Putin doesn’t care about borders (or boundaries)

Russia’s New Year’s holidays have ended. Groggy eyes on the metro, aching heads on electric trains. The stories of ten days of debauchery trickle in one by one. The doctor who punched his own patient dead. Lazarus who drank himself to death and back to life. The homeless men who drank themselves from death to deader after finding an unidentified brown liquid in a dumpster and going full on YOLO.

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Plunging like the blood sugar of the morning commute funeral mass and their post 10-day communion wine hangover, oil hit a 12-year-low, bringing the long-suffering ruble even further down with it. Following previous claims Russia was rebounding from recession, both Moscow and the IMF now expect GDP contraction for 2015 to be at 3.8 percent. Rising economic tides are not predicted for 2016.

In December 2014, Putin vowed the Russian economy would start growing again in two years under what he called the worst case scenario. He’s still got a year to pray for the global oil glut to go away, all the while pretending that much needed economic diversification will just manifest itself in a virtual mafia state where personal initiative is deincentivized via legal nihilism and systemic rot. It doesn’t help that the best of Russia have been leaving in droves. But what does one do in a country where the glass ceiling has nails?

In a revelatory interview with the Germany daily Bild published on Monday, Putin appeared to be straining under the bad news, economic and otherwise. Looking at the state of Russia and the world today, Putin argued that Russia should have been stronger after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Then the world would somehow be a better place. The question is: A better place for whom?

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Putin’s latest use of Western media  for yet another “J’accuse…!” screed against the West offers a potent glimpse into the “other world” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said he now inhabits. His lack of consistency and belief are seemingly the hallmarks of a sociopath, a chekist who believes in nothing beyond intrigue and raw power, or both.

Putin can, on the one hand, bemoan how former NATO Secretary General Manfred Wörner allegedly promised Gorbachov during the 1990 negotiations on German reunification that NATO would not expand eastward. Never mind that this alleged promise from an official who has been dead for two decades referred to Eastern Germany itself, and not Eastern Europe, as has been argued. Never mind whether a promise holds the weight of a ratified treaty.

Every perceived slight against Russia has the half life of forever.

Manfred Wörner

On the other hand, Putin has absolutely disregarded Russians obligations under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, in which Ukraine gave up its nuclear arsenal in exchange for assurances its borders would be respected, force would not be used against it, and economic pressure would not be levied to influence its politics. Which of those points has Russia not broken time and time again? Violations of the third point, in particular, most certainly predate the “fascist junta” in Kyiv.

In reality, the attempted dismantling of Ukraine echoes the anger of Munich 2007, with the spheres of influence Putin actually believes in ultimately clashing with the rule of law he pays lip service to. Ukraine, of course, never joined NATO, it was never even close. But there is always the chance. In Putin’s world, that chance fit into his own version of ‘The One Percent Doctrine.’

When asked if the Eastern European states had the right to organize their own security affairs by joining NATO, Putin dismissively noted he had heard this argument “a thousand times.”

“Of course every state has the right to organize its security the way it deems appropriate,” Putin said.

“But the states that were already in NATO, the member states, could also have followed their own interests – and abstained from an expansion to the east,” he continued.

Translation: “I claim to support the principle in spirit, but I will take a torch to it in practice.

I know Central and Eastern European states had every right to join NATO, but it was in the member states interests to deny them this right so as to avoid illegal military action on Russia’s behalf.”

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In other words, a pure attempt at dismay. Don’t do what you have every right to do; do what we say you can do or there will be trouble. Then deflect your own aggressive actions by claiming you were pushed into a corner and forced to act defensively against your weaker neighbors…by invading them.

If Putin’s complete disregard for a rule-based international order was not already apparent, his 19th century imperialist thinking shone threw when discussing the annexation of Crimea.

“For me, it is not borders and state territories that matter, but people’s fortunes,” he said.

“Napoleon once said that justice is the incarnation of God on Earth,” he would go on to say.

“I’m telling you: the reunification of Crimea and Russia is just.”

Never mind a small man evoking Napoleon and making his actions coequal with a theophanous manifestation. Stick to his far less esoteric claims of support for the “people’s fortunes” when an estimated 160,000 were killed to crush Chechnya’s dream of independence.

When Grozny was razed, filtration camps were set up, and rape and torture were used as instruments of collective punishment against a civilian population, whose interest was Putin acting in again:  “Borders and state territories” or people?

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Is Putin not the one who deemed calls for “separatism” in Russia illegal, making them punishable by up to four years in prison? Has Putin not forced the same type of federalization on Kyiv that he has actively opposed in Russia since becoming deputy chief of the Yeltsin’s presidential administration in 1998?

Just how absurd is it? Rafis Kashapov, a Russian Tatar activist, was sentenced to 3 years in prison for criticizing Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea. In Russia, you can literally (ok, figuratively) cleave off part of another country, and then imprison people who criticize that illegal land grab on…separatism charges. The mind boggles.

And yet, after once again evoking Kosovo, Putin says “everyone should comply with uniform international rules and not want to change them any time one feels like it.”

In the codex of Putinist propaganda, this is called mirroring —accusing others of doing precisely what you are doing.

He then goes on to claim that Western sanctions are not about helping Ukraine, but “geopolitically pushing Russia back.”

If by geopolitically pushing back Russia, he means expelling Russian soldiers from Ukrainian soil, he is correct. But in Putin’s world, invading a foreign country and then being sanctioned for it is deeply unjust.

He proceeds to call European Union sanctions “a theatre of the absurd.” But saying the tens of thousands of Russian troops to have actively taken part in military operations in Ukraine are on holiday (with uninterrupted supply lines) is not absurd? In what world is using economic pressure rather than military force to  compel an aggressive party to back down  somehow beyond the pale?

Putin, one can be certain, has an answer to that question. It just might not correspond to any knowable reality.

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As I previously wrote, in the “graveyard of ideologies”, for many Russians in general (and Putin in particular), a simple rule of thumb has come to define morality of action: “If Russia does it, it is right.”

Putin is not for or against military intervention in principle, but he is for Russian military interventions. Putin is not for or against security services meddling in the internal affairs of other states, but  he does support Russian security services meddling in the affairs of other states. Putin is not for or against imperialism, but he does support Russian imperialism. He is not for or against international law, but he opposes it when it’s not in his interest, and supports it when he sees an opportunity to stick a finger in Washington’s eye.

And Putin has no particular regard for “the freedom of expression of the people,” as he claims to have had in Crimea. But he will use the pretense of the democratic will as a trojan horse to carve up neighboring states, as has been done in Georgia and Ukraine, as could easily be done to Moldova, Kazakhstan, Armenia and beyond. As for the “freedom of expression” of Chechens and Russia’s other ethnic minorities, well, no need to belabor that point.

In a rational world, a leader of 15 years and counting with carte blanche to do whatever he wants might hold some sense of accountability for the state of the nation.

But, rather than face up to the monolithic failings of his power vertical, he is doubling down on rage and victimhood. Time and time again, he cries about where his neighbors have built their fences, all the while, burning his own house to the ground.

Russia is on the ropes and punching itself in the face. But to hear Putin tell it, the West has once again given her a black eye.

And just like with the ten-day-drinking binge to have engulfed Russia over the holidays, the hangover from Russia’s hallucinated reality is coming. The big question is: On the Monday morning after the masses finally come down from the latest Russian trip, how many people will be left lying dead in the snow?

Happy New Year’s everyone.

