While Russian state propaganda talks about a “fascist” threat emanating from the new government of Ukraine, it is Russia itself that could turn to fascism if Vladimir Putin’s anti-Ukrainian campaign is allowed to succeed. Such is the view of Russian author and sociologist Poel Karp, who warns the West against capitulating before the Kremlin.
When Russian troops in unmarked uniforms took over the parliament of Ukraine’s Autonomous Republic of Crimea, Russian president Vladimir Putin asked the Federation Council for permission to send troops into Ukraine—and, naturally, received it. Not all media outlets, international or Russian, approved of this decision; some even criticized it. Others, like political commentator Leonid Radzikhovsky, insisted that Russian troops would not be sent into Ukraine, because that would mean political death for Putin. Yet today the troops are in Crimea, and Putin is alive and well, and does not appear suicidal.
It is worth asking why Putin’s actions are only being denounced now. Did he not establish his political position in his 2007 Munich speech and even, plainly speaking, in the 1999 Chechen War? Did he not express his wish to reestablish the USSR (and not necessarily by peaceful means) when he called the dissolution of the Soviet Union the greatest catastrophe of the twentieth century? For him, the peaceful liberation of peoples once conquered by the Russian Empire and then maintained (or reconquered, as in the case of the Baltic States, after Stalin’s pact with Hitler) by the Soviet Union was the greatest catastrophe—not the First or Second World Wars, not the 1917 Bolshevik coup, not Stalin’s collectivization efforts, not the events in Germany in 1933 or China in 1949, not even the Holocaust.
Putin’s decision to send Russian troops to a former Soviet republic was not an emotional outburst—motivated, for example, by a desire to stop accepting the 60-year-old “injustice” of the transfer of Crimea to Ukraine. He has not uttered a word about the real injustice: the deportation in 1944 of the Crimean Tatars, who did not regain their right to return home until 1989, and many of whom are still living in Uzbekistan and other foreign countries—not to mention those who have died.
No, Putin did not send troops to Crimea because of a hot temper or personal whim. He was supported by all the Federation Council members who were present (they also urged him to withdraw the Russian ambassador from Washington). One can, of course, see some clinical symptoms in the legislators’ statements, but the president is supported not only by a handful of appointed senators, but also by the entire ruling establishment, the nomenklatura—a group that includes no fewer than 2 million people. In contrast, the antiwar protests that have been staged have included hundreds of people. Before blaming everything on Putin, it would be wise to analyze the real reason for his actions. Putin is cautious and not stupid—although he is, unfortunately, a colorless man and a graduate of the KGB school of thought that recognizes only two sides to any dispute: “ours” and “the enemy’s.”
This outlook played a role not only in the Ukraine crisis, but also in the investigation of the 1999 bombings in Moscow and Ryazan, the 2002 Moscow theater hostage crisis, and the government’s inability to accept that the Soviet period was catastrophic for Russia. But is Putin alone in idealizing the USSR? Having shed its Soviet ideology, Russia’s current establishment has abandoned even the modest attempts of the perestroika era to publicize the nightmares of Soviet history. New generations are being taught about Russia’s victory in the Second World War, but they know nothing about the reasons for the war, the retreat to the Volga, the price of victory, or how the country lived after the war. These things are worth knowing.
In the run-up to the invasion of Ukraine, the propaganda machine tried to convince people that the invasion was directed against the “Banderovites,” the label used for supporters of an independent Ukraine, after the Ukrainian nationalist leader Stepan Bandera, an alleged supporter of Hitler who was killed by the KGB in 1959. But Bandera spent little of his life in the USSR. He was born in Austria-Hungary and, when it fell apart after the First World War, dreamed of creating an independent country out of its Ukrainian territories. But these territories were seized by Poland, which actively Polonized them, and Bandera fought against these oppressors using the same methods that Russian revolutionaries, the narodniks, and the People’s Will had once used. He, like then, used terror to further his ends, and it was under his command that Poland’s interior minister was murdered. Bandera spent many years in Polish prisons and was only released after the Nazi-Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939. Just like Stalin, Bandera did not mind befriending Hitler—although he did so not to enslave other peoples, but to create an independent Ukraine. The reason he opposed the Bolsheviks was because they did not support an independent Ukraine. But neither did Hitler, and two weeks after Hitler’s invasion of the USSR, Bandera was sent to a German camp, where he spent the remainder of the war. In the fall of 1944, when a losing Germany once again made overtures to Bandera to fight against the Russians, he renewed his call for an independent Ukraine. Hitler refused the request once again, and Bandera was left with nothing.
I do not think that Putin is an anti-Semite—but he criticizes the Ukrainian Bandera for anti-Semitism while promoting the Russian Kiselev for the very same thing.
