As the Ukraine crisis tips further into full-scale bloodbath and civil war, we seem to be getting more clueless than we were before this crisis started. That’s a pretty low bar to measure against, and the consequences of our cluelessness about what’s driving the various sides could be catastrophic for everyone.
One of the biggest problems is that everyone who riffs on Putin and Ukraine frames their analysis through a very narrow, Americanized lens, as if the only thing on everyone’s minds out there is us, America. Either Putin is behaving evilly because he fears America’s empire of liberty and freedom; or Putin is behaving perfectly rationally because the evil American empire has bullied Putin into a corner, forcing him to annex Crimea and support pro-Russian separatists.
Other Anglo-American “experts” frame Putin’s actions as if we’re all playing a sophisticated version of Risk. In this framing either Putin is driven by some genetic need to revive old Russian imperialism, conquering lost territory because he’s been so pained all these years, like a man reaching for a missing limb; or conversely, Putin apologists say he’s legitimately securing a buffer region to protect Russian interests from American-Western encroachment.
All of these versions have truth to them, but they all share one huge blind spot: What role does domestic Russian politics play in Putin’s policies in Ukraine? For that matter, how does domestic Ukrainian politics inform interim leader Turchynov’s or Yarosh’s moves?
Every hack knows that “all politics is local” — but we rarely apply this adage to understanding the politics of the rest of the world. The reason in Russia’s case is obvious: We don’t understand that part of the world, and aren’t much interested in it either, except insofar as they provide proxy ammo to our own domestic political spats. Our best and brightest foreign policy elites never strayed far from the warped hick mindset of that Vietnam War colonel in Full Metal Jacket:
“We are here to help the Vietnamese, because inside every gook there is an American trying to get out.”
It’s much easier analyzing Kremlin policy in Ukraine on the assumption that America is always on Putin’s mind in his every decision — because hell, we’re on our minds 24/7, obviously we must be on everyone else’s minds too.
To understand Putin’s moves in Ukraine from a domestic standpoint, go back to the start of Putin’s return to the Kremlin, announced in late 2011, effective early 2012. His return to the presidency from his prime minister’s perch has been nothing at all like Putin’s first eight years in the Kremlin. His base is vastly different now than 1999-2008. Then, his base was primarily Russia’s urban liberals and bourgeois elites. Putin lost them in 2011; his base is now Russia’s Silent Majority.
Putin’s politics have changed accordingly.
Let’s go back, briefly, even further to 1999-2000, when Putin first rose to power. The forgotten ugly truth is that Putin came to office with the enthusiastic support of Russia’s liberals — the St. Petersburg (neo)liberals, and also many of the most prominent Moscow intelligentsia liberals. Putin’s political mentor in the 1990s was the liberal mayor of St. Petersburg, Anatoly Sobchak — Putin was his deputy mayor and his muscle. More important are Putin’s old ties to the neoliberal “St. Petersburg Clan” that designed and supervised Russia’s brutal market reforms under Yeltsin. The St. Petersburg clan was led by Anatoly Chubais, USAID’s favorite Russian (and Larry Summers’ too, who famously called the Chubais Clan running Yeltsin’s disastrous economy “The Dream Team”).
When Putin first rose to power, not only Chubais but the whole cadre of Petersburg free-market liberals supported Putin as the Pinochet who would protect and promote free-market reforms in Russia. Chubais praised Yeltsin for resigning from the Kremlin and appointing Putin in his place:
“It is a brilliant decision, extremely precise and profound, and apart from anything else, very brave.”
Putin’s economic team was stacked with Petersburg liberals — German Gref, Alexei Kudrin, Andrei Illarnionov (now with the CATO Institute) —and the main liberal political party, SPS, threw its support behind Putin’s first election for president in 2000.
