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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Russia and the Sinai plane crash fallout 

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Will Putin double down on a war he never expected to win?

William Echols

[*Note: This was written 2 weeks ago, before Russia admitted its passenger jet was bombed in Egypt, the Paris attack and now the incident in Turkey. That being said, it’s still interesting to see if my thesis will hold in light of just how much has happened in a short amount of time.]

The alleged bombing of a Russian passenger jet over the Sinai Peninsula has brought home the risks involved in Moscow’s Syrian intervention. The question is, will Putin be forced to change his political calculus in battling an enemy where victory in any traditional sense was never really part of the equation?

From “likely” to “99 percent certain”, Western intelligence has increasingly taken the view that a bomb brought down Metrojet Flight 9268, killing all 224 on board.

Moscow has been far less willing to jump to conclusions or air its own intelligence on the matter, though Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev conceded “the possibility an act of terror” downed the plane.

Russia’s reticence to speculate on the incident likely reflects the potential domestic and international consequences a terrorist strike would entail for Moscow’ recent Syrian intervention.

There are several factors, however, which will diminish Russia’s need to mitigate for any sense of popular backlash, leaving Putin’s Syrian objectives unaffected.

Matter of opinion

Empirical evidence suggests that Russian public opinion on Syria remains highly malleable. Less than two weeks before bombs started falling over the Levant, only 14 percent of Russians believed Moscow should give the regime of Bashar al-Assad direct military support. Following a targeted media blitz, a later poll by the Independent Levada Center saw a full 72 percent of Russians feel mostly or entirely positive “towards the strikes on the ‘Islamic State [IS]’ in Syria.” 

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Interestingly, another survey released by the Levada Center on November 6 (though conducted prior to the October 31 crash) found a plurality of responds (a full 40 percent) believed the primary benefit of the Syrian intervention would be “a decrease in the terrorist threat to Russia posed by the Islamic State.” Only 17 percent believed it would increase the threat.

Thirty four percent also said intervention would “strengthen Russia’s authority in the Middle East/the world arena,” while 22 percent believed it would “normalize the situation and end the bloody war in Syria.”

Only 6 percent believed Russia’s actions would undoubtedly lead to “a new Afghanistan for Russia,” while 29 percent thought it was entirely possible an Afghanistan-style quagmire could develop.

While Afghanistan syndrome and the increased likelihood of terrorism remain genuine concerns, anecdotal evidence suggests Russians by and large have not begun to question Moscow’s decision to intervene in Syria as a result of the Sinai incident. Rather, they appear increasingly dead set on seeing IS destroyed. This in part stems from the fact that Russians have a different relationship to acts of terror than Westerners, and thus expect different reactions from their leadership when such acts occur.

Putin would know, for he himself helped create this expectation.

Zero-tolerance 

The June 1995 hospital siege in Budyonnovsk, in which Chechen separatists took at least 1,000 people hostage, proved instrumental in forming Putin’s zero-tolerance policy towards terrorism.

Following failed attempts to storm the building, Moscow was compelled to negotiate with the militants, ultimately securing a ceasefire which was viewed as a turning point in the First Chechen War.

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It is unsurprising that Putin’s rise to power was cemented by a rebuff to this perceived humiliation, when the suspicious 1999 apartment bombings helped spark the second military conflagration in Chechnya. Putin’s “we will rub them out in the outhouse” philosophy came to signify a willingness to stop at nothing to counter terrorism, even if it meant significant Russian civilian casualties.

From the 2002 Moscow Theater hostage crisis, in which Russian special forces employed an unknown chemical agent, leading to the deaths of 130 hostages, to the 2004 Beslan school siege, where 385 were killed after Russian forces stormed the building using tanks and rocket launchers, Moscow will risk sacrificing its own citizens rather than capitulate to terrorist demands.

Due in part to a compliant state media, proclivity towards stoicism, employment of conspiracy theories to deflect blame, ethnoreligious animosity, and a militaristic culture which places a lower premium on human life, Russians appear willing to accept such civilians losses. As for the Sinai incident, nothing indicates anything will change in that regard.

Putin doesn’t care? 

Recently, political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky told the Moscow Times “Putin is not concerned with domestic events at all,”  and thus does not feel an obligation to his electorate during this time of tragedy. A Washington Post editorial noted that unlike Western states, Putin was more interested in “defending” his government than his own people.

While there is some truth to these assertions, they miss the broader point. One, Putin’s actions on the international stage are all done for domestic considerations. As it stands, domestic events are a less efficacious path towards generating a sense of national greatness the Russian public craves than international ones.

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Secondly, that this potential bombing happened abroad gives Putin more room to maneuver. Domestic attacks, especially those conducted by separatists, are viewed as an existential threat to Putin’s state supremacy model, giving him no choice but to execute his “outhouse” policy. An attack on a soft target abroad, meanwhile, allows for a more nuanced response.

