by Masha Lipman
What is happening in the Crimean peninsula is not a war, exactly—or not if bloodshed is the standard for war. It is an ominous, creeping occupation (for now) of a region of sovereign Ukraine by the Russian armed forces at the order of the Kremlin. So far there have been no casualties, almost no shooting. In the predominantly pro-Russian Crimea, the Russian servicemen are generally welcomed by the local inhabitants. As Russian troops encircle and block Ukrainian military units in Crimea, the Ukrainian government in Kiev, the capital, is preparing for resistance. What will come next—full-blown war, negotiations, or a prolonged standoff—is anyone’s guess.
The one moment of promising news Sunday came when Russian President Vladimir Putin told German Chancellor Angela Merkel that he would accept her proposal to establish an international fact-finding “contact group” to discuss the crisis in Ukraine. Putin, in his conversation with Merkel, however, insisted that his actions were justified by an “unrelenting threat of violence” to Russian-speaking people in Ukraine. Merkel, for her part, called the invasion a contravention of international law.
And yet an occupier, like Putin, who is utterly confident of his military superiority does not really need a cogent justification for his intervention. The decision to bring troops to Ukraine was not preceded by any formal government report. The unanimous vote Saturday in the Federation Council, the upper house of the Russian parliament, was based on a brief statement by the chamber’s speaker that there had been “casualties” in the Crimea during the night of March 1. The speaker cited no source for this information and did not mention the number of casualties. In fact, as it turned out, there had been no casualties at all. No matter. The Russian lawmakers did not ask a single question from the high-ranking defense and foreign-policy officials who were assembled in the chamber. They just proceeded to vote to satisfy Putin’s request to invade.
There was no attempt to talk to the feuding forces or even to identify them in more than very general terms; there was no attempt to bring them to negotiations or mediate the conflict, such as it is. Nor was there even a hint of the role the United Nations should play, although in numerous earlier international crises it has been Putin who has insisted, in the name of peace and law, that the U.N. play the role of mediator.
Putin is not interested in mustering a “coalition of the willing.” He relies utterly on his own understanding of the global order. He no longer deems it necessary to offer the West a cogent justification for his actions. The West is no longer seen as a “partner,” the word Putin commonly used in the past. The West has become an unequivocal enemy.
It is no exaggeration to say that tensions between Russia and the West over Ukraine evoke the prolonged division that defined the Cold War. The geopolitical struggles over Iran, Syria, Georgia, and, now, Ukraine do not rise to the apocalyptic potential of the Cuban missile crisis, but the stakes are enormous. One major difference between then and now is the absence of ideological antagonism: the postwar Soviet empire proclaimed the advantage of the socialist path over the capitalist one. Today, Russia’s opposition to the West has evolved as a purely nationalist project. Russia’s military response to the events in Ukraine is framed as a protection of “ours”—and “ours” are Russian, no matter where they live. The idea of Ukrainian sovereignty is totally disregarded.
This is Putin’s response to Ukraine’s attempt to build a new nationhood that combines a leaning toward the Western world with the nationalism of Ukraine’s own west; both wests are regarded by Putin as utterly hostile to Russian interests. In the words of Dmitry Trenin, an expert on Russian foreign policy, the fear in Moscow is that “the new official Ukrainian narrative would change from the post-Soviet ‘Ukraine is not Russia’ to something like ‘Ukraine in opposition to Russia.’ ”
The anti-Western nationalist trend has been on the rise in Russia for nearly a decade; it has become an engine of aggressive and expansionist action. This presages some powerful shifts at home, particularly a division of the Russian citizens into friends and foes, and a shift toward a more dictatorial, police-state mode of dealing with dissenting opinion. Today, more than a thousand Muscovites dared to protest against the Russian military intervention in Ukraine, chanting, “No to war.” Police detained more than three hundred people. The feelings among the liberal minority in Russia are of anguish, fear, anger, and shame. But the liberals are powerless to stop the invasion taking shape in Crimea.
Boris Akunin, a famous novelist and a member of the liberal community in Moscow, warned today that the conflict with Ukraine may be a pretext for a wider crackdown. Writing on his Facebook page, Akunin counselled against public demonstrations “until hundreds of thousands are ready to take to the streets.”
“And now for the main rule,” Akunin wrote. “Let’s be brave. Hard times are coming and we must not lose ourselves.”