But it wasn’t just free-market Petersburg Clansmen who supported Putin. Anti-Fascist Youth Action (AYA) leader Pyotr Kaznacheyev joined the Kremlin as an economic advisor until 2005 (today he’s a partner at an oil and mining consultancy). And Yevgenia Albats, the leading critic of KGB abuses during the 1990s and author of the book “The State Within a State: The KGB and Its Hold on Russia” threw her support behind Putin half a year after he launched his brutal war in Chechnya, and urged other liberals to set aside their fears (and principles) to back Putin as well. In Albats’ “Does a KGB Resume Make Putin a Stalin?” Albats wrote:
“I cannot help noticing that much of the judgment heaped on Putin for his KGB past resembles much of the judgment that was heaped by the KGB itself on many Soviet citizens — myself included — back in the bad old days.
“Those who know Putin well almost universally describe him as an exceptionally honest man, modest in his private life and deeply religious.
“Let’s give Vladimir Putin a chance. Let’s not relegate him to a corner where he’ll have no reason to prove he can do better than many expect him to. Let’s leave Russia some hope.” Today, as you might expect, Yevgenia Albats is one of Putin’s fiercest liberal critics. As are so many other liberals who backed Putin’s takeover of the Kremlin, but later turned against him when Putin turned out to the “wrong” sort of Pinochet — the Pinochet who didn’t need their services.
Losing the support of the insular Moscow liberal intelligentsia wasn’t a political problem for Putin when he left office in 2008, because their grievances didn’t catch on with the booming yuppie class in Moscow and a handful of other big cities. In a country as culturally top-down as Russia, it’s hard to overemphasize just how important it was for Putin to keep the liberal intelligentsia’s political opposition contained and marginalized, lest it infect the young “manager class”: The legions of politically apathetic PR flaks, corporate managers, lawyers, techies and so on.
The important thing to remember is this: Russia’s liberal intelligentsia and its big city yuppie class is small in numbers, outsized in influence and importance…. and hated by the rest of Russia. And there’s a lot to hate: intelligentsia liberals and Moscow yuppies are elitist snobs on a scale that would turn anyone into a Bolshevik. They even named their go-to glossy “Snob”— and they meant it. It’s not just the new rich who are elitist snobs — liberal journalist-dissident Elena Tregubova’s memoir on press censorship interweaves her contempt for Putin with her Muscovite contempt for what she called “aborigines,” those provincial Russian multitudes who occupy the rest of Russia’s eleven time zones. Tregubova flaunted her contempt for Russia’s “aborigines,” whom she mocked for being too poor and uncivilized to tell the difference between processed orange juice and her beloved fresh-squeezed orange juice. I’m not making that up either.
Tregubova’s contempt is typical for the liberal intelligentsia. Stephen Cohen quoted well-known Russian liberal intellectuals blaming the misery and poverty of post-Soviet Russia on the Russian masses who suffered most: “the people are the main problem with our democracy” said one; another blamed the failures of free-market reforms on “a rot in the national gene pool.” Alfred Kokh, a Petersburg liberal fired by Yeltsin for taking bribes from banks while heading the privatization committee, openly relished the misery suffered by the Russian masses after the 1998 financial markets collapse forced millions into subsistence farming for survival:
“The long-suffering Russian masses are to blame for their own suffering…the Russian people are getting what they deserve.”
What this means politically is eleven time zones of untapped resentment, surrounding an island of wealth and liberal elitism—Moscow.
Wealth inequality the real problem: Russia has the worst wealth inequality in the world.
Most living Russians still remember the Soviet era, when wealth inequality was so minute it was measured in perks rather than yachts. That’s what the Russians mean when they tell pollsters they preferred the Soviet Union days and rue its collapse. Lazy hacks interpret those polls as proof that Russians are still evil empirelings, for the sheer evil joy of having a Warsaw Pact to boast about. Rather than the obvious: Russians lived longer and easier under Soviet rule, then started dying off by the millions as soon as capitalism was introduced, when poverty exploded and they found themselves in the most unequal country on earth.
[And it’s not just Russians: In a Gallup poll late last year, a majority of Ukrainians said that the collapse of the Soviet Union was more harmful (56 percent) for Ukraine than beneficial (23 percent).]
