Over the weekend, the “Russian military intervention” that I claimed last week was “unlikely” came to pass, and on Tuesday morning Russian President Vladimir Putin gave an hour-long press conference—at times rambling, almost stream-of-consciousness; at times frustrated and impatient—where, instead of explaining why Russia had invaded Crimea, he denied that the occupying soldiers were Russian at all.
But apart from this KGB-like disavowal of an obvious and easily confirmed truth, Putin’s press conference gave a surprisingly unfiltered insight into the Russian perspective on the Ukrainian revolution—and the blind spots of that perspective. This was not a press conference of a blustering leader at the top of his game but of a man caught off guard. After the intervention, the Russian President was left to rely on his uniquely Putinesque wit and geopolitical common sense to reclaim the mantle of political reasonableness which, at the best of times, has defined his international self-image. In order to do this, he had to smear Maidan’s central motives and tactics as unreasonable or ignore them altogether.
Vladimir Putin’s goal on March 4 was to build a Russian narrative of the Ukraine crisis that is coherent enough to be accepted, and presumably repeated, by those whose default position is mistrust of the West.
He undoubtedly succeeded. But that doesn’t mean he was right.
From the very beginning, Putin said he “understands the people on Maidan who are calling for radical change.” With an amusing, but not entirely unjustified elision of the whole Soviet period, he acknowledged that “the ordinary Ukrainian citizen, the ordinary guy, suffered during the rule of Nicholas II, during the reign of Kuchma, and Yushchenko, and Yanukovych.” And in a final, self-serving flourish: “Corruption has reached dimensions that are unheard of here in Russia.”
In the most charitable interpretation of Putin’s point of view, it is only Maidan’s revolutionary methods which are unacceptable, and they are unacceptable only because they are unreasonable. Putin called the protesters’ unwillingness to accept last week’s transitional peace agreement “foolish” and insinuated (without much irony) that the purpose of their extra-constitutional (or revolutionary, they amount to the same thing) actions was to “humiliate someone.” Putin’s basic claim, and one that deserves a closer look, is this: “Only constitutional means should be used on the post-Soviet space, where political structures are still very fragile, and economies are still weak.”
Much of the area of modern Ukraine has been under Russian control for almost its entire history, and Putin’s rhetoric is fundamentally paternalistic. To Putin, Ukraine is defined by its status as a state in “post-Soviet space,” and thus as the unstable child of Soviet stability. And the Ukrainian oligarchy, the context for Yanukovych’s corruption, is simply a lesser, and more broken, version of Moscow’s comparatively functional economic system: “Here in Russia we have many problems, and many of them are similar to those in Ukraine, but they are not as serious as in Ukraine.”
This way of thinking has no place for three of the most important aspects of Maidan’s philosophy and message—its European outlook, its nationalism and its revolutionary idealism.
First, if Ukraine is a post-Soviet state with post-Soviet problems—problems Russia understands, acknowledges and believes itself to be overcoming—then in Putin’s view, Maidan’s insistence that Ukraine’s near-term future lies in Europe is clearly unreasonable, especially when, as Putin notes, “just about all [of Ukraine’s] engineering products are exported to Russia.”
Second, Ukraine is the home of the original Russian state, and in many ways the closest thing to an equal partner that Moscow had in the Soviet Union throughout the Soviet period (especially during World War II)—so a “Ukrainian nationalism,” conceived in opposition to Russia, is a fundamentally unreasonable idea and must actually be unreconstructed fascism.
Third, and perhaps most maddeningly for Putin, Maidan displayed a positively American thirst for revolution for its own sake, even after most of its demands were met by the government in Kiev. Much like the objectively unreasonable revolutionaries in the Continental Congress of the American colonies, Maidan ultimately transcended the concrete goals of Yanukovych’s exit and the restoration of the 2004 Constitution in favor of abstractions like freedom and democracy.
In case it wasn’t understood the first time, Putin kept reiterating his point about revolution: “You have to understand that this kind of chaos is the worst possible thing for countries with a shaky economy and unstable political system.”
But it isn’t really a point about revolution at all. The “chaos” which Putin sees sweeping Ukraine—a chaos which he sensationally likens several times to the disordered Weimar political context out of which the Nazi party rose—is really nothing of the sort. What Putin fears in Ukraine is a true politics in the post-Soviet space—and thus a compelling, nearby alternative to his own cheap imitation.
Contact James Bradbury at [email protected].