Putin, Russia's champion, finds his historic mission in Ukraine
Russia has long imagined itself to have a special role in the world
Russians hold flags showing Russian President Vladimir Putin and the slogan reading ‘We are together!’ during a rally celebrating the joining of Crimea and Sevastopol with Russia in Red Square, Moscow, yesterday. Photograph: Sergei Ilnitsky/EPA
Halfway up the stairs to the silver-coloured aircraft, the big man dressed in camouflage turned. “It’s a great feeling, isn’t it,” he said, taking the passenger behind him for a Russian. “It’s time to celebrate in Moscow but I’ll be back here for the summer. There’s no better place than our Crimea.”
He strode into the aircraft without introducing himself or explaining the green fatigues, which bore no insignia, or the shaggy fur hat perched on his head. If he was a Cossack he was travelling in far more style than hundreds of his comrades who have been delivered by rattling trucks and trains to Crimea over the past weeks to support Russian troops who seized control of the region ahead of its formal annexation by Moscow.
Several other men in camouflage filled seats aboard the Aeroflot Ilyushin jet from Simferopol to Moscow yesterday, and shared the same contented look of “mission accomplished” as many more expensively attired politicians and businessmen in sharp suits and silk ties. Crimea was, as President Vladimir Putin would say a few hours later on Red Square, leaving Ukraine and coming to its “home port, to Russia”.
As the eclectic passenger list suggested, Putin’s lightning-fast seizure of Crimea is supported by vast numbers of Russians from all walks from life, from politics to finance, from the military to the arts, who feel their nation has regained its might and its “mission” after years in the wilderness.
Putin came to power in 1999 promising stability, order and discipline after the chaos of the 1990s. But having used Russia’s energy wealth to steady the ship, he found himself in need of something more inspiring to reinvigorate flagging support, unite his people and crush shoots of serious opposition from civil society. Putin has sought to transform his image from that of a competent but often cruel manager of the state into a visionary leader who will restore Russia’s territory and global standing, defend traditional Russian values and religion and fend off geographical, geopolitical and moral attack from a cynical and degenerate West.
Russia has long imagined itself to have a special role in the world, whether believing Moscow to be the holy “third Rome”, or as the engine of world revolution in Soviet times or as the nation that did more than any other to defeat Nazism in what Russians call their Great Patriotic War. Russia’s politics and culture have long grappled with its identity and the implications of its position between east and west, Europe and Asia, and debated whether it should side with one or the other or form a bulwark between them.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union came deep humiliation for Russia as it was forced to take handouts and endure lectures from the West on how to rebuild its society along lines drawn by Europe and the United States. Many Russians resent the West for exploiting its post-Soviet weakness and taking swathes of central Europe into the European Union and Nato, and pushing both alliances ever closer to Russia’s borders. For Putin and many compatriots, a Ukraine run by a strongly anti-Russian government that could take it into the West’s political and military alliances was an unacceptable prospect.
Putin has often spoken of Ukraine as a “brotherly” nation, and he reveres its history as the cradle of Holy Rus, the ancient eastern Slav state, and cherishes Crimea as the place that Prince Vladimir, a leader of Rus, was baptised and adopted Christianity for his people in 988.
What is less clear is whether Putin – and millions of likeminded Russians – respect Ukraine’s right to exist as an independent state, rather than just an appendage of Russia.
In Crimea, and more broadly Ukraine, Putin and his followers have found a “mission” that unites many powerful strands of Russian thinking. This mission gives Putin the role of uniter of historical Russian territory; defender of his country from western encroachment; and protector of Slavs in Ukraine and Russia from the “fascists” that he claims now run Kiev, with the connivance of a morally decrepit EU and US.
With the full and very public blessing of the Orthodox Church, Putin is insisting on Russia’s right to a grand national mission, having repeatedly bemoaned US claims to “exceptionalism”. The fervent patriotism now on display across Russia and in Crimea draws much of its power from the deep well of humiliation that accumulated in the last 25 years, and a sense of being patronised and cheated by the West.
It is a terrifying sight for Ukraine other ex-Soviet states. But Russia, having never allowed the kind of self-examination that Germany went through after the second World War, does not understand how it is perceived by its neighbours: far easier to believe that Ukraine has been infected by the disease of fascism than that it sick of being dominated by Russia and wants to achieve real independence and move towards Europe.