Thursday, March 13, 2014

Window on Eurasia: The Crimea is Putin’s Reichstag Fire, Pastukhov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 13 – By his intervention in Ukraine, an event that represents the equivalent of “a Crimean Reichstag fire,”  Vladimir Putin has begun a revolutionary process in Russia, one intended to block any challenge to the authoritarian legitimacy of his regime but one that neither he nor Russia can fully control, according to Vladimir Pastukhov.

            In an essay on the portal today, the St. Antony’s College Russian expert says that what Putin has launched in Crimea appears likely to have such far-reaching effects on Russia and the world that soon the invasion of that Ukrainian peninsula will be viewed as “a second-order historical fact” (

            Putin’s intervention in or more precisely his provocation of “a civil war in Ukraine” has less to do with the foreign policy interests of the Russian Federation than with internal political developments. Indeed, Pastukhov argues, “aggression is a reaction to a pre-revolutionary tie of troubles in Russia itself.”

            Consequently, he argues, it is important to consider what Moscow is doing in Crimea and Ukraine “not only in military-political but also a mystical-symbolic” terms. Crimea, he writes, “is a code word in Russian historical memory.” Bitterness about its loss in 1991 is thus “beyond the limits of rational understanding and lives practically in every Russian heart.”

            Because that is the case, Pastukhov says, “Putin did not simply send forces to Crimea. He turned a key in the ignition of the national sub-conscious and instantly led the population of an enormous country into a state of affect,” one whose hysterical manifestation transformed the political situation in Russia itself.

             Many in Russia beginning in 2011 expected that there would be a revolution in Russia, but the one that has occurred is not the one they expected. It is “a black revolution” and it is led by Putin.  The reason for that is that “the Kremlin decided not to wait until someone cast doubt on the authoritarian legitimacy of the existing power but began to destroy it on its own initiative in order to replace it with a new totalitarian legitimacy.”

            Things were moving in that direction before the Maidan, Pastukhov says, but “the events in Ukraine became the catalyst which sharply accelerated the process” that had already begun symbolically with the house arrest of Aleksey Navalny whose complaints about corruption were something Putin and the Kremlin could not tolerate.

            “The problem,” the St. Antony’s scholar continues, “is that it is easy to lead society into an affect situation but it is practically impossible to lead it out of such a state.” Germany had to lose World War II. The Soviet Union had to lose the Cold War. “It is difficult to imagine” what will be needed for Russia now.

            “But what is still worse” is that Putin, who has led society into this state has already “lost control over what is taking place.”  The situation is bigger than he imagined and the Kremlin lacks the resources to ensure that it and not others determines what will happen.  What is clear is that there will not be any rapid exit out of this situation for Russia, Pastukhov says.

                “Now, not only Putin is a hostage of the situation in Russia, but Russia itself is a hostage of the general world situation.” Its fate, Pastukhov says, depends on foreign markets, some of which are manageable but some of which are not.  And how the world reacts will depend on how quickly the leaders of other powers understand what Putin is doing or at least trying to do.

                “Between the first and last acts of the drama will be a significant lag time,” he concludes. And it is currently impossible to be sure of just how many tragedies will be the result of what Putin is about.  But the international community needs to recognize both that “in Russia, Armageddon has begun” and that what the world does in response will matter profoundly.

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