To an outsider, these are all problems that need solutions. But to a political animal like Putin, this huge pool of human resentment and nostalgia is a potential power base: Russia’s Silent Majority. Although Putin has thrown them plenty of bones over the years, the Kremlin never fashioned an entire politics around the Silent Majority, in part because it never had to. The thinking has been that no matter how desperate and resentful the Russian “aborigines” in the provinces get, they’ll never pose a serious threat to Kremlin power. Moscow’s liberals and its “manager class” were taken far more seriously as a class.
Putin’s surprise decision in 2007 naming as his Kremlin successor a Petersburg liberal, Dmitry Medvedev, showed how important the liberal/yuppie demographic was in Putin’s political calculations. Everyone had expected Putin to name a figure tied to the security services, the “siloviki,” if only to protect himself. His choice of the liberal, well-liked Medvedev was not simply because Medvedev didn’t threaten Putin; he also reflected a Russia that liberals wanted: cultured, civilized, European, raised in an elite central district in St. Petersburg. For awhile it worked; many liberals and big city yuppies were impressed, pleased, and harbored hopes that Medvedev could be won over to their side, seeing him as naturally one of theirs. Keeping the big city liberals happy, or at the very least from turning against him, remained a key plank of Putin’s politics.
That fantasy — that Medvedev was anything but Putin’s yes-man, or that his Kremlin perch meant that Russia was now plausibly European, was shattered for good in late 2011, when Putin announced that the jig was up: He was switching places with Medvedev and moving back into the Kremlin, and the only thing remaining was for Russia to rubber stamp his decision with a ritualistic vote.
That domestic political calculation changed in December 2011, when tens of thousands of young Muscovites took to the streets in the “manager class revolution,” protesting Putin’s crude way of re-installing himself in the Kremlin. They were outraged at the way Putin made fools of them — all those years, Putin had insisted Russia was “civilized” and democratic in its own Russian way — part European, part Russian — which is exactly what the “manager class” needed to hear and to believe. They travel a lot to the West. It’s hard to explain just how existentially important those trips to the West are to the “manager class.” The “manager class” could hold their heads up while traveling around Europe during the first Putin term, because on paper at least, Putin did things by the book. When he stepped down and nominated Medvedev to take his place, it was further confirmation that Russia wasn’t as far from “civilized” Europe as the liberal opposition claimed.
But when Putin made that announcement that he was switching seats with Medvedev, the awful reality hit home to the urban “manager class” that they’d been duped. And they were outraged. I remember the explosion of raw yuppie rage on the Russian Internet those first few days after Putin’s announcement, though I didn’t fully appreciate how serious that Muscovite yuppie outrage was at first. They were talking as if Putin had declared war on them. He had certainly humiliated them; worse, the Europeans would judge the travel-mad “manager class” like they live in Boratastan. Putin humiliated them, and that humiliation wouldn’t ever go away until Putin was gone. Suddenly, Moscow urbanites flooded social media with rage against Putin, openly declaring war. I thought they were blustering. Yuppies don’t take to the streets, Russian yuppies least of all.
Putin’s announcement came in October 2011. Two months later, fraud-riddled elections sent tens of thousands of young Muscovites out on the streets battling with riot police. It wasn’t so much the vote fraud — every Russian election since Yeltsin stole the 1996 presidential elections has been rife with vote fraud, within limits of plausibility, and December 2011’s Duma vote fit in that rough category. The outrage was over the humiliation of having your despot shove his despotism in your bourgeois face. The New York Times headlined their story: “Boosted By Putin, Russia’s Middle Class Turns On Him.”
During the mass yuppie protests in Moscow, I remember one telling moment that gave some insight into the Kremlin’s new political strategy. Legions of pro-Putin youths started pouring into Moscow, and locals started warning of provocateurs come to start violence and invite a crackdown. But in one video I watched, a confrontation in Mayakovskaya Square between the Moscow yuppies and the pro-Putin youths, the Muscovites all started yelling and laughing realizing that the pro-Putin youths were from the despised provinces. You could tell by their clothes, their haircuts, their nervous out-of-place expressions on their faces. The rich Muscovites chased them away; the provincial Putin tools skulked back to their shitty buses, for the long journey back to their wretched provincial apartment blocks.
