While the West and the star-dazzled take a break from fretting about world politics to bathe in the red-carpet elegance of the Academy Awards, we can all go into it with a very comforting thought. That thought is this: “President Vladimir Putin is a *****, just a first class ******.”
And that’s a very comforting thought all things told. Even as the media frets about what Putin is doing, those watching it have a sub-conscious understanding which is nice and straightforward of what this is really all about. It’s about Putin, and what a **** he is.
Nevermind the actual difficult task of having to learn anything more about the Crimea or Ukraine, the body politic issues at hand, and the immensely difficult situation faced by the people in that country over their political and economic future during a time of intense political upheaval. For the vast portion of commentators on western social media outlets, the important thing is that whatever bad is happening over there is really Putin’s fault. Some people in Ukraine want freedom (and, again, this includes neo-Nazi nationalists) and he wants to shut that down, and he’s about to roll out the full weight of Mother Russia to do it by sending in the
Red Russian Army.
The great thing about Putin and the Russia he supposedly represents is that it is delightfully comfortable to anyone born before 1986; this is the big bad freedom-hating Russian bear, lead by an ex-communist thug. And the great thing about Putin is that you can hate him on either the right or on the left. If you vote to the right you hate him because he’s a big bully determined to annex back the former Soviet Union and thwart our efforts to promote the American solution to the world’s problems. If you vote on the left you hate him because he’s a big bully who hates gay people and locks up feminist rock bands. He’s a truly utilitarian monster for the public at large.
Basically, we love to hate Putin because he allows us to pretend we are still going head to head with the Soviet menace, whose agenda is extremely well understood in its diametric opposition to NATO, America, and Free Europe. If I had a nickel for every reference to the USSR I’ve seen on Facebook and Twitter today, I wouldn’t be eating canned baked beans and sausage for dinner right now. Putin is an excellent target because not only is he ex-KGB, which makes him both evil and a de-facto 90’s Bond Villain, but he also is probably one of shadiest leaders in world history. But then again, he can join the club of choice questionable world leaders, east and west.
Putin’s also been extremely popular at home; cultivating an image that Russian voters have identified with and voted for regularly. In the Liberal West it’s much easier to hate elites than it is to hate peoples, so its easy to pin on Putin the ultra-religious movements against homosexuals and accusations of stirring dissidents in “free” countries bordering the Russian Federation, dissidents who are Russians brought there by policies that long predated Putin’s tenure. And to be fair, Putin’s rather bullish activities condoning homophobia and sponsoring Russian-identified communities in other countries don’t do him any favors either. But the insistence that this is all part of some master plan of Putin’s to resurrect the glorious Soviet Empire is more demonstrable, I think, of wanting Putin to be the enemy we all are comfortable thinking he is.
Georgia gets brought up a lot as a case study of the evil that Putin wants to do, but anyone studying the Georgia issue would be hard pressed to call Georgia’s leaders men of stunning virtue. The Russian population of South Ossetia, it is true, chose to remain in a country that left Russia after the fall of the wall, but Putin did not put them there and where were they supposed to go? History is not notoriously kind to people in areas occupied by newly-empowered governments with differing political agendas and the need to garner popular votes by ‘changing things’. This can mean loss of livelihoods, jobs, office, and local political authority; any Tea Party Southerner could give you a list of rants about Obama’s policies that likely wouldn’t sound too far off the arguments given by Russian-Ukrainian in the Crimea about the new Kiev government and what it means for their future. We lack the ethnic identity issue to some extent, but the fear about intrusions into local politics and the right to be who you want to be without direction from culturally unsound outsiders isn’t really that different.
When the Georgians tried to impose the rule of central government by force, Russia responded by driving the Georgians out in a limited conventional war. Did atrocities happen? Absolutely, but they happened on both sides.The Russians acted to protect self-identified Russians by making statements of recognition of independent sovereignty from the rule of the neighboring government, and then backed that up with overwhelming military force. You know who else did that? America, when it annexed Texas in 1846 and then deployed troops to the disputed border region. As in Georgia, the first shots of the Mexican-American War were fired by the theoretically legitimate government of that area, and like in Georgia, the United States fought a war with that government to incorporate that area by force.
