Perceptions of the crisis in Ukraine have been driven by the media. The Western press has taken a guardedly positive line toward the protestors in Maidan Square, constructing the flirtations of the Ukrainian opposition with NATO and the EU as simple struggles for freedom and the rule of law, mostly ignoring the neo-fascist presence in the movement.
This is unsurprising, given the dominant narrative in the European and North American media that casts the world in binary terms.
On the one hand there is EU/US/NATO, struggling for enlightenment and human progress even at the occasional (and regrettable) price of a few smoking villages. On the other hand there is everyone else.
What is clear from a number of recent biographical treatments of Vladimir Putin is that he’s never quite gotten how the media works in the world of liberal democracies. The journalist Angus Roxburgh, who worked for a while for a British agency hired to do PR work for the Russian government, reports in a recent book that Putin and his advisors generally projected their relationship with Russian domestic media onto that in Western Europe and the US. There is a persistent feeling in the Kremlin of having gotten a raw deal from Western governments because actions which they regard as comparable (for instance the Second Chechen War and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) are projected onto this binary divide in ways that seem to give them short shift.
One thing that the Russian government has learned in their years of dealing with Europe and the US is at least a modicum of subtlety in terms of the cultivation of their own media outlets. Russian domestic media, especially after consolidation under Putin, provide news that is very much on message, and extremely light on nuance. In the international arena, Russian opinion building is more complex, running the gamut from the Kremlin’s own official information service RT (formerly Russia Today,) to nominally independent think tanks (the British Helsinki Human Rights Group,) as well as friendly bloggers such as Eric Draitser (Stop Imperialism.)
Pro-Russia media output comprises a wide range of political views, but in general seems to speak a slightly left of center argot. It varies widely in quality. RT is very slick and generally takes account of a wide range of viewpoints, even if partisanship of Russia remains pronounced, albeit disingenuously identified with the Western left (i.e. Thom Hartmann’s The Big Picture, The Julian Assange Show) Draitser’s Stop Imperialism blog often presents quite insightful analysis, yet it is clear that the “imperialism” being referred to is US/NATO/EU interference with Russian and Eurasian domestic and regional politics.The question of whether Russian incursions into Chechnya, Georgia, or Ukraine constitute imperialism is hardly considered.
At the other end of the spectrum, things can get almost comically ham-fisted. Take, for example, a piece posted by a pro-Russia blogger at Counterpunch on the topic of Pussy Riot (at that point still a central figure of obsession for Russia’s defenders) in which it was implied that the group were agents of the State Department, because the latter had posted a note of concern over their treatment to the Russian government. This was slightly shocking, given that it implied that the sending of another such letter by Paul McCartney meant that Pussy Riot were actually members of his 1970s band, Wings.
All sides in the conflict over the Ukraine are fighting wars of perception. Are the anti-Yanukovych protestors partisans of Western-style liberal democracy, or are they neo-fascists intent on cleansing the country of ethnic Russians and Jews? Have the ethnic Russian populations in eastern Ukraine and the Crimea been subjected to threats and violence, or are they the aggressors? Is the interest of the US and EU humanitarian in nature, or are they engaged in a policy of diminishing Russia’s regional influence? Is Russia standing up for human rights, or merely engaging in perhaps yet another thinly disguised game of regional power politics? The sources of information have multiplied. But it is by no means clear that the quality of the information has improved.
The tense interplay now going on seems in many ways to mirror the period immediately following the Second World War. Like our current era, those days were characterized by either outright failures to communicate, or by slippages between publicly espoused policies and the nudge-and-a-wink understandings of politics on the ground. On 23 April 1945, Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov was on the receiving end of a dressing down from US President Harry Truman for the Soviets’ failure to stage plebiscites in Eastern Europe. Molotov was shocked, not least because the Soviet understanding of affairs was that each side had its own sphere of interest in which it was essentially free to do what it pleased. In a note about Poland two months earlier, Molotov had written, “How governments are being organized in Belgium, France, and Greece, etc., we do not know. We have not been asked, although we do not say that we like one or another of these governments. We have not interfered, because it is the Anglo-American zone of military action.”
