The current crisis in Ukraine: The situation as of 4th March 2014

5 March 2014

By Masha Karp

First the good news: 

1. After 14 years of Russian human rights activists trying to tell the world about the imperial and totalitarian nature of Putin’s regime, it has suddenly started dawning on the West what they are dealing with. The Western countries turned a blind eye to 250 000 people brutally killed by Putin in Chechnya, because they were worried about the “war on terror” and trusted the Russian assertions that the Chechens were terrorists. They allowed the annexation of Georgian territories, because the Georgians dared to protest. But with Ukrainians showing courage and restraint in the face of the blatant invasion of their country, they suddenly saw Putin as he is – an imperialist not even doubting his right to interfere in other countries’ politics and ready to sacrifice people’s lives just to insist on it. His pathetic press-conference only confirmed to many people the extent to which he is "out of touch with reality" . 

2. The Russian invasion, contrary to its aims, of course, brought people living in Ukraine – Ukrainians, Russians, Crimean Tatars, Jews, Greeks and other ethnicities - closer together. People in Ukraine used to say that the despicable criminal figure of Yanukovich helped them to unite against him. Now they are united against the invaders. 

3. According VTSIOM’s data 73 % of Russians polled are against the war. 

Now for the bad news: 

1. 16 000 Russian troops are currently deployed in Crimea, according to Ukrainian sources. Armed soldiers without military insignia are everywhere, airports are taken, sea-ports are patrolled by Russian ships. Putin still insists on keeping the army there (although he does not admit it is his army!), because he is not happy with the results of the Ukrainian revolution. As Menzies Campbell has said in a BBC interview: “It’s a Russian roulette, but with a gun pressed not at your own, but at somebody else’s (Ukraine’s) head”. The danger is far from over. 

2. Although Putin’s press-conference has shown that even no more than tough talk (see, for example, a brilliant speech by the American Ambassador to the UN) and the threat of breaking off military relations can achieve something, the European countries, and Britain in particular, are still reluctant to use the simplest and most effective weapon that is in their hands. Many of the assets of the   Russian government and Russian officials are in London banks. Freezing them will immediately bring home to Putin’s regime that the West is serious! Yet as we know from the document that has been photographed, Britain is reluctant to do this, as it does not want "to harm the City". British leaders would rather harm the Crimean Tatars (300 000 - 12% of the Crimea population), the Ukranians (24%) and some Russians (over 3000 Russians in Crimea have signed the petition that they want to live in Ukraine) who will all definitely suffer if Crimea is taken over by the Russians. But the City will be OK! 

3. The majority of the Russian population still has no idea what’s actually happened in Ukraine and 94% of those polled by VTSIOM do not want a “Ukrainian scenario”, that is, a revolution along Ukrainian lines to happen in Russia, although problems facing both countries – corruption, the absence of independent judiciary, are largely similar. 

Ukraine and Rights in Russia 

For three months I have been admiring protesters in Maidan, who stood there in temperatures often below minus twenty, displaying dignity, courage, calm and a firm desire to change life in their country, and thinking – could this be possible in Russia? My answer to this question coincides with the responses given by 75% of those polled by VTSIOM – “no”. For me two reasons for this are obvious: 

First, during the protests Ukraine really got together as a nation. The way people sang their national anthem, the way they greeted each other with “Glory to Ukraine” – “Glory to the Heroes!”, the way their priests called them to calm and peace, mercy and forgiveness, the way they treated each other - with extreme respect and courtesy - was all part of a nation becoming fully aware of itself and striving for its right to decide its affairs independently. It was a proper national liberation-movement. 

Yes, there were – and still are - some marginal far-right groups, who would support the slogan, which is a version of an infamous Russian slogan: “Russia for the Russians” – “Ukraine for the Ukrainians.” But marginal far–right groups exist everywhere and it would be surprising if, with a national movement like the one Ukraine has at the moment, they would not join it. But a strong nation, conscious of its culture and history and tolerant of others - and this is the nation that we’ve seen on the Maidan - is sure to find ways of coping with them. At any rate on the Maidan they did not pursue their far-right agenda, nor called for the supremacy of Ukrainians over the others. On the contrary, on the Maidan they took care to speak about the many ethnic groups that compose Ukraine. 

With the Russians it is completely different. Becoming a united nation is a huge problem for them. They have always been the “Big Brother” in the Empire , “the first among the equals” as Russia used to be called in Soviet times, and therefore they often feel unable to separate the interests of the nation from the interests of the Empire. They are offended when the Empire shrinks, but do not care that Russians within Russian often lead a miserable existence. In 1989 Marina Salie, one of Petersburg's democratic leaders wrote an article entitled “Why is the Russian democratic movement embarrassed to take on a national idea?” And that is how it went on. 

Decent people, who would really want Russia to prosper and its people to live as well as anybody else, often feel shy to call themselves nationalists, fearing that they would be accused either of chauvinism or of imperialism. Moreover, recently, the term 'nationalist' has become a term of abuse in Russia. So it is a thousand times more difficult for the Russians to unite than it is for the Ukrainians – they are deprived of a wonderful glue that brings people with different views together. ”We are Russian, let’s make Russia democratic, prosperous and tolerant, let’s live decently, honestly, respecting other nations” - some time will still have to pass before the Russians will be able to put it this way. 

The second reason why it’s difficult to imagine at the moment a protest movement similar to the Ukrainian one is that, unlike Ukraine, Russia has not had free media for about 14 years. Obviously, those who use the Internet to learn political news have access to everything they wish, and they learn even more if they read foreign languages, but the majority of people in the country are exposed only to the official Russian propaganda broadcast by the ubiquitous state TV. When people are constantly fed anti-Western propaganda, which assures them that nobody would ever protest against the corrupt government unless they are paid by foreigners, this cannot but affect their outlook. That is why the protest remains confined to the “internet-savvy” people only. 

Paradoxically even in Soviet times people in the Russian provinces had more information because they could tune in to Western radio stations – but today these stations are also only available to Internet users. Of course Russian TV viewers are cynical enough not to believe everything they are told, but they certainly exist in an information vacuum and if their government chooses to tell them that the protesters in Maidan were killed by the protesters themselves rather than by the police as was the case, they have no means to verify it… 

And yet many people in Russia were impressed by the perseverance and firmness of Maidan, by their mastery in organising themselves during three long months and by their victory – the ousting of the hated President Yanukovich. It gave these people hope that something like this might one day be possible in Russia. In any case, when on 22nd February a tiny group of Russians was protesting in front of the Russian Embassy in London against the unjust show- trial of Bolotnaya prisoners before the final sentences were due to be announced next Monday, several cars with billowing yellow and blue flags filled by Ukrainians going to their own rally loudly hooted their support. The Russians, who were not at all unanimous in their assessment of Ukrainian revolution, hesitantly and gratefully waved back. 

The views expressed in blogs published on Rights in Russia are those of the authors and are not necessarily those of Rights in Russia.