The Ukrainian crisis has entered a new phase. The referendum in Crimea has come to pass. And now we need to ask: What is this space we find ourselves in? First off, we should say that this is war, not a negotiation. In recent weeks, quite a few interpretations were offered in the spirit of interest-driven politics. That is, Putin was supposedly raising the stakes to then take up a “superior negotiating position” in the hope of cashing in later down the line. This would have been the case had the Kremlin only threatened a referendum without carrying it out. But now it hardly matters whether Putin uses the vote’s results as a basis for inviting Crimea to join the Russian Federation or not. It is now obvious to all of Putin’s old partners—other heads of state—that the Kremlin’s rhetoric and political decision-making have been completely out of bounds in the period between 25 February and 16 March 2014.
Three popular explanations for this scenario are gaining traction in both the Russian media and on the Internet:
The first is that the seizure of Crimea was the goal of the harsh intervention in the Ukrainian crisis from the get-go, a kind of ‘revenge’ for Kosovo. This interpretation assumes that after taking Crimea, Putin will be satisfied with what he has achieved, having restored a certain balance of respect lost in the 1990s. This will ultimately be recognized as an ‘equilibrial’ response, and life will go on. All of Russia’s lines of cooperation with other global centers will remain intact, quickly restoring pre-crisis conditions. This account assumes that Putin has not decided to start a cold or hot war with the West, the US, or the rest of the world. What is at stake is purely an act of vengeance and a restoration of the status quo. To the Kremlin, the capture of Crimea is a message to Obama in reference to his pronouncement, not so long ago, that: “Everything comes at a price.” In other words, Vladimir Putin does not seem to think that he is setting some new process in motion, but simply that he is demanding the “price” for Kosovo.
The second scenario sees the Kremlin’s “Ukrainian strategy” as a conscious attempt to start a new war with the West. Crimea is little more than a casus belli. The goal here is not revenge for Kosovo, but the intention to revise, if not destroy, the world’s political architecture as we know it, to revise the outcomes of both World War II and 1991, especially concerning the role and place of international organizations. In short, to start a new epoch. Such is the spirit of a recent article published on gazeta.ru by foreign policy expert Fyodor Lukyanov, editor in chief of the journal Russia in Global Affairs.
The third interpretation comes from spin-doctor and former first-and-second-term Putin supporter, Gleb Pavlovsky. In his view, Putin’s intervention in the Ukrainian crisis is nothing less than an occasion to change the Russian president’s own system of power. Using the crisis as a ruse, he has launched something like the countermove of a “preventative revolution” in Russia. Pavlovsky assumes that its goal is not so much to crush the opposition (it was already crushed in 2013), but to lay the groundwork for some massive struggle within the elites. This version boils down to one question: Who will Putin point to as the first victim of his new “Red Guards,” mobilized en masse by the maneuver in Crimea. Which direction will the shock wave point, once it bounces off the wall of the current, imaginary holy war with the West? Who will be cast as a traitor to the Motherland? Who is tomorrow’s public enemy?
When Pavlovsky uses the word “revolution,” he means something different from its Marxist meaning. In this sense, revolution is simply an exit from the space of procedural democracy, a departure from regularity, and the creation of an uncertain situation. In the 1930s, many European leaders engaged in what can be described as a permanent revolution without a plan. Even Nazism only developed its targeted killing plans at a very late stage. For much of the extended early period, Hitlerism seemed like little more than a risky game with permanent escalations, played with the self-claimed right to initiate uncertainty without any clear idea of how it might end.
Obviously, Putin has no plan for his new world architecture as of yet. This plan may or may not emerge, depending on how the revolution itself develops. Crimea is simply the first clear indicator. From now on, anything is possible. For example, could the Kremlin move troops to its borders with the Baltic States, demanding a NATO pullout? Or could the Kremlin engineer a social movement for Ruthenia to join the Russian Federation? There is nothing to stop this next move, which is no longer dictated by a regular political rationale, but follows a revolutionary one. If you can get your boot in the crack, you can try pushing the whole door open.
Following no more than a few weeks of participation in the Ukrainian crisis, the Kremlin quickly, definitively, and then even officially reinterpreted the key year of 1991. This is now no longer considered a democratic revolution, a liberation from communism, or the moment of Russia’s departure into the free world, but exclusively as a geopolitical defeat, with the need for revenge following suit. In other words, there is no plan behind the creation of this situation of uncertainty but there is a goal, and its name is revanchism.
Putin’s general policy until 2012 can be described in two words—“capitalization” and “sovereignty.” This is a rather traditional political logic, comprehensible to the West. Russia was never capitalized completely, its wealth was not converted into money on international markets, and that is what the Kremlin is doing, capitalizing its companies, its economy on the whole, introducing it into the world context through diverse global markets and developing its northern and southern flows, while its policies remained focused on its own sovereignty.
With Crimea the Kremlin has shifted to a very different policy. It is now ready to sacrifice capitalization and face sanctions, tear up resource cooperation agreements, and risk the freezing of assets. Crimea also means a square rejection of the old—conservative—conception of sovereignty and its replacement by a revolutionary one. More precisely, capitalization and sovereignty are traded in for the creation of a situation with an uncertain future and a policy driven by revanchism.
