Vladimir Putin’s goals reach far beyond the Crimean peninsula
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Crimea is now occupied by Russia – in violation of all norms of international law and treaties signed by Moscow itself. Russia is rapidly emerging as a rogue state from which even its traditional allies are turning away.
Why did Vladimir Putin take these actions, which are incredible from the point of view of modern political practice? What do the Russian president and his colleagues actually need? Is it really Crimea? Hardly.
Of course, Crimea is a tasty slice of historic Russia – a region with the best resorts, beautiful scenery and strategically important military bases. Whoever controls Crimea controls the Black Sea.
But Russians have always been unimpeded in Ukrainian Crimea. As for the Russian navy base, it never reached its staffing limits. The Moscow establishment was not concerned about controlling the Black Sea; it was preoccupied with stuffing its own pockets at the expense of the people.
The invasion of Crimea cannot be explained with concern for the Russian-speaking people of Crimea either. Russia’s rulers do not even care about their own people, robbing them cynically. Why would they suddenly care about their kinsmen in Crimea? And nobody has oppressed the Russians in Crimea. They are first-class citizens, and the official language in Crimea is Russian. Yes, there are poor Russians in Crimea. But all over Ukraine, the majority of the people live in extreme poverty.
I think Mr Putin’s goals are far beyond the Crimean peninsula. First, Moscow’s rulers are terrified that Ukraine’s Maidan protest movement could replicate itself in Russia. The fate of Viktor Yanukovich, the ousted Ukrainian president, frightens them. They are also frightened by the tough anti-communist spirit of the Maidan. The revolution is taking place amid collapsing monuments to Soviet leaders: Lenin, Kirov, Dzerzhinsky. But in neighbouring Russia, 25 years after the ban of the Communist party, Grandpa Lenin is still resting in his mausoleum on Red Square, his monuments still stand. In Russia, we have a metamorphosis of the Communist order; in Ukraine, a decisive parting from it.
This scares the KGB officers in charge of Russia today. It is also one of the reasons why the Russian media has branded the Maidan participants “fascists”. It is a logic familiar to many older Russians: if you oppose the Soviet Union, you are a fascist. Such was the custom in the Stalinist era; it has been now reborn. And by demonising the Ukrainian protesters, converting them into enemies of everything sacred to Russo-Soviet man, public opinion will surely turn against the Maidan.
Second, Mr Putin is well aware of the Brezhnev doctrine – the principle of limited sovereignty of the involuntary allies of what was then the Soviet Union. The USSR kept its satellites on a leash, the length of which could adjusted according to taste. Now Mr Putin would like to put Ukraine on such a leash, allowing Kiev the freedom to do some things but not others. The decisive factor would be Moscow.
Of course, the big interests of Russia’s rulers in Ukraine, their personal economic interests, weigh heavily. But even more important is the belief that, in the countries of the former Soviet Union, it is Moscow that must define the rules of the game. Ukraine, like Poland in 1981, Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Hungary in 1956, rose up against this principle of limited sovereignty. And the Russians want to bring Ukraine to heel, just as they did with its western neighbours.
Finally, in the context of growing economic crisis in Russia and a long-term loss of popularity, Mr Putin has resorted to a method that is normally a moral taboo but very potent: the unleashing of national chauvinism. In a country that has recently faced degradation and disintegration, a call for reunification with an oppressed people cut off from the motherland by political foul play has the power to mobilise many.
History teaches us that such a move very quickly robs the people of freedom, and leads to deep poverty, spiritual devastation and political disaster. But for politicians, now is often more important than tomorrow. After all, tomorrow for them may never come.
So the occupation of Crimea is only a means for the current political regime in Russia – a means towards goals that are extremely dangerous for Europe, for Ukraine and for the Russian people itself.
The writer is a professor at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations
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