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Essay: Putin’s biggest fear is the idea of a successful Ukraine

This is an essay reflecting the author’s own opinion, published on 23/05/2014


Vladimir Putin has pulled his troops away. So they say. On 19th may, Russian Defence Ministry has ordered military units stationed in Belgorod, Rostov and Bryansk to head back to their permanent bases. Excercises are over, they say. Reports appear of Donbas rebels loosing ground and of Rinat Akhmetov being more Ukrainian than ever. At least openly. Some things seem less uncertain than a few weeks ago. Great. It is about time. After all, everyone wants to enjoy Spring and prepare for Summer. Maybe Vladimir Putin wants to do the same. His dacha in Crimea is probably ready. After all, as I hear, here and there : the Russian army is so strong that if it would want to invade, it would have done it already. It has not done it yet, so it means that it will just not do it altogether. Logical.


If so, then what to do with the news that NATO did not observe as large a withdrawal of troops as announced ? It is already the third time that the Kremlin announces a withdrawal. One needs only a couple of armoured vehicles and a few hundred soldiers to show on TV. That’s a nice picture. Yet nothing indicates that proper Summer will come. Nothing allows anyone to go on holidays and fully disconnect, the way it should be.


Back in 2008, it was in early August that Georgia was bombed and invaded. And more, during Beijing Olympics. Military history already defined the concept of « drôle de guerre » (Phoney War) Ukraine goes through. Between the German invasion of Poland on 1st September 1939 and the attack on Benelux countries on 10th May 1940, that was more than 8 months. Analysts, journalists, politicians, repeatedly argued that war would not come to Western Europe, for this or that reason. And yet. Back in 2003, it took quite some time for the United States to invade Iraq. Examples are plenty, which show that war might be long to come in its physical form. The first Russian « little green man » appeared in Simferopol, Crimea, on 27th February. That is to say, hardly 3 months up until now. Dozens of millions of Ukrainians wake up every morning with the thought that this might be the D-Day. No one in Ukraine can possibly guarantee that 25th May presidential poll is to go peacefully. White hair does pop up here and there. And yet the biggest danger would be to dismiss and deny the danger.


Building of Donetk Regional Administration. Occupied since early April, it has become the headquarters of Donetsk People's Republic.
Building of Donetk Regional Administration. Occupied since early April, it has become the headquarters of Donetsk People’s Republic.

The war is already on. What is happening in Ukraine’s Far East is undoubtedly an armed conflict, which threatens to explode into a full-scale civil war. That does not only mean Kyiv against Donetsk. That would mean civil war in its worst understanding : neighbors against neighbors, cousins against uncles, friends against friends. Odessa is boiling up. Kharkiv is on the verge. As for the rest of the country, the so-called « information war » already rages. The war on Ukraine’s minds and spirit.


One does not start such a large offensive just to give up. Just like that. If Vladimir Putin was so keen on protecting the rights of Russian-speakers against illegitimate fascists a week ago, he will probably have the same ambition in one week from now. I am not a big fan of the historical references that keep associating Crimea with Sudetenland, Ukraine with Czechoslovakia or Putin with Hilter. Vladimir is no Adolf. If he would be, then one ought to gather up a squad and go and arrest him. But what appears to be sure is that the Russian President and his many supporters have both a plan and the means to achieve it. China will provide, if no one else.


1st May, Central Donetsk.
1st May, Central Donetsk.

Russian victories are not questionable. No one raises the issue of Crimea any longer. Donbass is more a pain in Kyiv’s shoe than ever before – and that is undoubtedly Kyiv’s fault, too. The IMF stresses the need to renegotiate its support package to Ukraine in the light of recent developments and further evolutions in the country. Vladimir Putin could not win the hearts of Ukrainians ? He has visibly decided to defeat their nerves.


The nerves, and probably even more. He refers to a basic grid of understanding. And it works. Language, ethnicity, culture, history, everyone loves it. In doing so, he literally denies the complexity and the diversity of Ukraine as a country. He dismisses the idea that Ukrainians have been uniting along different lines over the past few decades. That is education, politics, job market, tourism, media sphere, mixed marriages and more. A common narrative has developed in independent Ukraine. Ukrainians as a political object, as a civic nation, have been growing up. Everyone could see it on the Maidan. Such a maturing reality is denied so as to be replaced by something much more simple. Ukraine is a mistake of History and Ukrainians are either little Russians or renegate fascists. If one thinks that way, then better pick the first option. Whether one decides to stand by the side of those Ukrainians or not does not even matter here. The crucial argument is that their existence as a coherent and independent collective phenomenon is denied.


Maidan Nezalezhnosti, Kyiv, 20th February 2014
Maidan Nezalezhnosti, Kyiv, 20th February 2014

« One might say that the world acknowledges our existence at a time when we might cease to exist », Ukrainian philosopher Volodymyr Yarmolenko states. Indeed. An unprecedented number of people across the world knows where to locate Ukraine. Kyiv. Crimea. Sloviansk. Maidan did place the Ukrainian phenomenon on the map. One witnessed this very first moment in history when Ukraine emerged as an object in itself in the international media and political discourse. For once, it was not a « large country between Europe and Russia », a grey buffer zone instrumentalized by powerful interests, a march of Eastern and Western empires.


