Again the world is watching while heavily armed unidentified men in green camouflage suits suddenly appear in Eastern Ukrainian towns, occupy police stations, buildings of the Ukrainian secret agency SBU and other governmental agencies, and take the lead of the separatist movement that is now enveloping this part of the country. And again the world tries to come to terms with what is clear from the very start: we are watching phase two of the Russian invasion into Ukraine, Putin’s major plan to carve out the juicy bits of this country, which will allow him to continue his master plan for the region: the reestablishment of the imperium that was, and that most of us believed would never be again.
And like with the Crimea, which has now been swallowed up by Putin’s Russia in violation of all international norms and agreements, the world will realize what is actually going on by the time it is too late, when all the strategic buildings in Eastern Ukraine are in hands of the “proponents of federalism”, as Russia euphemistically calls them, a referendum is organized with active support of “brotherly Russia” and the outcome is an overwhelming majority in favor of joining Russia. Who knows, maybe even 123% of the population of Donetsk will vote in favor, like the 123% of the population in Simferopol. Who knows – Putin’s megalomania is without boundaries and the need to prove he is majestic has crossed all levels of normality.
And again the comparison with 1938-1939 is shocking. Read how Czechoslovakia was eaten up by Hitlerite Germany and how the Western powers were not only onlookers, but with their appeasement and indecisiveness actually active participants, and you will be shocked, dismayed and angry that again we let this happen in front of our eyes.
Hitler took hold of a weak, disorganized and impoverished Germany that was struggling with economic hardships and hurt national feelings as a result of the First World War and the resulting Versailles Peace Agreement. He assumed power and immediately set himself to the task of “defending the interests of fraternal Germans” (very similar to Putin’s defense of Russians) and creating “Lebensraum”: a sort of breathing space for the German population to the East. He was a megalomaniac, disturbed and evil, and with his messianism he sent his people to utter disaster.
Putin and his cronies took hold of a Russia that found itself in a somewhat similar situation. The country was impoverished, the economy was in shambles, corruption was widespread and the national pride of large portions of the nation was deeply hurt. However, while Hitler was focusing his megalomania on the German race and was keen to create a huge German or Arian nation-state, the hurt feelings in Russia were very much focused on the loss of the imperial lands, the countries that they claimed to be “nasha”, “ours”. Lands, which in their view had been sold out by a bunch of crooks and renegades, in short: by Boris Yeltsin and his liberal friends.
Putin cleverly combined his own sense of loss (“the collapse of the USSR was the greatest tragedy of the twentieth century”) with the idea that Russia historically owned these lands, and that justice had to be done. Last year, at the annual discussion meeting in Veidai, he made very clear that he saw himself as the heir of the Russian Empire and the USSR at the same time, and while combining symbols of both imperia he created a soup that for many disenchanted Russians looked very attractive and, what is more, just. Because many Russians believe in the Slavophile idea that Russians are a chosen people, that they have a historic mission, and that the collapse of the USSR is indeed a historical crime that needs to be undone.
However, there is a major difference. While Hitler was a true believer to his ideology, with its rabid anti-Semitism and racism, Putin combines his virile patriotism with very pragmatic business interests. Putin is not only in for the fame, he is also – and especially – in for the money. Putin sees the USSR as a business – his business.
In the 1980 the power of the criminal underworld in the Soviet Union increased rapidly while the country suffered from stagnation and political ossification. Criminal gangs belonging to “thieves in law” found themselves “protectors” in governmental agencies, of course in exchange for handing over a slice of the cake. These forms of protection, called “krysha” or “roof”, involved the highest level of authority. For instance, Brezhnev’s brother in law and deputy chairman of the KGB, Semyon Tsvigun, committed suicide in the early 1980s when it was disclosed that he was involved in these practices. In the Wild-West years of the 1990s, the criminal power and political power in the country basically merged, and became in many places identical. One of the results is Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin himself, who started (or upgraded?) his thieving career while being advisor to mayor Anatoly Sobchak and in charge with the food-for-oil program, which resulted in the theft of close to one hundred million US dollars.
Putin is in fact in charge of a mafia, and has used his power to turn Russia into a criminal state. He plays the patriotic drum, knowing that his population buys it, but at the same time he is purely after his personal economic interests. When he raises the price of gas or oil, he actually fills his own pockets. When he threatens the West with restrictions on deliveries, he uses his own private business for political means. The West deals with the leader of a criminal gang while thinking it is negotiating with a politician, and thus it is from the onset disadvantaged.
In a way, looking back we could have seen this coming. Those who know the region were surprised in 1990-1991 how silently and bloodlessly the USSR imploded, and ceased to exist. Those who know the region also soon realized that psychologically the USSR continued to exist, and that it would take generations before it would fade away. What we now see is a resurgence of the USSR, not just psychologically but materially as well, an attempt to reinstate what was already carried to the grave. The USSR is still there, in the heads of a large part of the population that has been kept deliberately stupid for almost a century, a population which was terrorized into obedience, into a state of permanent servitude. We see the intellectual level of for instance the leaders of the “People’s Republic of Donetsk”, an astonishing sight keeping in mind that these lost souls will determine the future of millions of people for a long time to come. What we are watching is a resurgence of Sovietism, but this time in the form of a special blend, created by Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. We are watching Putinism.
I have no problem saying that Putin is a criminal. And I am saying that not only because he is a thief on a majestic scale, with an estimated personal property of 130 million dollars. He is a criminal also because without any empathy he brainwashes his population with an absurd mix of Soviet, fascist and racist propaganda; because he sends his people to war, against a nation that is so close, and with whom Russians have so many emotional and family ties; because he triggers a civil war in a country that is just about to recover from twenty years of thievery by another political elite. He is a criminal, because instead of building a new Russia he ruined it even more, letting the country rot while satisfying his own megalomaniac needs. He is a criminal, because with his policies the disintegration of Russia itself is quickly becoming inevitable, and the bloodshed that was so unexpectedly avoided in 1990-1991 will now envelop the country.
People, fasten your seatbelts. We are in for a horrible, bumpy and scary ride.
Robert van Voren is Professor of Soviet and Post-Soviet Studies at Vytautas Magnus University (Kaunas, Lithuania) and Ilia State University (Tbilisi, Georgia).