Kimberly Marten, professor at Barnard College, pointed to a change in Putin’s way of referring to “Russians” on Tuesday (in a Washington Post “Monkey Cage” blog post and in an interview with “Here and Now”) that she found ominous: Putin had been careful to say “Rossisskii,” which means persons of any ethnicity or nationality living inside the borders of the Russian Federation, but on Tuesday he switched to “Russkii,” meaning ethnic Russians only. I imagine this shift to Russian ethnic nationalism is likely to play well with his intended core audience, but it does make his propagandistic claims that his goal is combatting abusive Ukrainian “ultranationalists” even more ludicrous, in spite of the spectacle of Svoboda thuggishness at Ukrainian state TV. (The Onion’s commentary from inside Putin’s soul: “Thanks for being so cool about everything,” to the U.S., Europe, and pretty much the whole world!)
The least Western media can do is to report on Putin’s actions without retreating behind the journalistic “view from nowhere” as if that excused historical illiteracy. Of course Russia has longstanding historical ties with Ukraine, and Russia has national interests, and Sevastopol’s Russian naval base is an important warm-water port. But, as Daisy Sindelar writes in “Ukraine Unspun” (at rferl.org), “Crimea, which has been claimed by a number of empires during the past millennium, has never really been an inseparable part of anything. Russia wrested it back from the Ottoman Empire in the late 18th century [thus the Crimean Tatars are more “native” Crimeans than Putin’s St. Petersburg and Moscow cronies–and are being pushed off their land by Putin just as they were by Stalin], and the peninsula spent only 37 years as a part of the Soviet Union’s Russian Republic before being transferred to Ukraine [Putin is unlikely to rehabilitate Kruschkev].” So much for Putin’s assertion that “in people’s hearts and mind, Crimea has always been an inseparable part of Russia.” Sindelar deconstructs several other specious and ahistorical claims made by Putin, such as “[in] Russia as a whole…not a single ethnic group has been lost over the centuries.”
Speaking of deconstruction, Putin does have a sharp eye for the soft underbelly of Western and specifically American hypocrisy. He sometimes even speaks the truth, and should be heeded when he does. But Putin’s main goal, to create cognitive dissonance, resignation, and paralysis in European public opinion, can and should be resisted. If he points to hypocrisy and unfreedom in the “free world,” we Westerners can and should listen and become better citizens for it, but with respect to Ukraine the least we can do is offer some real material support, at the probable cost of some inconvenience, to promote the worthy cosmopolitan project begun in the aftermath of World War II with the Franco-German coal and steel pact. Merkel and Obama may have failed so far to induce Putin and Russia to move toward Western norms and normalcy, and Putin is using EU governance weaknesses to his advantage in the short term, but it is possible–and urgent–for Europeans to think and plan more strategically in the light of the caesura of 2014. We should not be drawn into a permanent zero-sum or negative-sum mindset, and we should not dwell in Putin’s dystopic mental world full-time, but it would be unwise to plan and act as if Putin has not strayed far from the international law he purports to uphold.
By the way, Putin will gain credibility on referendums when he accommodates the 1992 pro-independence Tatarstan referendum and then allows a free and fair vote, with international observers, in east Prussia, including Immanuel Kant’s home town of Konigsberg/Kaliningrad. Not to mention a positive response to today’s news of a request for an independence referendum in St. Petersburg!
P.S. If Obama’s “reset” with Russia was naive and misbegotten, he may have Lloyd Blankfein, among others, for company. Businessweek reports today that Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley are “being forced…to reexamine their bet on friendlier relations between Putin and the West.”
Update 3/22: OSCE observers head to Ukraine, 100 at first, maximum of 500; Russia had stonewalled on this for a week but dropped objections Friday (the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is composed of 57 nations in Europe, Central Asia, and North America, and as with the EU unanimity is needed to move forward with anything). I think this makes Russian disruptions and destabilizations somewhat less likely leading up to national elections May 25. Once those elections happen, Russia may be much less able to claim with any plausibility that Ukraine is being hijacked by fascist brigands. In sum, a good sign and the first real signal of possible de-escalation, though the observers will not be allowed into Crimea at all.