Graffiti and counter-graffiti on the parapet of a bridge over the River Spree in downtown Berlin, March 8, 2019. By changing a single letter in the spelling of “Crimea,” “Polina, Lera, German, Roma, Arina, and Vlad” reasserted that “Crimea is ours,” i.e., it belongs to Україна (“Ukraine” in Ukrainian, not Russian), on January 28, 2019. Photo by the Russian Reader
The Price Russia Has Paid for Crimea
March 11, 2019
The five years that have followed the events of 2014, regardless of whether you refer to those events as annexation, the Russian spring, a Putinist coup, reunification, a homecoming, an historic choice and so on, have emerged as a whole set of consequences powerful in terms of determining history, having a lasting influence, and shaping Russia as a whole, that is, impacting Russian domestic politics, the Russian economy, and the self-awareness of large segments of the Russian populace. These consequences have generated “another Russia,” a country different from the one that existed in reality and people’s minds throughout the previous stages of its post-Soviet progress.
Early Putinism was drive by the integration of so-called Eurasia, i.e., the former Soviet republics. Nursultan Nazarbayev, president for life of Kazakhstan, was the man behind political Eurasianism, as we know. During the Yeltsin administration, Moscow was indifferent to the concept. Later, however, the idea that Russia was Eurasia’s leader was made basic Kremlin doctrine.
Moscow’s actions in this respect were alternately gentle and crude, but generally its policies were seen as rational, as attuned to the region’s economic growth and security.
The Crimean adventure completely gutted the Eurasianist policy. It managed to frighten such stalwarts of Eurasian integration as Belarus and Kazakhstan. At the same time, it put paid to notions of “Slavic unity” and inevitably provoked an assault on the so-called canonical geographical domain of the Russian Orthodox Church.
As long as the logbook contained only one point, the war with Georgia, we could say it had been an extravagance. But the occupation of Crimea was the second point, which could be joined in a straight line with the first. The Kremlin abandoned its policy of cultural and economic expansion, pursuing instead a police of aggression, bullying, and crude displays of superiority.
Not a single neighboring country has recognized Crimea’s accession to the Russian Federation. Consequently, Russia has symbolically transitioned from Eurasia to solitude. Putin abandoned Eurasia, going over its head to engage in various unilateral actions in the far abroad. Although Russian university lecturers habitually still rattle on about Eurasianism, the occupation of Crimea has meant that Kremlin, like Zarathustra, has climbed to the top of an imaginary mountain peak, whence it transmits its rhetorical messages, addressed to the void.
Warring with the West
The occupation of Crimea has meant that, since 2014, the perpetual cold war with the west has taken on a more heated, hysterical tone than under the communists in the sixties, seventies, and eighties. During one of his last interviews, in 2014, the late former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov, an imperialist politician if there ever was one, said, “Television has been laying it on thick. The propaganda [on Russian TV] suggests we are preparing the populace for war.”
Before the occupation of Crimea, between 2007 and 2014, the period following Putin’s Munich speech, the Kremlin made numerous demands on the west, reacted harshly to any criticism of its polices and actions by international institutions, and sometimes made rather abrupt diplomatic moves. But the word “rivalry” still described all these things. The occupation of Crimea shifted relations with the west into another stage of aggregation known as hybrid war.
The term is quite obviously inaccurate, like any other term containing the adjective “hybrid.” But the key word in the phrase is “war.” It does not matter whether we believe the Kremlin has been conducting a well-conceived and well-coordinated war based more on the power of networks and the internet than brute force or whether we think the degree of coordination has been exaggerated. All observers have argued that the numerous discrete incidents paint a picture of a networked war against liberal democracy, the preparatory stages of a major war to redraw the world’s geopolitical spheres of influence or an attempt to provoke the United States. The occupation of Crimea put Moscow’s relations with the west on a different conflictual footing.
The occupation of Crimea has made everything the Kremlin does automatically malicious, so that between 2014 and 2019 the notion of what the Russian presence means has changed completely. Nowadays, everyone looks for Russian fingerprints everywhere. This means that, as in the recent Troika Dialog money laundering scandal, very old deals and transactions are reviewed as well. Russia’s communications with the rest of the world have come under a spotlight, they have been run through an x-ray machine. Things previously regarded as dubious but acceptable have suddenly gone toxic. The Kremlin has gone from being a partner, albeit a problematic one, to a keeper of rat holes and catacombs. Foreign intelligence agencies, financial monitoring bodies, and reporters are now busy, as they once were with the Islamic presence in Europe, segregating what used to be considered the harmless Russian presence as something automatically toxic. However, the hot zone, meaning the people and entities found to have connections with the Kremlin and its malignant plans, has been expanding continuously for the last five years. Clearly, this investigatory work has not reached the midway point. The exposure of the Kremlin will continue for a long time to come.
