Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Ever More Russians Concerned about Costs of Crimea to Themselves

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 22 – Even though polls show Russians are paying less day-to-day attention to what is happening in Ukraine (, there is mounting evidence that ever more of them are concerned about the impact on their own lives of the Kremlin’s Anschluss of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula.

            In fact, Sergey Stelmakh writes in a commentary for RFE/RL, Crimea has ceased to be an issue of concern only to “the Russian liberal intelligentsia and political marginals” and is becoming an issue for members of what could as recently as yesterday be called “the pro-Kremlin middle class” (

            And what is most important, he suggests, is that senior members of Vladimir Putin’s regime appear to be aware of this and are trying to decide what to do even as they make statements that have the unintended effect of leading ever more Russians to ask themselves what if anything they have gotten from “Crimea is ours.”

            Stelmakh gives five examples of regime actions in support of his argument. First, he points to Dmitry Medvedev’s unfortunate turn of phrase to an audience in Crimea that “there is no money but hold on anyway,” words that have led many Russians elsewhere to ask why or even if they can.

            Second, he notes the recent announcement that Moscow has discovered that building the Kerch bridge is not only absurdly expensive but probably beyond the technical capacity of the Russian corporations to complete.  If the bridge in fact is constructed, one will be able to photograph it but not walk across it.

            Third, Stelmakh suggests that Putin’s own words at an economic forum in St. Petersburg about the US as “the only remaining superpower” and about Russia’s interest in cooperating with it undercut earlier Russian propaganda which suggests the war in Ukraine was in fact a war with the United States.

            Fourth, he notes, there has been the extension of EU sanctions and the admission by Russian officials from the top down that Russians are going to be “compelled to live in difficult circumstances for a long time yet” because of the Crimean Anschluss, an acknowledgement that raises as many questions as it answers.

            And fifth, Stelmakh says, there has been “’a fifth element,’ the activation of a public discussion about Russia’s lack of need for the peninsula” online with even some nominally pro-Kremlin bloggers “publishing posts about a possible giving up of Crimea since it is very complicated to live under sanctions.”

            What that shows is that regime propagandists are now having to admit that “things are bad and that something must be done,” a remarkable development given the Kremlin’s past self-confidence and the danger that such official acknowledgements will lead more Russians to ask questions as well.

            Another blogger only added fuel to this fire by suggesting this past week that Crimea should be exchanged “for a pair of oblasts bordering Ukraine,” a proposal that makes mincemeat of Putin’s claims about the “sacred” nature of Crimea and suggests that at least some in the Moscow elite are thinking about how to escape their current dilemma.

            Putin operated on the assumption that he could ultimately force the Ukrainians and the West to recognize his annexation as legal, but now people in Moscow see that this isn’t going to happen unless Moscow uses more force there than it can afford to. Like the Finns in 1939, the Ukrainians are ready to fight; and the West has imposed sanctions and would impose more.

            Today, Stelmakh says, “no one believes in the legalization of ‘Russian’ Crimea” and no one thinks that Moscow can avoid facing the consequences of that forever. Instead, Russians are thinking and beginning to talk about what can be done.

            As a result, he concludes, “two or three years from now,” the issue may be cast in an entirely new way: Instead of wondering when Kyiv and the West will recognize Russian rule in Crimea, people will be asking what kind of compensation should Moscow offer Ukraine for its illegal attempt to annex the Ukrainian peninsula.

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