The Wars of Vladimir Putin

Pozdrowienia z Noworosji [Greetings from Novorossiya]

by Paweł Pieniążek
Warsaw: Krytyka Polityczna, 240 pp., zł34.90

Entscheidung in Kiew. Ukrainische Lektionen [Decision in Kiev: Ukrainian Lessons]

by Karl Schlögel
Munich: Carl Hanser, 352 pp., €21.90
Vladimir Putin at an ice-skating event in Sochi, Russia, before the Olympics, April 2013
Thomas Dworzak/Magnum Photos
Vladimir Putin at an ice-skating event in Sochi, Russia, before the Olympics, April 2013

1989, the year that the Polish war reporter Paweł Pieniążek was born, was understood by some in the West as an end to history. After the peaceful revolutions in Eastern Europe, what alternative was there to liberal democracy? The rule of law had won the day. European integration would help the weaker states reform and support the sovereignty of all. Peter Pomerantsev, the son of Soviet dissidents who emigrated to Britain in 1978, could “return” to Russia to work as an artist. Karl Schlögel, a distinguished German historian of Russian émigrés, could go straight to the sources in Moscow.

But was the West coming to the East, or the East to the West? By 2014, a quarter-century after the revolutions of 1989, Russia proposed a coherent alternative: faked elections, institutionalized oligarchy, national populism, and European disintegration. When Ukrainians that year made a revolution in the name of Europe, Russian media proclaimed the “decadence” of the EU, and Russian forces invaded Ukraine in the name of a “Eurasian” alternative.

When Pieniążek arrived in Kiev in November 2013 as a young man of twenty-four, he was observing the latest, and perhaps the last, attempt to mobilize the idea of “Europe” in order to reform a state. Ukrainians had been led to expect that their government would sign an association agreement with the European Union. Frustrated by endemic corruption, many Ukrainians saw the accord as an instrument to strengthen the rule of law. Moscow, meanwhile, was demanding that Ukraine not sign the agreement with the EU but instead become a part of its new “Eurasian” trade zone of authoritarian regimes.

At the last moment, Russian President Vladimir Putin dissuaded the Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, from signing the EU association agreement. The Russian media exulted. Ukrainian students, who had the most to lose from endless corruption, gathered on November 21 on Kiev’s central square, the Maidan, to demand that the agreement with the EU be signed. Pieniążek arrived a few days later. After police beat the students on the night of November 30, the young men and women were joined by hundreds of thousands of others, people who would brave the cold, and worse, for the next three months.

The “Euromaidan,” as the protests were called at first, was multicultural and anti-oligarchical. Ukrainians were taking risks for a local goal that is hard to understand beyond the post-Soviet setting: Europeanization as a means to undo corruption and oligarchy. By enriching a small clique, writes Pieniążek in his collection of reportage from Ukraine, “Yanukovych brought the state to the brink of actual collapse.” In December 2013 Russian leaders made financial aid to Yanukovych’s government contingent upon clearing the streets of protesters. The government’s subsequent escalation of repression—first the suspension of the rights to assembly and free expression in January 2014, and then the mass shooting of protesters in February—turned the popular movement into a revolution. On February 22, Yanukovych fled to Russia. (Two years later, his political strategist, Paul Manafort, would resurface in the US, playing the same role for Donald Trump.) After the failure of its policy of repression by remote control, Russia invaded Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. By March Russians who had taken part in that campaign were arriving in the industrial Donbas region of southeastern Ukraine, Yanukovych’s onetime power base, to help organize a separatist movement.1

Inhabitants of southeastern Ukraine had just as much reason to be dissatisfied with corruption as anyone else, and it was reasonable to fear that the revolution in Kiev was nothing more than a swing of the pendulum from some oligarchs to others. Just how these sentiments might have been resolved through negotiations or elections we will never know, since the Russian intervention precluded both, bringing instead fear and bloodshed that changed everyone’s political calculations. Sloviansk, a small city in the Donbas, was an early gathering point for separatists. When Pieniążek arrived there in April 2014, he found the place crawling with armored personnel carriers, and understood that local opposition to the revolution in Kiev was supported by outside forces. The Russian citizen Igor Girkin, a veteran of the Crimean invasion and the commander of the separatist forces, had made Sloviansk his headquarters.

