Russians are celebrating Crimea's return. The West is bent on punishing Moscow. And Ukrainians are feeling more besieged than ever.
- By Anna NemtsovaAnna Nemtsova is a Moscow-based correspondent for Newsweek magazine, covering Russia and the former Soviet States. She is also the winner of the 2012 Persephone Miel Fellowship. Reporting for this piece was made possible by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
The past week has once again dramatized just how differently Russia, Ukraine, and the West perceive the crisis in Crimea. While Washington and Brussels are sternly defending Ukraine and weighing punishments for Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Russians are rallying around their national flag, celebrating the "historical fairness" of Crimea’s return to their country, and smirking sarcastically at the West’s every move. Ukraine, meanwhile, remains caught up in the endless cycle of drama and crisis that the supporters of the recent popular uprising in Kiev call the "Revolution of Dignity."
This is an unusual situation for the Kremlin. On March 20, the U.S. Treasury Department issued a statement that characterizes the "senior officials of the Russian government, including Putin’s inner circle" in terms strikingly similar to those once used by Western analysts to discuss ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and his entourage. The statement identifies 16 Russian officials who will be targeted by the sanctions announced by President Barack Obama on March 16. The Treasury Department statement also alleged that Russian President Vladimir Putin has financial interests in Gunvor Group, Ltd., a commodities trading firm.
Putin ignored those claims. There was no need, in his view, to let these allegations disturb Russian society, which has consolidated around the president more than ever in the last three years. Over 70 percent of Russians approve of Putin’s politics. The U.S. sanctions, which state media have cast as an act of aggression against Russia, only seem to have increased Putin’s popularity.
The Russian government offered no immediate comment on the U.S. sanctions, which have targeted Putin’s closest associates in business, including the oil billionaire Gennady Timchenko; the brothers Arkady and Boris Rotenberg, who allegedly made money from contracts for the Sochi Winter Olympics; and Putin’s close adviser Yuri Kovalchuk. Putin’s only public move was to open an account in and have his personal salary transferred to Rossiya Bank, the only financial institution cited in the U.S. sanctions list.
Speaking to the news outlet Slon, the Kremlin’s former adviser, Gleb Pavlovsky, called the U.S. sanctions "stupid" and described their influence on Russian politics as "water off the duck’s back." Pavlovsky explained that Russia has had a system in place to the mitigate the effect of such sanctions ever since President Obama signed the Magnitsky Act in law in 2012. "If one of the listed persons loses any sum of money, they will immediately be compensated from Russia’s budget," passing the damage on to Russian taxpayers.
Whom is the West punishing, then? To one of the officials on the list, Victor Ivanov, director of Russia’s Drug Control Service, the sanctions mean the end of a five-year joint American-Russian operation to identify and destroy poppy laboratories in Afghanistan and another joint project to stem cocaine smuggling in Latin America. In an interview, the former KGB officer denied having any property or financial interests in the United States.
"The real reasons for implementing sanctions against me are as follows: The ruling circles in United States do not want the American electorate to know the critical truth about the overwhelming scale of heroine production in Afghanistan," Ivanov told me. "Besides, the American Democratic Party is against me for criticizing the ongoing process of marijuana legalization process in United States."
Meanwhile, Russian state television had only this to say about the sanctioned businessmen: "We couldn’t care less." Putin’s former political ideologist, Vladislov Surkov, the first of the Kremlin’s officials to be punished by the sanctions, hurried to joke with his Twitter followers that he has no assets in America besides "a pair of socks I forgot in Chicago and a Tupac CD."
While Russian officials scoffed, members of the country’s intelligentsia encouraged Russian society to refuse to engage in "a full-scale war" in Europe and to rally against the country’s self-isolation. On Wednesday, leading cultural figures gathered to protest "against the restoration of totalitarian regime." A novelist, Dmitry Bykov, went on the independent radio station Echo of Moscow to speak about the major public misunderstanding of the Crimea crises. Bykov argued that the annexation of Crimea was illegal, and that Russia will now face the consequences: "Of course, Crimea’s return to Russia is historical fairness," Bykov said, "but together with that gemstone necklace, Russia commits a theft, spoils its karma, and gets a prison term."
Back in Ukraine, which is still struggling with a national emotional breakdown after the loss of Crimea, consensus was also elusive. The state navy and military are stuck in Crimea, a land now recognized by Moscow as Russian territory. Officers demanded that Kiev make up its mind whether it wants to surrender and withdraw or to fight the Russians.
The largest eastern cities pulsed with unrest as thousands of pro-Russian protesters demanded that Ukraine establish a federalist system, enabling their regions to gain more independence from Kiev. As of Friday evening, nobody had protested against the E.U. Association Agreement recently signed by Kiev’s new government — but experts say it’s just a matter of time. According to a February poll conducted by the NGO Democracy Initiatives, 35 percent of Ukrainians prefer the Customs Union trade alliance with Russia to joining the European Union.
Every morning, Ukraine wakes up to news about the never-ending political battles in Kiev’s post-revolutionary parliament and its lack of action to liberate Crimea. There have been reports of stores of illegal weapons on the Maidan, Kiev’s central square, and, earlier this week, a video was released that showed members of the nationalist Svoboda party storming into the office of the director of one of Ukraine’s state TV channels. The assailants beat him up and forced him to sign a letter of resignation. Activists cried "Veche! Veche!" ("A rally! A rally!"), calling for a new protest on the Maidan. (The photo above shows a young woman walking past an anti-war mural in the center of Kiev.
The people I spoke with on the square told me that the loss of Crimea, the death of 102 activists, and injury of thousands more was too high of a price to pay for today’s dysfunctional government and the ongoing chaos. In a recent interview, Sergei Markov, a Kremlin political strategist working with Ukraine’s pro-Russian population, said that Moscow would negotiate with Kiev only if the "fascist militia" puts down its weapons and the "junta in power left the parliament."
Earlier this week, I spoke with the most popular leader in Ukraine today, the billionaire Petro Poroshenko (famous for his Willy Wonka-esque chocolate factories), about the latest developments. On March 16, the neo-nationalist militia leader Dmitry Yarosh threatened to blow up a gas pipeline if Russian soldiers move into eastern Ukraine. Should the West be worried? "I’m absolutely sure that today Ukraine is led by friendly and effective political leadership," Poroshenko said. "Under the current conditions of Russian aggression, the emotions of certain politicians are pouring over the edge." In such a situation, he said, "There will be negative emotions, but nationalism is a mythical threat. The Maidan proved that this was a revolution of dignity."