Drums of war in Putin's ear

The revolution in Ukraine has triggered Europe’'s most dangerous crisis since the Cold War. The collapse of the Yanukovich regime has shaken the foundations of the state.

Nowhere are the effects more visible than in the Crimea, where a bid for independence is being spearheaded by Russian nationalist politicians in league with paramilitary militias. They are being backed by Russian military forces based in Sevastopol, staging manoeuvres designed to deter any attempt by the central authorities to restore order.
Whether this phoney war becomes a real one will depend on the decisions that Vladimir Putin makes during the coming days. He might try to defuse tensions, because Russia has a long-term interest in Ukraine’s stability and prosperity. He might play a waiting game, hoping that the Euromaidan coalition collapses and that economic pressures force the Ukrainian elite to reach an accommodation with Moscow.

But the temptation to escalate the conflict may become irresistible. Putin has just suffered a double humiliation at the hands of the victorious revolutionaries in Kiev. They have wrecked his apparent diplomatic triumph, the $15 billion package to lure Ukraine from the EU into his own Eurasian union. To add insult to injury, they have torn up the compromise that a Russian envoy had helped to broker.

The pressure for action is magnified by the regime’s own propaganda. For three months, government officials, state television and pro-Kremlin publicists have vilified the protesters on Kiev’s Maidan as a diabolical gang of neo-nazis and Russophobes. Now that this gang has triumphed, disbelief is compounded by horror.

The disorientation of Russia’s public mind is exemplified by Sergei Lukyanenko, the author of acclaimed science fantasy novels such as Night Watch. On his blog, Lukyanenko issued an anathema that seems to belong to the jingoistic hate propaganda of World War I. Advising “decent Ukrainians” to flee to safety in Russia, he proclaimed that “henceforth Ukraine is an accursed land, which will need generations to rid itself of its depravity and cowardice”. For good measure, he banned translations of his novels into Ukrainian and vowed to obstruct supporters of the Euromaidan who tried to have their works published in Russia.

Among pro-Kremlin nationalists, the drumbeat of war is deafening. Egor Kholmogorov, an eminent conservative publicist, argues that hostilities are inevitable. The only question is whether they are unleashed now by Russia, while the enemy is still in disarray, or whether they come in 10 years when a neo-fascist Ukrainian regime launches a blitzkrieg that leaves Moscow in flames.

A similar pose was struck by Aleksandr Prokhanov, the novelist and editor of a major nationalist broadsheet. On Russian state radio, Prokhanov warned about the creation of a “burning fascist nucleus” in Ukraine and he accused Europe of applauding “the force that is leading to a second Holocaust”.

More optimistic is Aleksandr Dugin, the ultranationalist philosopher who has promoted “Eurasianism” as the ideological foundation for a new empire. Dugin is thrilled by the prospect of a war that will recover lost territories, strike a blow at the Atlantic democracies, and exorcise the “liberal-nazi” spectre that is stalking Russia itself. “War has begun,” he tweeted last Monday. “The extermination of Russians has been announced. Our duty is to rise up for our people.”

This apocalyptic language cannot be dismissed as the ravings of marginal fanatics. Kholmogorov, Prokhanov and Dugin are major public intellectuals who have moulded the national-conservative ideology that Putin has embraced since his return to the presidency. Each is a ubiquitous commentator in the Russian media. Each is an influential voice in the nationalist internet.

Both Prokhanov and Dugin are members of the Izborskii Club, a prominent nationalist think tank created in 2012. Here they regularly exchange ideas with Sergei Glazev, Putin’s adviser on Euro-Asian integration. Glazev can sound like a dry economist, but he regards the Ukrainian uprising as the product of an insidious Russophobic conspiracy, which is being co-ordinated by Poland and the US. At the height of the stand-off in Kiev, he demanded that Yanukovich use force against his opponents. It is unlikely that he is now counselling caution.

Advocates of military intervention can point to the precedent of Russia’s triumphal war against Georgia in 2008. Then, as now, the Kremlin’s favourite nationalists prepared the home front with effusions of patriotic rhetoric and geopolitical diatribes. Then, as now, the target was an ex-Soviet republic that had made a revolutionary turn towards the West. Then, as now, claims about imminent genocide were used to justify military intervention and the dismemberment of a sovereign state.

Of course, many courageous Russians have raised their voices against the anti-Ukrainian chorus. Andrei Illarionov, once an economic adviser to Putin, joined a group of liberal civic activists to create the “Solidarity Committee with the Maidan”, which hailed the achievement of ordinary Ukrainians on the Euromaidan as a step towards Russia’s own anti-authoritarian revolution.

No less poignant is a declaration made by Maksim Kantor, the artist and social commentator who exhorted the peddlars of war propaganda to reflect on the innocent lives that could be lost in a fratricidal civil conflict.

Perhaps the most eloquent sceptic is Alexei Navalny, the opposition leader and anti-corruption crusader. On his popular blog, Navalny tried to dispel the illusion that Russian tanks will be welcomed as liberators and argued that Russia’s national interest lay in fostering a Ukraine that was a flourishing democracy and pursuing a “European vector of development” in parallel with Russia itself. Five days later, he was sentenced to two months house arrest and banned from using the internet.

The silencing of Navalny is a reminder that the current struggle is less between cultures than between political systems. The problem with Russia’s political system is that it promotes loyalist warmongers and drives dissenting moderates to the margins. In the coming days, we will see how much influence those warmongers wield in the corridors of power.

First published in The Australian on 3 March 2014.

Robert Horvath, is an ARC research fellow in the School of Social Sciences and Communication at La Trobe University.

Image credit: Miradortigre.