Under Girkin’s supervision a “people’s mayor” arrested the elected one, and the new authorities murdered two people who opposed them. When the Ukrainian government sent policemen to investigate the crime, they were arrested by the separatists and photographed in humiliating positions—images suggesting the local dissolution of Ukrainian state power. As Pieniążek reported, power now resided in the former headquarters of the Ukrainian state police, which Russian soldiers and officers used as their base.

By March 2014 Crimea had been annexed by Russia, and in April further Russian annexations of Ukrainian territory seemed possible. Putin spoke that month of a “New Russia” (Novorossiya), meaning Donetsk and five other regions of eastern and southern Ukraine. The German historian Karl Schlögel was following Putin’s language with interest. As he recalls in his new book, Putin maintained that the use of the Russian language beyond Russia’s borders justified Russian invasion. If the unity of language groups were accepted as a principle of rule, then international state borders would cease to matter.

World War II began from such arguments (think of the Anschluss and the end of Austria, the Sudetenland and the destruction of Czechoslovakia, and Danzig as a pretext for war against Poland). Thus the founders of European integration insisted that state borders be respected and issues of human rights be resolved within their necessarily imperfect confines. Pieniążek was continually struck by the fact that separatists characterized the European order as “fascist,” even as they spoke of the significance of common language and common blood. What they meant, he realized, was simply that “everyone who does not support Russia is a fascist.”

Ukraine is a bilingual country with a cosmopolitan ruling class. Because almost all Ukrainians speak Russian as well as Ukrainian, they belong to what Putin calls “the Russian world” (russkii mir). Yet this “world,” as Schlögel shows, is by no means aligned with the politics of Moscow. As he moved through the Ukrainian east and south in 2014, making erudite historical sketches of cities, he found an appealing variety. Kharkiv, a university town near the Russian border, is governed by people who take a sympathetic view of Russia but have rejected separatism. Dnipropetrovsk, the onetime Soviet “rocket city,” became the gathering point of Russian-speaking Ukrainian volunteers who fought against separatists and Russians. Cosmopolitan Odessa excelled in mockery of Putin.2

The city of Donetsk fell to the separatists for local reasons.3 In spring 2014, its local oligarchs were indecisive and tried, disastrously, to play Kiev and Moscow against each other. This had little to do with ethnicity; the most important Donetsk oligarch, Rinat Akhmetov, is a Volga Tatar. With local power uncertain, Russian veterans of the Crimean campaign could travel to Donetsk at a time when Ukrainian central authorities hindered such people from reaching other east Ukrainian cities such as Kharkiv. Afterward Russian troops could move into Donetsk across a border that Ukrainian authorities were unable to control. Some of the Russian regular soldiers were Siberians, and many of the irregulars were Chechens. Thus people who did not speak Russian were killing people who did—in order to defend the Russian language in a place where it was never threatened.4 Schlögel writes:

The city of Donetsk, once home to a million people, became a ghost town, terrorized by bands of criminals, Chechen war veterans, special forces, Russian high tech experts, and people who have made careers in public relations.

That last category was as important as all the others.

Despite the annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and separatist control of the city of Donetsk in April, by May Russia was facing humiliating defeat. Throughout the country the Russian intervention had, as Pieniążek notes, “strengthened the sense of Ukrainian identity.” The Crimean model of Russian control was irrelevant in almost all of Ukraine and was failing in the southeast. In Crimea Russia had a network of local turncoats, considerable support from local Russians, and military bases from which to launch an invasion. Without such resources the limited detachments of Russian special forces, known in Ukraine for their lack of insignia as “little green men,” could not control the southeast. Four of the six southeastern districts that Putin called “New Russia” had produced no separatist movement. The separatist hold on the Donetsk and Luhansk regions was partial and shaky.

