Ukraine Crisis in Russiatags: Russia, Ukraine
Travels to Russia (Part One)
22. April 2014
Nothing like a shot of adrenaline, when suffering from jet lag. After arriving in St. Petersburg on Tuesday (coincidentally the 144th birthday of Vladimir Lenin), I crashed for 12 hours, only to wake up, groggy, to television headlines proclaiming:
1. Ukraine has turned off all water supplies to the peninsula of Crimea (which run through the North Crimean canal, normally at 50 cubic meters per second). TV and internet news sites in Russian are showing pictures of empty canal trenches and calling such actions "inhuman."
2. Ukraine has started a second round of military "special operations" in the East which the U.S is supporting. (This report plays on the one remaining independent Russian cable TV station Dozhd -- "Rain" -- that has been dropped by major satellite carriers in recent months, only to be handed a potential olive branch by Vladimir Putin at his news conference on 17. April. So is the story true? Or is it one more shaped to please the Russian government, as part of a peace-making quid-pro-quo -- Dozhd survives, but they do a better job of towing the official line?) On second thought, I'm confused - did I really hear that at all? My Russian "second family," people who have known me for 20 years, are all talking, loudly, in one tiny little kitchen, over the already-loud TV and as the report goes on, it's easy to get confused. "How did you sleep?" "What do you want to drink, tea or coffee?" "Don't bother her Sergei, she's working." "Was it too cold last night?" "Sergei, I told you that shelf is too low, she keeps hitting it with her head.""Eat, you have to eat."
"Ummm, " I ask, shaking my head to clear it. "Did they just say the U.S. is directing military actions in East Ukraine?"
"Well, they could have said it!" answered my Russian dad without missing a beat. "Because it's true!" There followed an animated discussion about the surreptitious visit of CIA Director John Brennan to Kiev earlier this month, with Brennan allegedly flying in under an assumed name and flying out the next day, apparently just before Ukraine announced its first "anti-terrorist campaign" against eastern separatists. Now THAT story made me laugh. Until I checked it on the internet, and found out that the CIA had confirmed the visit "as part of pre-scheduled trip to Europe." Dang - a hundred stories about Ukraine a day, and that's the one I miss.
Unquestionably many people here are certain that the U.S. has been secretly meddling in Ukrainian internal politics in hopes of curbing Russian influence, long before the ouster of former President Viktor Yanukovych. (“Revolutions are Carried Out in Public Squares, But Prepared Behind Closed Doors,” reads one tabloid headline, with a picture of Secretary of State John Kerry shaking hands with members of Ukraine’s interim government. On the next page: "The USA Was Planning to Build Its Own Bases in Crimea.") Many Russians are similarly convinced that amorphous U.S. “forces” are currently overseeing Kiev efforts to re-assert control in Eastern Ukraine, in much the same way that we Americans are pretty sure of Russia’s involvement in directing the separatist movement there. (Ukraine’s chief of intelligence today claimed that as many as 100 Russian military intelligence officers and special forces troops are “leading the seizures of towns and local governments” in the region of Donetsk and even “paying local criminal gangs to help” in the attacks. )
My Russian host mother has never voted for Russian President Vladimir Putin and supports domestic movements calling for Russia to stay out of Ukrainian affairs. But even she agrees that both superpowers, not Russia alone, are using Ukraine as pawn in a larger superpower struggle. Her husband, my host father, is a softie at heart but someone who likes to “shumit” as they say in Russian, meaning “to cause a stir” or “make a lot of noise.” The examples of Russian persecution at the hands of Ukrainian authorities are legion, he proclaims, offering, as example, the fact that Ukraine has barred all Russian men from the ages of 16 to 60 from entering their country. (An internet fact check suggests a somewhat less dramatic story, with the pro-Moscow television station “Rossiia 24” reporting that Ukraine has in recent weeks tried to restrict the number of men aged 25-40 from crossing the border, and that a total of approximately 1000 people have been denied admittance.) “And the pilots!” my Russian father exclaimed. “Don’t forget the Russian pilots!” Turns out that on March 9 in Kharkov and March 12 in Donetsk, Ukrainian officials had, in violation of international agreements, barred Russian pilots flying commercial jets to and from Moscow, from leaving their planes to spend the night in local hotels before their return routes the next day. An Aeroflot representative protested that the pilots “were not only forced to sleep in their airplanes, but also in the presence of and under the constant surveillance of border guards.” Really? Pity the poor Ukrainian guard who got stuck with that shift – and had to spend the entire night on an airplane seat, awake, keeping tabs on a sleeping Russian pilot. Sometimes there is such a disconnect between the garish language of global crisis and the petty, even comic, acts in which that crisis can play out on the ground...
