This spring I traveled from St. Petersburg to Kiev, by way of southern Russian and eastern Ukraine. The newspapers were filled with reports of American policymakers gushing over how mobs in Kiev deserved the inalienable rights of freedom fighters and self-determination. Mobs of Russian mercenaries in Eastern Ukraine, who set up automobile tire and sandbag roadblocks, were condemned for threatening world peace.
I took trains and mini-vans, and crossed the Russian-Ukrainian border between Belgorod (Russia) and Kharkiv (Ukraine), where, at least in the Western press, there are large concentrations of Russian forces getting ready to pounce on Ukrainian independence (I did not see any).
As I travelled (with my 18-year-old son), I came to view the crisis less in geopolitical terms and more as opportunities for what the Soviets used to call agitprop, from “agitation and propaganda.” Like the agitprop theatricals of the 1920s, this war serves as the extension of public relations by other means.
Ukraine is tailor-made for show business: it's a folk opera, one of those performances in native dress you have to endure on package tours around Europe. The storyboards of an evil Vladimir Putin play well, even to an American electorate unsure if Donbas is a region or a dress designer.
From any microphone in the world, President Obama can threaten “additional sanctions” against the Russian oligarchy. Vice President Biden can jet into Kiev with messages about how “the American people stand with the people of Ukraine, ” while Secretary of State John Kerry intones high moral dudgeon.
For Putin, saber-rattling over Ukraine is a better media opportunity than even the winter games. It’s a chance to dominate the world stage and be taken seriously without having to put up another Olympic village for $51 billion.
Day-to-day in the Kremlin, Putin presides over an empire in decline. For Russian men — awash in tobacco and vodka — the average life expectancy is about 64, and Potemkin’s village is now the glitter around Moscow, covering up the grim reality of the provincial cities.
Economically, Russia’s trade zone with Belarus and Kazakhstan cannot compete with Europe, and China’s economic boom makes Russia, by comparison, look like a collective farm. For that reason, it's doubtful that Putin needs to annex another coal region with high unemployment, although he’s happy to claim it if local militants drop it in his sphere of influence.
As the avenger of the 1854 Crimean War, Putin can, at least, lay claim to Empress Catherine-like greatness, although the word on the Moscow street is that he took Yalta and Sebastopol so that Russian oligarchs can cash in on the bourgeois pursuits of gambling and casinos.
Even the provisional government in Kiev has an interest in using the crisis to promote its competency. It came to power not through elections, but from street demonstrations, which were funded by sources as diverse as local oligarchs, nascent political parties, foreign intelligence agencies, the Catholic church, and neo-fascist elements. Each tent represents a marker in the great game.
The freedom fighters still encamped around Kiev’s main city square, Maidan, look less like Jeffersonian democrats exchanging copies of Montesquieu’s treatises and more like those second-amendment militias in Montana, to whom all governments are evil.
Dozens of tents are pitched in the square. The occupants, many dressed in thrift shop army fatigues, have the angry, down-and-out look of the 1890s Coxey’s Army of the unemployed, rather than of delegates to the Continental Congress.
The Kiev protesters overthrew one government and are standing by—chopping wood, grilling sausages, listening to music, stacking bricks—to see what happens in the May 25 presidential election. To be clear, the February martyrs of the Maidan (about 110 were killed), whose pictures line makeshift altars around the square, were not paid to give their lives in political opposition.
They took to the streets against the government of Viktor Yanukovych, which they saw as corrupt, dictatorial and ready to consign Ukraine to a Putin revival of the Warsaw Pact and Comecon. But in the chess culture of Ukraine, knights and bishops go forward with different goals than pawns.
The Kiev government is struggling and divided. About 20 candidates have declared for the presidency, and at least eight parties are represented in the parliament. What could be more uplifting for them than solidarity phone calls from President Obama or pep talks from the US vice-president?
The problem with the American embrace is that it validates the Russian belief that NATO, the EU, and the United States want Ukraine in their sphere of influence. Otherwise, why would the director of the CIA have come to Kiev during the recent crisis? Imagine the American reaction if an interim government in, say, Quebec welcomed the head of the Russian secret service, the FSB.
The extent to which the crisis is being waged by the media can be seen in Kiev’s Hotel Ukraine, a dreary Intourist relic of the Soviet era overlooking the Maidan that, during the street demonstrations, allegedly rented out rooms to government snipers. Now that tourists rarely visit Kiev, the hotel is headquarters for something called Ukraine Crisis Media Center, a slick public relations operation where journalists can stop by for a quick coffee and a quote.
On paper, the group is staffed with patriotic volunteers, there to keep alive the martyrdom of the Maidan and to warn about the evils of Russian aggression. In practice, the “media center” has the look of serious American front money.
The day I was there it featured short, introductory remarks by the US ambassador to Ukraine and a press conference from the ranking minority member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Bob Corker (R-Tennessee).
For these thirty minutes, Ukrainians, like homespun Tennessee constituents, were simple, hardworking folks who needed American support to throw off the Russian yoke. Yes, there was the local problem of corruption, but that was “a remnant of the Soviet-era,” much like the plumbing, I guess.
Corker explained that he had come to Kiev to “show support for the people of Ukraine” and to applaud their courageous right to “self-determination”. For its aggression, he said, Russia and its president needed to “pay a price.”
At no point was any mention made of other causes of the current crisis: NATO designs to push its military frontiers to Ukraine and Georgia, despite earlier assurances from President Bush (Sr.) not to advance NATO east of a reunited Germany; the US seeing Ukraine as a fertile market, not just for its intelligence services, but for its gas exports and energy companies; Ukraine’s kleptocracy that has left the post-Soviet economy stillborn since 1991; and elements of the non-elected government having spoken with the same reverence about fascism that earlier citizens accorded their Nazi liberators in 1941.
In Washington’s press releases, the masked men in the East are Russian proxies in a renewed Cold War. To Moscow, the encampments around the Maidan are the spiritual heirs of the army of the Bay of Pigs.
My own view is that that the liberators of Eastern and Western Ukraine, despite having different ideological mentors, are the homegrown dissidents of a failing state, one with high employment, cornered markets, governments with Italian-like instabilities, and few profits that have trickled down to ordinary citizens.
Before leaving Kiev, we thought about visiting the vacated house of the former President Yanukovych, who departed in a hurry for his Russian exile, leaving behind his gilded furniture and private zoo. We were told the house is being transformed into a Museum of Corruption. Admission costs 20 Ukrainian hryvnia, although you can also get in by paying 10 hryvnia to one of the guards.
Matthew Stevenson, a contributing editor of Harper's Magazine, is the author of Remembering the Twentieth Century Limited, a collection of historical travel essays. His new book, Whistle-Stopping America, was recently published. He first traveled to the former Soviet Union in 1975, and over the years has been to many of its then-constituent parts.
Photo by the author: Tents in the Maidan.