The Ukrainian leadership now decided to fight. Although the Ukrainian armed forces were small, they quickly drove back separatists. Ukraine used air power to deploy troops and destroy some of the armor the separatists had seized from Ukrainian forces or obtained from Russia. In May 2014 Kiev was abuzz with rumors of a Ukrainian offensive on Donetsk. To stop the rout, Moscow had to bring down the Ukrainian air force. In June Russian troops crossed the border with tanks and antiaircraft batteries. About a dozen Ukrainian aircraft were quickly shot down.5

The Russian decision to escalate brought about a major war crime. One of the numerous Russian military convoys in those weeks departed from its base in Kursk on June 23. It was a detachment of the Russian 53rd Air Defense Brigade, bound for Donetsk with a BUK antiaircraft missile launcher bearing the marking 332. On the morning of July 17, this BUK launcher was hauled from Donetsk to the Ukrainian town of Snizhne, and then brought under its own power to a farmstead south of that town.

But for what happened next, this transport of a Russian weapon would have simply been one of several photographed by locals and ignored by the world. Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, carrying 298 passengers from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, was flying just then over southeastern Ukraine. At 1:20 it was struck by hundreds of high-energy projectiles released by the explosion of a 9N314M warhead carried by a missile fired from that BUK launcher. The projectiles ripped through the cockpit and instantly killed the cockpit crew, from whose body parts some of the metal was later extracted. The aircraft was blown to pieces at its cruising altitude of 33,000 feet, its passengers and their baggage scattered over a radius of thirty miles.6

Schlögel could follow the convoy of the BUK on his computer screen. The young journalist Pieniążek raced to the site where the largest pieces of wreckage and a number of corpses were found. Although he was the first reporter on the scene, one day after the crash, its story had already been told on Russian television. Two Russian networks claimed that Ukrainian aircraft had shot down the plane. Three other networks provided a motive: Ukrainian authorities had intended to shoot down an aircraft carrying Putin, and had made a mistake. Long before the 298 corpses had been assembled and identified, the victims had been defined in the Russian media: the Russian president and his people.

In the days that followed, Russian media purveyed further versions of the disaster: fictional, contradictory, and sometimes grotesque. What Russians call the “zombie” story, that the CIA filled the plane with corpses and exploded it by remote control, enjoys surprising longevity. The Russian tactics are easier to mock than dismiss. A large majority of Russians (86 percent in 2014, 85 percent in 2015) blame Ukraine for shooting down the flight; only 2 percent blamed their own country, with most of the remainder opting for the United States.7

How did Russia reach a point, in its media and politics, where the fact of Russian soldiers mistakenly shooting down a civilian airliner during a Russian invasion of a foreign country could be transformed into a durable sense of Russian victimhood? For that matter, how did Russians take so easily to the idea that Ukraine, seen as a fraternal nation, had suddenly become an enemy governed by “fascists”?8 How do Russians take pride in a Russian invasion while at the same time denying that one is taking place? Consider the dark joke now making the rounds in Russia. Wife to husband: “Our son was killed in action in Ukraine.” Husband to wife: “We never had a son.”

Both the historian Schlögel and the television producer and writer Peter Pomerantsev make the case that this extraordinary flexibility was the consequence of earlier developments within Russia itself. “The so-called Ukrainian crisis,” maintains Schlögel, “is above all a Russian crisis.”

As the release of the Panama Papers has once again confirmed, Russians and Ukrainians confront the same central problem: the weakness of the rule of law. Unlike Ukraine, Russia has natural gas and oil, a strong army, and a propaganda apparatus that can be used to delay, distract, and confuse. Schlögel observes that the Russian leadership failed to use the profits from energy exports to diversify the economy during the flush first decade of the twenty-first century when prices were high. We should, he thinks, see the policies of institutional oligarchy, military buildup, and media coordination as internal and misguided Russian choices that made foreign wars likely. He notes that other observers have found the Russian propaganda of ethnic justice and antifascism more appealing than the basics of political economy. Propaganda conceits of this kind allow Russians to define themselves as the victims; they permit outsiders, as Schlögel notes, to discuss the war “without knowing anything about Russia itself.”

