Vladimir Putin is justifying his grab for Crimea with the need to protect the "Russian-speaking population" in Ukraine. But why stop there?
- By Christian CarylChristian Caryl is the editor of Democracy Lab, published by Foreign Policy in conjunction with the London-based Legatum Institute. A former reporter at Newsweek, he's also the author of Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century. He is a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books and a contributing editor at the National Interest.
Dear President Putin:
I am sorely in need of your protection. Please help.
Now, I know this might seem a bit unexpected coming from an American — a "pure American," as you might say. By which I mean that there’s not a drop of Russian blood in my body.
But that, you see, is not the whole story. It so happens that I speak your language. I started studying Russian in high school, and I’ve been studying it for years since then. Maybe I’m not entirely fluent, but I know enough to follow the news.
Which is why I was so thrilled to read the Kremlin’s statement about your March 1 phone call with President Obama: "Vladimir Putin stressed that in case of any further spread of violence to Eastern Ukraine and Crimea, Russia retains the right to protect its interests and the Russian-speaking population of those areas." What a wonderfully elastic phrase: "the Russian-speaking population."
The context, of course, is your latest decision to use troops from the Black Sea Fleet to take over Crimea. You’re afraid that the new Ukrainian government — those guys who overthrew your friend, Viktor Yanukovych — want to start killing people who speak Russian. That’s why you spoke of a Ukrainian "threat to the lives of citizens of the Russian Federation, our compatriots" in your authorization-of-force request to the upper house of the Russian parliament on the same day you spoke with Obama.
Now I realize that there’s not much real evidence that the new government in Kiev has been planning anything like an assault on Russians (or Russian speakers) in the country. Luckily for you, the revolutionary parliament, keen on rolling back Yanukovych-era legislation, quickly passed a law enshrining Ukrainian as the only state language. So you seized the opportunity to stir up fears that the culture of those "compatriots" is under threat.
To be sure, the shaky Ukrainian interim government is barely in a position to clean up the streets of the capital, much less implement a change in language policy. But their backers have been tearing down a lot of Lenin statues. After all, he was a Russian-speaker, right? (Even though he looks like a bit of a Tartar.) Now there’s a threat for you.
In any event, stating that your main concern in Ukraine is guarding the interests of the "Russian-speaking population" is a masterstroke. The overwhelming majority of Ukrainians speak some Russian, so just about anyone in the country is potentially in a position to enjoy your protection.
And as for potential threats to us Russian speakers in the rest of the world — well, they’re everywhere, aren’t they? When my wife and I were speaking Russian in the supermarket checkout line today, I noticed the cashier giving us dirty looks. And we’re not alone. There are thousands of Russian-speaking immigrants in the suburbs of Washington. If we all gather together in one place, we’d definitely qualify as a "population."
OK, so maybe we aren’t "compatriots," strictly speaking. But you’ve got an easy solution for that too — you can just give us passports! As freshly minted citizens, we’ll be fully entitled to your protection.
You know what I’m talking about, right? I’ve seen those images of your officials handing out shiny new Russian passports to members of Berkut, the Ukrainian riot police who are the main folks responsible for the killing of 88 demonstrators in the center of Kiev during the EuroMaidan Revolution. Now, if anyone knows how to take care of themselves, surely it’s these guys — yet you’re going out of your way to guarantee that crucial extra bit of insurance. Could there be any better example of the broad, generous Russian soul at work?
Let’s give credit where credit is due: You are the architect of these policies, Vladimir Vladimirovich. You and no one else. The ruling elite in Moscow is simply following your lead, frantically scrambling onto the anti-Ukrainian bandwagon as fast as they can. (They’re right not to care if war results; after all, it’s not their kids who will be doing the fighting.) As for ordinary Russians — well, for some reason they aren’t quite so keen. One poll conducted last week showed that 73 percent of your own citizens think that Russian intervention in the internal affairs of Ukraine is a bad idea.
Wimps. These are obviously people who, unlike their beleaguered compatriots in Ukraine, don’t have to live under the constant psychological pressure of talk about "Europe" and "rule of law" and "human rights." That’s because you, Mr. President, have done such a marvelous job of protecting Russians at home — not only in other countries. You’ve protected them from all those people in the opposition who threaten Russia with their unpleasant talk about safeguarding the environment and fighting corruption. (You call them "extremists" — the same way that your government now reflexively refers to members of Ukraine’s pro-European government as "fascists.") You’ve protected them from people like Roman Khabarov, that ex-cop who has made a career out of exposing police abuses. And you even protected the Olympics against those scary girls from Pussy Riot. I truly shiver whenever I see them.
You’ve even extended your protection to President Yanukovych himself (though you have made it clear you don’t think much of him, since he turned out to be such a big softie). After he turned up in Russia a few days ago, he held a big press conference in which he insisted, among other things, that he’s still Ukraine’s president. In case anyone had doubts about whose protection he was under, he spoke Russian throughout the entire event. Now there’s a man who has earned his passport.
Not that you should stop there, of course, Mr. Putin. There are plenty of other Russian speakers around the world yearning to be free. Take London — or should I say "Londongrad"? The Russian-speaking population there already numbers in the hundreds of thousands. Most importantly of all, that’s where Yanukovych’s main financial backer, the oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, spent $221 million on the world’s most expensive apartment a few years back. Some Ukrainians are already sniffing around, trying to figure out how he earned the money — and how much he gave Yanukovych to keep him afloat. Keep tabs on this, Mr. President; this guy might very well need some protection from those Ukrainian "fascists."
Just like all of those oligarchs who serve you back home — you know, those 110 men who control 35 percent of the country’s entire wealth? They know that they have you to thank. Without you, they’d be no one. They’d be nothing.
OK, I get it. You have bigger fish to fry. You’re preparing to set up this new organization called the "Eurasian Union," a sort of small-scale reprise of the old USSR that will bring together Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. (You offered Yanukovych those big bucks to back away from closer association with the European Union because you wanted to see Ukraine join up too.)
One of the best things about this new grouping is that many of the people in these allied countries speak Russian. So it will be that much easier to give them passports, demand that their rights be guarded, and offer all the other sorts of protection that Russian speakers in Crimea have already come to expect. Not bad, Mr. President. The best policies are ones that can be used against your friends — as well as your enemies. (That may be why the Kazakh government recently decided to stress publicly that it wants the Eurasian Union to remain limited to trade and economic matters. Good luck with that, eh?)
As for me, you know how to get in touch. We American Russian-speakers don’t need a lot of protection — I’m sure that a couple of spetsnaz around the neighborhood would do fine. But please don’t wait too long. The English-speaking majority around here is starting to get a bit uppity.