Revanchism has no need for the services of regular political discourse. It follows a very different rationale, as it is founded upon political myths. Notions like benefit, bargaining, exchange, cooperation, institutionalization, and a traditional interest-based policy—in short the entire discourse of realpolitik—are displaced by risk-taking, heroism, heroized suicide, and, in the words of one of this revolution’s ideological compilers, political scientist, and outspoken nationalist Mikhail Remizov, “fatum.” 1Editor’s note: “Fatum” (destiny or fate)—the world of divinities of destiny (Moirae, Parcae, and others) in Greek and especially Roman religion and philosophy. The notion was revived in late nineteenth-century Lebensphilosophie (Nietzsche, et al.) and later in Nazi ideology. The absurdity of such policies will never be recognized by their initiators, no matter how great the sacrifices and even when faced with a final catastrophe. On the contrary: if “Russia is not a project, but fate,” as Putin has proclaimed, then it is fate you have to accept, even right before committing suicide in a bunker. As anti-war activists demonstrate on the streets of Moscow, the Internet is rife with attempts to find rational objections against such political myths. One of the most widespread of these is: “You don’t really want your children to go war do you?” We can see that this argumentation is utterly ineffectual. Those infected by the political myth simply see no other option for the future aside from success. “Crimea is ours!”
In the 2000s, the Kremlin defined the Russian Federation’s identity as that of a “regional power” (or “resource power”), clearly marking itself in the eyes of all its partners. After May 2012, the Kremlin began pumping up its conservative moralizing rhetoric, creating the impression that its course now included creating some kind of “conservative Comintern,” and that the state was planning to spend its resources on buttressing Putin’s international image as the imaginary leader of those concerned about traditional values all over the world. This was largely perceived as a media project, that is, as a postmodern element in politics: the Kremlin was setting up rhetoric and a system of images disconnected from any political action, making it seem like there would be no way for the gears of rhetoric and political action to ever interlock. Rhetoric would serve to build an image, while realpolitik would continue in the framework of cooperation with the norms of global security.
But now it turns out that we were wrong: within approximately one year—beginning with the Anti-Adoption Law (December 2012) and up to the annexation of Crimea in March 2014—there have been massive changes. This is no longer postmodernism, but real conflict. The gears of rhetoric have locked with reality, and the result is Crimea.
Many will now look back and say that Putin was like this from day one, that everything was clear when those buildings were blown up in 1999 (and such reinterpretations will be more and more well-founded). Then again, I would insist that from late February to early March 2014, we have been witnesses to—and hostages of—a process of rebirth. Putin is no longer simply a high-stakes player, but a politician of a different type than what he was before. He is now a permanent revolutionary who throws all his resources into creating a situation of uncertainty and unpredictability. At the same time, we are witnessing the rebirth of Russian society, which proved incapable of withstanding the tensions of the last twenty-five post-Soviet years. Unlike the other peoples of the former USSR, Russian society overheated and could not cope with its new position in a new world. Now we are witnessing a sizable part of that society give itself over to a naïve joy at the ‘capture’ of Crimea. As soon as the Kremlin started upping its game in support of ressentiment and revanchism, it became clear that a significant portion of the educated middle class, who enjoy quite a high standard of living, are no less passionate in their desire for revenge than football hooligans.
The space of politics itself has been reborn. Until 2012, Russian politics had a Left, a Right, and a center. The center was amorphous and consisted of a mixture of bureaucrats from United Russia; “technocratic liberals” (characterized by former minister of finance Alexei Kudrin); “technocratic conservatives” (like the head of Russian Railways, Vladimir Yakunin); and “technocratic socialists” (like the leader of A Just Russia, Sergey Mironov). But in response to the 2012 election protests, Putin completely destroyed this configuration, and the political void was filled up by the likes of the champion of anti-LGBT legislation and Internet restrictions, Duma representative Yelena Mizulina. This corresponds to a mutation of the entire mass media. Roughly speaking, the political center is no longer with the old liberal version of the newspaper Kommersant, but with the new version of the revamped, ultra-conservative Izvestiya.
The present political center unanimously voted not just for the annexation of Crimea, but in support of Putin’s rebirth from a moderate autocrat into a completely new figure. The Russian Federation is now headed by a conservative revolutionary, a revanchist player. He is ready to sacrifice any element of the old Russian Federation’s status in order to threaten the entire world order as it grew out of the twentieth century. Anyone who is sane has long since left Russia’s so-called political center. It is now full of proponents of a worldwide “conservative revolution.” This new center’s leaders are now the head of the Russia Today news agency and provocative homophobic, anti-American television journalist Dmitry Kiselev, and the National Bolshevik leader, former opposition politician, and poet Eduard Limonov. As one can see among leaders of the old parliamentary fractions (Sergei Mironov) or previously inoffensive cultural figures, even these alleged centrists now shout: “Yes, death!” As it turns out, the entire cultural and political establishment is ready to head into the abyss, and to create a dangerous historical situation.
In the aforementioned article, Lukyanov tries to make us think that Putin has decided to “play Gorbachev,” meaning, to return to 1989 and rewind the collapse of a bipolar world. This is not the case, and if it were, Putin would continue his efforts in the creation of the Eurasian Customs Union in political interactions with all other world players, in the same style as the one employed when he took hold of Russia’s northern and southern pipelines, proving to his neighbors and partners that they should be understood in the rational context of “Russian interests.”
But with the Anschluss of Crimea, Putin is not playing Gorbachev. He is playing Hitler-Stalin, a game of power politics from the 1930s. We must see clearly that this is no longer a politics of Pelevin 2Editor’s note: This is in refernce to the writer Victor Pelevin, famous for his cynical-magical postmodern narratives of the 1990s and 2000s., a politics of postmodern rhetoric that irritates you, makes you laugh, and constantly gives the impression of being a farce without ever bearing any relation to real change and to the real price to be paid.
Revolutions always come at a high price, be they to the Left or the Right. The conservative revolution will be costly, not just because Putin had a falling-out with this or that American president or Bundeskanzler, but because madness itself is always costly. It comes at a price, and all layers of society will have to pay, all those who rejoiced at the onset of the conservative revolution, and those who were against it.
Originally published in Colta.ru on 17 March 2014.
Translated by David Riff.