Only the terminally uninterested in the world around them are currently unaware of what’s happening in the Ukraine at the moment. Following the ousting of President Yanukovych last week Russia has moved troops into the Crimea, and now the world is on a brink wondering how far this game will go.
How did thing get to this point? And what does Putin stand to gain?
The Rise of Putin
I lived in Russia from late 1998 to 2000, and for part of that time, Boris Yeltsin was president. When he first became president, Yeltsin was a hero. he, after all, was the man who stood on a tank to defend democracy. However, later in his Presidency Russia defaulted on foreign debt, and the currency crashed by a factor of 4 in August 2008. Things were grim. Yeltsin, by now was a joke. The man who would dance on stage with a girl-band; fail to get off a plane in Shannon; the man who lost respect on the world stage.
Enter Vladimir Putin.
Yeltsin appointed Putin as his Prime Minister in August 1999. On 31st December 1999 Yeltsin resigned unexpectedly, leaving Putin as acting president.
So, Putin takes power at a time when Russia was in a bad way. At the time many states there were receiving emergency food aid from the United States. Bribery & corruption were rampant, the head of the country had been a joke.
The economy was a shambles. For example, the wage for teachers at the time was about 200 roubles per week, or about €6. To add insult to that injury teachers wages were often months overdue.
Add to all of this the belief of many Russians that ‘Russia Needs A Strong Leader’. When I was there you would see the occasional march in memory of Stalin. They conveniently forget that Stalin managed to kill more Russians than Hitler did.
In his time in power Putin has changed a lot for normal Russians. Wages there are pretty good now. People have access to the benefits of having a good economy. People have pride in their country. Also, they have a president who potrays the image of the Real Russian Man. he swims in ice, he practices Judo, he’s sober.
It’s Never That Simple, Really.
Under Putin democracy has suffered. He has been in effective control since 2000. He now controls the media, and that brings a lot of power. Think about it. State only media in your own language. People don’t go so much for the foreign news outlets because of the language barrier.
So Russian people only get an approved version of what’s happening. Anywhere.
Many of Putin’s actions can be understood if you look at his view of what Russia is. His dream is of a strong and proud Russia. And I think that for him ‘Respect‘ can equate to ‘Fear of’. So:
- Russia standing up for President Bashir in Syria? Russia gains by having a friendly regime in the area, as well as being seen as a player on the world stage.
- Russia having the most expensive Olympics ever? Pride on the world stage.
- Russia banning homosexuality? Doesn’t fit into Putin’s image of a proud & pure Russia.
How does this relate to The Ukraine?
When the Ukraine tried to forge closer ties with Europe last year this offended Putin’s vision. He wanted an alliance centred around Russia. Here was a country with a large Russian speaking population turning their backs on Mother Russia. Cue the Russian Speaking President Yanukovych from near the Russian border. The president cut the move towards Europe and went for the Russian offer of cheap gas.
This led to the protests that eventually led to his overthrow last week.
In Russia the people get a different story to what we get in the West.
- Ethnic Russians are being attacked
- There was a revolution
- Our bases in the Crimea are under threat
- There is chaos on our doorstep and we must move to stabilise the situation
And the West?
Well. There’s not a lot really that the West can do. Nobody wants to see an all-out war between Russia and the West. Even sanctions will have limited effect. Yes, the G8 members may boycott Sochi. Yes, the paralympics could even be boycotted. Yes there could be all sorts of diplomatic messages sent.
Putin will ignore the lot. And why? Because he chooses what the people at home will be told.
When this is over, however it ends, Putin believes he will have strengthened the image of a strong and proud Russia. And that is just the message that the Russian people will hear. Will they believe it? Absolutely. After all, this is the man who has brought them more wealth and stability.