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How Putin’s worldview may be shaping his response in Crimea

A woman holds a board displaying a portrait of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin during a procession in central Moscow on Sunday. (Sergei Karpukhin/ Reuters)
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Joshua Tucker: The following is a guest post from Maria Snegovaya, a Columbia University doctoral candidate in political science.


As the crisis in Crimea continues to escalate, western analysts keep making excuses for why they got it so wrong. The problem is that rational choice-based scholars forgot to acknowledge the culturally framed goals chosen by the actors. Why did so few western policy analysts could predict the invasion? Because they believed that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s goal is to promote Russia’s world integration and to increase its economic power. Isn’t it the only rational thing to do? Turns out it is not how Putin sees the situation.

The recent literature on Putin is correctly in drawing attention to his pro-Soviet imperialistic views: remember, to Putin the collapse of the USSR the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of 20th century. But what exactly this pro-Soviet worldview means is fairly poorly understood. To get a grasp on one needs to check what Putin’s preferred readings are. Putin’s favorites include a bunch of Russian nationalist philosophers of early 20th century – Berdyaev, Solovyev, Ilyin — whom he often quotes in his public speeches. Moreover, recently the Kremlin has specifically assigned Russia’s regional governors to read the works by these philosophers during 2014 winter holidays. The main message of these authors is Russia’s messianic role in world history, preservation and restoration of Russia’s historical borders and Orthodoxy. A quote from Ilyin will help:

Lets immediately accept that Russia’s partitioning prepared by the international backstage has absolutely no reason behind, or real spiritual or political considerations besides revolutionary demagogy, absurd fear of a unified Russia and inveterate enmity towards the Russian monarchy and the Eastern Orthodoxy. We know that Western nations don’t understand and don’t tolerate Russian identity… They are going to divide the united Russian ‘broom’ into twigs to break these twigs one by one and rekindle with them the fading light of their civilization. They need to partition Russia to equate it with the West, and thus destroy it: a plan of hatred and lust for power …  (from Ivan Ilyin’s 1950 piece ‘What Does Russia’s Partitioning Mean to the World?’, taken from his collection “Our Tasks” that contains his articles published in 1948-1954.)

Echoing Ilyin is another Putin’s favorite that was rumored to be very popular in his close circles a few years ago: “The Third Empire: Russia that Ought to Be” by Michael Yuriev. It’s a utopian fantasy written as a history book from a perspective of a 2054 Latin American narrator. The book describes how 2054 world order was established, and the process has a striking resemblance with contemporary Ukrainian events. It begins with a Recovery period of 2000-12, when the Great Russia starts its resurgence under the rule of Vladimir II the Restorer. Importantly the First Expansion that leads to reunification of significant territory occurs when Eastern and Southern Ukrainian regions rebel against west-organized Orange revolution (supported by western Ukraine). To help the revolting Ukrainians (that want to rejoin Russia) Vladimir II offers to include their Eastern territories into Russia. He then passes a referendum on those territories, and replaces the Russian Federation with the Russian Union (refer to the Custom Union) that also includes Belarus, Prednestrovie, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Note that Yuriev’s book was published in 2006 (prior to the Georgian war and the de-facto annexation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia).

It feels like Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko might have read the book too, based on his recent appeal to immediately renew negotiations with European Union.

What happens next in the book – is for the reader to find out (I’m not a spoiler). But as unbelievable as it sounds (did Ukrainian invasion sound any more real two days ago?) the book offers a useful insight into the man’s psychology.

Again, it may sound implausible but that is exactly what the late Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington predicted in his book “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order: alignments and wars among various civilizations — Western, Islamic, Chinese, Orthodox/Russian Latin etc. Notice that the Orthodox/Russian unity has already been restored in Russia. In response to the Ukrainian Church’s call to stop the Russian troops, Saturday a representative of Russia’s Orthodox Church suggested that Ukrainians shouldn’t resist the Russian military “peacekeepers.” Their mission – as was pointed out – is “to restore Russia’s historical unity.”

