What Putin wants: A response 

William Echols

Mark Galeotti’s recent assessment of what Putin wants and the pitfalls of inferring motivation from past behavior goes a long way to lying out the binary thinking that can come to grip all Russia watchers. Is Putin a classic kelptocrat more concerned about the moneybag in his left hand, or a moral crusader with a stronger grip on the cross-tipped scepter in his right?

In ‘Kleptocrat or crusader? It’s time to figure out what Putin wants’, Galeotti focuses on claims made by Karen Dawisha, who argues that corruption is not a byproduct of Putin’s power vertical, rather, corruption and all of its spoils were, all along, Putin’s primary objective.

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Galeotti in turn, argues that to pigeonhole Putin as a kleptocrat seeking material gain, rather than a rational leader who is the standard bearer for a cause, is to fundamentally misunderstand what motivates the Russian leader to act.

Between those two poles, kleptocrat or crusader, it is not difficult to imagine how Putin would frame his own actions, both publicly and personally.

But just as psychologists differentiate between the ‘I’ (how we see ourselves) and the ‘me’ (how others see us), I think what Putin himself believes about his own motives may belie what prompts him to act.

For years, countless accusations have surrounded Putin, accusations which paint him as a deeply vain man who allegedly gets botox despite his carefully crafted tough guy image, boosts a watch collection worth six times his annual salary, and reportedly built a multi-billion dollar drug lord-esque  palace on the Black Sea.

He even allegedly stole a 124-diamond Super Bowl ring from New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, and reportedly had his guards snatch a tacky glass replica of a Kalashnikov automatic weapon from the Guggenheim.

Masha Gessen has gone as far as to say he suffers from pleonexia, “the insatiable desire to have what rightfully belongs to others.”

In this light, his carefully crafted identity as “an honest and incorruptible civil servant” is intended to mask and perhaps compensate for his compulsion.

During his time as a KGB agent in Dresden, German intelligence even characterized Putin as a “philanderer and a wife beater.”

Such accusations and armchair psychological evaluations are par for the course in a regime as secretive as Putin’s. But even he, growing up on the rough, post-war streets of Saint Petersburg, stressed in his official biography that he was more of “bully” than a “Pioneer.” 

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The question is, did this rebel find a cause, or is the cause, as Gessen’s interpretation would posit, merely a cover for the deeper compulsion?

A loyalist paramilitary in Northern Ireland, after all, can claim (and even believe) he joined the UDA for the sake of protecting the integrity of the United Kingdom. But what he loves, and what actually drives him (perhaps subconsciously) is the power, the violence, and the illicit gains brought in through crime. Without the paramilitary identity, the mysticism of the history and the purpose, he is, in fact, a thug. There is a powerful psychological benefit in being able to reconceptualize crime through the prism of a cause. That is true for a street kid in Sandy Row turned paramilitary; that is true for a street kid from Saint Petersburg who became president. But make no mistake, even without the veneer of legitimacy given by a political cause, a certain type of person would embark on that path no matter what. In popular fiction, the transformation of Walter White in the series Breaking Bad was a character study in that very form of criminal archetype.

So is Putin cut from the same cloth of Walter White — was he simply built for crime?

Of course, no one knows what Putin privately believes regarding his goals, and what motivates him to act, nor can motive simply be derived by actions and outcomes.

One only need to look at the two events that most shaped Russia’s global perception in 2014, the Sochi Winter Olympics and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, to understand that Putin the crusader and Putin the crook narratives both gel irregardless of the datum.

Regarding the former, the widely reported (but never verified) price tag of $50 billion for the Games inspired countless ‘what if’ scenarios regarding how that money could have been put to better use (education, infrastructure, healthcare, etc.)

Critics will contend that the exorbitant price tag on a prestige project in a country where living conditions outside of Moscow can be quite dire is a perfect sign that the national treasury is a piggybank of Putin’s inner circle (notwithstanding the fact that billions did come from private investors, even if billions more were allegedly stolen from the government coffers).

Others will claim that Russia, which has never confronted and processed its loss of imperial status, is the kind of place where some people would rather drive on pockmarked roads and watch their orphanages crumble if it means the world will turn its attention to them, if only for a moment.

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It might sound like madness, though it’s a madness we can all understand. It is, on a national level, the phenomenon of a slum kid in South Asia buying a Western-style B-Boy jersey at the expense of going hungry for week, or Kazakh families bankrupting themselves buying animals to be slaughtered for ostentatious funeral ceremonies.