 

Putin’s Ukraine Admission and a Culture of Lies

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William Echols

After persistent denials, Russian President Vladimir Putin seemingly admitted to a Russian military presence in Eastern Ukraine (before he didn’t). In any “normal country”, coming clean about a clandestine military operation on live television would have huge political implications. But in Russia, it didn’t even make the evening news.

It all started on December 17 during Putin’s annual marathon Q&A session, a PR exercise in which he vacillates between his roles as global statesman and provincial Santa Claus.

Putin faced many queries, some serious, some prosaic. Due to Russia’s economic woes, his usual air of confidence was punctuated by more bluster than usual. This was especially true when questioned over recent corruption allegations leveled at the family of Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika.

But from Chaika’s alleged mob ties to a quasi-admission that Katerina Tikhonova was in fact his daughter (because only in Russia is the identity of one’s children a matter of state security), it was his answer to a question about Yevgeny Yerofeyev and Alexander Alexandrov, two alleged officers of the Russian military’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) captured during fighting in East Ukraine, that gave pause to many watching the proceedings.

“We never said there were not people [in Eastern Ukraine] who performed certain tasks, including in the military sphere,” he said. “But that does not mean there are Russian (regular) troops there, feel the difference.”

Putin, of course, has vehemently denied that very thing before…

Read the entire article at Russia! Magazine

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One year on: Can Russians ever accept Moscow helped shoot down MH-17?

William Echols

One year after the downing of Flight MH17 over Eastern Ukraine, all the evidence points towards Russian-backed proxies (if not Russian soldiers) being responsible for the tragedy which left 298 people dead. The question is, even in the presence of a smoking gun, are Russians even capable of admitting that it was Moscow which pulled the trigger?

Just weeks after tragedy struck over the village of Hrabove on July 17, 2014, a Russian friend of mine — a bright-hearted, always smiling 30-year-old who works at one of the big four accountancy firms and has visited dozens of countries — sincerely asked me if corpses from MH370 had been packed onto MH17 before it was shot down (she never named a culprit.) Coming at a time when 82 percent of Russians squarely blamed Ukrainian forces for downing the plane, after Russia had set its propaganda frequency to full-on psychosis, it shouldn’t have been such a surprise. But it was.

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From my experience, she is one of the most open, non-defensive people I have ever encountered in my life. By and large apolitical, internet savvy, a real seasoned traveler and art trend follower — in short, a real child of the Northern Capital — my friend didn’t strike me as the type of person to be susceptible to such crude conspiracies. But she was, a reality which forced me to revaluate a lot of things about what Russia had become following the annexation of Crimea and secret war in Ukraine. If this madness had seeped into her brain as well, I wondered, what about the choirs of men drinking themselves to death under my balcony on any given summer night, intermittently arguing and singing in the key of a mass seal clubbing? What did they think? That answer of course, was clearly apparent.

One year on, all of the theories both directly or indirectly floated by the Russian government, from the truly insane to the more plausible, have fallen apart under the weight of their own contradictions and falsified evidence.

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Meanwhile, sources close to Dutch accident investigators claim the yet-to-be published report on the incident will conclude that Russian proxies operating in East Ukraine shot down the plane. Other journalists have meticulously reconstructed all the available evidence to come to a similar conclusion. The only serious question remaining is just what role Russian troops played in the incident, and by extension, the level of culpability falling at Moscow’s feet. It is no surprise that Russian President Vladimir Putin has rejected calls for a UN-backed criminal tribunal to get to the bottom of the MH-17 downing, calling the proposal “untimely and counterproductive.” One can only guess in what way such a tribunal would be “counterproductive.” 

The Malaysian Foreign Ministry, by contrast, balked at Putin’s reticence, saying that “all other ad hoc criminal courts and tribunals were established prior to the completion of investigations.” It added that “justice delayed is justice denied.”

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But based on the available evidence, obfuscation, and not justice, is the only thing on Moscow’s mind.

No one expects Moscow to come clean regarding what has become the moral nadir of its brutal, clandestine war in Ukraine’s east. After all, the US government was unwilling to muster the moral fortitude to admit fault after shooting down Iran Air Flight 655, although Washington and Tehran reached a settlement at the  International Court of Justice eight years after the fact, in which the United States “recognized the aerial incident of 3 July 1988 as a terrible human tragedy and expressed deep regret over the loss of lives caused by the incident…” Some compensation was also given to the families, though clearly not enough given the sheer loss of life.

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One key difference is that while the Pentagon did shamefully try to avoid responsibility for the incident, neither Washington nor the US media attempted to rewrite reality as we know it to cover their tracks. It did lie to avoid culpability, especially regarding whether the USS Vincennes was in international or Iranian territorial waters, whether the pilot of flight 655 was ascending or descending and at what speed, whether the plane was flying along the “established route”, and whether the Airbus was “squawking” on a civilian or military channel. The USS Vincennes did, however, issue several warnings, although failure to respond to those warnings, given all of the available evidence, did not justify the crew’s decision to shoot the passenger plane down.

All that being said, at no point did the US military or any state-run media (or private for that matter) flood the airwaves with a series of conspiracy theories. Neither Zionists, the Illuminati nor the Iranians themselves were blamed for downing the plane. A different culprit was not released on a daily basis, nor did the Pentagon itself release doctored photos to further muddy the waters.

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Moscow’s handling of MH-17, by contrast, has been one of the most shameful episodes to befall the Russian populace in these deeply troubling times. Russia’s leadership wasn’t content to to merely rip Ukraine apart to maintain their pretense of regional hegemony. They had to drive an already psychologically traumatized population crazy in the process.

In a previous piece, I wrote about how Russians are particularly susceptible to propaganda due to a series of complex historical circumstances.

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As it stands, Russia is a society of power-obsessed cynics. At first glance one would think that inveterate cynicism and a tendency to be so fawning of power would be mutually exclusive. On closer investigation, these two seemingly opposing forces do seem to gel in the Russian psyche, though with often deleterious effects.

During Soviet times, Russians used to refer to labor camps as the ‘little zones’, and the country as a whole as the ‘big zone.’ That Russians would psychologically equate their society to a prison inevitably has profound psychological implications.

Writing about a PornHub study which revealed the immense popularity of anal sex in Russia, Natalia Antonova notes the work of Pavel Svyatenkov, who argued that male-on-male rape is a tool of humiliation in Gulag culture (or any prison culture really.)

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Antonova goes on to argue that Gulag culture has not been done away with in  Russia; rather it has been sublimated. Projection of power shores up a fundamental fear of violence and domination. There is no civil society in modern-day Russia, no core ideology, no manifest belief in social welfare or a utopian belief in the future. Instead, there is the projection of power, and what that power affords you, namely protection, if not self-actualization.

Rigid hierarchies, in turn, exist through which that power is expressed, always vertically, always top to bottom. Superiority is an expression of power, and it does much to fuel Russia’s militarist, imperialist mindset. Few Russian people actually believe they can be happy in the sense that Danes are happy or Italians are happy. What they can be, however, is powerful — they can be feared. Perhaps never loved, but always respected. Such power projection is a proxy of self-worth. But it is also riddled with contradictions.

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Collectively, Russians, flexing military muscle allows for a vicarious means of empowerment in a society which, by definition, is emasculating. If masculinity has any connection to autonomy and alpha-male domination, a society which believes in no mechanisms for popular expression, but rather a coterie of powerful men who rule absolutely, is a society which infantilizes its citizens. In a remote, abstract way, nuclear warheads, tanks and guns can imbue one with a sense of power.

