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No One Has Done More for Ukrainian Nationalism than Vladimir Putin

Max Avdeev

Right now in Crimea, the strangest war I’ve seen in my 30 years is unfolding. The Commander of Ukraine’s Naval Forces, Denis Berezovsky, has de-facto sworn allegiance to Russia, and de-jure to the “People of Crimea,” a vague legal entity represented by Sergei Aksenov, its pro-Russian leader. Aksenov, while not recognized by the government in Kiev, is well recognized by the residents of Crimea. That is, legally speaking, there are now two Black Sea Fleets: the Ukrainian and the Russian, which now looks more similar than ever to a restored version of the old Soviet Fleet.

In these circumstances, Ukraine’s Acting Minister of Foreign Affairs—whose name you will forget tomorrow, since tomorrow it will be someone else—has nothing left to do but to declare the possibility of “demilitarizing the entire Black Sea region.” And all of this looks real only on the Internet.

Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has called the events in Crimea an “unprecedented act” of aggression, which is ridiculous on its face, keeping in mind which country’s Secretary of State he is. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is, in a feminine way, trying to be liked by everyone, while U.S. President Barack Obama has refrained from uttering any intelligible phrases at all, other than the most general. Other Western politicians—from whom it would be interesting to hear anything other than “we are deeply concerned”—are following his example. The UN Security Council has met twice and produced nothing but dumb bureaucratese, while Western officials save their sharpest statements for Twitter. Strangely enough, they did not resort to anonymous image forums.

And on Saturday, Russia, as represented by its more-than-questionable President Putin and Upper Chamber of Parliament, showed the world that it’s ready to immediately send its troops into Crimea to “protect its population.” In reality, Russia simply legalized the fact that for the two previous days, armed men in unmarked uniforms have been strolling around Crimea. Presumably they were from the Russian military. The only memorable thing about these unidentified citizens in camouflage is how local youths and families with small children happily took pictures with them. This is how the local population is behaving: frankly, not too reminiscent of how people act during a “bloody occupation.”

No one forced them to come out with Russian flags. Just like no one forced the Euromaidan protesters to gradually come out in opposition to the Russian language and to the “Russian cattle in the East,” instead of fighting for European integration.

At the same time, the official semi-recognized authorities in Kiev are not producing any actual thoughts other than the very same “deep concerns,” though they did have the presence of mind to veto the latest language legislation, which would have deprived the Russian language of its official status in regions where over 10% of the population are Russian speakers (that is, in more than half of Ukraine). The adoption of this legislation just after the Euromaidan’s victory, or more precisely, the cancellation of the previous language law, was what legitimized Russia’s strange actions in Crimea.

The real fighting is happening in the social networks and in the media. Everyone considers it their duty to express their “unique opinion” on this, the latest geopolitical issue. The Russian opposition is divided between those who are for Russian interference in Ukraine and those who are against. Members of “Right Sector,” an organization which was victorious on the Maidan, do not hide the fact that they are heirs to the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, which fought on the side of the Axis in the Second World War. They’ve promised to deal with the Russians and have even called on Doku Umarov to help. Who is this Doku Umarov? He leads a Chechen Islamist terrorist movement. In return, Ramzan Kadyrov, head of the Chechen Republic and also a well-known “peacemaker” and “fighter for the rights of the Russian-speaking population,” has answered Right Sector’s threats with his own.

On both sides of the Russian-Ukrainian border, rumors are flying about military conscription, and everyone is arguing to the death about who Crimea really belongs to and in whose favor the Bolsheviks drew the administrative boundaries. Members of some families have undoubtedly stopped speaking to each other: everyone has gone off to fight the first “hot” Russian-Ukrainian Twitter and Facebook War. I call it the first “hot” war because the “cold” war began as soon as the Internet appeared in the post-Soviet landscape. There’s no question more important to the residents of the Internet than whether to write the regional “in the Ukraine” or the geopolitically independent “in Ukraine.” Not to mention the other controversies: whether Ukrainian is its own language or a dialect, who has betrayed whom and how many times over a thousand years of common history, whether Kiev is the “mother of Russian cities,” and all the other disputes that can arise within just one family.

In the actual war itself, zero people have died so far (compared with over 100 deaths on the “peaceful” Maidan), and it is hoped that the casualty count will stop there. However, in the history of humanity there has already been one “Phoney War,” the German operations on the Western Front from September 3, 1939 to May 10, 1940. And the further things go, the more “deep concerns” I have about this Phoney War 2.0. Putin is, for some reason, being compared to Hitler, though this is the most basic error of all those who fight against the Russian language and Russia. If one must make historical analogies, Putin is, of course, closer to Stalin. Many Stalinists living in Russia would be flattered by this comparison. Others would be horrified—great geopolitical victories may be store for Russia, but this will hardly bring happiness to its citizens.

Putin himself, and all the Russian “hawks,” have already become the most successful builders of Ukrainian nationalism over the entire 20-year existence of independent Ukraine. Nothing is more exciting to the armchair fans of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army of the Second World War than the latest statements of the Kremlin’s many propagandists about how there is no Ukrainian language, or that the very existence of Ukraine is a mistake. The war has not yet started, but Russia is already losing on the economic and political fronts. In twenty-first century Europe there is no room for a classic shooting war. But there is room for political isolation, crushing defeats in the media, and big spending on PR after the investment climate freezes to below zero.

Over the previous 20 years, the main Russo-Ukrainian question has been one of grammar: “Ukraine” or “the Ukraine”? It would have been nice if this question had remained the most important.

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