People make choices like that all of the time. What we call rational is based on a messy nexus of need, culture, obsession, and myriad other qualities one would be hard pressed to unravel. Putin, for the vertiginous heights he has scaled as a historical figure, comes from the same inauspicious circumstances as his countrymen. That is one reality that is often lost on the West; Russians, with few exceptions, lived out parallel experiences during Soviet times. It is one of the few places on earth where society’s upper-crust and dregs have many intersecting and shared experiences (as much as many of them would hide it today.)

The pain of Soviet life was in part compensated for the greatness of being a world power. That pride is gone, and unlikely to return.

One could argue that for Putin, Sochi was perhaps about the infrastructure of the heart, if not the country. For a brief window of time, the resentment of millions could be overcome via the proxy of sports. The anger that that proxy was quickly soiled by events in Ukraine should not be underestimated.

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The point being, when it comes to the Games, the kleptocrat and crusader interpretations both fall into what  W. Joseph Campbell called “the cusp of plausibility.” The motive cannot be easily inferred from outcome, and the primary actor (Putin) might not know himself, even if he thinks he does.

The second such example is Russia’s hybrid war in Ukraine. For Galeotti, the cost of Russia’s secret invasion of its neighbor demonstrates how this conflict is being motivated more by ideological concerns than financial ones.

“In Ukraine, the neat seizure of Crimea brought domestic legitimacy at the cost of the first sanctions; the subsequent intrusion into southeastern Ukraine has mired Russia in a politically- and fiscally-expensive conflict,” he wrote.

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This is arguably true within a short-term context, but intervention in Ukraine can also be seen as absolutely necessary in maintaining the longterm viability of Russia existing as a kleptocracy (and a quasi-empire.)

In Russia, Moscow has often been described as the ‘voronka’ or funnel, in the sense that it is the focal point for all of Russian wealth accumulation. Its not just a matter of the disproportionate amount of foreign direct invest that flows into the capital. Russia, after all, is a land bound empire with an extractive form of economy. The resources come out of the east en masse, the money flows west.

Putin’s Customs Union was arguably a means of extending the mouth of that funnel to the former Soviet republics. If billions of dollars flow into Moscow illicitly (last year, Ukraine’s chief prosecutor accused former president Viktor Yanukovich of  leading a mafia-style syndicate that siphoned $100 billion out of the country, $32 billion of which was sent to Russia by truck), well, that is just icing on the cake.

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But while Russia does offer a market for goods from former satellites (and subsidized gas), allegiance almost guarantees institutional breakdown, corruption and decay. And, as global capitalists, those expanded markets come without any social responsibility from Moscow’s side. For those saying Putin is attempting to rebuild the Soviet Union, in a sense, the inverse of that is true, at least as far as capital is concerned. In the Soviet Union, the goal was to reward the ideologically faithful, to make tangible the benefits of socialism.

Now, there is nothing to believe. Moscow’s goal, arguably, is not to subsidize, but to siphon.

The majority of Ukrainians believed in this interpretation and wanted to break from Moscow’s orbit. It has often been said that without Ukraine, Russia cannot be an empire. But in truth, Russia cannot be a kleptocracy with an institutionally sound, euro-centric Ukraine  on its southern flank. What’s a few billion dollars for a shadow war when you are trying to keep an entire region under your thumb? That it would contribute to stellar popularity ratings at home for a population which has been made pathologically resentful certainly does not hurt.

So once again, when it comes to “the cusp of plausibility”, confirmation bias can lead you in either direction. It’s all a matter of how one looks at the same phenomena.

All of this is useful as an intellectual exercise, but formulating a policy in regards to Russia ultimately entails divining Putin’s motives. But what about Galeotti’s assertion that “the palaces and the yachts are side-effects, rather than end goals” in Putin’s Russia? Is the West really misguided to follow the money, rather than the rhetoric?

It is arguable that Putin would be playing a drastically different game in Ukraine if if ideology trumped finance. After the relentless Russian state media onslaught regarding a “fascist” takeover and anti-Russian pogroms, that Moscow has not openly intervened in Eastern Ukraine to save their “brothers” seems counterintuitive. Putin, after all, claimed he had considered the nuclear option just to protect his compatriots in Crimea, adding that they were ready to “take [former President] Yanukovich out of Ukraine by sea, land, and air.”