Pomerantsev spent that glittering decade of mismanagement in Moscow, and he became the chronicler of others’ hopes and losses. His book presents itself as the memoir of a young artist with a film he wants to make but cannot. It would be about the suicides of Russian fashion models, the beautiful girls who seemed to do so well in post-Soviet Russia but then took their own lives by jumping from buildings. He describes “a generation of orphaned, high-heeled girls” seeking security, and not finding it, from older men who grew wealthy during the 2000s. The mood of the book is one of vertigo, of crashes that can be delayed and denied but not avoided. The images of one of his suicide models were circulated in Moscow long after her death, promising “enchantment.”

Unarmed anti-government protesters being fired upon by snipers, Maidan Square, Kiev, February 2014
Jerome Sessini/Magnum Photos
Unarmed anti-government protesters being fired upon by snipers, Maidan Square, Kiev, February 2014

Pomerantsev arrived in Moscow as the medium of television was brought under state control. In October 2002, Russian security forces killed 129 hostages during an attack on Chechen terrorists who had taken over a Moscow theater. Television cameras recorded the deaths of the hostages. After that, Pomerantsev says, the last private television channel was brought to heel, and the state began to orchestrate a misleading pluralism: the TV stations looked different, but said the same thing. Leaders of accepted parties might get more or less time on different channels. Their presence was meant only to confirm the inevitability of Putin.

As Pomerantsev recalls, “when the beetroot-faced communists and the spitting nationalists row on TV debating shows, the viewer is left with the feeling that, compared to this lot, the President is the only sane candidate.” Pomerantsev considers the fate of a woman who created her own apparently legitimate chemical business away from propaganda and politics. But there is no escape: entrepreneurs in Russia are vulnerable to arbitrary fiscal and legal reviews at the whims of rivals, and she was arrested (ostensibly for dealing in illegal narcotics). Behind bars the surreal becomes unavoidable: “Black is white and white is black,” as Pomerantsev paraphrases the businesswoman. “There is no reality. Whatever they say is reality. [She] began to scream.”

Although Pomerantsev presents such stories as an element of a postmodern world, a more earthbound reading might be that Russia, like Ukraine, has failed in the modern task of establishing the rule of law. Many Russians, for that matter, reacted to this failure in much the same way as Ukrainians did in 2013. Shortly after Pomerantsev left Moscow, Russians protested the falsified parliamentary elections of late 2011. Putin claimed that members of opposition groups had responded to a signal from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Russian police arrested their leaders. This is one reason much of the Russian elite openly backs Trump over Clinton. (The other, of course, is their conviction that Trump will destroy US power.)

Though the Russian media followed Putin’s line in 2011, the very fact of the protests seemed to show that media control and coordination were not enough. The emerging stratagem was to merge Russian news with foreign news: to make it seem as if much that happened abroad was about Russia, since foreign leaders had nothing on their minds but the disruption of Russian politics. In this way Russia’s growing social and economic problems could be ignored even as Russians believed that they were at the center of world attention.

After the protests, Putin turned away from the middle class and embraced national populism. The rejection of the EU as “decadent” and the creation of the Eurasian alternative also arose from this experience. So when Ukrainians protested in favor of the EU in late November 2013, Russian leaders understood this within the storyline they were writing for themselves. Rather than dwelling on the similarities between Ukrainian and Russian problems and the uncomfortable ability of Ukrainians to demand reform, the Russian media defined the Euromaidan as an eruption of European decadence.

The European Union was already called “Gayropa”; now the Euromaidan was called “Gayeuromaidan.” Once Russian troops invaded Crimea, happy endings gave way on television screens to splendid little wars. Russia’s economic decline continued, but this could now be presented as the price of foreign glory. Through September 2015, the main subject could be Ukraine. That October, it changed to Syria.

