Who Are You Calling “Provocative”?

The catchword of the accelerating crackdown on expression of anti-Putinist views in Crimea, as well as Russia, is “provocative,” as in “don’t ask provocative questions!”  The civic space for freedom of speech, expression, and assembly is contracting as carpetbagging (or Russian-flag-bagging) Russians appear to be trying to provoke Ukrainians into a reaction that Putin can use to justify openly armed intervention in eastern Ukraine as well as Crimea.  So far Putin has left himself an escape route from the burden of actually paying for Crimeans’ daily needs by the seemingly silly denial that there are any Russian troops in Crimea.  That denial seems absurd if you have access to non-RT news sources, but many millions of Russians have put on their rhinoceros horns (see Eugene Ionesco) and choose to accept the Kremlin version of events, in which “provocations” by “fascists” and “ultranationalists” are causing a reluctant Vladimir Putin to accept his responsibility to protect brotherly Russian-speakers and ethnic Russians in a fraternal Ukraine currently suffering under illegitimate rulers.

Samantha Power, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, asked sarcastically in a recent emergency Security Council session if Russia had taken upon itself the role of “rapid response arm of the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights.”  She was certainly not an architect of the Iraq war, so she can perhaps speak without gross personal hypocrisy, but one legacy of the U.S. invasion of Iraq (among other American adventures) is how easily Putin or Lavrov or Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s UN ambassador, can level plausible charges of hypocritical self-serving provocation against Americans–regardless of the big differences between Russia’s intimidation in Crimea and secessionism in Kosovo or Scotland.

Putin and his advisers may well see the Euromaidan protesters as paid agents of the Western world who have provoked him into an unavoidable, reasonable, and in fact necessary response.  He may be right if only in the sense that the Maidan movement expressed a yearning for a (perhaps idealized) western prosperity under normal rules of law that, if it took hold in Russia itself, would shake rattle and roll Putin’s world of autocratic Orthodoxy and kleptocracy.  Provocative people and media in Russia–Navalny and lenta.ru, for example–are in for a bumpy ride in the short term; but I think Putin, by showing his brutish hand against Ukraine, has provoked consequences beyond his control and likely unpleasant for him and his cronies.  My prediction depends partly on the resilience, imaginativeness, and determination of Muscovites and other Russians, and partly on the resolve of Angela Merkel, whose supposed remark that Putin was in “another world” (leaked by an anonymous Obama aide a few days ago after a Merkel-Obama phone call) should be interpreted in light of her more recent public accusation (a couple of days ago in a speech in Germany) that Putin is following “jungle law.”  For Merkel, Putin’s sin is upsetting the hard-won European progress toward legal-rational-technical institutions as the royal road to prosperity and peace.  Putin has publicly disrespected the U.S. government perspective on Ukraine, but his provocative insult to Merkel by ignoring her proposal of an OCSE contact group, including observers in Crimea, may do even more to gum up his plans.

P.S. The Ukrainians seem to have learned something from the hotheaded mistakes of former Georgian president Saakashvili, who took the provocative bait of Russia and counterattacked in 2008.  Ukrainian nonviolent resistance has, I think, complicated Putin’s plans, at least to the extent that his adventurist disregard for international norms and laws has been laid bare.  Putin’s use of special ops “Spetsnaz” soldiers is ominous, and Ukraine may have a hard time preventing their subversion, but many Ukrainians, as a recent Daily Beast story on “Russia’s Special Ops Invasion of Ukraine” notes, fought with Russian “Spetsnaz” commandos in Afghanistan, so their tactics are not a great surprise.

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