The truthful lie behind Putin’s Crimea admission

William Echols

A video teaser released two days back in which Vladimir Putin publicly admitted that his plan to “return” Crimea was drawn up during an all-night meeting on February 22 – nearly a month before the peninsula was formally annexed – has done much to rile up opponents of the blatant land grab. What’s more interesting, perhaps, is why such  documentary would be made in the first place, and what it has to say about the precarious balancing act Russia’s relentless propaganda effort has forced Putin to manage.

One thing should remain immediately clear; all of the prevarications about Russians troops not being deployed in Crimea were for the sake of the international community, not the domestic audience. I think a majority of Russians would have been amenable to forcibly taking back Crimea under most any circumstances, though the pretext of “protecting ethnic Russians” certainly didn’t hurt matters.

According to the basic time line, after former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych fled Kiev on February 22, Putin and four unidentified officials pulled an all-nighter to hammer out a plan to wrest control of the peninsula from Ukraine.

“It was the night of the 22nd,” Putin told Rossiya One’s Andrey Kondrashov. “We were done by 7 am. And I won’t conceal it, when we were saying goodbye, I told my colleagues – there were four of them – that the situation in Ukraine has evolved in such a way that we have to start work on returning Crimea to being a part of Russia. We couldn’t abandon the territory and the people who live there; couldn’t just throw them under this nationalist bulldozer.” 

There are two things I’d like to say about this, both of which are perhaps ironic. The first is that this admission is most likely a lie.

If a recent report leaked by Novaya Gazetta (and here in English) on February 24 turns out to be authentic, plans to annex Crimea and other parts of Eastern Ukraine had been in the works for more than 12 months.

And in actuality, forces within the Kremlin were preparing for the potential partition of Ukraine as early as December 2005, when Andrei Purguin, Alexander Tsurkan, and Oleh Frolov set up the political party Donetsk Republic, allegedly at Moscow’s behest.

In 2006, leaders from the nascent party, which hoped to create a Federal Republic of Donetsk in Southeast Ukraine ( a plan Yanukovich himself opposed) attended a summer camp in Russia organized by Aleksandr Dugin’s neo-fascist  Eurasian Youth Union. The Eurasian Youth Union, in turn, was established with funding from the Presidential Administration under the watchful eye of then First Deputy Chief Vladislav Surkov, the stage manager behind Russia’s managed democracy, and later, its managed reality. The camp, which taught espionage, sabotage and other means of waging guerrilla warfare, was ostensibly intended to train participants to resist so-called color revolutions in their own states.

In August, Anton Shekhovstov identified at least 5 people who attended that summer camp that later went on to engage in the armed insurrection in eastern Ukraine, an uprising in which former rebel commander and one-time FSB Colonel Igor Girkin admitted would never have occurred if his troops had not crossed the border from Russia. On a side note, Girkin, who goes by the nomme de guerre Strelkov and either has a low sense of self-preservation or a very “high ceiling”, recently admitted that Crimean MPs were forced to vote in the March 16 status referendum under the gun.

In short, the idea that Putin scrambled to formulate a plan on the night of February 22 to reincorporate Crimea is an example of coming clean with a lie; a lie which makes him appear more bold and decisive in the eyes of his domestic audience while still holding true to the basic narrative used to justify the land grab in the first place.

The second irony, is that even if one were to take all of Russian state propaganda at face value, you’d have no choice but to believe that the Russian government is acting hypocritically and illogically.

When it came to the Crimea, Putin was forced to act preemptively to protect ethnic Russians from the “nationalist bulldozer.” As he said, we couldn’t just abandon the people, i.e., the Russians who live there.

And yet, in eastern Ukraine, where Nazi death squads are supposedly roaming around crucifying three-year old boys, executing civilians en masse and leaving behind “hundreds of unmarked graves”, where women are systematically raped and where Putin himself said the decision to cut off natural gas to some parts of Eastern Ukraine “smacked of genocide,” here, in this presence of this roaming fascist menace, Russia will do nothing for its people.

In Crimea, just the mere potentiality that Russians could be imperiled sparked the deployment of Russian troops and ultimately the annexation of the territory. But faced with a scene of actual slaughter (or so the narrative goes), Moscow has systematically denied it ever supplied a single gun to pro-Russian forces, let alone put boots on the ground.

I’ve always tried to figure out how Russians square that circle. Every night death is spread all over their television screens; a virtual holocaust is being documented right on Russia’s borders and against their own people. But somehow, Moscow refuses to intervene least they get, what, more Western sanctions? I don’t know how many Russians take all of this to its logical conclusion, but Putin’s admission over Crimea (whatever it’s veracity) should make people even more confused over his avowed non-involvement in Ukraine’s east. But the question is simple. If what state media is saying is true, how can Putin not act? In February Putin said that no matter how much “pressure” is exerted on Russia, Moscow will “continue to pursue an independent foreign policy” which supports the “fundamental interests of our people…” 

So to recap: Moscow will not buckle under Western pressure, sanctions won’t sway Putin, Russia will act decisively and preemptively to save the citizens of Crimea from Ukrainian nationalists, but nothing will be done to stop an all out quasi-genocidal rampage in “Novorossiya.”

Of course, such contradictions are part and parcel of the Russian propaganda experience nowadays. Just after Nemtsov was killed, Putin’s Press Secretary called the assassination a “provocation,” or in the parlance of Western conspiracy theorists, a “false flag.” In that instance, the public was being told that the murder of a fifth columnist, a national traitor, a CIA shill intent on destroying Russia was committed by forces attempting to discredit…Russia?

So national traitors could only be killed by national enemies and  interventions can be carried out to halt the potential of violence, but not actions which “smack of genocide.” Got it?