"Are you white or are you Russian?"
A question brought before me by one of my passengers at my job.
This was due to the fact that the majority of the drivers at my company introduce themselves as Russians to their American passengers who have never heard of places like Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan or any other stan that used to be a part of the Russian empire in her Soviet reincarnation. Since those folks have a darker skin complexion, a dichotomy between white people and Russians developed in the mind of this person and generated this line of inquiry toward this Russian who is very white indeed (though I am 1/8 Mongolian).
But this question did catch my fancy not only because of its humorous aspect but also on account of my own long-running obsession with the idea that something fundamental separates Russians from other white people. My Ukrainian friend "Boris" and I often talk about "white people" as if this entity is totally separate from us.
"She is too white," proclaimed Boris once critically about a girl he was physically attracted to but who didn't have his desired personality attributes.
And this separation came to the forefront in the current struggle over Ukraine. Russians and Westerners look at each other's very white faces and don't see a reflection of a mutual civilization in the other. They see something foreign.
My first blog post about the crisis in Ukraine was a short one,
Ukraine is really troubling me. I sympathize with the protesters but I don't see how their demands for the president to leave office before an election could be achieved without bloodshed. Its a problem for which I don't have a solution or even concrete opinions. All I have is a dreary premonition of Slavic blood running through the streets.Almost exactly three months have passed since I wrote those words and my vague prophecy has come true. Over a hundred people have died in revolutionary violence of Kiev, most of them were anti-government demonstrators but some were from the security forces that stood at the guard of the falling regime whose incompetent and corrupt leader was fleeing to Russia as his soldiers faced Molotov cocktails and bullets in the streets of the capital.
But the carnage didn't stop there. Today a counter-revolution is pulsating in Eastern Ukraine. Government buildings in these parts of the country are occupied by people who are labeled "pro-Russian militants" in the West and as "terrorists" by the new government in Kiev. The consensus between the Ukrainian democrats and their Western patrons is that they must be crushed.
Russia sees the same folk as the moral heart of the country under the heel of the West and -at times- seems to search for a bloody confrontation between them and the Kiev government, so Moscow could intervene with a massive force that awaits its orders at the border between the "brotherly" countries.
From the very outset of this geopolitical explosion in Ukraine, I have been uneasy. A siren rang out somewhere and every man, woman and child put on their ideological lenses and everything outside of their vision was immediately dismissed as absurd and treasonous bullshit.
The West lives in a world where Ukraine is a twin of Poland, a country with a historical mission to join the civilized West and leave behind the imperial chains stretching back to the Kremlin.
To Russia, the victorious protesters in Kiev were pawns in an American project to move on Ukraine and get her ideological and military forces closer to the motherland. The Maidan movement was less of a popular upraising and more of a geopolitical gauntlet thrown at Putin's stony mug.
The Crimean annexation for me was a strange event. I believe that there is an unbridgeable gap between the ideology, culture and historical perspectives of Western Ukrainians and those of the Russian majority in Crimea and that these different people ended up within one country through an accident of history.
The tension between the two camps came to a breaking point after a revolution that disposed of a democratically elected pro-Russian president and resulted in a seizure of power by Western Ukrainians and plunged the country's economy into turmoil.
At this point, Ukraine offered Russians in Crimea an alien government that they would never support and an economy that went from bad to unbearably bad. I do believe that Crimea ended up as a part of Ukraine through a whim of a Soviet leader and I did and do believe that the majority of Crimeans (with the important dissension from the Tatars) would prefer to be a part of Russia.
I can't say that a covert invasion and referendum inspired a lot of enthusiasm on my part but for a land grab this one was relatively smooth and involved very few fatalities. I do believe in ethnic self-determination (in Tibet, Chechnya and, yes, Crimea) and because Russians in Crimea had a military power eager to reunite with them... their voice was heard and cemented their aspiration into a political reality of separation from Ukraine.
This deed was done and while Russian tactics were condemned as crude and imperialistic, I basically thought that they restored a basic historical reality- a region with a Russian majority that has been a part of Russia since the 18th century, was reuniting with Russia. The fact that the majority of Ukrainian soldiers stationed in Crimea elected to join the Russian army when they had an option of relocating with the leaving military units to the mainland of Ukraine or leave military service and remain in Crimea as civilians, reaffirmed my belief that the links between Crimea and Kiev were faint from the start.
