Crimea: Putin vs. Reality
This is the third installment in Timothy Snyder’s series on Russian ideology and the Ukrainian revolution. Earlier articles examined the Kremlin’s Eurasian ideology and its propaganda about the Kiev uprising.
The Russian invasion and occupation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula is a disaster for the European peacetime order. But more critical still is just what Russian President Vladimir Putin thinks he is doing. The clues are there before us, in the language of the Kremlin’s non-stop propaganda campaign in the Russian media. The repeatedly recycled categories are the “fascist coup” in Ukraine and the “Russian citizens” who suffer under it. Putin’s justification for occupying part of Ukraine, and threatening to invade the entire country, has been to save the Russians there from the fascists.
Let’s consider each of these conceits in turn. Did the current Ukrainian authorities come to power in a fascist coup? As everyone who has followed these events knows, the mass protests against the Yanukovych regime that began in November involved millions of people, from all walks of life. After the regime tried and failed to put down the protests by shooting protestors from rooftops on February 20, EU negotiators arranged a deal whereby Yanukovych would cede power to parliament. Rather than signing the corresponding legislation, as he had committed to do, Yanukovych fled to Russia.
Parliament declared that he had abandoned his responsibilities, followed the protocols that applied to such a case, and continued the process of constitutional reform by itself. Presidential elections were called for May, and a new government was formed. The prime minister is a liberal conservative, one of the two deputy prime ministers is Jewish, and the governor of the important eastern province of Dnipropetrovsk is the president of the Congress of Ukrainian Jewish Organizations. Although one can certainly debate the constitutional nuances, this process was not a coup. And it certainly was not fascist. Reducing the powers of the president, calling presidential elections, and restoring the principles of democracy are the opposite of what fascism would demand. Leaders of the Jewish community have declared their unambiguous support for the new government and their total opposition to the Russian invasion.
Of the eighteen cabinet posts that have been filled in the new government, three are held by members of the far right party, Svoboda. Its leader had less than 2 percent support in a recent opinion poll—one that was taken after the Russian invasion of Crimea, an event that presumably would help the nationalists. In any event, this is the grain of truth from which, according to the traditional rules of propaganda, Putin’s “fascist coup” has been concocted.
The second conceit, that of the oppression of Russian citizens in the Ukraine, lacks even this. Over the last few months one Russian citizen has been killed in Ukraine. He was not threatened by Ukrainian protestors or by the current government. Quite the opposite. He was fighting for the Ukrainian revolution, and was killed by a sniper’s bullet.
In any case, since Ukraine does not allow double citizenship, there are few Russian citizens resident in the country. But let’s consider those that are: One notable group are the soldiers and sailors at the military base at Sevastopol. Since these are military men on a military base, they hardly need protection. Another major group are those masked Russian special-forces who are now occupying Crimea. A third are the Russians who have been bused across the border to stage pro-Russian demonstrations and beat Ukrainian students in the cities of eastern Ukraine. A final group of Russian citizens are former Ukrainian riot policemen who took part in the suppression of demonstrations. Having been rewarded for their actions with a Russian passport, they can and do travel to Russia. None of these groups, by any stretch of the imagination, could be plausibly described as a victimized minority requiring protection.
Putin and others blur the category of citizenship by speaking of Russian “compatriots,” a category that has no legal status. By compatriots Putin means people the Russian government claims as Russians—or who, according to the Kremlin, self-identify as Russians—and who therefore need its protection. This sort of argument, the need to protect the Volksgenossen, was used to significant effect by Adolf Hitler in 1938 in enunciating German claims to Austria and then to the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia. Hitler’s substitution of ethnicity for state borders led then to the Munich conference, appeasement, and World War II. Russian historian Andrei Zubov has developed the comparison with Nazi aggression further, likening Putin’s action to the Anschluss, and recalling that the Anschluss led to a war that turned against its authors. The parallel has also been noted by the chief rabbi of Ukraine… MORE