[dropcap size=big]I[/dropcap]t would seem that President Putin may have blinked in the face of pressure from the West today. After meeting with OSCE Chairman and Swiss President Didier Burkhalter, Putin suddenly announced that he was “asking” separatist forces in Donetsk and Luhansk (whose armed insurgency, according to the Kremlin’s official position, is being waged with no Russian involvement) to delay the referenda on independence of their oblasts previously planned for Sunday May 11. Even more surprisingly, the Russian President referred to the May 25 Ukrainian Presidential election as “a step in the right direction” – thereby directly contravening yesterday’s statement by Foreign Minister Lavrov in which the diplomat doubted the legitimacy of Ukraine’s planned vote. Most importantly, Putin promised to move Russian troops away from the immediate proximity of Ukraine’s borders – NATO has yet to confirm troop movements, but the prospect of a withdrawal is promising.
At first glance, the Kremlin seems to have (finally) made a real step towards de-escalating the current crisis in Ukraine – and the western media will be quick to jump on today’s “Putin-the-peacemaker” story. “Russia Today”, paid Russian bloggers, and sympathetic pro-Russian academics in the West will all “spin” the story in the most positive of lights: soon we will inevitably be hearing of the “Putin plan for peace in Ukraine,” and we’ll read criticism of western leaders who unduly mistrust the Kremlin… Of course, the invasion of Crimea will be forgotten, as will obvious supplies of military hardware to pro-Russia militants in Ukraine (not to mention evidence of Russian military personnel and commanders on the ground in Donetsk oblast). After-all, the EU and the US need to do business with Russia!
My skepticism of western journalists’ immunity to Russian spin is based both on observing visiting reporters here in Kyiv, and on reading/viewing news reports from Ukraine in influential English-language media. During the six months since the start of Ukraine’s revolution, and throughout the recent period of Russia’s sponsorship of armed conflict in Ukraine, the Kremlin’s information-war machine has been working overtime. The result: newly arrived reporters in January/February would inevitably seek out “right wing” activists, and in today’s context, we find journalists travelling to Slovyansk (the eastern city that is currently the focus of Ukraine’s Anti-terrorist Operation), and openly displaying frustration at not being able to find evidence of any CIA advisors or NATO military equipment among Ukrainian troops.
Western journalists have been trained to believe that all conflicts must have (at least) two sides. Objective reporting, therefore, requires a journalist to seek “balance” – stories should never simply present one side as “good” and the other as “bad” because that represents biased news. However, when sound bites and quotable quotes are readily available in immense quantities from one side, and messages come in a poorly packaged trickles from the other, biased reporting inevitably results. Last Sunday, the UK’s Guardian published two articles detailing the work of Kremlin-sponsored “trolls” who deliberately swamp the online comments sections that follow news stories on the Ukraine-Russia conflict with aggressively pro-Putin posts. On Monday, the NY Times went a step further: apparently, recent news coverage in Germany has been so pro-Russian (RT reports have simply been republished as fact – without verification) that the press seems to have affected public opinion to an extent sufficient to warrant concern as to the loyalty of Germany’s political elite to common defense within NATO, and (in a frightening flashback to the mid-20th century) to the legitimization of “great power” discourse that disregards smaller countries geographically located between Germany and Russia.
Discourse and symbolism are at the center of this conflict. It is for this reason that investigative journalism that seeks to identify economic motives behind Russia’s expansionism, in my opinion, misses the mark so widely. (e.g. recent stories that identify Slovyansk as being at the center of a massive shale gas deposit; oil and gas deposits off the Crimean coast are sometimes cited as the motive for annexing the peninsula to Russia, etc). From an economic standpoint, the occupation of Crimea clearly makes no sense: after water supplies from mainland Ukraine were cut-off last week (according to some reports this was done by the Russians themselves), all agricultural production on the peninsula ceased; beaches that normally should be packed with Ukrainian May holiday vacationers are deserted – this year’s tourist season will be a disaster, and so massive inflows of cash from the Russian state budget will be required to keep the Crimean population from starving. The mines of the Donbas (heavily subsidized by Kyiv) are clearly of no interest to Russia either.
If economic motives are obviously not the reason for Russia’s aggression, it baffles me why western journalists (and politicians) seem to believe that economic sanctions will prove sufficient to stop Putin’s expansionism. Perhaps it is time to stop fooling ourselves (and retranslating the Kremlin’s economic spin)?
I submit, that US Secretary of State John Kerry was fundamentally correct in his characterization of the Kremlin’s policies at the beginning of the current crisis, as being typical of 19th century thinking: Russians equate greatness with landmass. Whereas since the end of WW2, western countries have built a “culture of roads” (i.e. a civilization that enables trade, and values economic growth as a measure of a country’s success), Russia continues to live in a “culture of borders”. The first thing one is taught in a negotiations course in a business school is to try to understand your counterpart’s frame of reference. Clearly, the paradigm of decision-making in the West is economic. But Russia’s paradigm is different: Russia wants to be big: physically large. And until that changes, the civilizational cleavage between Russia and Europe will not be resolved.
During a Skype interview with a US-based radio program several months ago, I first described the Maidan phenomenon as representing a “civilizational” cleavage between Ukraine and Russia (at the time I was paraphrasing sociologist P. Sztompka’s description of the 1989 Velvet revolution in Poland which represented a “civilizational break” with that country’s socialist past). My opponent in the radio debate was a US-based Putin apologist, for whom the idea of Ukraine belonging to a different “civilization” from Russia was highly offensive; he called me a fascist, and ended the debate by emphasizing that his ancestors had been sentenced to Nazi death camps. Apparently, this reference was meant to imply an equation between my views and those of Maidan’s “right-wing radicals” whose symbols (echoing the Kremlin’s propagandists) he referred to as “neo-fascist”.