In late February, the first « little green man » crushed this momentum. Russian and Western media took it as a sign that Ukraine is a mere playing ground for the big ones. A piece of land on the periphery, populated by local people whose identity is defined in competing centers – Moscow, Warsaw, Brussels, Washington, Hollywood. A kind of a sponge deprived of its own consistence, which absorbs influences from here and there. Crimea was never Ukrainian. Eastern Ukraine is NovoRossia. Kyiv is the mother city of all Russian cities. The birthplace. The craddle. Who knows what will justify the claims on Galicia and Lviv. But someone will find it. Trust a few ideologists. Trust the media. And trust the Ukrainian government to be unable to stand its discursive ground, if no military and media ground. And war is on.


This is the first time in History when Ukrainians are under attack as a modern political nation. Cossacks, Galicians, Hutsuls, Holodomor-stricken farmers, Soviet soldiers and civilians, etc. Ukrainians have been attacked before. Many times. Yet never were Ukrainians from Lviv to Donetsk, from Chernihiv to Odessa so aware of each other as components of a nation-minded body. To state that the Ukrainian process of nation-building – that is associating a nation to the structures and the boundaries of a state – is radically different than denying it. It is about acknowledging that Ukrainians as a political object face their first frontal aggression ever. Whether they will resist the attack not as people but as a nation is going to be one of the main questions of the early 21st century.


And yet, is this all about an aggression project from imperialist Russia ? As far as I understand it, the actions of Vladimir Putin are a statement, plain and simple, that the Russian President has had to bury his project of a Eurasian Union. He did not win the cooperation of Ukraine. And without Ukraine, his project makes less sense, if any sense at all. No offense meant to Kazakhs. Isn’t it here a defensive move ? In my view, Putin’s biggest fear is not the future of the Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol. It is not the endangered rights of Russian-speakers and citizens. It is not the prospect of the extraction of shale gas, which would have enhanced Ukraine’s energy independence.


The very danger for the Kremlin is the idea of a successful Ukraine. Through the revolutionary process, which has reborn on Maidan on November 2013, Ukrainians give themselves the opportunity to empower civil society, to require their leaders to be accountable and responsible and, if needed, punishable. They start getting organized in a horizontal way, instead of waiting for instructions from the top. The « Revolution of Dignity » Ukrainians started might develop into a unique alternative of development across post-Soviet space. Poles succeeded ? And so what ? They have always been different than Eastern Slavs. Baltic States don’t look that bad ? They are renegates. Moldova starts having good roads ? This changes nothing. According to the contemporary public discourse in Russia, they are all fascists anyway.


But if Ukrainians, the « Little Brothers », would come to build a collective system, which would be overall respectful of fundamental rights, which would reduce corruption to a manageable level and transform their state from an apparatus of control to an institution of services… This would become a model. This would become an example to envy and to follow. This would make some noise, which would echo from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok, across authoritarian Russia. A very good friend of mine named one of the main differences between Europe and Ukraine as a very simple one: « In what we call Europe, no one feels afraid to ask a policeman for directions on the streets », she once told me. Were such a difference to be made not between Europe and Ukraine, but between Ukraine and Russia, this would change everything.


In placing Ukraine in a state of war, Vladimir Putin – and his many supporters – intend to break the wave. In questioning, if not denying, the very idea of an independent Ukraine, one might seriously question the achievements of Ukrainians as a coherent political body. Actually, we see now that the wave is weakening. Who cares about Rinat Akhmetov and Ihor Kolomoisky’s pasts? They are about to become national heroes. Another oligarch is about to become President. Petro Poroshenko did state that he would sell all of his industrial assets. Yet it seems he would remain owner of « Kanal 5 ». Every President needs a voice. This one may already have a loudspeaker. So-called « Lustration » is not going to make a difference anytime soon. In times of an economic disaster, small corruption schemes are to remain as many survival tricks as they used to be.


Did Vladimir Putin already win? As some of my colleagues and friends, I do believe so. Is it only Vladimir Putin’s fault? Far from it. Is it a war that threatens more the ideas than the people? Is it a fight that questions not only Ukraine as a civic nation but also Europe as a project? Undoubtedly. Is it irreversible? I do not believe so. As far as I could understand, one Russian-oriented project fights for a return to the Soviet past. One alternative offered by Westerners is to hang on to the present. As it is now and as it has to keep being. The Maidan I understood what about the future. Not necessarily a better one, an easier one, or a more democratic and prosperous one. But one which which would mark a fundamental change from both the past and the present. Something that justifies standing up. Something that justifies not going on holidays and fully disconnect, the way it would have to be. Something that justifies a new understanding of the way it has to be.


Spring starts here. Kyiv, April 2014
Spring starts here. Kyiv, April 2014

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