Vladimir Putin Isn’t Going To Stop

Wreaking havoc in Ukraine is just the beginning.

Pool / Reuters

On Friday night, a local lawmaker left his home in the northern Russian city of Pskov when he was attacked from behind by three men and beaten unconscious, only to wake up, bloodied, in a hospital hours later. The lawmaker, Lev Shlosberg, had been leading an investigation into the mysterious burials of several members of the Pskov-based 76th Airborne Division who were rumored to have died fighting in Ukraine. Journalists who attempted to reach the cemetery days earlier were also attacked.

TV Rain, one of Russia’s last remaining independent news outlets, has interviewed Russian servicemen taken prisoner in Ukraine. The Soldiers’ Mothers Committee, an NGO that focuses on human rights abuses in the Russian military, says it has counted 400 cases of dead or wounded Russian soldiers in Ukraine. Yet Russian dissidents still feel the need to pen essays beseeching the West to understand that a war is underway.

The game of “when will Russia invade Ukraine?” began in May, and continued over several months with fits and starts. Now that it is actually happening — military hardware has been spotted crossing the border; Russian soldiers are coming home in body bags — the world is at a loss. The European Union is riven by internal divisions fostered, in part, by Russia, while the Obama administration behaves as though nothing has really changed. “It’s not really a shift,” President Barack Obama said on Friday, when asked about recent developments in Ukraine. That’s either willful blindness or a serious misreading of the situation.

After weeks of successes in winning back rebel-held territory — often by means of its own brutal bombardment of civilian population centers — the Ukrainian army now faces real pushback from the separatists, thanks to Russian reinforcements.

Russia watchers are now trying to figure out Vladimir Putin’s grand strategy. Is he trying to foster chaos of the sort that plagued the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s in order to leverage his position at the negotiating table? Does he want to see another “frozen conflict” of the type that already afflicts several other former Soviet republics, such as Moldova with Transdnistria and Georgia with South Ossetia and Abkhazia? Does he want to follow his own Crimean model and make east Ukraine — namely the regions of Donetsk and Lugansk — part of Russia?

A look at terminology might help. In the past several days, a term has forced its way through — into Putin’s mouth and straight onto state television broadcasts. No longer do Russians hear about the Donetsk People’s Republic, the term favored by the rebels, and their Kremlin masters, since the conflict began. Suddenly, we’re talking about “Novorossiya,” which translates as “New Russia.” It’s a czarist-era delineation that encompassed several southern Russian regions and parts of Ukraine (including Donetsk and Lugansk, among others). What matters most to Putin is total and explicit allegiance — whether the territory is technically part of Russia or not.

As is particularly the case when he is feeling on top, Putin has been unstoppably public lately. On Friday, he made an appearance at the annual Seliger youth camp, a project to build “patriotism” among Russian teens. Amid the warning to the West (“don’t mess with us”), which came coupled with a casual reminder “that Russia is one of the leading nuclear powers,” Putin expounded on something new. He turned his attention to Kazakhstan, another former Soviet republic and one with a sizable Russian population. He praised its president and the economic integration the two countries have seen as part of the Moscow-led Customs Union, which, he said, “we will take … to its logical conclusion.” Most notably, he said that “the Kazakhs had never had statehood” until the Soviet Union fell apart. It was a comment remarkably similar to his notorious claim in 2008 that Ukraine was not a “real country.” “This is an extraordinary event,” wrote Nate Schenkkan, a central Asia analyst who dissected Putin’s comments at the camp.

Which is to say, those who think Putin will stop in Ukraine are misguided. His nationalism appears to be growing by the day, but it has old roots. Many people were confounded when Putin embraced Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Soviet dissident writer best known in the West for exposing Russia’s network of labor camps in The Gulag Archipelago and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. But later in life, working off the same deep Orthodox faith that once sustained him as an opponent to the atheist Soviet regime, Solzhenitsyn turned to a Slavic nationalism that made him appear sorely out of touch, but today has become increasingly fashionable. In a 1990 essay called “Rebuilding Russia,” he urged the creation of a Slavic state built on Russian Orthodoxy. It would encompass Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and northern Kazakhstan.

“Twenty years ago I wondered what would happen if Russia had a Milosevich,” said Toomas Hendrik Ilves, the president of Estonia. “Pan-Slavism, Orthodoxy, fascism. I think it’s heading in that direction.”

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