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All Politics Are Local: Crimea Explained

“Let us drink to Putin! He is doing so many good things for us.” This toast from a friend’s mother, at a recent friendly gathering of neighbors at my dacha near Moscow, made a few of us around the table feel a little uneasy. I think it was the first time that I’d heard someone proposing to drink the health of one of our heads of state when it wasn’t required by protocol. However, this lady’s emotions were sincere and, given the circumstances in Russia today, quite logical. Vladimir Putin’s Crimean blitz was a very domestic Russian affair, designed to give the people a new sense of imperial pride and, by extension, provide the Kremlin with a badly needed popularity boost. In this regard, it succeeded beyond expectation. Even the tragedy of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 did not shake the foundations of the conviction that most Russians hold: their country is a beacon of moral fortitude and spiritual greatness besieged by the Western forces of atheism, permissiveness, and greed.

The state of the collective Russian mind, a blend of imperial bluster, conspiracy theories, and defensiveness, is frequently underappreciated outside of Russia. Most commentators dwell on geopolitical aspects of the recent crisis and talk about it as a preventive counter-move to NATO’s enlargement to Ukraine and Georgia. After the events in Kyiv’s Maidan square, which Russian state media continue to refer to only as an “illegal coup d’état,” geopolitics were definitely in the air; probably not NATO expansion but possibly a move by the new Ukrainian government to ask for renegotiation of the Sevastopol base lease agreement. But was that possibility worth blowing up the post–Cold War European political and diplomatic order? Only if one understands that Russia’s foreign and security policy is primarily a tool to defend the current regime and help it to stay in power with minimum international pressure as long as it wishes.

The most important event in Putin-era Russian politics happened in Kyiv a decade before the 2013–14 Maidan protests. It was the Orange Revolution of 2004, which sent panic through the Russian leadership. The authentically anti-authoritarian message of what many now call simply “the first Maidan” forced the Kremlin to accept the possibility of a “people power” scenario emerging in Russia itself. Since then, the Kremlin has devoted an increasing amount of time and resources to one aim: avoiding such developments in Russia at any cost. Without accepting this fact, it is impossible to understand Vladimir Putin’s actions over the last nine months.

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In transition from a Soviet empire to a modern nation-state in an age of post-modernity, Russians can perhaps be forgiven for being confused about who they are and for harking back to the “glory days” of the late USSR when there was (seemingly) no such ambiguity. The seemingly overnight collapse of the Soviet system in 1989–91 is regarded by people like the lady who toasted Putin at my dacha as an aberration, a result of a CIA plot, Mikhail Gorbachev’s treachery, global Masonic conspiracy—anything but the consequences of bad governance, economic and technological backwardness, and moral decay that were the real reasons for the swift disappearance of the USSR. This event continues to be a huge trauma for the Russian national psyche—and a source of endless creative manipulation by Putin.

 

When the Kremlin took total control of all major national TV networks in the early 2000s, it was a defining moment in Russian history. Around eighty percent of Russians get their views from TV. For the last fifteen years, the state-controlled channels have churned out conspiracy theories and anti-Western propaganda designed to convince the Russians that the collapse of the USSR was a mistake and that for all its talk about “human rights,” the West only wants to occupy Russia and appropriate its oil and gas. In a country where no more than a quarter of the population owns passports and where the three previous Soviet generations lived in isolation, such messages are very effective. The idea that the West is duplicitous and conceited and that only naked interest rules the world plays well in a country where, as eminent sociologist and economist Natalia Zubarevich once remarked, people are so powerless and so dependent on the state machine that only cynicism and belief that the whole world lives like that helps to overcome frustration.

This “Fortress Russia” mentality has really taken hold, not only in the provincial parts of the country, where it is all but dominant, but also in major urban centers like Moscow and St. Petersburg, which in 2011–12 were the scene of mass antigovernment protests. A patriotic wave seems to have swept away the last vestiges of negativity toward the Kremlin, even among the metropolitan middle classes. This is a momentum to be maintained by the Kremlin, because the people who govern Russia also own it. They control firms like Gazprom and Rosneft, arms exports, gold and diamond production. But they can hold onto their power and the assets they’ve amassed only by struggling against anti-Russian notions of democracy, accountability, and transparency. Even mild political Westernization will put their power—and by extension, their control of the Russian economy—in severe doubt.