Actual everyday interactions with real organs of power, however, reinforce a sublimated gulag culture. You are not a citizen, a custodian of your society. You are a kowtowing subject paying rent, stealing what you can from below and kicking up tribute as many rungs on the ladder as your relative position demands.  It is this angry, volatile faultline between a power-obsessed superiority complex and daily emasculation that Russia’s elite deftly exploits, albeit on a razor’s edge.

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All in all, manipulating people in Russia today relies on a two-pronged approach which references both that triumphalist cynicism and the shaky contradictions of power-obsessed prisoners.

First, employ a fantastical conspiracy to displace the fact-based (WESTERN) narrative, and then appeal to Russians’ wounded pride by placing the antagonist in Western dress.

Kierkegaard and Nietzsche wrote about the latter phenomenon as “ressentiment”.

Ressentiment can be understood as a transference of ones pain, humiliation, inferiority and failure onto a scapegoat. The ego, rather than internalize the implications of weakness, failure, and the emasculating lack of power, creates an enemy, an external evil which can be “blamed” for one’s woes.

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Kierkegaard noted that ressentiment can lead to bloody, violent rebellion with the express purpose of leveling all men, and all things. Looking at Russian history, there is no need to belabor this point. Most absolutists forms of government in history inspired rebellion. Other societies, however, moved beyond absolutist forms of government. It just so happens that those are the very societies which Russians are now being taught to view as the enemy of its “traditions.”

For a brief window in the 90s, Russia played with the concept of equals, but only in a superficial and ultimately abstract way. The ensuing chaos which resulted became intimately associated with ‘democracy’. Stability became the new mantra. Power was concentrated to maintain this stability. This stability, however, was largely predicated on external factors like the price of oil and natural gas and the need for other country’s in the ex-Soviet sphere to respect their relationship of inferiority to Moscow. Maintaining this relationship (and high oil prices) is paramount to Russia’s elite.

But with an economic downswing and many on Russia’s periphery clamoring for a right to determine their own affairs, the rotten core of the Russian system of governance was about to be laid bare. To maintain their grip on power, all social ills had to be transferred onto outside forces, ‘fifth columnists’, ‘enemies of the people’ and so on. It’s ironic, seeing that external factors in fact played a large role in the largesse of Putin’s first decade in power.

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As a society, Russians are already enamored with the concept of diffusion of responsibility. Two rules became paramount in Soviet and post-Soviet life: always blame someone else — never take responsibility. Generations of Russian leaders have both created and played on this reality to their own ends. They are also victims of it. The lunatics have taken over the asylum.

Sadly, for a traumatized population, institutionalizing a  distorted frame of reference has left many Russians perilously at odds with any knowable reality. And as living conditions deteriorate, the need to be great via the proxy of fantasy, often militaristic and atavistic fantasy, further takes hold.  If there is one thing Russia’s deeply frayed populace cannot bear at this point of time, it is being on the wrong side of history. The war in Ukraine in general and MH-17 in particular have certainly put them there.

Even if Russians were getting all of the facts about what befell 298 innocent people last July, it wouldn’t be enough to change their minds. The problems isn’t just the toxic blend of both cherry-picked and out-and-out fabricated information being fed to them. The problem is the filter which stands between them and an all too harsh reality that far too few are capable of facing.

Except for the clinically psychotic, even the most militant and ultimately violent defenders of Russian aggression deeply want to be viewed as just. Whatever acts of violence are being committed against government troops in Eastern Ukraine, they are being done to beat back American imperialists, Ukrainian fascists, Zionists, the Illuminati, or all of the above.

Russian Ultra-nationalist Demonstration

To no longer be a bulwark against American Imperialism, but rather sandbags thrown around the moat of a corrupt mafia manor, to no longer be freedom fighters against the “fascist junta” in Ukraine, but rather the invader of a sovereign nation and the murderer of women and children in the sky, — such a realization in large enough numbers might just see Moscow go up in flames.

For now, people are content to burn up inside. Just how long that controlled blaze will be left to merely consume families rather than the nation itself is anyone’s guess. But until then, no matter what truth the world reveals about MH17, expect a majority of Russians to live not in the world as it is, but in the world as they wish it to be, no matter how dark and strange that place appears to be to those on the outside looking in.

You’ve gotta serve someone: Grexits, Ukrainian dreams and the systems that bind us

William Echols

Greece’s potential exit from the eurozone, if not the whole European project together, cuts a sharp contrast with Ukraine’s distant hope of one day joining the EU. The issue at hand, however, is not an ideal vision of what the world should be, but which system offers the best potential outcome for relatively small fish forced to tread deep global waters.

Reactions to Greece’s economic woes has almost become a modern day Rorschach test in eliciting a person’s social-political views. For those who put a strong focus on systems, fault for Greece’s imploding economy are almost always laid squarely at the feet of its creditors. One need only read any leading European daily with a leftist bent to see op-ed after op-ed declaring the Troika (the holy spirit of the EU represented by the father in the form of the European Commission, the IMF and the European Central Bank) as an elitist force whose primary aim is the very destruction of democracy itself. For those more enamored with notions of personal responsibility and an arguably inflated sense of personal agency, feckless governance and a wholly entitled population (retirement at 45 with the highest EU-wide pension payments to boot!) has seen Greece’s GDP shrink year-on-year while unemployment soared. Greek’s were living high on the hog on borrowed money, only to lash out at the ‘adults in the room’ when their allowance was cut off. Or so the argument goes.

 (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

(AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

For those who recognize the global system as a deeply complicated and chaotic place, both positions contain kernels of truth, are not mutually exclusive, but are also more married to self-serving ideological interpretations of world events than reality on the ground.

This article, however, is less concerned with knowing how much of which finger to point at who in the unfolding Greek drama. The question, rather, is why would young Ukrainians risk their lives and the inevitable ire of Russia to subject themselves to a European system which many Greek’s are clambering to get out of?

One only need look to the eastern members of the financial union to see a very definite pattern emerge.

Writing for Bloomberg, Leonid Bershidsky noted that “eastern members of the euro are among the strongest opponents of bending to Greek demands.” This is partly explained by jealously — partly by the eastern member’s greater relative exposure to Greek debt. But as Bershidsky argues, these countries were also forced to “bend over backwards” to satisfy  the increasingly stringent requirements for membership placed on them by the monetary union. Ukrainians for their part, as he notes, have little sympathy for Greeks struggling to get by on pensions of 600 euro a month, with the average Ukrainian getting by on a fraction of that sum.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s reaction followed a similar line.

“This year, our responsible and effective policies have consolidated the entire world’s help and solidarity around Ukraine,”Bershidsky cites Poroshenko as saying.

”Greece has found itself in isolation due to its less than responsible behavior when it tried to blackmail the European Commission,” he continued.

Petro Poroshenko

Petro Poroshenko

Poroshenko’s logic is simple, we are loved by the world because we do what Brussels asks of us. The Greeks, in contrast, are biting the hand which, for many Eastern Europeans, keeps the Russian wolves at bay.

Another reason for generally higher levels of enthusiasm among central and eastern Europeans regarding the EU as a whole is that they have something their western counterparts (apart from Eastern Germans) do not have — a parallel experience within another political and economic system.

If one were to take a Wallersteinian approach to the global order, peripheral nations have always been subsumed to the world system’s core nations.

America, the hyperpuissance or hyper power, has gone farther towards merging the nation state with the actions of world-system than perhaps any other political entity in human history. As George W. Bush’s senior political advisor Karl Rove allegedly said: “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.”

