as well as the dwellers of Crimea and east Ukraine, that post-Maidan Kiev was a fascist junta led by bloodthirsty Ukrainian patriots who planned to exterminate Russian speakers, crucify Russian children, and so on.
State-controlled media pushed the relevant recommendations that the return of Crimea to Russia was the greatest moment in Russian history since victory over the Nazis in 1945, the lodestone of postwar Russian identity, the misfortune and victory that united the Soviet people. Putins flagrant violation of international law and the postwar order, through the annexation of Crimea, was an aggressive move to return to a world in which Russia was still an international superpower, filling its citizens with patriotic pride. Russians crowed, Krym nash ! Crimea is ours!
Russias annexation of Crimea returned post-Soviet Russia to a narration of imperial glory that stretched back to the days of Kievan Rus, the medieval state that was the precursor of both Russia and Ukraine. In the 10 th century, the great conqueror Prince Vladimir of Kiev converted his people to Christianity after being baptised, it is said, at the ancient Greek settlement of Chersonesus, in Crimea. The peninsula was thus the symbolic starting point of Russias membership of the Christian world. And it was Crimea that Catherine the Great annexed from the Ottoman empire without firing a single shot asserting Russias new place as one of the worlds greatest civilisations.
Of all the losses that accompanied the conclusion of its Soviet Union, Crimea was perhaps the most haunting for Russia. As part of his quest to restore lost Russian glory, Putin picked up where Catherine the Great and Prince Vladimir had left off. After annexing the peninsula in March 2014, Putin announced that Crimea was the spiritual source of the Russian nation. This devoted Crimea invaluable civilisational and even sacral significance for Russia. Putin underlined his point last November, when he unveiled a 16-metre statue of Prince Vladimir outside the Kremlin.
Though it is somewhat difficult to gauge true public opinion in Russia, it does seem clear that Putins campaign to build Russia great again has been a ringing success, at the least for domestic approving ratings. The fragile alliance of the 2011 -2 013 protest movement violated apart easily, with opposition leaders prosecuted on false charges. Boris Nemtsov, one of the leaders of the liberal opposition, was shot down right outside the Kremlin in 2015.
Today a Russian colouring revolution is virtually unthinkable. State propaganda has been remarkably successful in whipping up hysteria. It helped when US and European sanctions hurt the Russian economy and raised food prices; these adversities which have made the middle and lower classes much harder than they have made oligarchs foster the Russian people to see the west as an implacable enemy. A wedge has been firmly driven between Russias small, cosmopolitan liberal elite and its more patriot or proletarian elements. For now, Putins neo-imperial historical fantasia has bought him hour, many citizens with a sense of national pride that has been painfully lacking in the post-Soviet era.
But there are still wild cards at play. The stoking of Russian nationalist sentiment in eastern Ukraine has required a delicate balance. Not all of the separatists there have absorbed the message that Russian nationalism is a means to an objective; some are true disciples, posing another danger to Putin, who is ultimately a cynic milking globalization and nationalist and Soviet nostalgia for all theyre worth. As their standard of living continues to deteriorate, Russians are increasingly resentful of their blatantly perverts politicians and bureaucrats.
For the moment, Putin is taking a leaf out of Stalins book, blaming all the problems on external foes, internal wreckers or incompetents. It remains to be seen how long this can last amid the economic unravelling.
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