I see another kind of disconnect in St. Petersburg, where life, at least in my small Russian circle, is ordinary and everyday. My friends from the States text (admittedly somewhat in jest) “What’s the mood in Russia? Do they have the bloodlust?” but really, Ukraine here feels as far away as Iraq – a distant place seen through pictures on TV. The atmosphere here couldn’t be further from that of an alleged Second Cold War: Americans and Europeans stream in and out of the airport, and a giant Starbucks greets new arrivals as soon as they pass through customs. People voice much more concern over how to find the entrance to new airport parking than over how to negotiate a new state of superpower rivalry. A grouchy security guard chewed me out yesterday – but for spinning a baby in her stroller in the middle of a subway station (a near-empty one, in my defense) and generally causing a little happy commotion, not for being American. “This is a place of public transport!” he snarled. “Try to behave like an adult!”
I can’t help wondering, not to sound overly dramatic, if the same texture of everyday normalcy prevailed back just before World War One began, in the time between the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on 28 June, 1914 in Sarajevo, and the start of Austro-Hungary’s invasion of Serbia one month later, on 28 July. WWI was a completely preventable war, and that month between the shooting of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the outbreak of military hostilities reads, today, as a succession of spectacular diplomatic failures, full of missed opportunities to have averted armed conflict. For most inhabitants of Austria, the assassination itself barely registered in the days that immediately followed news of the event; citizens demonstrated neither mass displays of grief nor mass outpourings of indignation. Other countries similarly showed little initial alarm. In Paris, for example, on June 30, “at the first cabinet meeting since the events in Sarajevo,” the deaths of Franz Ferdinand and his wife “were barely mentioned. The attention of the French public, meanwhile, was riveted on the scandalous case of Madame Caillaux, a politician’s wife who had murdered the editor of a right-wing newspaper after he threatened to publish damaging material about her husband.”
It strikes me as both odd and alarming how little people can get sucked into global events from one day to the next. The world would change forever with that war, yet throughout that month of bellicose diplomatic one-upsmanship at the highest levels of power, most of the millions of people who would die over the course of the next four years had no idea what kind of crisis lay before them.
Life in Petersburg also suggests that people are not perfectly consistent, and can often champion incompatible views at the same time. Specifically, they can feel a certain amount of emotional satisfaction, say, at Russia’s annexation of Crimea, or they can answer a poll saying they support Putin (and so contribute to a presidential approval rating currently hovering at about 80%) and yet they can still want their children to study in the United States, admire our country, and revel in its culture. They can sympathize with the Ukrainians, and they can feel confused by the different stories they hear from different media sources. They don’t feel like a vote for Putin involves choosing sides against the West or committing to some kind of terrible clash. In fact, one of the first things I heard that first morning I awoke to strident television stories was a joke: “Did you hear the results of the latest poll? 70% of Russians believe Alaska should belong to Russia. 80% of Russians are prepared to sacrifice their lives in the glorious struggle to reclaim Alaska. And 90% of Russians don’t know where Alaska is.” You can be patriotic, but also laugh at patriotism, or even at your own and others’ gullibility. We should be careful of reading public opinion in such simple, neatly packaged ways.
Is It War? Travels to Russia (Part Two)
24. April 2014
Breaking news - military conflict around Slavyansk. Russia's First Channel is showing pictures of a serious military operation, billowing black smoke, and blockaded streets. Barricades of tires and trees have been set aflame. Russian journalists cannot get through checkpoints; separatists speaking over the phone from inside Slavyansk are promising to resist. Putin says: "If Ukraine is using force against its own people, there will, without question, be serious consequences. Dialogue is needed." Both sides appear heavily armed. I hear, in St. Petersburg, that separatists weeks ago gained access to a government weapons stockpile, stored in an old coal mine near Donetsk.
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