World Systems Theory has its problems, and the degree to which America creates its own “reality” (as well as the nature of that reality) are hotly contested. But in a world with regional centers of power which, at best, offer different conditions on which to interact with the global capitalist system, the argument is less about ideology, and more about which nexus (and by extension set of rules) offers the best outcomes.

Unfortunately, some countries find themselves on fault lines between these vying interests. Ukraine is by and large the greatest literal and metaphorical example of a state with the misfortune of being rent apart on every level due to its geography.

Prior to Moscow’s clandestine invasion, opinion was fairly evenly divided between whether Ukraine should seek integration in the European Union or the Eurasian Customs Union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan (which now includes Armenia and Kyrgyzstan) — 42 vs 37 percent respectively. As the Washington Post noted, citing a poll conducted by Gallup, that discrepancy had grown to 59 vs 17 percent over the span of a year.

The US itself has decried the Customs Union as an attempt to resovietize the former Communist bloc states. This attitude is fundamentally incorrect. In Soviet times, Moscow (and Russia by extension) functioned more like Washington in regards to its worse performing states: a disproportionate amount of money was sent to the periphery to keep them afloat. For all its faults, the Soviet Union was engaged in a massive social welfare project, whose benefits are still exalted by many, especially in Soviet states far from Europe’s borders.

Rather than looking like a new Soviet Union, the Customs Union, in fact, is more interested in creating a rough analogue to the EU, with Russia taking the place of Germany. Despite the rhetoric, Russia’s political leadership is deeply committed to the global capitalist system and have little interest in the social responsibilities or political ideology implicit in the Soviet system. Russia might throw its support to disparate political forces in the West (one minute it’s the far-left Syriza, the next, neo-fascist Golden Dawn), but in truth, all Russia’s leadership wants if for the West to shut up about corruption and human rights and keep doing business.

Golden Dawn. Photo by Milos Bicanski /Getty Images

Golden Dawn. Photo by Milos Bicanski /Getty Images

As I wrote previously, Moscow has often been described as a ‘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, the money flows west.

Putin’s Customs Union is arguably a means of extending the mouth of that funnel to the former Soviet republics. In a country where the rule of law is virtually non-existent, that funnel is set to expand illicit gains as well. 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).

For many Ukrainians, even those who have no Soviet-style illusions about the West, there are very tangible benefits from moving away from a Russian-centric system where corruption is not just a by-product of economic activity, but in many cases the intended outcome. Moreover, Putin doesn’t care if you gun down at least 14 protesters (though to be fair, neither did Tony Blair,) nor will he be pushing for unified CO2 emission targets, bloc-wide anticorruption measures or cross-border healthcare rules. But for those seeking a far deeper social contract, Europe seems like the logical choice.

Scene from December 2011 Zhanaozen massacre in Kazakhstan

Scene from December 2011 Zhanaozen massacre in Kazakhstan

The question is, does Europe really offer a way out for Ukraine? Some have argued that one need look no further than Poland for an answer. Much has been written about the shock therapy given to Poland in the 90s, and there is much room for debate whether such harsh austerity measures were at all necessary. But one thing remains true. During the turbulent 90s, Poland was mired in debt and had a GDP per capita on par with Ukraine’s (roughly $1,600) Today, Ukraine’s GDP per capita is believed to be anywhere between a third and a fourth of its Western neighbor.

To be fair, Ukraine is an absolute basket case, with its annual GDP per capita growth rate coming in dead last when measured against 20 other Eastern Bloc states between 1992-2013. Even without Russian pressure or artificial wars being fomented in its east, Ukraine’s internal problems are legion.

Source; Quartz, citing IMF data

Source; Quartz, citing IMF data

It remains to be seen if, given another orbit, Ukraine would go the path of Poland, or stay the course of Greece, who, much like Odysseus, is still deciding whether to dance with Scylla or Charybdis. But seeing what Russia’s put on offer to those who would choose Brussels over Moscow (cheap gas in one hand and a knife to carve out new borders in the other), it is little wonder that the likes of Kiev and Tbilisi have set their sights for Brussels, even while many in the West, from the shore of the Mediterranean to the English channel, are looking to jump ship.

But whatever way you jump, in the end, you gotta serve someone. And given that the choice in the 21st century has thus far been reduced to variations on a capitalist theme, for idealists, as well as those on the far left and far right, there is no choice at all. But for those who have seen firsthand the actual differences that exist between the social contracts on offer between various players in the global financial system, what appears to be a game of inches to the ideologically committed amounts to oceans of difference when viewed at scale.

Russia’s Pyrrhic victory in Chechnya 

William Echols

The increasingly brazen behavior of Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov shows that modern Russia’s two-decade long struggle to pacify the restive southern republic may eventually leave Moscow with ashes in its mouth.

Two brutal wars. Tens of thousands dead. An entire generation ravaged by violence. Cities decimated and then rebuilt with billions of federal dollars. Billions more pour in to pacify a brutal warlord ruling with impunity. A perilous rise in religious fundamentalism. A hotbed of terror forever on its southern flank. A ticking time bomb. This is modern day Chechnya under the thumb of Ramzan Kadyrov.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin has often been described as a great tactician but a less adept strategist. He knows how to act ruthlessly, decisively to obtain short-term goals. He is expert at winning battles. He is at a loss for winning wars. Perhaps, one day, Chechnya will come to embody this reality.

Russians have never much liked Chechens, whom even members of the middle class will openly describe with derision.The great 19th poet Mikhail Lermontov would popularize the myth of the “zloi Chechen” —the evil, unrelenting savage who will fight tooth and nail, even in the face of total annihilation. It’s an image in a land-based empire with amnesia regarding its own roots that holds true today. Myths of the “zloi Chechen” were said to have a powerful psychological effect on Russian troops during the first Chechen War.

The Chechen Tomb

Lermontov would also popularize the small tributary Valerik as the River of Death — a place of slaughter — based on his own battles in the region. It was a name that predated the Russians, it is a name that may outlive their hold over the republic. Afghanistan need not be the only graveyard of empires.

No, in one of those strange ironies of fate, the desire to hold onto 6,700 square miles of hostile real estate could one day prove the death nail for the remaining 17 million-plus. And yet, Russia will likely never let it go willingly, though many would rather say good riddance.

In fact, a July 2013 poll showed that 24 percent of Russians would be glad if Chechnya left the Russian Federation. Another 27 percent said they wouldn’t care. The 23 percent who said it should remain within the Russian Federation were unlikely doing so out of some form of shared history, values, mutual respect, or affinity. Rather, it was likely a perennial expression of Russian chauvinism and 19th century geopolitical thinking that treats the world like a chess board; bigger is always better, we must shore up our southern flank, no matter the cost.

And since the murder of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov on February 27, the true cost of keeping Chechnya in the fold appears be quite high. The term “stop feeding the Caucasus”, in response to the disproportionate amount of government subsidies to the region, has long been popular with Russian nationalists, and not just. That Russia would destroy Chechnya only to pump billions of rubles into it each year while many Russian regions fall by the wayside is a sin for many. That they would do so while a man who once boasted of killing his first Russian at the age of 16 (and who was also allegedly filmed in the beheading of others) would one day become a “hero of Russia”, that smacked of travesty. Moscow always projected strength in a country pathologically obsessed with strength. One man , however, could make it look weak, its authority uncertain.

And last week, that man, Ramzan Kdyroz, enraged that police from the neighboring Stavropol region fatally shot a man in the Chechen capital, ordered his security forces to “shoot to kill” Russian cops or feds who appear on Chechen territory without their “knowledge.”