In the aftermath of Maidan, I have asked myself many times: who is the real fascist here? Any self-doubt I may have had was dispelled on April 16 when the Russian-backed Prime Minister of Crimea (Aksionov) posted on his Twitter (presumably in jest) that after the Russians annex the US, a place will be found for Obama in the Moscow zoo – among other black-skinned monkeys. There is a saying in Ukraine: every joke is only partly a joke… Six weeks have passed since the ceremony in the Kremlin when the “annexation document” was signed by Putin and the aforementioned “Prime Minister”. Last week, much feared (and predicted) repressions against Crimean Tatars began with Medjlis leader Mustafa Dzhemilev being denied entry into both Russia (refused at Sheremetevo airport) and into Crimea (refused at the “border” between Kherson oblast and the peninsula); yesterday, local Crimean Tatar leaders were charged by a Russian prosecutor in Bakhchysarai with fomenting anti-state activities. She explicitly threatened to ban the Medjlis (a proto-government organization that unites all Crimean Tatars) if its leaders continue to “foment unrest” against the Russian state.…
The terms “fascist”, “Banderite” and “nationalist” have been voiced regularly by Russia’s leaders in disparaging remarks against the post-revolutionary Kyiv government. In fact, as Andrew Wilson pointed out in the title of his book (published in the late 1990’s), Ukrainian nationalism has always been a “minority faith”. Recently, however, thanks to the policies of Mr. Putin, much of the regional divisiveness that had plagued Ukraine previously, has evaporated. When one sees Russian-speaking Kharkiv “Metalist” football fans marching through their eastern city (approximately 85 km from the Russian border) dressed in blue & yellow, carrying both Ukrainian and red & black (nationalist) flags, singing the national anthem, and then chanting “Putin – khuylo” (which roughly translates as “Putin – you big dick!”), one begins to believe in the reality of a united Ukrainian nation…
Much of the current conflict is symbolic. Clearly the deaths of 46 people during this past weekend’s violence in Odesa and in Donetsk oblast are very real, but in the big picture, their sacrifices are highly symbolic. At the end of February, over 100 Ukrainians in Kyiv paid the ultimate price in their fight for freedom – today they are remembered as heroes whose legacies dare not be betrayed. A similar symbolic weight will surely be attributed to those who gave their lives in Odesa on May 2, and to the military servicemen who have fallen (and are yet to fall) in action against the enemy in Donetsk oblast.
In December, at the start of Ukraine’s revolution, I first wrote about my experience of what it felt like to be at the epicenter of the birth of a nation. In those days and nights Kyiv became truly Ukrainian (i.e. no longer “Slavic”, “(post)Soviet”, “Rus”, etc.). The capital paid a price for this collective process of self-identification – initially in emotions, and then in deaths. Must the populations of Odesa, Kherson, Mykolayiv, Donetsk, and Kharkiv all pay the ultimate price in order to truly feel themselves part of this great nation? Viewed from Kyiv, it seems they are being forced to. Perhaps someday, when Ukraine’s borders have finally become stable, and we will have decisively defined the line of civilizational cleavage between ourselves and Russia, we will be able to evaluate whether the price was worth it.
Until today, I was convinced that the Putin plan for Ukraine involved holding referenda in Donetsk and Luhansk on May 11, and then immediately launching a direct military intervention by Russian forces into Ukraine’s southern region (Mykolayiv, Kherson, Odesa, and Zaporizhzhia) during subsequent days. Since the beginning of April, the Kremlin has tried to gain control over Ukraine’s southern region by using the same tactics as had been employed in Crimea and in the east (i.e. staging a “popular uprising” under the cover of bribed police commanders supported by highly trained and armed imported commanders of the insurgency). But popular resistance in Odesa last weekend, and the botched covert operation in that city’s Trade Unions building (where Kremlin responsibility for mass deaths is just too obvious to deny), seems to have led to a change of plan. I was convinced that that plan was invasion, but Putin’s comments today allayed my fears.
The Donetsk and Luhansk referenda are now likely to be held on the same day as Ukraine’s May 25 Presidential elections – a fact that will cause major problems both for the Kyiv government and for western diplomats. Certainly the EU and other western powers are eager to see the Presidential elections take place in a free and fair way. If an illegitimate referendum is held in the same polling stations (with the same voter lists) in Donetsk and Luhansk, and western observers are present, it will be exceptionally difficult to have the results of the Presidential vote declared legitimate while simultaneously declaring the separatist ballot to be flawed. More spin from the Kremlin propaganda machine is very likely on this point during the coming days.
Certainly, if none of the Presidential candidates receives more than 50% of the vote in the May 25 election and a run-off between the top two finalists must be held on June 15, with a referendum result in hand (“properly” counted by pro-Russia loyalists in the east), the temptation to intervene militarily in Ukraine will again be very high for Putin. That’s the bad news… The good news is that the next 3 weeks we are likely to have some measure of peace.
I continue to be convinced that Russia’s policy towards Ukraine is (and for the foreseeable future will remain) expansionist, imperialistic, and aimed at destroying its southwestern neighbor. This policy cannot be countered merely with economic sanctions: Putin will sooner starve his own population and cripple his economy, than recognize Ukraine’s right to exist. But he is patient. And so must we be…
God help us!