Without apparent irony he invoked his namesake St Vladimir in Russia‘s cause. It was in Crimea, Mr Putin said, that Vladimir, the Grand Duke of Kieff and All Russia, acquired the Orthodox Christian roots that would spread throughout Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. It was in Crimea that the noble Russian soldiers lay in graves dating back to the 1700s. It was Crimea that had given birth to Russia’s Black Sea navy, a symbol of Moscow’s glory. In his people’s hearts and minds, he said, Crimea had always been a part of Russia.
Quite how, then, his dimwitted predecessor Nikita Khrushchev had managed to hand it to Ukraine in 1954 was unclear, but that act had been a “breach of any constitutional norm” and could thereby be ignored. And by the way, Mr Putin intimated, Moscow had only failed to raise the issue of Crimea’s sovereignty during previous negotiations with Ukraine because it hadn’t wanted to offend its friendly neighbour. Now the west had cheated on a range of issues – Nato‘s expansion into eastern Europe, the “coup” in Kiev, the unnecessary prolonging of discussions over visa waivers for Europe – Russia felt inclined to accept a willing Crimea back into the fold.
So the self-justifications went on. There have been few clearer-eyed critics of Soviet-era propaganda than Milan Kundera, who once wrote that “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” Watching members of the Duma wildly applaud Mr Putin, the phrase felt newly appropriate. In the modern struggle of memory, we should recall that when Mr Putin was asked two weeks ago if he considered that Crimea might join Russia, he replied “No, we do not.” We should recall his assertion that the troops without insignia on Crimea’s streets could have bought their Russian uniforms in local shops. And we should remember Kosovo.
Mr Putin made much of the parallel between Kosovo’s secession from Serbia and Russian actions in Crimea. In fact the differences between the two cases are stark. In Kosovo in the 1990s, a majority ethnic Albanian population was being persecuted by the government of Slobodan Milosevic. The region’s autonomy had been revoked, ethnic Albanians had been ousted from government jobs, their language had been repressed, their newspapers shut, and they had been excluded from schools and universities. By late 1998, Mr Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing was reaching a climax: Serbian army and police units were terrorising and massacring groups of Albanians in an outright attempt to drive them out. The Kosovans’ plight was the subject of intense diplomacy, which was rebuffed by Mr Milosevic’s government.
In Crimea, by contrast, despite Mr Putin’s characterisation of the emergency government in Kiev as “anti-Semites, fascists and Russophobes” whose tools are “terror, killings and pogroms”, there have been no pogroms, little terror, no persecutions of Russian-speaking citizens bar a bid, now dropped, to rescind Russian’s status as an official language. The historic atrocities in Crimea were committed by Moscow, which starved and slaughtered tens of thousands Crimean Tatars in the 1920s, before deporting them en masse in 1944. Almost half the deportees died from malnutrition and disease.
As Moscow takes a historic bite of Ukraine, Mr Putin would rather the world misremember Kosovo, or discuss the legality of the US-led invasions of Iraq or Afghanistan. The world has debated those wars before and should do so again. Today, let us see Russia’s move for what it is: an illegal, neo-imperialist act.
NB: Martin Thomas of Workers Liberty dissects Milne’s “shoddy arguments for Putin”, here.