Another factor comes into play as well. Just as in the West (or anywhere else for that matter), the attempt to correlate acts of terror with foreign policy decisions is a non-starter. Russia is no exception in this regard.

Staying the course 

Even if the Kremlin is more or less indemnified from public outrage, will Putin feel compelled to prove to IS or the Russian people that such attacks will not go unanswered?

For now, Flight 9268 will likely facilitate Putin’s pre-existing goals in the Levant rather than spawn new ones.

Video: New Russian Airstrikes against ISIS Terrorists in Syria

New Russian Airstrikes against ISIS Terrorists in Syria

Putin’s primary strategic goal remains securing Russia’s military foothold in the region while dictating any forthcoming political settlement, ideally with Assad still in power.  As early as 2012, Syrian expert Fabrice Balanche propopsed that “Russia and Iran can support an Alawite state on the coast, like [Russia’s support for] Abkhazia in Georgia.”

Ultimately, Russia only needs to secure about 20 percent of Syria to achieve its aims, though any additional territory would be a bonus.

An extended campaign against IS would likely run counter to those strategic goals, though Putin would remain amenable to forming his proposed “anti-Hitler Coalition” in Syria in exchange for a range of concessions from the West, including a lifting of Ukrainian-related sanctions.

Meanwhile, the need to look strong and reaffirm to the Russian public that the terrorist strike will not go unpunished, while simultaneously not risking a more serious ground campaign, can be accomplished with the help of state media.

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Despite the perceived need for vengeance, there is really no litmus test for retribution. How many televised airstrikes, how many glitzy graphs detailing the number of terrorists killed would be needed to sate the Russian public?

As it stands, an estimated 88 percent of Russians receive their news via a largely state-controlled medium (television). This gives the Kremlin carte blanche to create its own Syrian realities for the public —something it has clearly been doing from the outset.

Of course, if additional terrorist strikes against soft targets are forthcoming, or if zinc coffins start piling up in Sevastopol, public sentiment could eventually push Putin’s hand. But even in the event that cutting and running became politically expedient, Putin would neither have to deal with a critical media or viable political opposition in executing a Syrian volte face. Turn on the television, and whatever message the Kremlin needs to tell will be told. That will be true for the Sinai crash; that will be true for whatever comes to pass in Syria.

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Sinai Plane Crash Could Cast Dark Shadow on Kremlin

William Echols

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Whether a terrorist attack related to Moscow’s foreign policy, a technical glitch or human error, the primary theories on how a Russian airliner crashed in Egypt this past weekend pose uncomfortable questions for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s polices at home and abroad.

Wreckage in the desert. Flowers on the streets. Russia is in mourning, and its people by and large have the world’s sympathy following the crash of Kogalymavia Flight 9268 on Saturday. Eight million people fly a day; over 3 billion a year. One need not be a member of the jet set to empathize with victims of a plane crash. Most have experienced panic on a particularly turbulent ride. Around one in five people suffer from Aviophobia — the fear of flying. Columnist Alex Preston called flying “a magnet for our vulnerability, for our fear of death, for our existential panic.” 

In Fight Club, the narrator, expresses his death wish through flying, praying for a crash or mid-air collision “ever time the plane banked too sharply on take-off or landing.” 

Read the entire article at Russia! Magazine 

*At least one supplementary entry for Russian Avos will be shortcoming.

Popular revolutions and Putin’s state supremacy shell game

Putin believes in the responsibility to protect states, not people

William Echols

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Euromaidan coups, off-color revolutions and Syrian sorties; the worldview of Vladimir Putin posits that to avoid chaos, state supremacy must supplant even the best-intentioned popular will. But has the Syrian quagmire proven that revolution, democratic or otherwise, is a recipe for disaster?

From the shores of North Africa to the Tian Shan mountains of Central Asia, revolution has swept across the Middle East and former Soviet space with increasingly fraught results.

For Putin, the two-headed dragon of Western interventionism and popular protest have breathed fire across the world, leaving death and destruction in its wake…

Read the entire article at The Intersection Project: Russia/Europe/World

Syrian War Is Next Great Russian Reality TV Show

William Echols 

'Great weather for airstrikes!' No, seriously, this actually happened.

‘Great weather for airstrikes!’ No, seriously, this actually happened.

While Moscow has managed to shift the publics attention away from it’s clandestine war in Ukraine to its latest military adventure in Syria, is the Russian public throwing their support behind a military operation, or a televised spectacle?

From the vertiginous heights of Ostankino, it was decided that Russia’s first war outside of the Soviet Union since its invasion of Afghanistan would be a gala event. Among a population reeling from the loss of empire, nothing says we are back like a foreign military campaign. But just like the collapse of the Soviet Union itself, Afghanistan had come to represent a time of trauma many have struggled to leave behind.

Read the entire article at Russia! Magazine 

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.

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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.

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.

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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.