A more long term version of this has been playing itself out over the course of Putin’s two presidencies. Early in his first term, he advanced feelers in the direction of Russian entry into NATO. Those feelers have been rebuffed. He fell back on the repeated assurances by NATO leaders that they were not looking to infringe upon the Russian sphere of influence. But, of course, those assurances were only one element of U.S. and EU policies. Another dimension was that of promoting neo-liberalism. Liberal democratic values were seen as desirable too, but the rule of law was more important for the effects that it could have on economic development and investment. If some positive moves could be made in terms of human rights, so much the better, but the rhetoric of the latter was secondary to the reality of the former.
From Putin’s perspective, the Atlantic allies have been playing a double game. They condemn Russian human rights violations, both domestically and in Chechnya (and Georgia,) while studiously ignoring the degree to which they themselves have been guilty of committing or promoting such behavior, from Indo-China, to Iran, to Chile, to Bosnia and Kosovo, and most recently in Afghanistan and Iraq. There is an equivalency in this for Putin, and even if it is overstated, the fact that it is not prima facie untrue is a sad consequence of ill-considered and inhumane projects in post-colonialism and reconstruction by the United States in the postwar world.
In a recent article in the New York Review of Books, Yale historian Timothy Snyder argued that Putin was strongly influenced by the Eurasianist political ideology of Alexander Dugin and his followers. This is certainly an overstatement. Putin’s politics are more about a low grade Russian nationalism than a community of fate shared by Eurasian peoples. Putin has talked about wanting to form a Euro-Asian bloc, but there is little evidence that he views this in the sort of metaphysical, national Bolshevist terms in which Dugin’s politics are couched. It’s more an expression of Putin’s frustration that, having moved on from communism, Russia has not been allowed to join the club of “civilized” western states, with full rights to be given the benefit of the doubt when pursing its own core interests.
Good help is so hard to find these days. No one knows this better than Putin, whose current escapades in Ukraine were necessitated by the incompetence of Viktor Yanukovych, for most things besides corruption. Part conspiratorial fixer, part playground hard boy, the ex-KGB agent has been forced into a policy which has little prospect of achieving his larger goals. Putin likes to project himself as a man in control. But now, with Russian irregulars active in the Crimea and a referendum on independence there looming, he has the look of someone buffeted by circumstance, compelled by his image and his rhetoric to adopt a policy neither to his liking, nor in Russia’s long term interest.
The situation in Ukraine has gone from one in which Putin was going to be able to exert soft economic (i.e.) influence on a sympathetic leader to an unstable blend of intercommunal conflict and great power politics. He is now almost compelled to annex the Crimea, having dramatically intensified the aggressiveness of the local Russian nationalist movement. This will almost certainly succeed, given the preponderance of those who identify as Russian in the Crimea. But annexing the Crimea involves a number of very unfortunate collateral consequences.
Although Russian speakers predominate, 25% of the population is Ukrainian, and they would be unlikely to accept Russian annexation quietly. In addition, about 12% of the population are Crimean Tatars, who have a strong cultural memory of the genocidal assaults perpetrated against them under Stalin. A Crimea made part of Russia presents the prospect of a complex and fractious region.
At the same time, the residual parts of the Ukraine, shorn of a large proportion of its Russian population, will be powerfully driven into the arms of NATO, with the latter now possessing a perfect pretext on which to admit them. Such a blatant redrawing of territorial boundaries would provide ample rationale for the United States and its allies both to institute painful economic sanctions in the short run, and create a narrative of Russian mendacity whose consequences could reverberate for years. Russia could counter by using its energy resources to focus the minds of the EU’s policy makers, but in the medium and longer term that will spur them to search more aggressively for other energy suppliers, with fewer strings attached. The North American fracking boom could add a new element to this.
For the US, this is not the defining moment of Obama’s presidency. Rather, it is a regional conflict which says as much about the limitations of Putin’s political options as anything else. Russia is still very strong, and has many avenues to advance its policies. But the bluntness of Putin’s approach to his neighbors has created a situation in which Russia has a lot more to lose than to gain.