My boyfriend Eric is living in Siberia for the summer. On the way to Novosibirsk, which is in south-central Siberia, he had an extended layover in Kiev. Because he’s such a budget-oriented guy, he bought the cheapest tickets he could find on Kayak, which were through Ukrainian Airlines. I had some reservations about him flying on the national airline of a country currently engaged in civil war, but he assured me that Ukraine’s airspace was plenty safe.
Of course, we now know that the airspace over Eastern Ukraine is decidedly not safe for passenger jets. Since the events of July 17, commercial flights have been rerouted to avoid the airspace over parts of Eastern Ukraine. It is clear to the international community that the Russian government is supporting the separatists in Eastern Ukraine, although it is not yet clear to what extent.
At best, Putin’s government is providing financial assistance to the groups responsible for chaos in Ukraine. At worst, Russian military forces provided the Buk missile and the requisite training to militia forces in Eastern Ukraine. As of early August, however, there is no concrete evidence supporting the theory that the Russian military is directly responsible for the Malaysia Airlines incident.
On the other side of this conflict, the United States is supporting the Ukrainian government, which is certainly not blameless. In the process of fighting the separatists, innocent civilians have been caught in the crossfire. Ukrainian citizens are being killed by their own government, and cities including Donetsk and Luhansk are suffering damage at the hands of the central government in Kiev. The UN estimates that at least 100,000 people have fled their homes to other locations within Ukraine, and almost 170,000 have fled into Russia. This constitutes a serious humanitarian crisis.
Whenever I talk to Eric about the supposed involvement of Russian forces in Ukraine, it always boils down to the same few points. He argues that Putin has no logical reason to be involved in Ukraine, and that Western media is exaggerating the Russian role in the conflict. He also argues that Russia doesn’t want an unstable neighbor -- Putin wants Ukraine to stabilize and prosper just as much as Western powers do. This argument makes logical sense, but there is a great deal of evidence supporting the idea that Vladimir Putin is not operating in a strictly logical context.
It’s important to note that when Eric is in Russia, he usually chooses to get his news from Russian sources and he avoids Western media. This is mostly for language-reinforcement purposes, but it’s also an exercise in complete cultural immersion. This summer, he has been learning about the events in Ukraine primarily through discussions with the residents of the four Siberian cities he’s visited - Novosibirsk, Koltsovo, Irkutsk and Ulan-Ude.
Koltsovo, where Eric has spent most of his time, is designated a “Science City” by the Russian government. It is one of the few places in the world with a reserve of the smallpox virus, which is kept at the State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology. Because of the local economy’s ties to this research center, many of the residents of Koltsovo are highly educated. In Russia, however, there is no equivalent to NPR or The New York Times - no respected, reputable, independent and easily-accessible news source. This means that most Russians, regardless of their level of education, live in an information vacuum where the only easily-accessible information is state-sponsored.
In recent months, journalists have been publicly quitting their jobs at these state-sponsored news outlets. The most notable examples are Liz Wahl and Sara Firth of Russia Today, an English-language news outlet that is funded and sanctioned by the Russian government. Liz Wahl quit on-air during the invasion of Crimea, citing her disgust with “a network that whitewashes the actions of Putin.” Sara Firth quit on Twitter, saying, “I resigned from RT today. I have huge respect for many in the team, but I'm for the truth.” She also tweeted “RT style guide Rule 1: It is ALWAYS *Ukraine's fault (*add name as applicable).”
Satellite images have recently surfaced that show evidence of the Russian military shooting missiles across the border into Ukraine. And in recent days, Ukrainian troops have come under fire from missiles launched in Russia. Thanks in part to a pro-government media barrage that denies these realities, most Russian citizens also deny that their government is taking these military actions. Opinion polls show that a significant majority of Russians approve of their government’s actions in Ukraine, including the annexation of Crimea.
Another reason why the Russian people largely support their government’s involvement in Ukraine is tied up in history. Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, and before that, parts of present-day Ukraine were included within the borders of imperialist Russia. Crimea was only relegated to Ukraine after World War II, and many Russians feel that their government’s recent annexation rightfully returns the territory to them. Making matters even more complicated, many Ukrainians prefer to speak Russian, especially in the east and south.
In its thousands of years of history, Russia has yet to embrace a form of government that is even marginally representative of its people’s interests. This has led to an overwhelming sense of apathy in Russia. Anna Politkovskaya, a human rights activist and staunchly anti-Putin journalist, stated that, “It is we who are responsible for Putin’s actions” and that, “Society has shown limitless apathy.” She made these observations in her book, Putin’s Russia, which was published just two years before she was assassinated in her apartment building.
Just as Americans are weary of war, Russians are weary of revolution. Regardless of the form their government takes, the people of Russia have yet to see significant benefits. Imperialist Russia, communist Russia and capitalist Russia have all proven to be corrupt, intimidating systems. The most extreme recent example of corruption in modern Russia is the cost of the Sochi Olympics, which was upwards of 50 billion dollars. For comparison, less than 6.5 billion dollars were spent on the previous Winter Games in Vancouver. It is estimated that at least 30 billion dollars of the Sochi Olympics cost cannot be accounted for.
The difference between capitalist Russia and previous forms of government is that people now feel a greater sense of economic stability, however small it may be. This is how Vladimir Putin has remained in power for 14 years - people associate him with a sense of overall stability that hasn’t been felt since the early years of the Brezhnev era. Just after the Russian annexation of Crimea, Putin’s domestic approval rating was 80 percent, a level of approval that is unheard of in the United States.
The combination of state-sponsored media dominance, popular nationalist sentiments and an insecure, narcissistic leader has created an information vacuum in Russia that allows the government to do as it pleases with limited consequences. Western sanctions have only escalated the situation, and we should not dismiss the potential for very serious international consequences cascading from the current civil war in Ukraine.
The implications of the Russian government’s actions could be quite dangerous, with NATO warning Russia to “step back from the brink.” NATO estimates put the number of Russian troops currently massed on the border of Eastern Ukraine at around 20,000. This has made leaders of NATO countries including Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania extremelynervous.
Moving forward, it might help to attempt to understand Vladimir Putin. Why support separatists in Eastern Ukraine? Why invade Crimea? Why start two wars in Chechnya? Why take a picture of yourself shirtless while riding a horse? Although it’s definitely fun to mock Vladimir Putin (it’s truly one of my favorite hobbies), we should keep in mind the context in which he operates.
To quote Joseph Burgo once more, “Putin may or may not be a clinical narcissist, but it may be wise just to treat him like one either way.” If the West can put pressure on Putin without humiliating him, the international community may still be able to negotiate a peaceful end to this crisis.