And when Crimea officially “joined” Russia on March 18, 2014, Putin gave a speech in which he declared his right to defend all citizens of the “Russian world.”

But if Putin really believed in a cause, and was willing to suffer greater Western sanctions for the greater benefit of that “Russian world,” there is a strong case he would have openly intervened in Ukraine and have long since built a land bridge between Donetsk and Crimea. The move would have been widely popular domestically, and for a leader who is rhetorically committed to “gathering Russian lands”, in line with his crusade.

In fact, reports even surfaced that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko asked Putin to take the Donbass off of his hands, to which Putin reportedly replied: “’Are you out of your mind? I don’t need the Donbass. If you don’t need it, declare it independent.’”

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Notwithstanding the likelihood that Poroshenko ever said such a thing, the “leak” implies that Moscow wants the world to believe he said it, and that Putin considered the idea to be madness.

In truth, there are two primary reasons why Putin wouldn’t “take” Donbass off of Poroshenko’s hands. One, incorporating the regions into the Russian Federation would be costly. Secondly, Western sanctions would be deeply ratcheted up. That such financial concerns would supersede the needs of what Putin called “a unique sociocultural civilizational community” seem at odds with a leader on a moral mission.

In truth, Putin’s Soviet roots and composition of his actual inner circle point more towards a man who is comfortable using the language of nationalism, but ultimately does not believe in it. His cause might be that of lost Soviet power (not socialist ideology), but like all Soviet’s who suffered the privations of the times, that power should be balanced with access to luxury goods and the freedom to park your money and your children abroad (Putin’s own daughter only recently fled her luxurious home in the Netherlands.)

If one wants to understand a man cut from Putin’s own cloth, there is no need to look back at historical figures like Pyotr Stolypin or Ivan the Great, when a far more viable analogue is available: Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev riding a horse (fully clothed).

Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev riding a horse (fully clothed).

A  ‘sovok’ or Soviet man to the core and  a ‘leader for life’ who speaks about the scourge of corruption while allegedly stealing billions and bringing state enterprises under family control, Nazarbayev was an avowed atheist who flirts with religiosity to placate the nationalist sentiments of the Kazakh Muslim majority he is a member of. But Nazarbayez has something that Putin will never have: a country rich enough to plunder but just weak enough for the West to ignore on all fronts but business.

One only needs to look at the true message of RT and the disparate political parties Russia funds abroad to understand, above all, the one thing that Putin has always wanted. Everything is bad, everyone is corrupt, there is nothing left to believe in anymore, so lets stop with these political games and just do business. If the West, one day, learned to really do business Russian-style, lofty rhetoric about the decedent West and the “Russian world” would quickly be a thing of the past.

But to his great consternation, the West, as far, as Russia is concerned, refuses to turn that blind eye. Nazarbayev, who sits at the head of the Switzerland of Central Asia, with Russia, America and China all vying for influence, has been given the green light for graft and human rights violations. Just don’t rock your boat too far to one side or the other.

As a national leader, Putin’s cause is likely the same as Nazarbayev’s cause, but barring the luxury geopolitics affords his Kazakh counterpart, Putin has been forced to assume another mantle all together. But it is unlikely the one he really wants.

Fascists come to Russia to rally against…fascism?

William Echols

Following the first International Russian Conservative Forum, the overall militarist bent Moscow has taken in the wake of its secret war against Ukraine has brought to the fore a startling fact; many in Russia are scantly aware of what fascism actually means anymore.

Imagine if you will, an authoritarian form of government which borrows heavily from socialism, but believes that the real locus of history is not class conflict, but national and racial strife. Proponents seek private enterprise with a heavy government hand, often with the strong presence of state-run enterprises. They stress the need for autarky, or self-sufficiency, which entails the national interest being protected via interventionist economic politics. The goal, of course, is not necessarily to cut oneself off from the outside world, but to be sure the state can survive with or without international trade or external forms of assistance.

What if adherents to this ideology were, in the words of political scientist and historian Robert Paxton, obsessively preoccupied with “community decline, humiliation, or victimhood?” What if these forces, in a shaky collaboration with traditional elites, jettisoned all democratic principles and used “redemptive violence” for the sake of internal cleansing and external expansion?

'The future belongs to us.'

‘The future belongs to us.’