Bandera is not my hero. I find terrorism repulsive—both the murder of individuals, like those carried out by the People’s Will or Bandera, and the modern-day mass murders of innocents. Furthermore, Bandera was an anti-Semite. But I spent my life in Russia, where there were always many open anti-Semites who were not condemned by the authorities. Putin recently appointed Dmitri Kiselev—who told television viewers that the real surname of poet Igor Irteniev is Rabinovich—to oversee state propaganda. But Putin did not criticize Kiselev; instead he awarded him with an order “For Achievements to the Motherland.” I do not think that Putin is an anti-Semite—but he criticizes the Ukrainian Bandera for anti-Semitism while promoting the Russian Kiselev for the very same thing. It is clear that Putin did not send troops to Ukraine because of anti-Semitism. And it was not because of his anti-Semitism that Bandera fought for an independent Ukraine.
The situation that the Russian government claims necessitates sending troops into Ukraine is being artificially escalated by the same kind of lies that have been spread about Bandera. Modern Russia is still unable to abandon Soviet lies. In denouncing Bandera, the Russian authorities are trying to sway public opinion against Oleksandr Turchinov, acting president of Ukraine, and Arseniy Yatsenyuk, current prime minister of Ukraine—neither of whom were even born during Bandera’s lifetime. Putin is claiming that the designation of Turchinov as acting president while an agreement was signed between the Ukrainian opposition and then-President Yanukovych constitutes a forcible seizure of power. Yet the Rada (Ukraine’s parliamentary body) designated Turchinov only as acting Ukrainian president. After all, someone had to fulfill these duties after Yanukovych, having signed an agreement with the opposition, fled in an unknown direction. Had Yanukoych resurfaced in Kiev, and had Turchinov refused to hand over his duties, that could have been grounds for such an accusation. But Yanukovych resurfaced in Rostov-on-Don, in Russia, and instead of going to Kiev himself, he asked Putin to send Russian troops there. Putin presumably considers this normal behavior for a head of state that does not reflect upon his legitimacy.
There is another interesting detail to this situation. While Yanukovych claimed that he had not met with Putin after fleeing Ukraine, Putin said that they did meet once. It looks like Yanukovych is the one lying in this case. Putin, when talking with journalists, lied only about military matters—for example, when he referred to Russian troops as “Crimean self-defense forces.” Any native Russian speaker can easily distinguish between a Russian Crimean and a resident of Voronezh or Siberia—and especially between a Crimean military unit and a Siberian one.
When questioned recently about the 1994 Budapest Memorandum—which obliged Russia, as well as the United States and Great Britain, to support Ukraine’s territorial integrity in return for its unprecedented renunciation of nuclear weapons—Putin, with apparent naiveté, answered that there was a revolution in Ukraine, that the previous Ukrainian state was no longer in existence, and that there have been no memoranda issued with regard to the current Ukrainian state. This argument sheds light not only on the Russian president’s legal mentality, but also on the nature of Russia’s current regime. Surely Putin was taught at the KGB school that there were two revolutions in Russia in 1917, and that the Russian Empire ceased to exist after those revolutions—but that the 14 countries that had troops in Russian territory at that time nevertheless had no right to send their troops there. Just as Putin now has no right to send troops into Ukraine.
I find it hard to believe that Professor Anatoly Sobchak did not teach his students, who included Putin, Medvedev, and other current Russian leaders, the differences among laws, treaties, declarations, and orders, or that he did not make clear that law exists as a system of principles that remain in force even when treaties and laws cease to exist and when circumstances change. There are still actions that a state cannot take—at least not a state that claims to be based on laws.
The commander in chief’s promise that Russian troops entering Ukraine would hide behind women and children—a promise that shows his own humanity as well as the behavior he expects from his soldiers—pales in comparison with the supposedly theoretical legal statement about state continuity outlined above. The worst thing of all is not that the Russian president is bad—it is that the Russian state is not based on the rule of law.
Stalin and Brezhnev lived by the Leninist idea of expanding their territory. And even though there have been some failures, as with Yugoslavia and China, Russia’s territory has indeed expanded. Historically, the country lived poorly, but by spending natural resources on preparations for war, it was capable of if not winning conflicts, then at least dealing a fatal blow to its enemies. Crisis broke out when even the arms race could no longer be paid for.
