I am back in Moscow, in the USSR (er, Russia). But more than at any time recently, it feels like the USSR. Not economically; stunning new apartment towers are gleaming in the late May sunlight, women are smartly dressed in European jeans and heels, and the stores — very unlike the Soviet Days — are full of everything from the latest French beauty creams to Italian designer goods. German and Japanese cars fill the streets.
Nonetheless, the anti-Western hyper-patriotic mood is strong. “Victory in Europe” Day, May 9, which celebrates the victory over Nazi Germany, was celebrated with a special “whoop” this year. After all, Crimea’s joining the Russian Federation is being portrayed as “saving” its loyal population from the neo-Nazi fascists in Kiev, giving people today a taste of “Victory in Europe” in the here and now.
And the blare of propaganda, the way people are careful choosing their words about politics, and anxiety about what competition with the West (not cooperation, which seems lost) will bring, seem to hark back to Cold War Days.
Where is this heading? It is difficult to know. I remain hopeful, perhaps irrationally, that Putin has succeeded and will not move further into Ukraine. At this point, at minimal cost, Putin has secured Crimea, and shown that Ukraine is vulnerable to being split wide open if its government tries to pull the country too far toward Europe and away from Russia. For any government in Kiev, it should now be obvious that the only way to keep a united Ukraine is to pursue a course balancing between Europe and Russia, and compromising between the radical Ukrainian nationalism found in the western part of the country and the pro-Russian identification found in the eastern part.
This means that a united Ukraine will not join the EU or NATO anytime soon, which is Putin’s main goal. So in that sense, he has already obtained success. If things go further, with additional parts of Ukraine being split off or absorbed into Russia, the result will almost certainly be much more severe and painful sanctions, and a rump western Ukraine that will feel driven into the arms of NATO, creating a NATO state right on the border of Russia, which is exactly what Putin has been trying to avoid. So given these choices — stop now and reap all the desired benefits at little cost, or continue to pry apart the Ukraine and lose all the desired benefits and suffer a much higher cost — it seems reasonable to suspect that when Putin calls for negotiations among the government in Kiev and its eastern regions, and says he intends to pull his troops back to encourage peaceful progress, he is sincere. At this point, further deterioration of the situation in Eastern Ukraine will likely do Russia more harm than good.
Still, things have a way of spinning out of control once a revolution has begun, and as I have maintained, what began last December in Ukraine is a true revolution. The elections that took place this weekend may lead to new calls by rebels in Eastern Ukraine for Russia to accept them; how Russia reacts will be the best test yet of Putin’s plans.