Vladimir Putin’s recent admission that he was ready to put Russia’s nuclear arsenal in a state of combat readiness prior to the annexation of Crimea is a stark reminder that when it comes to criticizing the extreme dangers of “exceptionalism”, the Russian president is woefully (or perhaps willfully) blind to the plank in his own eye.
One year after the Crimean Peninsula was formally absorbed into the Russian Federation, the country’s propaganda apparatus has been in full overdrive. “Crimea: The Road Home,” a two-plus hour pseudo-documentary that aired on Russian state television on Sunday, is perhaps the apotheosis of media-generated content in post-Madian Russia.
To venture into this manufactured world of light and dark forces is to confront a parallel reality built on unqualified conspiracies; a realm in which the United States is the puppet master behind all disorder, Ukrainian nationalists were preparing to poison the water supply on the peninsula, and Russia was compelled to act and save its own people from certain destruction. What, to an outsider, appears to be a bizarre simulacrum of reality seemingly lifted from an 80s action film, is ultimately a glimpse into the prism through which many Russians see the world today.
Putin, of course, plays the central role in this contrived narrative, and on Sunday, the coup de théâtre was all his.
In a documentary packed with half-truths played off as facts and actual facts failing to make the final cut, Putin sent shockwaves through the largely jaded Russia-watching community and beyond by admitting that nuclear weapons were on the table when it came to bringing Crimea back into the fold.
“We were ready to do this [put Russia’s nuclear weapons in a state of alert],” he said.
“I told them openly that [Crimea] is our historic territory. Russian people live there, they are in danger, we can’t abandon that.”
He further said Moscow had never thought about “severing Crimea from Ukraine” until the “government overthrow,” though there is evidence that such plans had been in effect for at least a year (and possibly as early as 2005).
Seeing how Ukraine had jettisoned its nuclear arsenal under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum in return for assurances its territorial integrity would be respected, that Putin would risk nuclear war to annex a piece of Ukrainian territory is perhaps the mother of all ironies.
The absurdity of the situation is further demonstrated by the fact that Russia is technically obligated to seek out “immediate United Nations Security Council action…if Ukraine should become a victim of an act of aggression or an object of a threat of aggression in which nuclear weapons are used.”
The hastily organized sham referendum which followed the Russian military occupation should be understood in this context, as Moscow needed a justification (no matter how flimsy) to not only shirk its obligations under the memorandum, but to trample all over them. Moscow, in fact, would later argue it was never required to force Ukrainian citizens to remain within Ukraine under the agreement, providing context to why the no-status quo ballot was rushed through, with Crimean MPs literally under the gun, according to onetime rebel leader and “former” Russian Federal Security Service Colonel Igor Girkin.
And even if the nuclear threat was a made for TV moment, it’s a telling admission, given that Putin and his team were fully aware of how it would play out domestically, and opted to run with it.
Which is to say, the relentless propaganda effort aimed at the Russian population has fostered a siege mentality, a worldview in which Russia was nearly forced to deploy nuclear weapons in the face of a perceived existential crisis. There was no bridge too far when it came to securing the motherland, (except, perhaps, for the Kerch Strait Bridge.)
Russia has spent the better part of the last year tearing Ukraine apart, and yet its people view themselves as the victims. Putin has tapped into a deep, deep sentiment (or in Kierkegaard’s words, ressentiment), which informs much of the citizenry. And even as Putin is the puppet master of this stage managed reality, it is a sentiment that he, at least on some level, believes himself.
In the words of the 20th century slavophile Ivan Ilyin (who is said to be Putin’s favorite philosopher), the West neither understands Russia nor tolerates its identity.
“They are going to divide the united Russian ‘broom’ into twigs to break those twigs one by one and rekindle with them the fading light of their own civilization,” Ilyin wrote.
Putin himself said much the same thing this past December to the chagrin of Western journalists, though his folksy analogy was deadly serious.
“Sometimes I think, maybe they’ll let the bear eat berries and honey in the forest, maybe they will leave it in peace. They will not. Because they will always try to put him on a chain, and as soon as they succeed in doing so they tear out his fangs and his claws.”
And what do the fangs and claws represent? Why of course, Russia’s nuclear deterrent.
“Once they’ve taken out his claws and his fangs, then the bear is no longer necessary. He’ll become a stuffed animal. The issue is not Crimea, the issue is that we are protecting our sovereignty and our right to exist.”
Now, to understand how one country can actively dismember its neighbor while speaking of defending its right to exist, it is necessary to understand what Putin means when he says “we.”
In his own words, Russia is not just a state, but “ a unique sociocultural civilizational community” which sees “Russians” occupying its “cultural nucleus.”
Within this world view, the notion of Westphalian sovereignty is supplanted by the deeper, “sociocultural civilizational community” that Ukraine is prima facie a part of.
Hence, Kiev’s westward drift was construed as an act that undermined Russia’s own civilization, and, as the story told in doublespeak goes, a conscious effort to rip Ukraine apart is viewed as an act of preserving Russia.
So when Putin calls large swaths of Eastern Ukraine by its czarist designation, “Novorossiya”, or when he refers to Crimea as Russia’s “Temple Mount,” he is not only reinforcing Russia’s creation myth, he is obliquely denying agency to every other nation in the region.
During the Seliger 2014 National Youth Forum in August, for example, a young woman (arguably a plant) asked Putin if a Ukrainian scenario could be repeated in Kazakhstan following President Navarbayev’s departure.
Putin, in turn, said that Navarbayev had “accomplished a unique thing” in creating a state on a territory “where there had never been a state.”
“The Kazakhs had never had statehood,” he reiterated.
The lesson for Kazakhstan is the same one Georgia learned during the 2008 war (Putin in fact told CNN that those who wished for the recently integrated Abkhazia and South Ossetia to remain a part of Georgia “are Stalinists”), and the same lesson that keeps Azerbaijan and Armenia on short chains regarding Nagorno-Karabakh: every state in the region runs the risk of being dismembered if they cross their self-appointed suzerain.
Last September, Putin assailed US President Barack Obama for making a case for American exceptionalism, warning it is “extremely dangerous” to encourage people to view themselves as exceptional, no matter the motivation.
“There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”
And yet, in the post Soviet world, all states are not created equally. In a strange metaphysical morality play in which Putin has rhetorically supplanted the rights of states for his self-proclaimed civilization, to cross Moscow is to risk a lesson in forceable, real life cartography.
Viewed threw this lens of Russian exceptionalism, one year on, the lesson of Crimea is clear.
For unruly sheep which stray too far from the flock, they might soon learn the hard way that the shepherd will stop at nothing to strip them of their pasture, a pasture which he always regarded as his own to begin with. And as the world was not so subtly reminded on Sunday, this is a shepherd who carries a big stick indeed.