What if the ideologically faithful were obsessed with conspiracy theories and the constant need to remain vigilant against internal security threats, which often involved both indirect and overt appeals to xenophobia, and more specifically, anti-semitism?

What if cultural myths were promoted for the sake of fusing the individual and the masses into what Emilio Gentile described as a “mystical unity of the nation as an ethnic and moral community?” What if discriminatory measures were adopted to punish those outside of this community, who are viewed as inferior and dangerous to the integrity of the nation?

'Protect your motherland, protect your loved ones.'

‘Protect your motherland, protect your loved ones.’

What if, in the words of Bulgarian Communist Georgi Dimitrov, this ideology exhibited  in its foreign policy “the most brutal kind of chauvinism”, cultivating what he called “zoological hatred” against other peoples?

What if this policy, “inspired by the myth of national power and greatness,” is predicated on the “goal of imperialist expansion?”

The above list of qualities, if you haven’t already guessed, are all related to scholarly definitions of fascism.

And over the past year, Russians engaged in a war of words (as well as actual war) have clutched two rhetorical grenades called “provocation” and  “fascism.” With the former, any social ill can be chalked up to an external enemy or outside plot, deflecting all blame or need to hold the individual or government responsible for the current state of affairs. The latter is used to delegitimize your enemy by associating them with a historical force which negatively impacted most every Soviet family. Both are intended to shut down critical thinking.

But despite the incessant talk of juntas, Banderites and fascists which has filled the Russian airwaves ad nausem, it is in fact Russia which, as a nation, is on a stark, fascist drift.

“What you foreigners don’t get is that those people in Maidan [Kiev], they are fascists,” Alexander, a Simferopol resident, told the Guardian’s Shaun Walker two weeks before Russia officially annexed Crimea last year. ”I mean, I am all for the superiority of the white race, and all that stuff, but I don’t like fascists.”

To anyone who has not spent much time in Russia, the internal contradictions present in the above statement are glaring. But no matter the level of cognitive dissonance, that very attitude, albeit to different degrees, is widely held throughout Russian society.

Perhaps that is why, despite the rhetoric, observers from far-right European parties, including Béla Kovács from the Hungarian Jobbik Party, one time neo-nazi and modern day “National Bolshevik” Luc Michel, far right Spanish politician Enrique Ravello, and representatives from the Flemish right-wing party Vlaams Belang came to Crimea to legitimize the sham independence referendum, rather than throw in their support behind their supposed fellow ideological travelers in Ukraine. In this strange and managed reality, everything you think you know about the world no longer applies.

For people like Alexander, the far-right European observers in Crimea, and perhaps many in attendance at the International Russian Conservative Forum in St. Petersburg on Sunday, a fascist is some type of Anglo-American-Zionist (Jewish) tool who wants to crush traditional values in general and Russia in particular via the vehicle of NATO force and so-called cultural Marxism.

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A fascist is not, in contrast, a militant, anti-immigrant white supremacist who talks about Europe’s Christian roots, rallies against homosexuality and other forms of moral degradation, berates the EU and promotes some vague return to a nationally-centered economy, and believes his country to be under the thumb of Israel and other Zionists forces.

Of course, a worldview contingent on such semantic muddying is destined to lead to a few moments of absurdity, as it did on Sunday when participants at the forum actually debated just who could be called a fascist (and whether that was a bad thing at all).

“I don’t find it defamatory to be called a fascist,” said Roberto Fiore, leader of Italy’s far-right party Forza Nuova, who, as Max Seddon pointed out, actually signed an “anti-fascist memorandum” in Crimea last August. “But I do find it defamatory if you call me a Nazi.” 

But for Aleksei Zhilov, an organizer for pro-Russian fighters in eastern Ukraine, nothing was worse than fascism, that is, if fascism were to be defined by a simple tautology.

“All that is in Donbas—that is antifascism, and everything in Ukraine is fascism,” he said. “There isn’t any other fascism anywhere.”

It is in this bizarro world where Alexander from Simferopol can be a white supremacist who is also opposed to fascism. Julia Ioffe confronted the same type of “mind-melting” cognitive dissonance with Russian rebels in Eastern Ukraine this past June.

“As Dmitry and I talked, I noticed a Vostok fighter in fatigue pants, a t-shirt, and a bulletproof vest pacing around with a Kalashnikov. He had a long, scraggly blond beard and was peppered with tattoos: a rune on one elbow, and, on the inside of his right forearm, a swastika, just like the one on the chest of the supposed Right Sector soldier. I asked Dmitry about it, but the man spotted me pointing to my arm.

