A Dispatch From Putinstan

by Jonah Shepp

Vladimir Putin’s speech announcing Crimea’s annexation yesterday offered some insight into how the Russian president sees the world, history, and international law. Bershidsky calls the speech “historic,” saying, “It would have been easy to fall under the spell of the moment, to bask in a Russia resurgent. Except for the lies”:

It is … impossible to accept the notion of a threat to Ukraine’s Russian-speaking population. As a Russian who has lived and worked in Ukraine, I have never encountered any sign of hostility. It’s only now, thanks to Putin’s actions in Crimea, that Ukrainians are turning against Russians.

And it’s only now, thanks to Putin’s craftily brilliant speech, that Russians are trapped. All of us, “traitors” and empire revivalists, are in one way or another accountable for Putin’s tour de force. We are part of the well-armed, swashbuckling entity that Putin equates with Russia, and which will now be Russia in the eyes of the world. Putin wants it that way: He is out to prove that a non-Communist incarnation of the Soviet Union, which he still mourns, is back, and it’s got teeth.

Adam Taylor highlights Putin’s selective history of Crimea:

Putin’s theory on Crimea’s place in Russian history makes some sense: The peninsula had been part of Russia from 1783 to 1954, and even under Ukrainian rule housed Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. It’s not always a pretty history, though. For example, the entire Crimean Tatar population was deported from Crimea during World War II, and a huge number are believed to have died. Putin touched on this in his speech, admitting that the Crimean Tatars were “treated unfairly” but adding that “millions of people of various ethnicities suffered during those repressions, and primarily Russians.”

Putin also neglects to mention that Crimea’s decision to remain part of Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union was decided by a referendum on independence in December 1991. That election found that 54 percent of Crimean voters favored independence from Russia – a majority, though the lowest one found in Ukraine.

Posner annotates Putin:

Our western partners, led by the United States of America, prefer not to be guided by international law in their practical policies, but by the rule of the gun. [Hmm] They have come to believe in their exclusivity and exceptionalism[ahem], that they can decide the destinies of the world, that only they can ever be right. They act as they please: here and there, they use force against sovereign states, building coalitions based on the principle “If you are not with us, you are against us.”

In other words, we did not act illegally but if we did, you did first. The subtext, I think, is that the United States claims for itself as a great power a license to disregard international law that binds everyone else, and Russia will do the same in its sphere of influence where the United States cannot compete with it.

But Christopher Dickey warns against dismissing Putin’s resentments:

[I]n a crisis where the slightest miscalculation could lead to a catastrophic war, we in the West would do well to listen closely to what Putin is saying.  The bitterness in his narrative was palpable as he described more than two decades of humiliation at the hands of American and European governments that treated his country like a second- or even third-rate power. For him and for many of his people, whatever their other rationales may be, winning back Crimea is about winning back pride.

The world’s history is rife with wars begun to restore national dignity, and nowhere has that been more true or more disastrous than in Europe, where the link between humiliations and conflagrations is all too well known.

And Andrew Foxall thinks we ought to stop ignoring Kiev’s shadier characters:

[W]hile Western governments and pundits are correct to dismiss Putin’s pretenses for invading Ukraine, they are wrong to presume his Ukrainian opponents are necessarily in the right. The uncomfortable truth is that a sizeable portion of Kiev’s current government — and the protesters who brought it to power — are, indeed, fascists. If Western governments hope to steer Ukraine clear from the most unsavory characters in Moscow and Kiev, they will need to wage a two-pronged diplomatic offensive: against Putin’s propaganda and, at the same time, against Ukraine’s resurgent far-right.