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That sounds like the leader of his own country, not the head of a regional republic. Yes, in a country where a cashier at a grocery store can be charged with inciting ethnic hatred for posting documentaries about Ukraine on social media (or sentence a 22-year-old man to 2 years in prison for that matter), the head of a republic can call for the assassination of police and investigators without consequence. This is a textbook definition of what Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson called in their seminal work, ‘Why Nations Fail’, “rule of law vs. rule by law.”

There have been efforts within the Russian establishment to “bring Chechnya” back into the fold, and by extension, pull Russia back from the precipice of legal nihilism. Speculation abounds that Federal Investigative Head (SKR) Aleksander Batryskin’s decision to take the investigation into the April 19th shooting under his control is a sign that the Kremlin (or at least powerful forces on its flank) are not so secretly trying to hem Kadyrov in.

Genuflecting to his suzerain, Kadyrov said he would step down from his post if ordered, perhaps with a smirk. Many experts, after all, say there is no alternative.

All the while, Putin has been left navigating the Scylla and Charybdis of chaos in Chechnya vs. a rogue feudal lord ruling with a massive private army numbering in the tens of thousands (and a cut above the average Russian conscript). As is so often the case in Russia,  a false sense of security wins the day. But the 38-year-old Kadyrov might very well be eyeing more than just the day, but history.

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There have long been rumblings of a Muslim-majority rising within the Russian federation over the coming decades, both Western and domestic.

Mark Adomanis, writing for Forbes, takes a far more measured approach to such claims, saying that while the relative growth of Russia’s muslim population will have “political, economic and social consequences,” it is overall analogous to similar growth trends throughout Europe.

Not that Russia’s growing Islamic population, however you cut it and at whatever clip, is in and of itself a problem. The issue is that many Muslim majority regions, including Chechnya, are not fundamentally integrated into broader Russian society. Add into that soaring rates of poverty, corruption, crime, religious fundamentalism and at times borderline anarchy, and a societal recipe for disaster is in the works.

In this context, Kadyrov has jockeyed to make himself the preeminent leader of Russia’s Muslim world, and perhaps one day, the gatherer of Russia’s Muslim lands.

For Putin, Kadyrov is always effusive in his praise, though he appears to being watching shrewdly as the Russian President exaggerates external threats and turns his attention outwards. Kadyrov from the get go offered to send his troops there (and despite his future denials, he allegedly has done just that.)

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The eventual blowback from the Kremlin’s silent war in Ukraine and other geopolitical meddling, after all, will all play into Kadyrov’s hands. It is one thing to have de facto control over Chechnya. It is another for Moscow to be so overextended it could not bring Chechnya back, even if it wanted to.

It is in this context that Kadyrov made such a large show of Stavropol police operating on his turf. All the while, he has regularly dispatched his security forces into neighboring Ingushetia, at times sparking clashes.

Sensing that Russian officials were potentially using local Ingush forces as a buffer to contain Kadyrov’s ambitions, in February he suggested deploying Chechen security forces to crush “terrorism and extremism,” be it in “Moscow or other regions of the country.”

It all plays into his growing image as a Muslim analogue to Putin —a strong man and defender of “tradition.” Publicly, he expresses support for honor killings and “virtue campaigns” for women. He would also offer thinly veiled threats of violence if the Charlie Hebdo cartoons were ever to be published in Russia, and even used those cartoons as a flimsy pretext behind Nemtsov’s assassination.

Mosque building, schools for hafizes (Muslims who know the entire Qur’an by heart), a clinic for Islamic medicine — all projects spearheaded by Kadyrov as part of his PR campaign to assume the Islamist throne.

But despite these outward displays of piety, he  apparently lives the life of the cookie cutter developing world despot. Gold-plated guns, a race horse stable costing over $367,000 to maintain annually, his own private zoo, a million dollar watch, a fleet of luxury cars (including one of 21 Lamborghini Reventons to ever be produced), and a string of celebrities ready to join his garish birthday celebrations (in exchange for up to half a million dollars) — there is no excess the Russian taxpayer doesn’t pay for on his behalf.  On that score, he may have much in common with his mentor.

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A disillusioned Chechen commander, Molvadi Baisrov, once described Kadyrov as a medieval tyrant who “can take any woman and do whatever he pleases with her” in the style of former Soviet Security chief Lavrentiy Beria. Kadyrov is, in Baisrov’s words, a man who acts with a sense of impunity, as if he was a “law unto himself.” Baisrov, incidentally, was killed by members of Kadyrov’s security forces a couple hundred meters from the Kremlin in 2006.  Apparently Putin believed Kadyrov’s actions were an “internal affair,” even if they happened in the heart of the Russian capital.

People who have a falling out with Kadyrov tend to end up dead, extrajudicially, and even outside of Russia. Take Ruslan and Sulim Yamadayev, the former a Hero of Russia and State Duma deputy, the later the commander of the Vostok battalion (which rivaled his own ‘Kadyrovtsy’.) Ruslan was killed on the streets of Moscow in September 2008, while Yamid was later assassinated in Dubai in March 2009.

And just like in the deaths of Baisrov and Russian Yamadayev, Kadyrov’s men appear to have carte blanche to operate on the streets of Moscow.

On February 3, for example, 30 armed Chechens stormed an office complex in Eastern Moscow. Eleven of the men were arrested, but mysteriously released the following day.

In a country where twerking by a World War 2 monument can get you two weeks in prison, or where an environmental activist can receive a 3-year sentence for spray painting a fence, paramilitary forces can act with impunity in the nations capital if they have Ramzan’s blessing.

But if you attempt to make a film about Kadyrov’s influence on modern day Russia, you just mind find armed men raiding your offices as well.

Once again, rule of law vs. rule by law; an old Russian tale.

But with the murder of Boris Nemtsov on February 27, members of Russia’s security services, allegedly unhappy with Kadyrov’s influence (many would have served in Chechnya during the wars), seemed to target him. Almost immediately, Zaur Dadayev, the former deputy commander of a paramilitary unit founded by Kadyrov, was arrested in Nemtsov’s killing.

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On the day Dadayev was officially charged with murder, Kadyrov would describe him as a “true patriot of Russia.”  The Chechen leader would also laud another suspect who blew himself up with a grenade when police attempted to arrest him at his home in Grozny. While 5 suspects would be arrested in total, (a reality Kadyrov was not at all happy about), another key witness, Ruslan Geremeyev has been hiding safely in Chechnya all of this time. It’s as if Russia doesn’t have an extradition treaty with Chechnya; it’s as if Moscow would need one.

In telling sign of where the prevailing winds were blowing, on March 9—less than 24 hours after Kadyrov praised Dadayev — Putin awarded Kadyrov the Order of Honor, one of Russia’s highest decorations. It’s the 12th such state honor Kadyrov has managed to rack up.  Kadyrov reaffirmed his oath of loyalty to Putin the following day, expressing his willingness to die for the Russian leader. By that point, Putin had disappeared from pubic view, sparking a litany of conspiracy theories along the way. When he reemerged on March 16, one such theory seemed to hold water; whatever rumblings among the Russian security services, Putin had thrown in his lot with Kadyrov, perhaps until the bitter end.

“Putin appeared, alive and with legitimacy, at exactly the same moment when Interfax reported that the Nemtsov assassination wasn’t a contract hit,” political analyst Leonid Volkov wrote on his Facebook page at the time.