The new Russian wars are a Bonapartism without a Napoleon, temporarily resolving domestic tensions in doomed foreign adventures, but lacking a vision for the world. Ideals are recognized in order to be mocked. “This is a new type of Kremlin propaganda,” writes Pomerantsev, “less about arguing against the West with a counter-model as in the Cold War, more about slipping inside its language to play and taunt it from inside.” Authoritarianism is the best of all possible systems—the thinking goes—because the others are, despite appearances, no better. Lying in the service of the status quo is perfectly justified, since the other side’s lies are more pernicious.

All problems, in this worldview, arise from illusory hopes of improvement aroused by foreign powers. Police power is authentic, whereas popular movements are not. Killing in the service of the status quo is necessary, since nothing is more dangerous than change. In the parts of southeastern Ukraine under Russian and separatist control, millions of people have lost their homes and thousands their lives, but the property of the oligarchs is untouched—and those separatists who believed they were fighting against oligarchy have been murdered.9

Must protests for justice bring foreign invasion, stupefying propaganda, and squalid murder in the name of maintaining the wealth of a few? This is the essence of Russian foreign policy: enforcing the principle that public efforts to change politics for the better must bring war and “normalization”—to use the term made notorious after the Red Army and its Warsaw Pact allies put down the Prague Spring in 1968. Pomerantsev, who is concerned with the connections between the late-Soviet and the post-Soviet, deftly reveals the significance of the revolutions of 1968 as a turning point in Soviet politics and in dissident political thought.

When Soviet forces crushed the Czechoslovaks’ hopes for “socialism with a human face,” Pomerantsev’s mother was a Soviet schoolgirl. A KGB officer who had taken part in the invasion later visited her classroom, regaling the children with stories of the defeat of the Czechoslovak reform movement. Until then the girl had believed the official version: that the Soviet army had intervened to stop a Western-backed fascist coup. Surprised by what she was hearing, she asked: “You mean they weren’t happy to see you?” The look the KGB man gave her said it all: she was to understand that the official version was a lie, and that the duty of Soviet citizens was to knowingly live within such lies.

After the invasion of Czechoslovakia, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev promised “fraternal assistance” to any Eastern European country that seemed to depart from the official line. To Soviet citizens Brezhnev proposed “really existing socialism,” the notion that despite the dreariness of life nothing better was possible. For KGB men educated in the 1970s, such as Vladimir Putin, instability and change were the enemies more than any particular idea. Working in the 1980s in East Germany, he could delude himself that the status quo was durable—though by then East German stability depended upon Western economies. It would not occur to him that Brezhnev’s bet on energy exports and foreign intervention was a mistake; once in power, Putin would repeat it. The value of a barrel of crude oil (in today’s dollars) when the USSR invaded Afghanistan in 1979 was peaking at $101; when the USSR self-destructed in 1991 it was $34. When that Russian BUK convoy arrived in Donetsk in June 2014, the price of oil was peaking at $112; as I write it is $39.

Eastern European dissidents such as Pomerantsev’s parents drew a different lesson from the wreckage of 1968: the importance of truth as the foundation of a life in “dignity”—a term that Ukrainians applied to their revolution in 2014.10 Schlögel, a child of the Western European student movements of 1968, is troubled that members of his own generation prefer stagnation to revolution. He wants to know “why the generation whose own memories are directed to Paris in May of 1968 did not react to Kiev.” Why did so few people who identify with the left not see the Ukrainian revolution as such, and not condemn the counterrevolutionary Russian invasion accordingly? Part of the answer is that many in the West who remember 1968 recall Paris and not Prague, and so forget the reactionary militarism of the Brezhnev doctrine. Schlögel is fundamentally concerned about a “deep, metaphysical illness.” He writes that his own generation, which has known Europe in better times, prefers nostalgia to knowledge. A lifelong student of Russia, he saw his own journey to Ukraine as an “hour of verification and self-verification.”