This helps us to understand why western analysts keep misreading the motivation behind Putin’s actions. His reality is very different from the reality in which these analysts live. His goal is primarily to “recollect Russia’s historical territories” (which specific version of historical Russia he has in mind is for us to rediscover in the next episodes). The saddest part of it is that most Russians – brainwashed by Kremlin-owned media – are supporting their president’s actions. As the latest Levada-Center data show, the substantial proportions of Russians believe that the events in Kiev were an attempted violent state coup (43 percent) inspired by the West seeking to draw Ukraine into its orbit of interests (45 percent). This data clearly reveal that the concept of cultural clash has been deeply ingrained in the minds of today’s Russians.

But there is good news as well. Ukraine itself is, in fact, much less divided across West-East lines than Kremlin would like us to believe. During the protest peak, the Maidan’s campground in Kiev (labeled as a ‘melting pot’) featured tents from all over Ukraine. As the death statistics indicate, the people killed in the streets of Kiev during Ukranian President Viktor Yanukovych’s harsh Euromaidan crackdown came from a variety of Ukrainians regions, including eastern centers: Kharkov, Dnepropetrovsk, Zaporozhe and Yanukovych’s own heartland – Donetsk. Surveys show that 88 percent of Kiev’s Euromaidan participants came from outside of the capital. Of those only half originated from the country’s western regions, while the other half came from the central and eastern Ukraine. Specifically as many as one fifth (20 percent) of protesters came from the eastern regions alone.  As for the capital itself, over three fourths (a qualified majority) of the capital’s residents supported the Euromaidan protesters. If anything, this data indicates the presence of consensus, not a divide, among the Ukrainian population.

Moreover, country-level data is also against the Ukrainian cultural divide concept. A survey from the Razumkov Center, shows that as of late December 2013 an absolute majority of the population in both the Center (two thirds) and West (80 percent) of Ukraine supported the Euromaidan; this is in contrast to about 20-30 percent in the East and South. However, the share of population that did not express support for the Euromaidan protests remained undecided regarding the alternative option: not supporting the Maidan did not automatically equal supporting the Russian vector or Yanukovych. This was illustrated by the people’s attitude towards Antimaidan (a series of pro-Yanukovych protests launched by the authorities in response to Euromaidan protests): only a small minority of Ukrainians took part in those protests (0.7 to 3 percent depending on the region), and Antimaidan demands were not supported in any of the regions.

However, concerns regarding regional tensions in Ukraine are still plausible given the preponderance of pro-Russia oriented media in the Russian-speaking East. During the Euromaidan protests, these media actively emphasized the cultural divide. If anything, the notorious divide exists primarily within Eastern Ukraine alone. Initially Yanukovych’s own voters (typically representing the Eastern regions) were split on the issue of the Customs Union versus the European Union association, and even his own home region showed atypical expressions of pro-European sentiment.

But Putin either isn’t aware of and/or doesn’t believe this data (that likely in his perception is provided by foreign agents, such as NGOs funded by the West). And thus the conquest for restoration of historical Russia is likely to continue in the near future in the Ukrainian East. The clash of civilizations has just begun (at least in Putin’s mind).


Previous posts on the recent events in Ukraine at The Monkey Cage:

International law and institutions look pretty weak now, but they will matter a lot down the road

The ‘Russia reset’ was already dead; now it’s time for isolation

Obama is using the OSCE to give Russia an exit strategy … if it wants one

Who are the Crimean Tatars, and why are they important?

5 reasons I am surprised the crisis in Crimea is escalating so quickly

How to prevent the crisis in Ukraine from escalating

What does Ukraine’s #Euromaidan teach us about protest?

Why Ukraine’s Yanukovych fell but so many analysts (including me) predicted he would survive

What you need to know about Ukraine

How social media spreads protest tactics from Ukraine to Egypt

Who are the protesters in Ukraine?

The (Ukrainian) negotiations will be tweeted!

Social networks and social media in Ukrainian “Euromaidan” protests

What you need to know about the causes of the Ukrainian protests

Why are people protesting in Ukraine? Providing historical context

How Ukrainian protestors are using Twitter and Facebook

As police raid protests in Ukraine, protesters turn to Twitter and Facebook

Six reasons to be cautious about likelihood of opposition success in Ukraine

Three reasons why protests in Ukraine could end up helping Yanukovych

Additional commentary from the NYU Social Media and Political Participation(SMaPP) lab not at The Monkey Cage: Tweeting the Revolution: Social Media Use and the #Euromaidan Protests