“Putin had to make a choice. Either feed Kadyrov to the FSB, or surrender the FSB to Kadyrov. It’s a difficult and unpleasant choice, so he laid low like Stalin in June 1941, in order to think and let the smoke clear,” he continued.

“Lay low, and choose. [And he] chose the one and only thing he could choose: Kadyrov.”

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For now, as Caucasian Knot editor-in-chief Gregory Shvedov recently told Newsweek, Putin “single-handedly” controls Kadyrov, which is, in a sense, kind of like saying the right hand controls the left, or that the ego controls the id.

But, with economic instability, a cauldron of ethnic tensions bubbling under the surface of Russian society, and attempts to channel violent Russian nationalism into Eastern Ukraine without it spilling over into broader society, it remains unclear, in Shevdov’s words, “for how long Putin would be capable of controlling the institutions behind the most influential leader in North Caucasus,” or the well-oiled fighting force under his control.

In a way, Putin’s fate is intricately tied up with Kadyrov. His presidency was built on war in the republic, and Kadyrov has become his lynchpin of legitimacy in the region.

Recently writing for The Interpreter, Paul Goble asked whether Putin was about to start a third war in Chechnya to escape the Ukrainian “impasse.”

Even to entertain such a scenario and its relatively best possible outcomes is reminiscent of the 3rd century Greek King Pyrrhus during the eponymously named Pyrrhic War: “If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined.”

But to look at the rise of Kadyrov following the Second Chechen War and what modern day Chechnya says about the Russian Federation today, a third conflict in the region might not even be necessary to bring about “ruin.” Through the arch of history, as Russia creeps towards what some alarmists have characterized as impending “implosion,” historians may one day look back on the Second Chechen War, the rise of Putin, and a conflict in Ukraine intended to “gather Russian lands” as the moment not when Russia finally rose from its “knees,” but when 500 years of empire truly began to unravel. For now, under a clear, blue sky, Kadyrov stands on the banks of the Valerik, biding his time.

For him, the question was never “why” we fight. For him, the question has, and always will be, when.

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.

Soviet ghosts and dead politicians: Ukraine is on the brink 

William Echols

At least eight former government officials dead in two months, two journalists killed in Kyiv since Monday, another pro-Russian former deputy shot dead outside his home this week, controversial laws meant to whitewash history, and a shaky ceasefire in a civil war that risks engulfing the entire nation — Ukraine is on the brink, and no one appears willing or able to stop the descent into disintegration.

Whatever you think of the Putinbots, vatniks, trolls, or true believers caught up in the digital miasma regarding the Ukrainian crisis, on one point they appear to be correct — a spat of mysterious and not so mysterious deaths to befall Ukraine since late January appear to have been underreported in the Western press.

Within a day’s time, 45-year-old Oles Buzyna, a journalist-cum-pro-Russian activist who made an unsuccessful 2012 parliamentary run on the Russian Bloc ticket, was the victim of a brazen drive-by shooting in the courtyard of his apartment building in Kyiv on Thursday afternoon.

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On Wednesday, 52-year-old Oleg Kalashnikov, a former deputy in ousted president Viktor Yanukovich’s Party of Regions, was shot dead on the landing of his apartment in the Ukrainian capital. And on Monday, Serhiy Sukhobok, a journalist who covered business affairs in eastern Ukraine, reportedly died during a fight with neighbors within whom he had a history of bad blood.

Between January 29th and March 14th, eight former government officials are alleged to have committed suicide, though theories have emerged that some were forced to take their own lives. Many were former political allies of Yanukovich and under investigation for a litany of crimes. Members of the marginalized pro-Russian opposition claim the mysterious deaths have followed a wave of intimidation employing the judicial branch as a punitive organ against former regime elements. Those swept into power following the 2014 revolution say they are merely “cracking up” at the prospect of prison time given the impunity with which they acted while in power. Those two interpretations are not mutually exclusive.

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Following the deaths of Buzyna and Kalashnikov, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko ordered an investigation into the killings, saying it was clear “these crimes have the same origin.” 

“Their nature and political sense are clear,” Poroshenko said. “It is a deliberate provocation that plays in favor of our enemies.”

Provocation, of course, is the carpet under which all evils are swept under in the post-Soviet world.

Following the February 27 assassination of former statesman and oppositionist Boris Nemtsov, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s press secretary similarly said the murder was “100 percent provocation.” 

Putin for his part had earlier employed the phrase “sacrificial victim” in 2012 to describe an alleged plot by the opposition to kill one of their own merely to tarnish his regime.

It came as little surprise that Russia’s Investigative Committee would employ the same language three years later, saying Nemtsov was a “sacrificial victim for those who do not shun any method for achieving their political goals.”

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It is not to say “provocations” do not take place. But to insinuate motive without evidence is irresponsible, especially from a head of state. Poroshenko, however, isn’t the only one to to fit the killing into a politically expedient narrative.

Parliamentarian Sergei Leshchenko wrote on Twitter that the murders looked like an FSB “provocation”, referring to Russia’s principle security agency, the Guardian reported.

Another deputy, Volodymyr Ariev, told the daily that “an FSB shooting brigade” was picking people off on the streets of Kiev.

“It easily fits into the Russian narrative that Ukraine is all about fascists, a country where even basic right for life is violated,” he said.

Walking right into Russia’s trap 

When it comes to this admittedly false Russian narrative that the Ukraine is “all about fascists”, the Ukrainian government is doing itself no favors in promoting a more democratic image.

First, there was the so-called Ministry of Truth.

Then, on April 9, Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada (parliament) adopted four laws, one of which recognizes the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) as veterans of the Second World War. The law further says that “public denial of the legitimacy of the struggle for Ukraine’s independence”, and by extension, criticism of those who fought for said independence, is “unlawful.”

The following day, three Soviet-era statures were toppled in Ukraine’s second-largest city of Kharkiv.

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The UPA cannot simply be written off as Nazi-collaborators, though they did in fact collaborate with German forces (only to fight against them later, albeit as a “secondary” enemy).

They were also involved in a brutal ethnic cleansing campaign against Polish civilians in Volhynia and Galicia, killing up to 100,000 people. The UPA’s alleged role in massacring Jews in Western Ukraine is historically more contentious.

At the very least, any laws which could curtail criticism of such a group at a time when Russian propaganda explicitly called the Ukrainian revolution a fascist coup shows a shocking lack of political astuteness on behalf of the Ukrainian parliament.

It does not help that the black and red UPA flag, as well as their slogan “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the heroes!” were staples of the Euromaidan movement that prompted Yanukovich to flee the country. In reality, many democratically-minded young people in Ukraine merely view the UPA as 20th century freedom fighters, without themselves having any Nazi sympathies. That fact alone demonstrates why any laws attempting to curtail historical discourse are especially dangerous for a country in the midst of an identity crisis. That the government would act to whitewash history in the middle of a civil war fueled in part by these very controversial issues seems like madness.

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Likewise, a similar February 2014 attempt to repeal the Yanukovich-era minority language law, which approved the use of so-called “regional languages” (primarily Russian) in courts, schools and other government institutions, showed a staggering lack of priorities and a grave misreading of the Russian propaganda onslaught to follow. For Ukrainian nationalists to confuse distancing themselves from the political entity known as the Russian Federation with purging themselves of a very real Russo-Ukrainian cultural tradition was a recipe for disaster, which has deftly been exploited by Russian forces which ignited the civil war in Ukraine’s east.

