Staunton, March 15 – What Vladimir Putin is doing in Crimea has less to do with the defense of Russia’s foreign policy interests there than with the defense of the Kremlin leader’s own position in the face of what is becoming “the Great Ukrainian-Russian Revolution,” according to Gleb Pavlovsky.
In an article posted on Gefter.ru yesterday, the Moscow commentator argues that Putin’s statements and moves all ostensibly about “stopping the Ukrainian revolution” are unintentionally having the effect of spreading it into Russia and that the Kremlin leader is seeking to come up with a defense that serves his own interests (gefter.ru/archive/11640).
Putin has a pathological hatred and fear of revolutions, Pavlovsky says, but he “does not see” how he has been drawn into the revolution that began in Kyiv and is now spreading. Indeed, he continues, “Putin is already half a Ukrainian politician” and in spite of himself one of the leaders of the Great Ukrainian-Russian Revolution.”
Whenever a revolution breaks out, Putin’s first impulse is to “stop it.” But in the case of Ukraine, this revolution is “not simply an external enemy; it is a confirmation of the fact that the danger is in his own zone of power. That is, Putin has united the two countries in a single field, into a single ‘UkrRuss’ space of danger.”
When Putin “speaks about Ukrainian elites, who have provoked all this,” Pavlovsky continues, “he is in fact speaking about Moscow elites.” And that fact explains why Putin has been doing what he has in the case of Crimea. Without a clear understanding of it, the Kremlin leader’s passions make no sense.
Revolutions by definition “destroy the state,” the Moscow analyst continues, and the state is what Putin lives by “But the main thing here is [the Russian leader’s] total antipathy to revolution” and his fear of that happening to him. “However strange it may be, although the revolution is in Ukraine, Putin already feels himself surrounded by it.”
“And when you are surrounded,” Pavlovsky says, the only thing you can do is try to defend yourself. This is what is behind Putin’s main ideological theme: “the threat of war.” It is certainly true that “Putin does not want to fight.” But he is using the language of war rather than that of a limited conflict in Crimea because of his domestic goals.
But in using this vocabulary, Putin may have miscalculated in a serious way. Talk of war is so disturbing that the Europeans are more concerned about restraining him than of restraining the revolution. And a major reason for that is that “no one in the world except for Putin feels himself surrounded by ‘a revolution.’”
For everyone else, the revolution in Ukraine is simply the latest of a string of disorders. Consequently, they are “not in Putin’s world! They are in another reality.” Indeed, one can say that these realities have now diverged. But that very divergence carries with it some real risks, Pavlovsky continues.
Except in Putin’s imagination, he says, the West “does not intend” to fan the flames of revolution in Ukraine. But by working to “restrain Putin,” the West has, whether it intends it or not, become “a participant in domestic Ukrainian politics.” And thus in Putin’s eyes, the West is doing what he fears; and he is responding with talk of war.
But it is critically important to understand why Putin is doing this. According to Pavlovsky, Putin does not think that he can “stop the revolution in Ukraine by the threat of war.” Instead, his words are “a preamble” or “prelude” about what he intends to do “inside and not outside” of the Russian Federation.
What Putin needs is “another Russia,” a Russia in which the spectre of a foreign threat or threat of war will “force the country to ideologize itself by itself” and thus open the way for actions by the Kremlin to defend the Kremlin and its interests, Pavlovsky says.
In Putin’s schema, “Ukraine is being transformed into the most radicalized part of Russia” as part of “an export-import operation.” First, Moscow gets involved in Crimea and resolves the situation there in a way to its liking and then turns back to the Russian Federation with the same goals.
As a result, “the Ukrainian revolution is being transformed into a prelude or the Russian counter-revolution.” It is thus an occasion for rather than the primary cause of Putin’s approach. “The phantom of ‘Banderite Ukraine’ thus will serve as the basis for the search for internal ‘Banderites’” just as similar ideological schemas did in 1949 and 1993.
This entails many dangers but perhaps the most immediate one is that using the threat of war in this way requires that there be something that plausibly looks like one or that can be presented to the Russian population as one. Otherwise, Putin’s words are likely to be dismissed as entirely overwrought.
In short, by talking about the threat of war, Putin “is forced by the laws of the theater to form a new image of Russia,” one capable of acting unilaterally. And that “undoubtedly,” Pavlovsky says, “will led to the review of old and the appearance of new defensive strategies in the West.”
“In front of our eyes,” he writes, “a very powerful generator is being built. Its constituent parts are the Ukrainian revolution and the threat of war from Russia and the split and polarization between Russia and the West,” which is then coming home to Russia as a struggle between “the overwhelming majority against ‘the fifth column.’”
“Putin did not and does not have goals outside of Russia; his goals are internal,” Pavlovsky says, “and the next military action [of the Kremlin] will be in Moscow and in Russia.” But the Kremlin leader has trapped himself by his language and must back away from it or face a world far more threatening to his interests than anything that has yet happened in Ukraine.