The Texans, by the way, originally rebelled against the government of Mexico because the Mexicans, among other things, banned slavery which the local elites had counted on to be the foundation of their wealth. Much is the same for the Russian-identified people of Eastern Ukraine and Crimea, who fear that the western section of their country will profit off inclusion in NATO and the Eurozone, while their areas will be cut off from Russia culturally. There is also fear, as there was in Georgia, of economic reorganizations that could deprive these people of livelihoods. Don’t be so noble as to think that a shift in economy towards the European free market doesn’t occasionally screw some people over, and those people might get pissed off.
Underlying identities in the area is also a notion of feeling protected in case the newly-placed government in Kiev takes the authority to reestablish the social and economic state of their regions. Putin’s troops and Putin himself represent the best defense those populations have had from the interference in their areas by central authorities who plan to change things, and they in many cases are supporting it. Looking at it from the Russian point of view, it would be morally wrong to let these people be trampled. This isn’t to defend this view or the use of military force to achieve it, but this is also the way I wouldn’t think it right to implant a paramilitary in Guatemala to protect economic rights for your citizens there. Much of the push for the annexation of Texas came from the Southern Slave-owning states and their populist Democratic President James K Polk, who saw it as natural that the United States would defend and incorporate what was really a sectional interest, that of expanding the institution of slavery further west. America’s volunteer soldiers in the Mexican-American war were mainly from securely democratic and populist areas in the American south and mid-west. Russia’s population might be skeptical, especially with the economic pinch, but blood is thicker than water, and the Russians crying out for inclusion and liberation from rules and institutions imposed by NATO-friendly Kiev find a parallel in Southern arguments for the annexation of a Texas who had just fought a war of communal independence from Mexico.
The most elegant criticism of Putin’s call for mobilization has been John Kerry, who accused Putin of seeking to reattach Russian separatist areas to Russia by force in a way reminiscent of Bismarck’s Unification of Germany. But then again, it also wasn’t Bismarck who started World War I. Those people hurling epithets at the Ukrainian Crisis have attached an almost unreal sense of purpose to Russian activities; “Putin’s desperate last gambit” or making some joke about Putin believing war is an Olympic sport. They want to make this into a Cold War moment, and the fact is that while there are obvious parallels Putin is being made out to be Stalin 2.0, a walking bag of malice towards anything that isn’t a delicious pipe to smoke.
This is my mind is ludicrous. Putin’s master plan (bear-hunting, shirtless, horseback riding **** that he is) is an invention of a desire to make Putin a big bad wolf, trying to pull the old trick of huffing and puffing. And here Americans can stand together with NATO and say “this is our house made of Brick”. It feels good, with none of the Muslim on Muslim action that made distinguishing the good guys and bad guys of Arab Spring really hard. This is freedom versus the bear and its big bad leader (**** yeah!).
Yet I think the situation is more scary because it isn’t like that. Putin has got to, in some way, maintain his popularity base so he can pursue his economic and social agenda in Russia, and he does it by appealing to Russian nationalism. Russians don’t love tyranny, but they also do not respect weakness. Russia is gigantic, made up of many peoples (and many groups that hate the West almost as much as they hate Moscow incidentally), and Russia needs a certain amount of authoritarianism to simply maintain cohesion as a country. Historically speaking, this is to appeal to the White Russians and their traditional religious coalition; as Timothy Snyder recounts in his classic Bloodlands, the Soviet Union under Stalin truly relied on a White Russian narrative of suffering and sacrifice, while in reality, it was mostly the populations of the area between Germany and Russia that suffered hideous genocide and death. White, Orthodox Russia never really died, even under Soviet internationalism, and ultimately the history books would speak of the Russian Army more than the Soviet. In making war, Russia and Putin must view the short term costs as being outweighed by the benefits and the imperatives of doing so, and the elected government and economic elites outwardly support it.
This is not meant as apology for Putin’s government and what it says and does; but the trouble is that Putin may act, not out of some grand evil scheme to plant a red flag on every capital in Eastern Europe, but out of a need to do something to maintain favorable economic conditions for Russian businesses and keep public confidence in his government high. He hasn’t necessarily been relishing the chance to take a swing at Kiev for defying him (though he certainly doesn’t like what’s happened there) or for splitting from Mother Russia in the first place. We don’t necessarily know why boots got put on the ground so fast in the Crimea, but it is certain that the peoples there in many cases support what’s been going on. And the scary thing is its not quite obvious why Putin moved so fast on this issue, and that’s more ominous to think about.
Yeah, it’s easier just to call him a homophobic ***** bent on world domination. Enjoy the Oscars!