It’s hard to know when Putin decided to run a Nixon strategy and appeal to Red State Russia but I’m pretty sure he was as shocked as anyone by the scale and rage in those first anti-Putin protests in December 2011.
This is a long background way of getting to the point that I want to make about understanding Putin by way of “all politics is local.” Putin lost the crucial big city yuppie class. They’re gone for good. There are a lot of ways an autocrat in a nominally democratic country can respond to that. Putin has chosen a new politics appealing to the Russian Silent Majority, and that means appealing to their resentments, heating up the culture wars between liberal Moscow and the slower, fearful masses in the rest of those eleven time zones. To exploit the huge differences between the Moscow liberals and yuppies opposed to Putin, and the rest of the country that resents them.
The Silent Majority has waited at least two decades for payback, and now it’s on, and it’s not pretty. It’s why Putin targeted Pussy Riot. We Westerners loved them; they were heroes to us, brave punk rock babes fighting the Man and getting jailed for being punk. In our world, that’s cool. But in Russia, Pussy Riot was completely despised by nearly everyone, across class and regional lines. One poll after they were jailed showed only 6 percent of Russians supported Pussy Riot; the poll could not find a single respondent who said they respected the jailed band members.
By exploiting Russian disgust for Pussy Riot and equating the opposition movement with Pussy Riot, Putin was able to conflate the liberal opposition with a decadent, alien art troupe whose purpose seemed to be to humiliate Russia and mock their culture. Nixon couldn’t have dreamed up a more perfect symbol of his opponents.
The Nixon Strategy also explains why, after all these years, Putin suddenly targeted Russia’s gays for a vicious culture war campaign. In the Russian Red States, the violent, cruel state-managed homophobia — in which a leading TV anchor told his audience that gays’ hearts and organs should be burned and buried deep underground — was red meat, an acknowledgment at last that Russia’s Silent Majority matters. And the more Moscow yuppies and Westerners berated Russia for attacking gays, the more the Silent Majority identified with the Kremlin.
And that brings me to Putin and Ukraine. It goes without saying that Putin didn’t plan this crisis to happen — he already had his man in power in Kyiv. But Putin did exploit the situation, turning a major humiliating defeat in February into a massive political victory within Russia by doing what the Silent Majority would’ve wanted Putin to do: Redress grievances, air out resentments nonstop against the West and against west Ukraine fascists, and screw whatever the West thinks.
There’s not much comfort here for any side in the West when you frame Putin’s actions through local politics. Here, in our proxy war way of framing Ukraine, either Putin’s a crazy evil empire-r looking to reestablish his empire, meaning we better stop him now; or Putin’s merely reacting defensively to our aggression (or, according to the faulty thinking of a lot of people sick of American interventionism, Putin is heroically defying the US Empire, acting as a counterweight).
What he’s doing is shoring up his new political base while tightening the screws on whatever remained of liberal freedom in Russia, taking control of the Internet, seizing control of the handful of opposition online media sites, and ramping up the culture war against liberals, gays, the decadent West… The fact that we, the US and EU and a few billionaires, funded violent regime change groups in bed with west Ukraine fascists and Russophobes has only made Putin’s domestic job easier. You can see it in the aftermath of the Odessa fire massacre that killed over 40 pro-Russian separatists: It shut up even Navalny.
The liberal-yuppie elites’ momentum is over. Putin’s popularity among the rest of the country has never been higher.
So if Putin is neither the defiant counterweight hero or the neo-Stalinist imperialist, but rather playing a Russian version of vicious Nixon politics, what should the West do?
That’s easy: Stay the Hell out of Russia’s way for awhile, its version of Nixon politics is just beginning, and it’s going to get uglier. Russia has a history of turning inward in ways that will strike us as feral and alien, something the abandoned Silent Majority will welcome, but no one else will. (Our sanctions only helped speed up that process of inward isolationism.)
America’s Silent Majority was crazy enough in the Nixon years: the Silent Majority cheered Nixon on when college students were gunned down on campuses; 80% of Americans sided with Lt. William Calley, the officer in charge of the My Lai massacre.
Sorry Ukraine, but you’re screwed. This is barely about you; it’s about us. It always is.