Having received a gift in the form of high oil prices, Putin began to play not with one hand, but with two. By expanding Russia’s economic ties with the outside world, he achieved a lot—and could have achieved even more had it not been for his imperialistic and lawless mentality. But he has simultaneously maintained the old Soviet-style expansionist line as well, barging ahead while Western countries tactically (or so they think) retreat, failing to understand that by doing so, he is threatening them directly. Today, Barack Obama is compelled, for the sake of appearances, to warn Putin of the “high cost” that will have to be paid for the country’s actions in Crimea. But that cost will not be paid by Putin—it will be paid by Russia, which its rulers have never cared about. Nor are these rulers in a hurry—they are carefully planning another, even more daring, expansion of their territory. Putin is weighing the extent to which the two lines of behavior are compatible, and someone working at, say, British Petroleum, which is making a lot of money in Russia, is likely saying that they are. The Kremlin will be content to take not everything in Ukraine at once, but only a part—the main thing is to establish its presence on the ground. That is why “Finlandization”—that is, relative independence for a country’s citizens in exchange for that country’s political and economic dependence on Russia—is such an attractive concept for some.
There is something worse than a mutual “cold war”—and that is advance surrender to a unilateral “cold war” that the Kremlin began with Putin’s Munich speech and continued to prosecute through aggressive anti-American propaganda.
Hence the talk of expanding Crimea’s autonomy. Everything that is being said in this regard is a lie. There are indeed many Russians in Crimea. Crimea, Koktebel, and Alupka are some of the most desirable residences in the world for Soviet citizens—especially after the deportation of the Crimean Tatars in 1944, which left many places vacated. But Crimea used to have a Tatar national autonomy—once the Tatars were deported, this area became the Crimean Region. Unlike the Russian Federation, which rubberstamped one anti-Tatar law after another, Ukraine made the return of the Tatars to their homes relatively easier—although this has not been enough. Ukraine should help the Crimean Tatars—even though it was not this country that deported them—and then one might talk about reestablishing Crimean autonomy. As for Russians and Russian speakers, there are many of them throughout Ukraine, not only in Crimea. Before the Second World War, Russians and Jews (who are also Russian speakers) made up the majority of Kiev’s population but did not have autonomy. In Leningrad as late as the 1930s, there were many Germans—you could hear German spoken on the streets—but they too did not have autonomy. There thus is no reason to establish or expand “Crimean autonomy.” This rhetoric is only a smokescreen for establishing Russian autonomy in Ukraine or transforming Ukraine into a state for two peoples under control of Moscow. Therefore, the Russian government’s efforts to seek an expansion of Russian autonomy in Crimea constitutes an act of aggression. The rights of Russians (as well as the rights of Jews, Moldovans, Caucasians, and other ethnic groups) in Ukraine—as well as in Russia—must absolutely be protected. One can compare which country does this better. At least for now, Russians in Ukraine do not face discrimination, and Putin could not find a single example to the contrary.
Having attacked Georgia in 2008, Moscow has already revealed its surviving Soviet face. But this act was swallowed by the West, which considered it a one-off incident. Russia’s current aggression against Ukraine shows that this was not the case. English-language newspapers are asking, “How we can go to war over Ukraine?”—although such a thing would be no stranger than going to war over Iraq or Korea. But one should never rush ahead with war; one should just remember that Western countries, in particular the United States under Truman, Kennedy, and Reagan found the means to adequately respond to the Soviet Union, which had conquered half of Europe. There is nothing good about a “cold war,” and it is not wise to be the first one to start it. But unfortunately, there is something worse than a mutual “cold war”—and that is advance surrender to a unilateral “cold war” that the Kremlin began with Putin’s Munich speech and continued to prosecute through aggressive anti-American propaganda. In 1946, the Cold War was begun by Stalin, who refused to allow free elections in any of the countries liberated from Hitler by the Red Army. Today, Russia’s goal vis-à-vis Ukraine is the same—and it is not limited to Ukraine. If the West accepts the Finlandization of Ukraine and Russian autonomy in Crimea, the Baltic States and Poland will follow. The rest of Europe will not be far behind.
There is nothing surprising about what is happening. If the West did not understand this outlook when George W. Bush was looking into Putin’s eyes and “seeing his soul,” or when Barack Obama did not want to hear of anything except the Reset, it can at least start thinking about this possibility now. Ukraine is only the second step in the reemergence of the Kremlin’s Soviet-style drive for world domination, even if Putin is more guarded that Khrushchev and is not promising to “bury” the West. But let there be no illusions: that is exactly what he aims for, consciously or not. Whether this aim is realized depends on all of us—especially on the Ukrainian people who are conducting a revolution of national liberation, the second one of the century. It seems they have no other way forward except resistance. Europe is ready to surrender; the Americans are saying something but doing nothing. As for Russia, it is clear what will triumph should Ukraine be defeated—what has long been called “an ordinary fascism.”