“Our people, our fatherland is in danger, our tanks are in a foreign land,” the dissident Russian singer-songwriter Alexander Galich crooned in 1968, as Soviet troops occupied Czechoslovakia. The Soviet empire was a very experienced aggressor and not one case of that aggression was justified: not the invasion of eastern Poland in 1939, not the occupation of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia in 1940, and certainly not the post-war incursions into Hungary and Czechoslovakia. But we shouldn’t project this history onto the Crimea. The current crisis in the Ukraine is unprecedented. “Our tanks are in a foreign land”—that is a terrible thing. But what if the land is not foreign?
The boundary between Russia and Ukraine was meaningless in Soviet times: It was a provincial frontier inside a unified country. Territories changed hands regularly in those days. Most famously, the Crimean peninsula was gifted to Ukraine in 1954. But this was hardly an isolated occurrence.
But as the Soviet Union collapsed, that boundary suddenly became far more tangible. In 1991, Russia’s new democratic leaders wanted to review that border—which meant that they wanted to revise them for their own benefit. But they didn’t have the might or resources to pull that off. In 1992, Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev proposed a military operation to capture all of Ukraine, but President Boris Yeltsin was terrified of a war and vetoed the plan.
Russia and Ukraine split up 23 years ago. A whole generation has grown up in each country since then. Ukrainian children have studied the poetry of the nationalist Taras Shevchenko and they have internalized a heroic narrative about a country that has spent centuries fighting for its freedom. Russian children have spent summer holidays in Crimea and have grown up with a sense that today's Russian-Ukrainian borders are merely temporary and notional. The Russian public views the Ukrainian state with a sense of irony and even contempt. This attitude is often unfair, but it is see Ukraine as a culturally heterogeneous patchwork. Travelling from a place like Lviv or Lutsk to a place like Kharkiv or Odessa, it is often hard to believe that these cities are part of the same country: Post-Soviet Ukraine is like Austria-Hungary—an empire made up of incongruous parts. In the mind of the Russian public, the justification for a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine settled into place many years ago: Russia has been unable to shake off the view that eastern Ukraine is Russian territory.
Clearly, this sentiment could have remained dormant for many decades. But Viktor Yanukovych’s rule in Kiev crumbled at the very point that President Vladimir Putin decided that he is at the pinnacle of his power. He vanquished his opposition, he hosted an Olympics, he triumphed in Syria, and he even kept Edward Snowden out of American custody. The 61-year-old Putin had achieved so many of his dream; the only thing he had yet to do was to become what the tsarist history books called a “gatherer of Russian lands.” The perfect opportunity presented itself, one that Putin couldn’t resist. And risks don’t really enter into his calculus anymore.
So if one is to make comparisons, then it shouldn’t be with 1968 Czechoslovakia, but with Serbia in 1914. Back then, the Russian tsar felt that he was the protector of all the Slavic people of Europe and entered into World War I, which ended with the collapse of his empire. Can Putin see that historical parallel now? I doubt it. In the 15 years of his rule, he has grown used to the fact that irrespective of their rhetoric, Western countries have generally approved of the Russian authorities. Putin genuinely believes that his “western partners” are cynics and hypocrites. Playing the role of “bad guy,” he believes, actually insulates him from far graver risks. This formula may sound paradoxical, but it has worked.
Oleg Kashin is a prominent Russian journalist and political commentator. In November 2010, he was savagely beaten for his coverage of Kremlin sponsored youth groups. He spent several months in a coma. He is currently covering the crisis from the Crimea for the Russian nationalist publication Sputnik + Pogrom.
Translated by Marina Fokina.