Nobody knows exactly what is going to happen in Ukraine, but the world is right to feel very nervous about the possibilities. In Russian iconography, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of images of St. George slaying the dragon and rescuing the princess. (St.) Putin these days appears to consider himself the modern counterpart thereof, willing to go to battle against the western dragon to save the maiden princess of the east.
Just a day or two ago, I would have written that I see no way right now that Russia will willingly “give up” the Crimean peninsula. Today, in fact, the local Crimean parliament has (no doubt with Putin’s blessing) voted to join Russia once again. There are, to be sure, historical and geopolitical reasons that could be pointed to for this, mostly because Crimea was part of Russia for so long (and only “given over to Ukraine” in 1954), and because Russia’s Black Sea Fleet is stationed there. On top of all this, Crimea has for decades been considered a kind of odd semi-autonomous republic, even under Ukrainian rule, and many (although by no means all) of the people who live there speak Russian and consider themselves Russian.
But the real looming question of the moment seems to be what to make of Vladimir Putin. What are his goals? What are his fears? What propels him to act, and to act especially in ways that seem contrary to the usual pushes and pulls of western political calculations?
It has to be said that Russia itself has long been a mystery to the west. Even during the time of the Czars, European rulers puzzled over what Russia would and would not do to support various political goals espoused by Europeans. Russia, too, has wondered over the centuries what makes Europe tick, and now what it is that the United States wants. In the end, I fear that we continue to miss each other’s intents, to say nothing of one another’s hopes and fears.
Russia has for centuries considered itself “exceptional.” Even during the Middle Ages, and continuing now into the 21st century, it has seen itself as the mystical Orthodox leader of Christianity, the country with a “soul,” as opposed to the corrupt, secular, anti-religious west that chases after materialism and the things of the body. When I was in Russia many years ago (this was in 1971, during the Soviet era), spending a summer there studying the language, I once witnessed a striking example of this. An American friend of mine and I were walking into a library in Moscow to see if we could check out a book. Two old women were standing nearby, the classic “babushkas” with headscarves and fat, rosy cheeks. They looked at us with, I have to say, some level of disdain, and – obviously not thinking (or not caring) that we could understand them, one said to the other: “Ah, these foreigners! They are trying to steal our Russian soul!”
The concept of the Russian soul, so called, is not a thing to be taken lightly. It is part and parcel both of this feeling of exceptionalism, and of the common belief among Russians that they have always been under some kind of attack by the west. This attack has taken not only military form, to utterly devastating effect, both by Napoleon in the 19th century and by Hitler in the 20th, but intellectual and cultural forms, as well. If you will indulge me, here is another story that illustrates the latter point. The small group from SUNY New Paltz that I was part of that was spending the summer there studying Russian also spent a short time in Sochi, the city of recent Olympic fame, although forty or forty-five years ago it was a much sleepier summer resort. Two young men, fellow students of mine from the group, decided one warm afternoon to go down to the Black Sea beach for a swim. However, they made the mistake of wearing cut-off jeans to do so. First of all, at the time no Russian man would dream of walking in the street in shorts, especially jagged-edged cut-off shorts. People made fun of them as they walked to the beach. Some said, “If you can’t afford a pair of pants, WE’LL buy you some!” And then, once they got to the beach, the police actually came and arrested these two young American students. They were kept in jail for several hours, until our accompanying professor finally got them released. However, shortly afterwards, the police came to our hotel, gathered all of us Americans together (a dozen or so of us), and gave us a very stern lecture. With literal wagging finger, we were told in no uncertain terms: “We will not tolerate your corrupting our Russian youth with your western ways. If ANYTHING like this happens again, you will all be summarily sent out of the country!” And all of this for wearing cut-off jeans!
So, we see that Russia has long considered itself a country under siege, sometimes for very good reason, and sometimes for not such good reason. But that mentality continues to be at work when Russians look at so many of the countries of the old Soviet Block (Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, Czechoslovakia – now the Czech Republic and Slovakia, of course – Hungary, and let us not forget Ukraine) and see them “turning toward Europe.” Most of these countries, with the exception of Ukraine, are now either part of the European Union, or have applied for such status, and some are also part of NATO. This makes Russia extremely nervous and, given Russia’s history vis-à-vis Europe, maybe we ought to try to understand that from their perspective there may well be very good reason for this nervousness. Now, Russia sees Ukraine, a country with profoundly deep ties to Russia, attempting to do the same thing. Let us not forget that Ukraine was part of Russia (not just part of the Soviet Union) for many centuries, and the Russian Orthodox Church, that bastion of the Russian soul itself, was actually founded in Kiev. There are many Russians living in Ukraine, and lots of Russian men have Ukrainian wives, and Ukrainian women have Russian husbands. For Russia to contemplate Ukraine “going to the west,” against all of this history and all of these cultural and economic ties, is almost unthinkable.
I believe that it is time for everybody to step back and take several deep breaths. First of all, Ukraine, for all of the totally legitimate reasons why it deposed its former highly corrupt president, Viktor Yanukovych, must try to remember these long-standing ties their country has with Russia, and not purposefully antagonize their powerful neighbor to the east. The United States and Europe, for their part, too have to come to grips with these historical ties, as well as with these fears and aspirations felt by Russia, and make an attempt to realize that some of them – certainly in Russia’s eyes – may be legitimate. Finally, Russia too has to give a little. It must let go some of its anger towards and mistrust of the west, and see that the only way forward is through political and diplomatic channels. You do not win the hearts and minds of people, whether they be Ukrainians, or Europeans, or Americans, through saber rattling, or military bluster, or worse, actual on-the-ground aggression.
Pres. Obama is in an extremely difficult spot right now. The Republican saber-rattlers like John McCain and others are screaming at him to “do something.” They are accusing him of being at the heart of the problem because he has somehow shown himself to be “weak” in international affairs. How they get that is a mystery to me, and I believe it is enormously unfair to so accuse him. But the President somehow has got to not anger these GOP hawks too much in such a way as to lose credibility at home, while making some attempt to understand Russia’s position, while supporting the very real and totally legitimate aspirations of the Ukrainian people, and also while getting the European Union behind him as they have never been before.
Maybe, now that I think of it, it is St. Obama we ought to be talking about, not St. Putin. Or another way to put it, what is really needed is St. Obama, St. Putin, St. Hollande, St. Merkel, St. Cameron, and let us not forget Ukraine’s St. Yatsenyuk. God knows, we’ll need all of them to slay this great and very dangerous dragon that threatens the very peace and stability of Ukraine, Russia, Europe, and the rest of the world, too.