Simply put, Ukraine does not risk becoming a failed state because it is lacking a coherent ethnolinguistic identity, and any attempts at forcing a sense of Ukrainian identity on the masses rather than letting it develop organically is counterproductive on every front. For Ukraine, the question of identity is deeply wrapped up in the necessity of political pluralism; a prerequisite for any institutionally solvent state. Laws such as those passed last week are not only an attack on freedom of speech, they are chipping away at a cornerstone of any viable Ukrainian state.

Amidst a backdrop where oligarchs control private armies and the government seems incapable of providing security in those parts of the country not ravaged by war, Ukrainian institutions appear to be in free fall. Meanwhile, every layer of society is cannibalizing itself as a means of survival as Ukraine has slipped to 142nd place (out of 175) on Transparency International’s latest corruption index.

All the while, Russia is betting on (if not fueling) this national death spiral.

In March, Ukrainian Finance Minister Natalie Jaresko told Bloomberg that Russian President Vladimir Putin in fact hopes to turn Ukraine into a failed state, adding that war in the east was likely to reignite as a result.

Amid escalating violence in the region, the leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic recently threatened to take control of the strategically important coastal town of Mariupol if Ukrainian “aggression” did not cease, signaling that Jaresko’s fears may in fact be justified.

Jaresko, meanwhile, warned creditors on Wednesday that a lack of willingness to restructure $40 billion in Ukrainian debt could signal untold peril down the road.

Ukrainians have already seen their living standards plummet over the past year, making the consequence of an actual default socially untenable.

“If, God forbid, there is another revolution” Jaresko said, “it won’t be of the same kind [as 2014].”

With a wave of high-profile suicides and murders, a ceasefire drenched in gasoline, a government facing insolvency and a political class more capable of tackling Soviet ghosts than modern day robber barons, Jaresko’s words may prove eerily prescient. And however the next revolution ends if it comes to pass, one thing is certain: modern Ukraine is unlikely to survive it.

I is me is you: Identity and war in Ukraine 

William Echols

Identity is a tricky thing. It is both organically developed and imagined, conceived and defined from without and within. This ceaseless interplay between different forces, of how we are seen, how others see us, and how we react to how others see us, (in turn changing how we see ourselves and them), is a seemingly fractal process.

It goes without saying that identity, in both its realist and most imagined sense, has been at the heart of the Ukrainian civil war.

If there were some sort of pecking order regarding the atrocities that have been committed over the last year, I am not in any position to suss it out. But something LA Times photojournalist Sergei Loiko said during an interview back in November has always stuck with me:

“This war is different because there were no reasons for it. They are all fictional. They are built on lies, spread by Russian television. There was no reason for people to kill each other. It is a theatre of the absurd. This is now one of the most epic wars for me.”

Battle for the Donetsk Airport taken by the LA Times Sergei Loiko.

Battle for the Donetsk Airport taken by the LA Times Sergei Loiko.

For a war fought in “fictitious times” for “fictitious reasons”, the bitter existential pill that it is all a lie makes the death and destruction that much more horrifying. Human beings can almost endure anything if it is meaningful, or if we can manage to weave meaning out of it. This conflict, by any stretch of the imagination, is meaningless, if one were to assume that meaning were generated by any actual need to fight, defensively or otherwise. Without a doubt, meaning has been created by the very real and tragic consequences the bloodletting has entailed. But this qlipothic tree planted in the heart of Ukraine has fake plastic roots. The “flywheel” behind this needless war has already admitted as much.

So what does all of this have to do with identity? Well, one of the most glaring aspects of Loiko’s theatre of the absurd is that myths regarding the binary east-west divide in Ukraine have been taken on by Ukrainians themselves (at least some of them.) Which is to say, one of the many fictions used to incite this conflict became a reality. Identity reimagined itself via the force of directed imagination.

Over the past year, a culture caste from varied but mostly riveted links was smelted with white hot hatred and further alloyed with fear and loathing. But unlike with actual metals, this purified base is much weaker than the ore from which it came, while the metaphorical slag heaps from that artificial decoupling are even more ugly than the actual ones littering the Donets Basin.

A recent conversation with a close friend and journalist who is ethnically Russian but Ukrainian-born brought all of these issues to the foray for me. And to look at issues of identity in 2015 Ukraine, one must also confront a war ostensibly being fought to protect one group of people from another.

Born in the historical region of Podolia in west-central Ukraine, she described a world in which she was unaware of being bilingual until she relocated to Moscow as a teen. It was not that she didn’t recognize there were two different languages, countries, cultures, or identities. It was merely never something she thought about. The mixture of languages and identities seemed natural; it was natural – it was home, a painfully uneventful one at that.

It was only in leaving Ukraine that her identity, not as a Russian (though she is unequivocally that), but as a Ukrainian-born Ukrainian speaking Russian, became something she was made aware of.

I do not want to take too much from one anecdotal experience. But one reality that has widely been written about remains true: prior to the civil war, any attempts to split the country down the middle, calling the western sphere “Ukrainian” and the eastern sphere “Russian” was an overt simplification at best. Not entirely untruthful mind you, but a simplification.

Ukrainian-born journalist Peter Pomerantsev tackled this very issue in a deeply illuminating piece entitled ‘Do you speak Surzhyk?’

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In a folksy but poetic manner typical of the region, “surzhyk” was initially a Ukrainian word used to designate bread or flour that was made from mixed grains.

Linguistically, it is sometimes (but not always) defined as any combination (and I mean any combination) of speech using Russian and Ukrainian. There are no hard and fast rules, no sense of dilution from one side or the other, and no requisite grammar or semantic base that needs to be followed. Whatever which way you splice it up, you are speaking Surzhyk.

A 2003 study by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology found that anywhere between 11-18 percent of Ukrainians communicated in Surzhyk. As for those in the now worn-torn east, 9.6 percent of the population spoke the sociolect at the time of the study.

A breakdown of the percentage of Surzhyk speakers by region.

A breakdown of the percentage of Surzhyk speakers by region.

The fascinating part, however, is that few people were aware that they were in fact mixing (but not confusing) the two languages.

Where this becomes important for the country today is that at the time of the 2014 Ukrainian revolution, these recently distilled identities which were poured red hot into artificial casts are far more fluid than many would have us believe.

Pomerantsev expressed this fluidity by the highly variable nature of the individuals and groups who ended up falling on either side of the Ukrainian revolution.

“The closest thing Madan has to a leader is the boxing champ Klitschko, who struggles in Ukrainian and whose Russian is far purer than President Yanukovich’s,” he wrote in January 2014, over a month before the former Ukrainian president fled the country and all hell broke loose.

“Its first martyrs include an ethnic Armenian from Russian-speaking Dnepropetrovsk and a Belarussian Ukrainian resident. Its violent front line appears to be multilingual,” he continued.

Pomerantsev touched on a reality that everyone who has traveled to Kiev quickly realizes; despite it’s status as a “Ukrainian speaking” city, 60 percent of the capital is in fact Russian speaking when it comes to everyday life. For Kiev and many of the urban centers in the country’s center, Russian can rightfully be called “the language of the street.”

That Kiev was the epicenter for the revolution had little relation to the socio-linguistic dynamic in the city, despite propaganda from its aggressive northern neighbor speaking of a fascist coup targeting ethnic Russians. The ideals represented by Maidan, in fact, were not related to the Russian-Ukrainian question as it relates to national identity, at least for the majority who came out to protest. Rather, it was an issue of what modern day Russia represents as a political entity (and how connections to this political entity boded for Ukraine’s future), that sparked the westward shift.