Sanctions and Consolidating the Elite
The main outcome of international sanctions has been that the truly powerful segment of the Putinist elite has been professionally recounted. Before Crimea was occupied, people also had notions of who was a member of Putin’s inner circle, and they traced the orbits of his clients. But these speculations were a matter for experts and were thus open to debate. Everything has now fallen into place, which is quite important symbolically. The key personal positions of the players who vigorously went on the hybrid warpath are not just represented in political consultant Yevgeny Minchenko’s periodic “Politburo” reports or some murky media rating of the “100 Most Influential Politicians in Russia,” in which actual stakeholders are confused with officials who have no access to real resources. All of them have now been posted on the world’s bulletin board.
The sanctions have also caused the Russian elite to consolidate. Putin’s dependence on the elite has increased, and the so-called collective Putin has stopped being a metaphor, becoming a specific list of people. Of course, Russia’s history is not predetermined: history consists of twists and turns. But the actual collective Putin’s moves are predetermined, of course. The occupation of Crimea made it impossible for it to change course. At each new fork in the road, the collective Putin must turn towards further escalation, while Putin himself can no longer pull the emergency brake.
Through the post-Soviet period, Moscow relied on the basic notion that there were two Ukraines, left-bank Ukraine and right-bank Ukraine. It was simply regarded as a fact that, in particular, gave rise to various “cultural” and “humanitarian” undertakings, for example, the long involvement in Crimea of ex-Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov and his people.
The occupation of Crimea, however, produced a monstrous historical about-face. In order to pull off its seizure of Crimea, the Kremlin had to support the so-called Novorossiya campaign to divide Ukraine, which has now gone down in Eastern European history. There is no argument that would make these events look any less inglorious than the partition of Poland and the occupation of the Baltic countries. Whatever history holds in story for Crimea, the Kremlin’s outright malevolence towards a neighboring people in the twenty-first century has been recorded in big black letters. The Novorossiya campaign has meant that all elements of the Kremlin’s earlier policies towards Ukraine have inevitably been reexamined. In the light of latter events, they now appear to be only parts of a plan to invade Ukraine.
Crimea is the poison that for five years has been continuously injected in small doses into the entire system of education and culture in Russia, as well as the mundane ways the country argues about its national identity. The media constantly have to devise, spread, and discuss on talk shows different fallacious grounds for occupying Crimea. This lie has had to be incorporated into school textbooks, movie plots, the system of legal training for civil servants, and all the pores and crevices of public space.
Russian society cannot live with the thought it unjustly annexed part of another country, and it has an even harder time admitting that it has been complicit in the attempt to partition Ukraine.
It has thus been necessary to engage in nonstop production of the rhetorical glue that kept the textbook The History of the Soviet Communist Party from falling to shreds during the late-Soviet period, i.e., the solid, ornate lie that was meant to show the rightness of the party line despite the endless mistakes and violence.
This intellectual perversion itself turns into a huge machine that latter cannot be extracted from the state apparatus without damaging the entire system. The lie machine and the state come to be equated, meaning Crimea has been inflating like a bubble inside the system. It cannot be localized. Every day it dispatches cancer cells in all directions within the tissue of state and society.
What is next? The five post-Crimean years have been much to short a historic period to make generalizations. It is clear, however, that if Putin had not seized Crimea and then organized the Novorossiya campaign, it is scary to imagine the wonderful chances he and his gang of stakeholders would have had at increasing their influence unchecked in a world encumbered by Trumpism and a Europe weakened by Brexit. But now Putinism is not merely a cowboy, but a horse rustler.
Therefore, international crises and growing uncertainty do not work in favor of the Putinists, although they do fool themselves when it comes to uncertainty, trying every which way to manufacture it themselves. The Putin gang will never try and play nice again. Any way you slice it, Russia will ultimately have to show the world another gang, because the current gang has proven incapable of accommodating itself to Russia’s long-term place in the world.
Thanks to Sergey Abashin and Alexander Etkind for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader