Updated: Jul 11, 2018
There is a difference between memory and history. Both have had their uses in politics. History is based in fact, or at least in the facts that are available to us. Accepting history and learning from it allows for thoughtful solutions to current political problems. Memory is based in a fiction of one’s own making. Whether comforting or upsetting, memory perpetuates myth. As a result it creates insoluble political problems in the present; problems that are exploited by politicians looking for a seat in the house or senate chambers or even the White House. In 2012, memory, not history, told Russia that the United States and the European Union were a threat to their existence. After perverting the law to allow for another term (as well as manipulating tens of millions of votes in order to gain a majority), Vladimir Putin had once again become president of Russia. Russia’s genuine lack of rule of law as well as real succession principle not only made them ineligible for EU membership it also made Putin look like a failure. The European Union and the United States had proved itself a model for governance on the world stage, both in terms of success and morality. The West is economically prosperous, where Russia is not. It is intellectually wealthy, where Russia is not. It is relatively tolerant, where Russia is not. The EU and the US are by no means perfect however both of them provide the means for improvement. Russia does not. Putin had to make Russia look successful and if he couldn’t do that by making his own oligarchical country better he had to do it by making democracy look worse. The West had not earned this animosity through anything it did but rather what it represented: a threat to Putin’s power. Since Putin’s power is relatively weak on a grand scale, this “threat” of his had to be framed in terms of culture and memory. Not history. This way Putin can make any argument he wants based on his version of events.
Putin’s invasion of the Ukraine in 2014 was the first warning sign. Ukraine had been reaching a point where it would be ready to join the European Union. Putin’s fear here is of an isolated Russia where nations that once had belonged to the Soviet Union join the European Union, which will weaken Russian influence and subsequently his own. This fear is not completely unfounded seeing that the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia had already joined the EU by 2004. The Putin narrative was that Eastern Europe had always been part of Russia and so the sovereignty of those nations is null. Citing the fact that the people on the Crimean peninsula already speak Russian and therefore are part of Russia. By interfering in the Ukrainian election and invading Crimea, Putin was able to create enough chaos to keep it from entering the European sphere, and all the while framing the invasion as a war against the West. The troops Putin ordered to Crimea were sent with no insignia, no identification of their nationality. This includes Russian paramilitary. Therefore Russian troops did not have to act in accordance to any international or wartime laws and Putin could abdicate any responsibility. The families of troops killed were told to keep quiet or lose any military benefits provided by the state to the family members of fallen soldiers.
This illegal invasion was not taken as seriously as it should have. Unfortunately this is due to the poor coverage it has received. Many American journalists have not taken the time to do the international reporting required to obtain the facts because the profit motive is just not there. Not to mention that the information they were gathering was based on Russian reports of the events. Putin was able to control the narrative through a historical memory of his own making, allowing the Russian military to actually be in the Ukraine while denying any Russian involvement. At the time of the annexation of Crimea, the story had been so muddied by Russian media that one could see headlines that read Crimea had been “reclaim[ed]” by the Russian Federation when in fact it had not.
The most serious part of all this is the implications. In 1994 Great Britain and the United States gave the Ukraine security assurances that if they got rid of their nuclear weapons their sovereignty would be protected. Putin’s invasion only serves as an example to other nations that getting rid of WMD’s leads to invasion and colonization, making it much more difficult to negotiate similar denuclearization deals in the future. Through his invasion Putin was able to prove that the EU, the US and the UN would not back up their words with action making the point that aligning with them is of no benefit to one’s nation. Where Putin also succeeded in making a mockery of the West was in his perversion of the media. Putin was able to successfully distort truth, saying one thing and doing another; making reporters scratch their heads and making listeners question the truth. Nothing is more important to a democratic nation than the truth. To distort it for one’s own benefit is an attack on democracy itself. Putin also attempted to make a mockery of the democratic process in Eastern Europe, claiming elections were rigged when they didn’t go his way while also trying set-up the Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych as a puppet. He has tried using similar tactics in other Western nations as well. The most popular example is here in the United States. No political campaign was ever so closely tied to a foreign power the way Donald Trump’s was. A man whose talking points on Russia and the Ukraine are almost identical to Putin's. In 2016 Trump stated that Putin "will not go into Ukraine," despite the fact that Crimea had already been invaded, coinciding with Putin's claim that there were no Russian troops in the Ukraine. This was under the tutelage and guidance of Paul Manafort, Trump's then campaign manager and former employee of the Kremlin, who now has been charged with conspiracy against the United States. Now as President in 2018, Trump claims that Crimea was already part of Russia because the people there speak Russian.
This is no time for politics. This is a universal threat we are dealing with. The world has been shaken once again by an authoritarian strong man. One who, if not dealt with severely, will continue to destabilize democracies around the world for the sake of his own power. This conflict is a fait accompli. Russia says it is in a war with the West and so it is. Napoleon supposedly said that geography is destiny and so the only question is where this war will be fought. However it seems that destiny has not chosen any physical or spatial ground on which to fight and instead has chosen the terrain of ideas, trade and technology. “Russia doesn’t make anything,” President Barack Obama said at his final press conference in 2016. “They are a smaller country, they are a weaker country, their economy doesn’t produce anything anyone wants to buy except oil and gas and arms…They don’t innovate.” The West can retaliate by sanctioning Russia’s only real product: oil, while also taking them on digitally. Although the best way to defeat this kind of enemy is by example. We must ensure the practice of free and fair elections, practice tolerance and the rule of law. Putin mainly wants to prove oligarchy is better than democracy. He wants to make a mockery of our institutions and our way of life because that is the only way he can look successful. If Putin can’t do that their war isn’t just lost, it is non-existent.
"The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America" by Timothy Snyder (2018).
"Putin Reclaims Crimea for Russia and bitterly Denounces the West" by Steven Lee Myers Ellen Barry, The New York Times, (March 18th, 2014) .
"Trump says Putin is 'not going into Ukraine,' despite Crimea" by Eric Bradner and David Wright, CNN, (August 1st, 2016).