The il­lu­sion of dif­fer­ence:

How the Rus­sian op­po­si­tion sees Ukraine

The Ukrainian Week - - CONTENTS - Denys Kazan­skiy

How the Rus­sian op­po­si­tion sees Ukraine

At the be­gin­ning of Au­gust, Rus­sia’s dull po­lit­i­cal scene was the set­ting for an un­usu­ally ex­cit­ing episode. Op­po­si­tion politi­cian Sergei Udaltsov was re­leased from prison af­ter be­ing sen­tenced for “or­ga­niz­ing anti-Putin street ac­tions” and spend­ing four and a half years be­hind bars. Not long af­ter his re­lease, he held a press con­fer­ence, where, in­stead of sharply crit­i­ciz­ing the gov­ern­ment, the op­po­si­tion politico sud­denly praised Putin’s ac­tions in Crimea. He also ex­pressed sup­port for the mar­i­onette statelets “DNR” and “LNR” be­ing over­seen by Putin’s right-hand man, Vladislav Surkov. The one-time leader of Rus­sia’s “Left Front” sounded more like a Rus­sian na­tion­al­ist-im­pe­ri­al­ist than a left­ist.

“I sup­port the de­ci­sion of the res­i­dents of Crimea,” said Udaltsov. “I’m con­fi­dent that this was the will of the peo­ple to be with Rus­sia. That’s what Crimeans wanted. And as a left­ist of demo­cratic con­vic­tions, I can­not op­pose this.” Udaltsov made no men­tion of Rus­sia’s mil­i­tary in­va­sion of Crimea or about the false na­ture of the ref­er­en­dum. How a forced takeover of the penin­sula by the Armed Forces of the Rus­sian Fed­er­a­tion might be com­pat­i­ble with Udaltsov’s “left­ist, demo­cratic con­vic­tions” is a mys­tery.

The politi­cian talked about the mil­i­tants of “DNR” and “LNR” in the same vein, re­fer­ring to them as “he­roes, brave men who are not sit­ting around in the bushes.” And once more, not a word about the un­der­handed, covert use of the Rus­sian army in Ukraine, about the in­va­sion in Ilo­vaisk, about the se­cret fu­ner­als of Rus­sian sol­diers who have died in Don­bas. The one-time “vic­tim of the regime” and “en­emy of Putin” is now spout­ing Krem­lin pro­pa­ganda.

This lit­tle episode con­firmed for the umpteenth time a long-rec­og­nized truth in Ukraine: that Ukrain­o­pho­bia typ­i­cally brings Rus­sia’s gov­ern­ment and its op­po­si­tion to­gether. Clearly, there’s lit­tle ba­sis for Ukraini­ans to com­fort them­selves with the thought that, once Putin is gone, Rus­sia will re­turn stolen ter­ri­to­ries, com­plete with an apol­ogy and com­pen­sa­tion.

And yet there are many in Ukraine who con­tinue to be­lieve and hope in the Rus­sian op­po­si­tion. It’s easy to hear such com­ments as “Oil is get­ting cheaper, Rus­sia’s econ­omy is in de­cline, so Rus­sians will soon be dis­il­lu­sioned enough with Putin to have their own revo­lu­tion. The gov­ern­ment will change and the war will end.”

This il­lu­sion is so pow­er­ful that even Alexei Navalny’s com­pletely un­am­bigu­ous state­ment that “Crimea is not a sand­wich that can just be re­turned” and sim­i­lar mes­sages from Mikhail Khodor­kovsky have done lit­tle to dis­pel it. Clearly, it’s time for Ukraini­ans to part com­pany with this myth. The re­al­ity is that most of­ten “forces that are friendly to­wards us” in the Rus­sian Fed­er­a­tion turn out to be as can­ni­bal­is­tic as Putin & Co.

The story with Udaltsov is hardly unique. There have been other high-pro­file op­po­si­tion politi­cians like Vi­ach­eslav Malt­sev, who ran for the State Duma as #2 on the party list for the lib­eral PARNAS party led by ex-PM Mikhail Kasianov. In one of his in­ter­views in early 2014, Malt­sev pro­posed tak­ing ad­van­tage of the Euro­maidan revo­lu­tion in Ukraine to grab a big swath of the coun­try.

“Right now, I can see that the Maidan is good for the Rus­sian peo­ple,” he said in Fe­bru­ary 2014. “Firstly be­cause it shows the path for our peo­ple to take. Se­condly, be­cause this sit­u­a­tion of­fers an op­por­tu­nity to snatch away the south­east­ern oblasts. We can al­ready help our­selves to Crimea... Of course, those oblasts that were un­der the Poles and the Aus­tro-Hun­gar­ian Em­pire are al­ready lost for­ever to Rus­sia. But Rus­sia needs to gather Rus­sian lands. How might they be gath­ered? To do that, first of all we have to break them up. This is the main is­sue that no one is talk­ing about be­cause ev­ery­one says they are for Ukraine’s sovereignty and ter­ri­to­rial in­tegrity. But I’m against Ukraine’s sovereignty and ter­ri­to­rial in­tegrity.”