That is why promoting cynicism and isolationism is an indispensible political and ideological tool for the Kremlin. Thus, gaining legitimacy of the political regime and personal popularity for Putin was a key factor in determining Moscow’s response to the Ukrainian crisis.

Of course the special place the Crimea holds in Russians’ hearts also played a role. Nikita Khrushchev’s fateful decree to cede it to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1954 (which at the time seemed legally insignificant, as the USSR was one country) was felt to be an injustice even in the Soviet days. No other place in the post-Soviet space holds such a symbolic significance for the Russian people. The bloodless takeover of the peninsula thus became something resembling a collective therapy session for the nation as a whole, which seemed to relish the chance to spit in the face of “ungrateful” Ukrainians, NATO “aggressors,” “American imperialists,” and even history itself.

This peculiar sense of pride found itself a massive expression in the Russian blogosphere in the immediate aftermath of the occupation of the Crimea. “We have finally arrived home—back in the USSR!” raved Ulyana Skoibeda, a popular columnist for the pro-Kremlin mass-market daily Komsomolskaya Pravda. “If only Putin sends tanks into Kyiv, I shall forgive him anything,” wrote one blogger in early June when the standoff in Eastern Ukraine became a full-scale military confrontation.

 

Military plans for the Crimea were likely prepared long ago, probably after the 2008 war in Georgia. However, the decision to act, taken after the seriousness of the Ukrainian protests became clear, was probably an opportunistic one designed to make Putin’s domestic position even more unassailable than it was before. It also generally fit Putin’s new political course, based on the idea that he is protector of “conservative Russia,” an imaginary land of “good Russians” who are patriotic, worship the idea of raw power, mistrust the West, and oppose the “rotten” city intelligentsia with their iPads, lattes, and pro-democracy posturing. All Putin’s actions since coming back to the Kremlin in 2012 have been aimed at fostering the new national consensus based on anti-intellectualism and anti-Westernism and on giving Russia a new, stable, apparently organic identity. By achieving this, the Russian president strives to secure his own place in history among the likes of Peter the Great, although this ambition is constrained by the economic realities of the global economy of which Russia forms an integral part and by his natural inclination to play it safe.

Contrary to Putin’s image in the West as a decisive leader, he is not by nature resolute. He only acts when he feels totally confident of his success. He felt he could send troops into the Crimea because he was certain that he wouldn’t meet any resistance. In Eastern Ukraine, the situation is much more complex and the risk of Russian soldiers losing their lives in action is much higher. He may yet bite—although in the wake of the Ukrainian forces’ increasing tenacity and the fallout from the downing of Flight 17, this looks less and less likely—but it is characteristic that so far he has only barked.

At this point, everything is going Putin’s way. His popularity skyrocketed to eighty percent during his fifteenth year at the helm of the Russian executive. He has no opposition at home and no foreign leaders to be afraid of. He is playing the game of hardball politics with skill and gusto, understanding that he will get little pushback from a weak and introspective US administration that appears to have all but given up on America’s unique global role. In May 2013, during talks in the Kremlin, Putin scolded the US ambassador, Michael McFaul, in front of Secretary of State John Kerry for allegedly trying to overthrow the Russian government during the protests of 2011–12. Kerry did not disagree or defend McFaul (who quite publicly criticized assaults on civil liberties by Russian authorities while in Moscow), or protest this deliberate breach of protocol. Since then, Putin has been convinced that his plans will meet no resistance whatsoever from Washington.

So is it all smooth sailing ahead for Vladimir Putin? Maybe yes, in the short term of the next few years, but definitely no in the longer perspective. Most analysts point to Russia’s rampant corruption and especially the stagnant economy, which now faces the increased financial burden of feeding and modernizing Crimea. But in my view, Putin’s risks lie elsewhere—in the realm of ideas, political notions, and complex relationships inside the elites. Basking in the gratitude of the people for returning Crimea to the Russian fold, he may think that he has solved his legitimacy problem once and for all. But he has set the bar of expectations very high. As a tool of political mobilization, Crimea was unique and could only be matched by a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. But even the most die-hard Soviet nostalgics in the Russian leadership realize that this is not in the cards. Nor could ventures in neighboring states—neither storming Tbilisi nor recognizing Transnistrian independence, if it is ever undertaken—ever produce a comparable “Crimea effect.”

