Non-Identity Politics in Ukraine
The Orwellian Art of Newspeak
Despite what your significant other will tell you, no one can really read someone else’s mind. The trick gets harder when dealing with a slippery customer like Vladimir Putin whose only real on the job training was stirring the political pot from behind the scenes.
Yes, Putin says that the West is ignoring his security concerns, but that is only because they are so absurd: Giving Russia the right to decided who in central and eastern Europe can join NATO, that America not defend its European allies and Russian veto on certain military exercises in Central Europe. They were designed to be rejected. The other possibility is that Putn doesn’t grasp the core concept of a mutual defense pact. The old USSR had one, the Warsaw Pact, but those member states only invaded each other.
Either way, while we can’t know exactly what he’s thinking, we’d do well to try to see how he’s selling the idea to himself.
Russia’s almost-invasion of the eastern Donbas region in 2014 was designed to force Ukraine into a federated state with fractious department that, with Russian guidance, would never allow Ukraine to tilt too far West. It didn’t work and the stalemate has trickled on for the better part of a decade. This summer, in an essay in Red Star, a Russian military newspaper, Putin wrote that, now that he’s had a good think on the issue, Ukraine isn’t actually a historical nation after at all. And proceeded to make the same arguments about Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania.
This latest theory supersedes all previous rationalizations about Ukraine and the Crimea – that ethnic Russians were being oppressed by ethnic Ukrainians. Here we have a new justification: that ethnic Ukrainians don’t exist in the first place. It may be crazy (then who is persecuting the ethnic Russians?) but it’s airtight. It turns the Ukrainians into the rebels and the separatists in Donbas into patriotic Russians in a domestic dispute. And like most wacky historical-ethnic arguments, there is at least a half kernel of truth in it. For one thing, if you’ve ever had the pleasure of gadding about the eastern Ukraine, the place is about as ethnically diverse as me in a car load of my cousins.
Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, really is considered a Russian cultural center. Evidence suggest that it was settle by the Rus a tribe of Vikings that founded the city as a riverside trading port on the Dnieper River possibly as early as the 6th century. The Dnieper is part of a river system that starts in Scandinavia and empties out into the Black Sea, which gave the Rus easy access to what was then the center of the world, Constantinople. The Kivyan Rus had the blond hair and the long boats like the rest of the Vikings, but found the Byzantine “Romans” much better organized – and meaner – than the British Saxons or the Irish Celts. So they wisely pumped the brakes on the rape and pillage to just settle down and make a buck.
The city got rich enough to warrant being destroyed several times by carping Rus princes, invaded by Mongols and even the Lithuanians of all people, who called the place the Grand Duchy of the Rus. Russian troops occupied the place in 1654 which, Putin reckons, makes it part of Russia. By that logic that the capitol it the United States is London.
Sealing his airtight argument is his insistence a great power like Russia (debatable) has and deserves and has the God-given right to boss smaller countries around even though its empire imploded on itself 30 years ago. In his Red Star essay, he argues that only a select handful of “great powers” – Russia, China, India and the US – enjoy absolute sovereignty. The rest of the world, like a mob-controlled neighborhood, just has to put up with the arrangement. Ergo, the US shouldn’t meddle in Ukraine any more that Russia can meddle in Cuba or Venezuela. This would be more convincing if Russia wasn’t meddling in both at the moment.
There is a more practical element at play here. All those Soviet satellite states saved Mother Russia from having to defend an indefensible 12,000 mile stretch of flat prairie that is its shared border with neighboring states. The Czars, and then the Soviets, used the mountains and rivers – and local population – of eastern and central Europe as manageable barricade against invasion from the West. If you are wondering where, exactly, Ukraine historically falls into Russia’s paranoid calculations of Western invasion, the word actually means, in the old language, “borderlands.”
When the Soviet Union imploded in the 1990’s, some 25 million Russians found themselves leaving in foreign countries, and 12 million on the wrong side of the borderland in Ukraine. Russia - well-intended or not – had no good way to defend its western border, nor did it have a stake in the NATO system that was deconstructing its fortified satellites. Sure, it’s about power, prestige and re-joining the club of that select few great powers that gets to chart the course of world events and boss the weak around.
In short, what Putin actually wants is almost as absurd as his stated ultimatums: For the world to roll back time and pretend that the USSR still exists, that the “greatest geopolitical disaster of the twentieth century” did not, in fact happen.
Except, of course, that it did.