‘Come here,’ he growled, beckoning angrily.

I remained frozen in place.

‘Don’t you go spreading your lies,’ he barked as he strode toward us. ‘This isn’t a swastika. This is an ancient Slavic symbol. Swa is the god of the sky.’

I stared, silently.

‘It’s our Slavic heritage,’ he said. ‘It’s not a swastika.’ Then he turned and walked away.”

To be fair, this habit of appropriating the swastika as a symbol of slavic heritage is one found on both sides of the Ukrainian conflict.

In July, a volunteer from the Ukrainian National Guard’s First Reserve Battalion told Vice’s Simon Ostrovsky much the same thing the Vostok fighter told Ioffe.

“I don’t consider myself a fascist, a Nazi or [a member of] Right Sector,” he said.

“It’s [referring to a swastika pendant around his neck] an ancient Slavic symbol. It’s always brought good luck.” 

Claims, however, that swastikas, kolovrats (spinning wheels) or other neo-pagan symbols have been divorced from neo-nazism within eastern Europe are dubious at best. Sometimes, the meaning of the symbol is contingent on the interlocutor, which is to say, which face you need to present to which audience.

In the case of Alexey Milchakov, a Russian mercenary fighting for  the“Donetsk People’s Republic” who was also a guest at Sunday’s forum, there is no prevaricating when it comes to his Nazi allegiances (he first made a name for himself by brutally murdering puppies and posting the images online.)

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And yet, somehow, Russia has reached a point where neo-nazis are not only fighting “fascists” in Ukraine, but they are being invited from abroad to throw their support behind the Russian government in a war which is ostensibly being waged against other fascists.

The mind numbing confusion of it all begs the question: how can a country whose main cultural rallying point entails its massive contribution to the defeat of the Nazi menace be both ignorant to fascism and, in the right context, sympathetic (if not outright supportive) to its goals?

Iosif Zisels, the head of Vaad Ukrainy, the Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Ukraine, spoke about this strange reality back in November.

Zisels said that Russian neo-nazis (including the group Russian National Unity) are playing an active role in the fighting in Eastern Ukraine, though the source of their ideology dates back 20 years. He believes these far right forces were born in 90s and incubated in a cultural climate which Russians themselves have come to describe as a time of national humiliation.

“Russia is infected with the ideas of revanchism, which is very closely connected with fascism,” he said.

Revanchism, a policy of “revenge” centered around reclaiming lost territory, was made evident in Crimea, and rears its ugly head every time Russian President Vladimir Putin criticizes the legitimacy of former Soviet states. And it is this Soviet fall, with “Russia” no longer being viewed as a super power despite a national unwillingness to give up the imperial ghost, that stokes the fires of fascism. That, dashed with red hot resentment due to the wild economic instability of the 1990s, created a pressure cooker society with atomized proto-militarists looking for meaning in something collective and violent.

And in these strange, sometimes angry, post-Soviet times, Russian authorities have begun to lionize the country’s imperial past, aping czarist iconography to bind the people together in some caricature of national identity in lieu of genuine trust or social cohesion.

Of course, many of the reactionary Russian forces battling it out in Eastern Ukraine are reminiscent of the Black Hundreds, early 20th century monarchists known for their russocentrism, blatant xenophobia and penchant for anti-Jewish pogroms.

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It is perhaps no surprise that the Black Hundreds rabidly denied the existence of a Ukrainian nation as well, and did everything in their power to stifle Ukrainian culture and heritage.

Those yielding power in the Kremlin are comfortable using such nationalist fervor when it suites their needs despite being global capitalists at heart (their primary goal is to maintain the opulent lifestyles Russia’s resource wealth provides them). So far, they have managed to harness this extreme national force to their own ends. How long they can keep this golem on a leash, however, is anyone’s guess.

But there is one important thing to remember. This is a mutually beneficial relationship. Kremlin funds and Kremlin support for Europe’s far right is a means of driving fringe parties into the mainstream, who in turn will be more amenable to the Kremlin’s politics, “traditional values”, and ultimately corrupt governance.

The Kremlin is, in a sense, encouraging the worst aspects of European society, all so it can preserve the rot in its own.

The hypocrisy of Putin’s Russian exceptionalism

William Echols

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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

Kazakhstan Political Map 2000

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.

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?