There is a popular opinion, also shared among the authors on this website, that Putin’s Russia is deliberately hindering current international order. I see two big problems with this oversimplification.
To start with, I do not believe that Putin & co. intended to do what they ended up doing now. Russia has neither capacity nor political will to confront the West with an open military offensive. The whole ‘Crimea reunion’ affair was rather designed for domestic consumption to legitimise corrupt and oppressive political regime of Vladimir Putin. Putin managed to win hearts and minds of Russians, as well as to turn foes into friends by exploiting post-imperial syndrome that many Russians share.
Putin’s approval rating has skyrocketed to the point that he probably will not even have to rig the next elections. There are no viable opponents left to him after the annexation. From now on, any critique of Putin in Russia will break against the arguments like “well, all you are saying about Putin is troubling, but at least he returned the Crimea”.
Nevertheless, as Russian independent journalist Alexander Nevzorov pointed out recently, the situation went a bit out of control. Russian politicians and media alike sensed the spirit of changes and adopted the language of “good and mighty Russia vs bad and morally bankrupt West and, of course, Ukrainians, the slayers of virgins”. The amount of hatred and spite flowing every day from the Russian parliament and TV channels is simply inconceivable. In dehumanising Ukrainians, Russian media know no limits, broadcasting incommensurable lies, like this one. But it is rather a self-censorship, to which public institutions have got so accustomed to in Russia, than direct orders from above that drive this discourse. In 1984, George Orwell did well in describing this phenomenon. Public authorities and mass media censor themselves, trying to guess what will be appropriate reaction to current event, reaction that will be appreciated by the leadership.
Putin may well be pleased by the way events in Ukraine are covered, but he is definitely more troubled about how to control the situation. The Russian public opinion, fuelled by lies and propaganda, demands nothing less than full invasion in Ukraine and, in the best-case scenario, restoration of the empire in its “historical borders”. But the time of empires has gone, and Mr. Putin does not seem to be so foolish as to fail realising that. Russia has no economic, military or political means to support its offensive course in the post-Soviet countries. Nor has it capabilities to wage another big war. But more significantly, there is no political will to openly confront the West with a military offensive. Retaliation will be inevitable, and Putin and his oligarchs care way too much about their precious profits in Europe and elsewhere to be ready to sacrifice them.
This leads us to the second point. Russia is not hindering international order; Russia is an integral and inalienable part of it, conforming to and playing by its rules. Russia was one of the architects of this order, from Westphalian times and to the constitution of the United Nations. This order is not an unqualified good. It has nothing to do with a community of benign nations, big and small, abiding by the laws with a backbone of noble aims, combined together under the discourse of development. Architects of this order cannot care less about people’s lives, human rights, inequality, poverty or environment. The hypocrisy of the West is astounding, and even a brief look at Ukraine (or Gaza for the same matter) unravels what truly drives the order, Russia so keen to “destroy”.
It took a MH17 tragedy to make European leaders take a firmer stance towards Russia. As Ben Judah argued recently, newly discovered harsh approach in the EU is dictated by the fear to lose votes in the coming elections, as public opinion changed dramatically after the Malaysian plane had been shot down. Now and then, the West is doing cynical calculations – what would be costs and benefits of sanctions or other measures for their countries/industries/financial elites? Let’s take the UK as an example. The British government was at the forefront of latest “humanitarian interventions”, be it Iraq or Libya, but so reluctant to act on Ukraine when the City’s financial interests are at stake. Or why not taking a look at the US corporations trying to capitalise on sufferings of Ukrainians, or France excluding its existing military contracts with Russia from the EU’s arms embargo.
Have you ever heard of the US condemning human rights violations in Saudi Arabia or Israel? Have you seen British or American soliders prosecuted for war crimes? Are we so willing to forget about the Guantanamo Bay detention camp now? It seems that robust human rights agenda is good for the Western countries when they can use it to advance their national interests (or rather interests of their elites), but becomes so inconvenient when they are asked to follow it consistently. Trade-related market-friendly human rights are all we are left with in our seemingly open and progressive world.
The MH17 tragedy may have changed the calculations against Russia, but the new calculations remain cynical all the same. So why do we still think that Russia is somehow different from the big Western nations? That these nations can offer us, Eastern Europeans, a more humane and dignified treatment, without arm-twisting and bullying (which is delicately passed off as conditionality)? They are all complicit in this corrupt international order, where humans and even smaller nations are dispensable. In this order of things, we have nothing to hope for as long as profits outweigh people’s lives and elites’ interests outweigh solidarity with fellow human beings.