It was opportunistic for Putin to use a moment of Ukrainian weakness to take Crimea and many Ukrainians I spoke with in America were sad to see it go, but none of them expressed the belief that the majority of Crimeans wanted to remain a part of Ukraine. Aside from the sad and murky deaths of the Ukrainian soldier and a Crimean Tatar activist, Russia's annexation of Crimea was not a tragedy in my biased eyes though neither was I ecstatic over the fact. My mind returned to the notion that the majority of Crimeans wanted it so, and I've encountered nothing that disproved that conclusion. Russian soldiers assured the fate of Crimea but I still believe that this fate was also the clear preference of the human majority on that peninsula.
Now Russia's actions in Eastern Ukraine are more troubling to me. Supporters of the Ukrainian revolution in the West and inside the country are quick to define the mutineers as Russian special forces masquerading as Ukrainians or -if they do conceded that some of the protesters in the east are in fact Ukrainian citizens- they are basically dismissed as drunks, elderly Soviet retreads, morons with an affinity for Russian authoritarianism and nihilistic losers in for an adventure. This de-legitimization means that the solution to the mutiny is primary a question of force and not compromise.
My opinion is different. The so called "pro-Russian militants" are actually facing a huge risk through their actions. Many of them have recently been killed in confrontation with Ukrainian forces, others have been arrested and have disappeared into secret prison cells, cut off from contact with their families, friends and supporters.
When the new Ukrainian regime restored its rule in the city of Kharkov, all the fifty or so men arrested -and facing up to life in prison for separatism under a new law passed by the revolutionary government- turned out to be Ukrainian citizens. The recent "pro-Russian terrorists" who died in confrontation with the Ukrainian army, also turned out to be Ukrainians, really they were kids in their early twenties, and they were buried like heroes by bearded Orthodox priests and surrounded by a crowds of weeping family members and grim-faced and determined supporters ready to avenge their deaths.
I believe that the discontent in eastern regions of the country is nearly-universal and the overwhelming majority of the men and women occupying government buildings are Ukrainians. I also believe that Russian agents are present among them and that their organizations are financially, militarily and morally supported by Putin's government. And depending on how the situation develops, this support may boil over into a Russian military incursion into eastern Ukraine.
Because the current government in Kiev and their backers in Western capitals, don't want to admit this widespread discontent among easterners, they cannot admit the situation for what it is; they rather see this rebellion as a Russian operation rather than recognizing that the discontent is genuine and can only be molded by Russia to meet its geopolitical interests. These militias could not take over and control so much territory without having the support of a large part of the local population.
Instead of trying to build legitimacy in the rebelling lands, Kiev dismisses this rebellion as phony, foreign borne and terroristic, thus creating further incentive for rebellion from people who see their own military and interior ministry forces being amassed against them. Thus creating further possibility for violence, thus moving Ukraine closer to a civil war, thus increasing the chances of a Russian invasion.
But even though I don't believe in Russia creating this mutiny out of thin air, I do believe that having such a powerful and savvy patron as Putin's Kremlin, clearly emboldens these Ukrainian rebels.
By taking over Crimea, Russia not only took a big part of Ukraine territory but also took a sizable chunk of the people away from the large "pro-Russian" electorate in Ukraine. Without Crimea, all Russian backed presidential candidates face almost certain defeat at the presidential polls. Russia doesn't want to gain Crimea and lose Ukraine therefore they are building up their new Ukrainian force out of the soft clay of discontent in the east.
I don't know what Putin wants, but I can surmise that the goal right now appears to be a federalized, decentralized Ukraine where Russia maintains her influence through local regional chiefs in the east. But perhaps the Kremlin's goals are more radical than that.
Russian support for the rebels makes sense geopolitically but this support also makes the rebels more competent and powerful. It transforms angry amateurs into a professional force ready for battle. This transformation also makes a civil war more likely since it necessitates a stronger military response from Kiev.
So as not to lose Ukraine, Russia is basically using her people a column to advance her interests. But what are the ultimate interests of easterners and how do these interests contrasts with those of Moscow?
And herein lies the problem. The rage and anger in the east is unfocused, they don't like the Kiev government but this doesn't mean that the majority wants to be a part of Russian. They have rebels in the street that the majority may sympathize with without backing all of their agenda. And yet the situation is escalating everyday and people are losing their lives. Russia talks about deescalation but it wants a deescalation that serves its needs and in absence of this outcome it is fine with an escalation because it undermines their nemeses in the form of the Kiev regime.
This is a tangled mess, that I would like to see untangled peacefully but now it looks the ropes of emotions, hatreds and interests are getting ever tighter and I am afraid will only come loose if lubricated by human blood.