That the Ukrainian crisis will now turn into a prolonged affair also increases political risks for Putin. If by gaining the Crimea Moscow is seen permanently to have lost Ukraine, the politics of the “victory” become cloudier. Even if Eastern Ukraine devolves into a kind of semi-confederate part of the Ukrainian state (an event that now looks unlikely), the rest of the country will remain more anti-Russian (in a political sense of the word) and pro-European than ever. The goal of joining the West has become for Ukraine, in the words of its foreign minister, Pavlo Klimkin, not only a foreign policy goal, but a domestic one too. If Ukrainian transformation starts to succeed, this will inevitably feed back into Russia. The two countries and two peoples remain exceptionally close, even after the recent events. The Ukrainian example may yet haunt the Kremlin.

Additionally, one unexpected consequence of the Ukrainian crisis is a marked rise of support in Russia for paramilitary activities, gun ownership, and vigilantism. Having watched months of euphoric coverage by state TV of masked civilians from Donetsk and Luhansk brandishing Kalashnikovs and talking about defending their homes, the citizens of Russia could be forgiven for getting the idea that this might be the right way to solve their own problems with corrupt officials, greedy businessmen, and drug dealers protected by corrupt police. In a country with dysfunctional institutions and a very low level of civic culture, this is a very dangerous scenario, to say the least. That thousands of Russian “volunteers” who were sent or went themselves to eastern Ukraine will eventually come back with their arms—and hatred of those who did not let them “finish the job” in Ukraine—only adds to the potential risks.

Finally, the only action that remains open to Putin to maintain his legitimacy is purging the elites who ever since the winter of 2011–12 he has seen as treacherous and prone to panic in the face of political instability. Hence a whole series of new laws recently initiated by the Kremlin which aim at the so-called “nationalization of the elites.” They prohibit government officials from owning property and accounts abroad and make it obligatory for all citizens to declare second citizenship or even residence permits in foreign countries, in addition to clamping down decisively on journalists and NGOs.

However, according to Lilia Shevtsova of the Carnegie Moscow Center, an increasingly undemocratic system of government still demands quasi-democratic ways of legitimization. In all probability, during the 2016 elections to the State Duma, the Kremlin will mobilize all of its impressive resources to get a majority of “ordinary people” from the provinces to replace the current mix of corrupt former officials and millionaires in the legislature. The All-Russian Popular Front—officially a popular movement in support of Vladimir Putin’s policy—is set to supplement if not replace the compromised and corrupt “United Russia,” largely consisting of businessmen and former civil servants, as the main pro-regime force in the legislature. The calculation is pretty evident: Who will be more loyal to the Kremlin, the owner of a chain of car showrooms worth tens of millions of dollars who can go abroad at any time, for example, or a simple teacher whose salary, if he is “elected,” will jump from about $300 to $13,000, not to mention other perks of office like a free apartment in Moscow, paid expenses, and a diplomatic passport?

But such a transition poses the biggest problem of all for the Kremlin. Ever since Putin’s rise to power, the unannounced but universal principle of governance in Russia has been “Impunity in exchange for loyalty.” In the memorable phrase of one of Russia’s opposition leaders, Boris Nemtsov, “The Russian elite wants to rule like Joseph Stalin but live like [tycoon] Roman Abramovich.” This bitter joke hit at the heart of the political regime in Russia, where Western consumption habits co-exist with a totalitarian muzzling of opponents behind the smokescreen of pseudo-patriotism. This is about to change as Vladimir Putin maintains his control by increasing repressive practices and aiming them not only at opposition but also at those who were fellow travelers or even allies until now. As Western sanctions start to have more and more effect on the Russian economy, sticks rather than carrots—e.g., forcing the repatriation of assets from the West to Russia itself—remain one of the few methods of whipping the ruling class into submission still available to the Kremlin. Some loyalists already went public pledging their readiness to “give their earnings back to the state.” However, this only increases uncertainty and brooding at the top of Russia’s once unshakeable “power vertical.” This is no recipe for stability but rather a road map to political chaos. After the Ukrainian inferno, it looks more and more unavoidable. What seemed like a moment of glory may well have been a harbinger of future crises.

Konstantin von Eggert is a Russian journalist and political commentator. He was a diplomatic correspondent for Izvestia daily in the 1990s, Moscow bureau chief for the BBC Russian Service in 2002–08, and deputy editor and then editor in chief of Kommersant FM in 2012–13. In 2009–10, he also worked as vice president for public affairs of ExxonMobil Russia Inc. In 2008, for services to the BBC, Queen Elizabeth II created him Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire.

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