As for the imperial-era territory of “Novorossiya”, which Putin bemoaned for being handed over to Ukraine, Pomerantsev noted an 1897 census, which found that 62.5 percent of the population of the Donbass (which Novorossiya partially encompassed) was in fact “little Russian”, or what we would call Ukrainian, at the time.

In light of present day events, the history of the region is somewhat ironic. A slice of land seized from the Ottoman Empire which was majority Ukrainian during czarist times would only become majority Russian after it was handed over to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1922.

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And yet, that Soviet-era Russian identity embraced by the majority was not enough to determine political allegiances in any blanket sense. As Pomerantsev points out, Russian-speaking footfall fans (with all the far right tendencies and proclivities for violence that entails) in the region actually threw their support behind the Maidan revolution, and not Yanukovich. And following the opening shots of the Russian-generated civil war, despite their (often legitimate) misgivings about the new government in Kiev, 70 percent of those in the East wanted Ukraine to stay a united country, according to a Pew Research Poll released on May 8, 2014.

Dynamo Kiev ultras at a league tie with bitter rivals Shakhtar Donetsk in 2011; the fans have since put their differences aside. Esquire.

Dynamo Kiev ultras at a league tie with bitter rivals Shakhtar Donetsk in 2011; the fans have since put their differences aside. Esquire.

Meanwhile, the most European part of Ukraine, Transcarpathia in the south-west, “with its cross-Schengen trade and communities of Germans, Hungarians, Romanians and Slovaks”, threw their support behind Yanukovich during the 2010 election. Clearly, nothing is clearcut at all.

It could, however, be argued that all of these minor points are used to obfuscate a simple fact that, by and large, the West is Ukrainian-speaking and the East Russian-speaking. There are minor points of difference, but by and large, one half of the country leans towards Europe, and the towards Russia. That portrayal is not by an stretch of the imagination false. It does, however, miss the bigger picture. Ukrainian and Russian-speaking Ukrainians have lived side by side for centuries, and conflict was rarely organic, but rather the direct result of political meddling. In fact, there were even times in history when Russian peasants who did not identify themselves as Russians and Ukrainian peasants who did not identify themselves as Ukrainians coexisted via a common cultural line that both diverged and intermingled. Some forms of Surzhyk are a manifestation of that very interplay.

And yet czarist-era attacks on Ukrainian cultural expressions, which saw the Ukrainian language suppressed or banned numerous times, was often a means of consolidating power and creating an artificial, standardized identity.

The justifications for this process are also telling. A secret decree issued by the the Minister of Internal Affairs of the Russian Empire, for example, which essentially banned the printing of the Ukrainian language in 1863, said that “no separate Little Russian [Ukrainian] language ever existed, doesn’t exist, and couldn’t exist.” In effect, the document claimed the Ukrainian language was nothing more than Russian corrupted by Polish influence.

Sadly, this is a mistaken belief that is widely held throughout Russia today, and not just among the country’s right-wing nationalists, but well-educated and well-traveled urbanites as well.

The reason, of course, is a lingering imperialist desire to put their own imagined sense of Russianness at the forefront of Eastern Slavic identity. Rather than accepting the fact that ethnic “Russian” people are descended from the same Eastern slavic tribes as Ukrainians, and thus their languages and cultures could have developed on parallel tracks, there has been a concerted effort for centuries to absorb all East Slav history into Russian history for the expediency of elevating “Great” Russia above “Little Russia” and “White Russia”.

That political power would shift following the 13th century siege of Kiev and the subsequent rise of the Grand Duchy of Moscow in the 15th century has unsurprisingly resulted in a narrative that puts Russia at the heart of all of eastern Slavic life. In order to maintain this myth, the culture of other Slavic peoples in the area is turned into a bastardization of Russian, a worldview which justifies the banning or subjugation of those peoples’ linguistic and cultural expressions.

As has been seen in recent times, it also justifies cutting up and divvying out the territory of other states, seeing that Moscow has made itself the arbitrator of what Vladimir Putin called a “unique sociocultural civilizational community.”

The usefulness of this imperialist rendering of history can clearly be seen today. When Putin referred to the recently annexed Crimean peninsula as Russia’s Temple Mount, claiming that Grand Prince Vladimir was baptized there in 988 (though Vladimir was likely baptized in Kiev), he was actually saying that the history of all East Slavs is the history of Russia, and that the assumption of Slavic Christendom is first and foremost a Russian affair.

In light of this might makes right historical reading, Russian no longer becomes a lineal descendant of the language used in Kevin Rus, but rather is the linguistic terminus of it. Other tongues, in contrast, are treated as muddied deviations – linguistic heretics.

In short, political power has created an artificial, cultural caste system. The term “Little Russia” really says it all.

And what has been seen in Ukraine intermittently since the Soviet collapse is what happens when big country chauvinism is met with a form of small country chauvinism; ugly attempts to suppress the Russian language or drive out Russian influences (even if those Russian influences stem from Russian-speaking Ukrainian natives.)

Activists of the Svoboda (Freedom) party march to mark the 71st anniversary of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) and carry portraits of its leader, Stepan Bandera. Reuters

Activists of the Svoboda (Freedom) party march to mark the 71st anniversary of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) and carry portraits of its leader, Stepan Bandera. Reuters

But sorting out what is or is not Ukrainian is kind of like getting to the bottom of Surzhyk, and what it says about Ukraine today.

In 2002, Anthropologist Laada Bilaniuk noted that there are 5 distinct languages which can be considered Surzhyk. Sometimes it is viewed as the mere byproduct of Ukrainian peasants attempting to speak the language of Russian administrators, and is thus dismissed as a low class, imperial pidgin.

As Bilaniuk noted, however, this form of Surzhyk includes “mixed” features of village dialects, which she argues predate the standardization of either Russian or Ukrainian.

There is also the Sovietized Surzhyk, in which Ukrainian terms were purged from dictionaries (to what degree remains unclear) and replaced with Russian ones.

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This form of the dialect has been targeted by nationalists and linguistic purists, who argue that the entirety of the Ukrainian language as it exists today is nothing but Surzhyk as a result of this imperialist practice. Their goal, of course, it to return Ukrainian to its undiluted roots.

I am by no stretch of the imagination qualified to weigh in on any of those issues. Rather, I am bringing them up for another reason. If not for fear of national disintegration, a fear which is clearly being stoked from without, none of it would really matter.

There is often this false belief put forward by nationalists of every persuasion that there was once a historic golden age which should be viewed as some sort of sociolinguistic and cultural garden of Eden.

It is not just this artificial snapshot of a frozen and imagined history that turns Russian nationalists on their “fraternal brothers,” but it is also the reason why Ukraine runs the risk of cannibalizing its own culture (including the Russian aspects of it) for the sake of an imagined sense of purity.

Ukraine finds itself in a doubly difficult position because unlike the former Baltic states, Moldova, or Central Asia, which were all met with a massive influx of Soviet-era (and ethnically Russian) settlers, its language and culture is intrinsically linked to that of Russia via the Kievan line.

To remove those Russian aspects which are viewed as alien would be like taking a knife to extract bullet fragments scattered around one’s spine. As for Russians in the east, they would rather just amputate their leg and donate it to what they believe is a more suitable body.

But such procedures could prove fatal to what has become a deeply schizophrenic patient. And yet, due to minor but ultimately manageable resentments fanned to an inferno by outside forces, that appears to be exactly what is happening inside of Ukraine today.

People are dying not because of who they are, but who they think they should be. But who they think they should be, in truth, looks nothing like who they really are.

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.)

alexeymilchakov

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.

Russia-Nuclear-Missile

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.