In July 2017, Malt­sev left Rus­sia just ahead of be­ing ar­rested. He was be­ing per­se­cuted be­cause of his crit­i­cisms of those in power. As­ton­ish­ingly, he tried to flee re­pres­sion in Ukraine, which he him­self had sug­gested cap­tur­ing and de­stroy­ing. But Ukraine’s bor­der ser­vice re­fused him en­try and he was forced to flee from Putin to a dif­fer­ent coun­try.

This story would be funny if it did not say some­thing dis­turb­ing about Rus­sia’s op­po­si­tion. When a “lib­eral op­po­si­tion politi­cian” whom peo­ple be­gan to con­sider a vic­tim of the Putin regime in 2017 talks in terms that are even more blood­thirsty than the regime it­self, the truth is that there is, in fact, no dif­fer­ence be­tween Rus­sia’s op­po­si­tion and those in power. Their world­views are iden­ti­cal and any con­flict be­tween them arises only over who will more ef­fec­tively pan­der to the im­pe­rial am­bi­tions of Rus­sians.

Are there other politi­cians in Rus­sia who sym­pa­thize with Ukraine and de­fend its sovereignty? Yes, there are, but they are a marginal­ized group with min­i­mal sup­port among or­di­nary Rus­sians. The most fa­mous friend of Ukraine was Boris Nemtsov, who was as­sas­si­nated in cen­tral Moscow in Fe­bru­ary 2015. His ally Illya Yashin con­tin­ues to sup­port Ukraine openly, but it’s hard to say that he’s pop­u­lar in Rus­sia. Ac­cord­ing to polls, most Rus­sians sup­port the takeover of Crimea and gen­uinely be­lieve that Ukraine is a fas­cist coun­try and a pup­pet of the US. The Rus­sian Pub­lic Opin­ion Re­search Cen­ter (WCIOM) ran a sur­vey in 2016 that showed that nearly two thirds of Rus­sians sup­port the Krem­lin’s poli­cies to­wards Ukraine, with 26% of re­spon­dents call­ing it “com­pletely cor­rect” and an­other 38% call­ing it “mostly cor­rect.”

Given this, even the most lib­eral Rus­sian politi­cian is forced to make “blood­thirsty” state­ments re­gard­ing Ukraine from time to time in or­der to sat­isfy vot­ers. Any-


one who re­fuses to pan­der to the pub­lic is un­likely to find any sup­port. Opin­ion polls in Rus­sia to­day show that even the vot­ers with the most pro-western par­ties crave Ukrainian ter­ri­tory and Ukrainian blood. In part, tele­vi­sion is to blame for this, as Rus­sian TV has de­lib­er­ately stoked ha­tred to­wards Ukraini­ans for sev­eral years now. Still, it’s not the main rea­son. Pro­pa­ganda has sim­ply awak­ened the un­der­ly­ing think­ing. For all the years since the USSR col­lapsed, Rus­sians still have not ad­justed to the fact that Ukraine is an in­de­pen­dent state with a right to its own path and no duty to agree any of its poli­cies with Moscow. Many Rus­sians are con­vinced that by hav­ing in­de­pen­dent poli­cies, Ukraine is be­tray­ing Rus­sia and de­serves to be pun­ished.

Some Rus­sians who want to jus­tify this po­si­tion de­hu­man­ize Ukraini­ans and in­vent hor­ror sto­ries about “ter­ri­ble ban­derites” who need to be killed in self-de­fense. Oth­ers don’t even need such clumsy ex­cuses. In their minds, Ukraine is guilty be­cause it is not will­ing to be­come part of Rus­sian plans to re­store the “great em­pire,” and so the coun­try should be de­stroyed.

How likely, then, is it that, if Putin is re­placed by Navalny, Malt­sev, Udaltsov or any­one else like them, the Rus­sian-Ukrainian con­flict will be re­solved? Not very. Any Rus­sian politi­cian will have to work mainly with the ex­ist­ing elec­torate and to be guided by its de­mands. They can sym­pa­thize with Ukraini­ans as much as they like, but Ukraini­ans don’t vote in Rus­sian elec­tions. But one-time “mili­tia,” “cos­sacks” and pen­sion­ers who are nos­tal­gic for the USSR will. This means that Ukraine will be un­able to es­tab­lish good re­la­tions with the Krem­lin for the fore­see­able fu­ture, even if there is a revo­lu­tion in Moscow and some­one like Navalny or Udaltsov ends up run­ning the coun­try.

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