The much admired American Western, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) contains an insightful scene. The main characters are trying to escape and are considering a very dangerous jump from the cliff:
Butch Cassidy: They’ll never follow us.
Sundance Kid: How do you know?
Cassidy: Would you jump if you didn’t have to?
Indeed, they jump while their pursuers stay. One is ready to gamble with one’s limb or even life only if one has to. The recent Russian actions in Ukraine might be explained through the same prism. Driven by the fundamental concerns of national identity and national security, Russians felt that they had to accomplish this jump and return Crimea, while nobody else was ready to jump after them. Recent polls in Germany and United States suggest that a very small percentage of the population support the aggressive rhetoric and actions of their governments. People know that it is not their fight, while Russians, both within and outside Crimea, support the move even when threatened by Western sanctions. In other words, the events in Crimea have more to do with Russian people, and less with Putin’s "follies" or imperial ambitions. Striving for his political survival, Putin did what any smart politician would do – followed the will of his people.
It is naïve to think that Russians always follow their leaders. They do, but up to a point. The birth and collapse of the Soviet Union were ushered in not by Lenin or Gorbachev; it occurred when Russians had enough of their tsars or Communist leaders, and turned in another direction. And as they turned, Russia’s citizens of the Post-Perestroika period didn’t want to fight to keep Poland, Baltics, or Ukraine under their bayonets.
They didn’t want to fight, even though Ukrainian history is so much intertwined with Russian cultural identification; even though it was the Kievan prince, Vladimir, who introduced Orthodoxy into Russian lands. Even though Kiev is known as "the mother of Russian cities"; and even though from the 16th century on, Russians fought endless wars for Crimea. Traumatic as the loss of Ukraine must have been, Russians buried their resentments and went with their struggle for survival during the Post-Perestroika. They also watched their leaders plunder the country’s national resources, while making mockery of Russian’s sense of their role in the world. "Betrayal" has to be the term which the average Russian applied to his politicians’ illegal squandering of the parts of Russia which was not theirs to give. First Khruschev connected Crimea to Ukraine, then Eltsin formalized this handout when he was breaking up Soviet Union. The recent events in Ukraine brought these unresolved resentments to the surface as they put Russian self-identitification under threat. Judging by the amount of outrage one encounters in the blogosphere or hears from friends, common Russian people are truly shaken. Exploring various sites as the part of my study of Russian culture, I register an explosion of emotions.
Russians could have tolerated Crimea and Sevastopol in the hands of a friendly Ukraine. But what they could not deal with was the Ukraine that metamorphosed into a hostile country, controlled by some uninvited strangers, ranging from the Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland, who felt the God-given right to appoint the future rulers of Ukraine from the privacy of her hotel room, to the gun-toting thugs from the culturally different Western Ukraine who asserted their control over Kiev, the city where the magnificent monument to St. Vladimir hovers over its expanse. And these future masters of Ukraine didn’t even bother to give a voice to anyone representing Russian interests. Imagine some violent group taking over Jerusalem and declaring that it will be the place only for Jewish, or Muslim, or Christian worship. How would people of other denominations feel? That’s how Russians felt watching the events in Ukraine. Something had to be done about this scandalous situation. Had Putin not have done it, somebody else would have.
These are not complex issues to understand, and judging by the polls, common people everywhere understand them well. But the politicians and the pundits managed to misread these events into a perfect storm of anti-Putin hysteria. It is important to analyze this storm because its components seem to feed off each making it impenetrable to the rational criticism.
Part of this storm is fueled by the Eastern European historical grievances against Russia and Soviet Union. But how do these countries suffer now? Yet, it surely pays to scream about the Russian threat, because it is the best way to milk both the EU and US. Nothing works better than paranoia laced with venality. If one has to pay for one’s delusions, one might decide to cure them. But not when the paranoia brings in money. Poland gets annually 20 billion dollars from the US for its strategic role as a fore-post against the Russian bear. Consequently, who would dare to articulate that Russia is no longer a threat, and that European or American money can be better used at home?
Besides venality, the paranoia is also fed by the deep-seated cultural prejudice that denies Russia its ability to adopt to the western ways. Having emanated from the Polish Catholics of the 17th century, who failed to come to terms with the Orthodox Russia’s eclipse of Poland as the main power in the Eastern Europe, it continues to fuel fanatics from the heavily polonized parts of Western Ukraine, all the way to the journalism of Anne Applebaum with her latest "discovery" that "Russia is not a flawed Western power. Russia is an anti-Western power," or recent barrage of Timothy Snyder’s publications. Snyder, who is Yale Professor of Polish history and whose knowledge of Russia is as sketchy as it is biased, persistently presents Russia as some sort of backward culture driven by – according to his recent insight – the doctrines of "eurasianism," characterized by Snyder as "the opposite of liberal democracy," and inspired by "ideas of Carl Schmitt, the leading Nazi political theorist." Snyder conveniently forgets that he is talking about the same Carl Schmitt who’s been the inspiration for the neocons’ legal justifications of American hegemony, and the intellectual force behind John Woo’s legal memorandums justifying Guantanamo tortures. Furthermore, it was Americans who protected Carl Schmitt after WWII, and who let him teach and articulate his doctrine of demonizing and stripping the state enemies of all legal rights. So who is inspired by Schmitt: Russians or those who demonize them?
There is another influential group that joined the storm: Russia’s liberal thinkers and politicians, such as Garry Kasparov or Alexei Navalny. Their anger at Putin, who regularly mistreats them, is such that they see Crimea’s crisis as Putin’s manipulation of public away "from real problems like corruption and economic stagnation." But Navalny’s concern for the population’s purses is rather patronizing and so is his view of Russians as victims of Putin’s manipulation. 93 % of the Russian population support the inclusion of Crimea into Russia. Furthermore, the same poll indicates that 80% of Russians are willing to endure the military conflict over Crimea. This poll was conducted by the same respectable institution, (WCIOM) (All Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion) that determined that originally 73% of Russians were not interested in further involvement in Ukraine. Russian hesitance is clearly misinterpreted in Ukraine is Putin’s, not Russia’s, War by Vladimir Kara-Murza who fails to report that the poll was taken on February 1, 2014, long before the ugly and violent overthrow of the Ukrainian government.
And last but not least, there are the neocons from the State department, whose point person in Ukraine has been Victoria Nuland, the tough-minded, foul-speaking diplomat bent on realizing the policies which her husband, Robert Kagan, co-founder of the “Project for the New American Century” (PNAC), has been articulating for years. The neocons’ interest in Russia is more tangential to their main preoccupation with Israel’s security. Russia’s role in the recent events in Syria, or Iran is perceived as a threat; consequently, Russia has to be weakened. The Middle East is not my area of expertise, but it is clear that these efforts to "weaken Russia" would only escalate Russia’s meddling in the Middle East. But dealing with counterarguments has never been the neocon’s strongest suit. And now with the support from Russian liberals and East European politicians, they would be even less prone to self-questioning.
All this fixation on Putin and his evil empire is reminiscent of the Roman Politician, Cato the Elder, who couldn’t resist proclaiming his notorious motto "Carthago delenda est" (Carthage must be destroyed), no matter what was the occasion of his speeches. But isn’t it time for these pundits to ponder the meaning of another Roman phrase: vox populi vox Dei? Even the power-blinded Romans understood its relevance.
Vladimir Golstein is a professor of Slavic Studies at Brown University.