There was no Orwell of the Ukrainian revolution, but readers of Schlögel and Pieniążek will get something like the everyday grit and political insight of Homage to Catalonia. Pieniążek risked his life to see what he saw, as did other brave and talented Western journalists.11 Along the way, perhaps, he benefited from the seemingly innocuous nature of his work. Because separatists believed that only television coverage mattered, they kept asking where his cameraman was. Perhaps because he was filing for print, Pieniążek found it easier to extend conversations and move from one side of the lines to the other. After he spent days with a separatist the two men realized that they had both been on the Maidan on the same day, the one beating and the other getting beaten. It says something about Pieniążek’s tact that he kept the relationship going. Pieniążek takes no stands and strikes no poses, but modestly exemplifies the old dissident ideal of seeking after small truths, at risk to oneself, in a world of big lies.

With similar humility, Pomerantsev presents his Russian friends as similar to his Western friends. Their world is just a turn of the kaleidoscope away. Since the publication of his book, Pomerantsev has noted the affinity of Trump’s propaganda with the Russian model. The fragility of Russia’s present regime is little consolation, since its methods of rule could work in the West; “here,” says Pomerantsev, “is going to be there.” If the sin of intellectuals in the twentieth century was to propose utopian visions, that of the twenty-first is to deny all possibility of change. Schlögel fears a new trahison des clercs, an abandonment of the search for truth that, says Pomerantsev, brings the bottomless skepticism that makes political action seem pointless. “We cannot give up,” Schlögel concludes, “on the difference between fact and fiction.” Some things are true, and some things are possible.

  1. 1

    For a legal accounting of these events see Thomas D. Grant, Aggression Against Ukraine: Territory, Responsibility, and International Law (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).  

  2. 2

    As Serhy Yekelchyk notes: “Ukrainian volunteers and conscripts are more often than not themselves speaking Russian, meaning that they are fighting for a civic rather than an ethnic concept of Ukrainian identity.” See The Conflict in Ukraine: What Everybody Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, 2015), p. 18.  

  3. 3

    On prewar loyalties, see Grigore Pop-Eleches and Graeme Robertson, “Do Crimeans Actually Want to Join Russia?,” The Washington Post, March 6, 2014.  

  4. 4

    In February 2014 Ukrainian authorities proposed the repeal of a law that allowed Russian to be declared a regional language. They did not in fact repeal it. The (nearly universal) use of Russian in the Donbas was not affected either by the passage of the law or the discussion of its repeal.  

  5. 5

    In May 2014 Ukraine held democratic presidential elections, legitimizing the new order. Putin has now admitted the direct Russian military role in both Crimea and in the Donbas. At his December 17, 2015, press conference he said: “We never said there were not people there who carried out certain tasks including in the military sphere.” The Russian military journalist Arkady Babchenko characterized such circumlocutions as “infantilism raised to the rank of state policy.”  

  6. 6

    Both Russian and Ukrainian officials have claimed, falsely, not to possess the relevant weapons. Three major reports allow a straightforward reconstruction of the event: that of the Dutch Safety Board, released on October 13, 2015, and the open-source series of investigations carried out by the investigative journalism websites Bellingcat and Correct!v. Whereas the first focuses on the destruction of the airplane, the latter two describe the movements of the Russian BUK. In December 2015 Bellingcat submitted to Dutch prosecutors a list of Russian soldiers believed to have personal knowledge of the circumstances of the shooting down of MH17.  

  7. 7

    Levada Center, report of July 27, 2015.  

  8. 8

    In the 2014 parliamentary elections, which took place under the pressure of war, neither of the two right-wing parties cleared the 5 percent threshold for participation (Right Sector received 1.8 percent and Svoboda 4.7 percent of the popular vote).  

  9. 9

    See Andriy Portnov, “How ‘Eastern Ukraine’ Was Lost,” Open Democracy, January 14, 2016.  

  10. 10

    See Kieran Williams, “The Russian View(s) of the Prague Spring,” Journal of Cold War Studies, Vol. 14, No. 2 (Spring 2012).  

  11. 11

    Traditional print reporting provided the humanizing counter to the easier tropes of propaganda. See Tim Judah, In Wartime: Stories from Ukraine (London: Allen Lane, 2015).