As Ukraine’s protests have spiraled into violence over the past month, forcing the prime minister to resign and destabilizing the iron grip of President Viktor Yanukovych, one looming question has hung over the events of the EuroMaidan: What will Putin do?
Indeed, Russia’s relationship with Yanukovych and its perceived meddling in the Ukraine have been at the very heart of the protests from the outset—for it was the president’s decision to snub the EU in favor of closer ties and a $15 billion loan from Moscow that set off angry demonstrations last November.
Now, Russian politicians and analysts have started using loaded language when talking about what to do with Ukraine and its intractable protesters. Recently, a former advisor to Russian president Vladimir Putin, political scientist Andrey Illarionov, opined that Russia is extremely eager to seize Ukrainian territory. According to Illarionov, Moscow’s propaganda machine is running at top speed in order to prepare for such an outcome. He quoted Kremlin sources as saying, “we should wait ‘til the Sochi 2014 Olympics start and then set about finding the solution to the Ukrainian Question.”
Such wording is not accidental—Illarionov is definitely hinting at the notorious Nazi “Final Solution to the Jewish Question” (Endlösung der Judenfrage) in his speech. World War II-era allusions are widespread among Ukrainian political experts, as well—when local analysts talk about the Russian line of action against Ukraine, they use the word “Anschluss.”
The historical meaning behind the latter German term is being actively promoted as a viable option for dealing with Ukraine by Russian politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Since the Euromaidan started, he’s made lots of ridiculous statements, but his recent ones really take the cake. “We will give Ukraine cartridges but not soldiers,” Zhirinovsky said. “We will send all the Ukrainian refugees to Siberia, that frosty minus-60 degree resort …If [the protesters] hinder you in the East and South of Ukraine, let a local administration appeal to us officially and we will ask the Russian government to rise in defense of Russians in these Ukrainian regions.”
A colleague of Zhirinovksy, Roman Khudyakov, also advised that Ukraine should hold a referendum to join the Russian empire and then “we can help.”
Of course, Zhirinovsky has a reputation as something of a windbag, but as Illarionov noted, “nobody hides the fact of preparations for Russian intervention in Ukrainian affairs, which it is carrying on right now.” Political analysts say that the Kremlin is ready to swap out the current president, Yanukovych, for a more convenient and loyal person (such as Andrey Klyuyev or Victor Medvedtchuk)—and Moscow strategists don’t want to wait for the 2015 elections as a tool for such a change. They’d like their plans to come to fruition in the next couple of weeks.
Illarionov says that there are four likely scenarios for Russia’s plans for Ukraine going forward:
1. The establishment of full control of Ukraine with the help of a loyal president. But after the Euromaidan and the large support of its ideas amongst people in the Western and Central regions of the country, this first scenario doesn’t seem probably.
2. The federalization or confederalization of Ukraine and establishment of control over the Eastern and Southern regions, where people are loyal to the current government and the percentage of ethnic Russians is relatively high (up to 30 percent).
3. If federalization is impossible, the Russian government will likely try to control individual cities in the Eastern and Southern regions such as Odessa, Donetsk, Lugansk and of course the Crimea peninsula.
4. If control of the Eastern Ukraine is impossible, Moscow will consider just control of the Crimea and especially Sevastopol city, where the proportion of ethnic Russians is more than 50 percent.
The strategists from Kremlin are apparently sure that the same scenario was very successful in Georgia, when Abkhazia and South Ossetia were separated and put under Russian protection as “breakaway republics.”
Illarionov quotes the ideas that are being actively discussed during prime-time on the Russian state TV channels: “Ukraine is a failed state, and the historic chance for reunification of all the Russian lands can be lost in the next couple of weeks, so we mustn’t put off the solution to the Ukrainian Question.”
The strategists from Kremlin are apparently sure that the same scenario was very successful in Georgia, when Abkhazia and South Ossetia were separated and put under Russian protection as “breakaway republics.” The Georgia conflict took place during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, which was very convenient timing, as the authors of the new Moscow strategy say.
The information about the aggressiveness of Russia’s designs is not so surprising to Ukrainians, who are already used to politically incorrect statements coming out of Moscow. In 2008, at the Bucharest NATO Summit, Putin said that “Ukraine is a historical misunderstanding which was created on the Russian territory.” So, in his mind, Russia needs to restore its territory at the expense of Ukraine. “They even don’t say “Ukraine” as a term, using instead the ‘Reunification of Russia’,” Illarionov says.
The described strategy is very similar to a populist Russian movement called the “Essence of Time,” which was founded in 2011 by Russian politician and scientist Sergey Kurginyan. The goal of the movement is the revival of the USSR on new principles and without the old mistakes. Kurginyan call it “USSR 2.0” and it seems that Ukraine may be the next step on the way to that Brave New World.
Meanwhile some rumors about a looming Russian invasion are spreading in Ukraine. We’ve heard about mythical squads of armed Don Cossacks that traversed the Ukrainian border to defend the Eastern Ukraine from anti-government protesters. And some say that recently they were joined by “Night Wolves,” a biker gang from Volgograd. Many local administrations in the East are preparing for occupation by protesters from the Western Ukraine. They ring their buildings with barbed wire and apply solid oil to their fences. Every week, posts about Russian military aircrafts landing in Kyiv appear in Facebook. The Ministry of Internal Affairs purchased Russian flame-throwers for policemen. Everything looks like a Hollywood blockbuster, but Ukrainians are the actors who cannot escape the movie.
Can we really wait for the revival of the new Evil Empire (as Ronald Reagan called the USSR in 1983)? As we know, the USSR was possible because of the Cold War, which by turn was a consequence of total state propaganda. Today the situation is unlikely as the Internet is widespread in the post-Soviet space. When rumors are really just propaganda, then the Cold War turns into a squabble and USSR 2.0 is nothing but a hallucination of the Kremlin’s analysts.