Written by Zeenat Khan and Ferdous Khan
Last Tuesday (February 2) Russian activist Alexei A. Navalny, the loudest critic of Vladimir Putin was sentenced to 2 plus years in prison for violating the terms of his 2014 conviction. The prison service claimed Navalny had violated the terms of his parole by not checking in with his case workers. Some of the violations are from the time when he was undergoing treatment for being poisoned with Novichok, a highly lethal nerve agent that was placed on the inside of his under pants before a flight. The directive supposedly came from the Kremlin, if not from Putin himself. Navalny’s wife approached Putin for permission to go abroad with a comatose Alexei for treatment which Putin says he had granted without hesitation. After Navalny came back to Moscow he was arrested. In the recent weeks, Navalny had irked Putin by posting a video where he accused the president of building a luxurious mansion worth over a $billon on the Black Sea. The palace is replete with all the modern amenities that money can buy including an Ice Hockey rink. That video has been watched by millions of people on YouTube. Russians are simply outraged by the reports of corruption by Putin and his associates. For two consecutive weekends prior to Navalny’s sentencing, millions across Russia took to the streets to protest ignoring the frigid temperature. All of those people are not necessarily Navalny’s supporters – they include people with liberal, conservative ideas to people without strong political views. Women who generally view Navlany as sexist after Navlany once called his wife, Yulia Navalnaya “my little chic” also joined in solidarity. The world saw in disbelief how protesters in Russia were restrained by excessive force by riot police. In Moscow more than 1,950 people were arrested for protesting. More than 5,600 people were detained in 90 cities during protests on past Sunday, according to the monitoring group OVD-Info, which tracks political persecution in Russia. Until the sentencing, Navalny’s supporters were growing in numbers and that had frightened the Kremlin. They most certainly do not want Navalny to be marked as a “political martyr” in history books. That explains the jail term. For two plus years whether Navalny will be sent to a penal colony is anyone’s guess. Will he stay alive in the prison to guide his followers against the anti-Putin movement? Putin’s spokesman, Dimitry Peskov, said, “That Navalny’s case is exclusively a domestic matter and that Russia will not take instructions from foreign governments. The Kremlin has suggested that Navalny works for U.S. intelligence and has branded the Anti-Corruption Foundation a “foreign agent.” Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin can continue on with his agenda of staying in power by crushing his rivals and political dissidents for the foreseeable future. His current term ends in 2024. Putin is trying to kill two birds with one stone – 1) He took a calculating risk that being in jail might diminish Navalny’s popularity as he will be out of the limelight, 2) He is sending out a clear message that he is not going to be swayed by public pressure and will remain steadfast at the face of angry protests after the Navalny sentencing. However, the opposition leader’s incantation of “Do not be afraid!” does not mean there is nothing to fear. With Navalny stashed away in prison, Putin will continue to have a tight grip on all of Russia to carry out his master plan of rebranding Russia. In reality it turns out to be nothing but a classic case of autocratic rule.
Ever since coming to power in 2000, Putin has defined himself as the creator of modern Russia. Russia is a huge and diverse country, and the people have become hostage to Putin’s embryonic ideology, ego, and misguided persona. What may be useful in understanding the crisis in Russia today is to go back in Russian history to the origin of Slavophiles in the nineteenth century as a reaction to modernizations introduced by Peter the Great (1682 – 1725), and Catherine the Great (1762 – 1796). The Slavophiles of the 1830s, such as Aleksey S. Khomyakov, the Aksakov brothers, others were reacting to what they saw as the onslaught of Western ideas of Enlightenment, nationalism and rationalist thought that was eroding the heart of what they had characterized as Slavophilism. To them, it was the soul sustaining idea that salvation of the Russian empire, and that of all Slavs lay in Christian Orthodoxy (though many, including the Poles were Roman Catholics), autocracy i.e., worshipping the Tsar, and adherence to the soil (through peasants’ communes). The Westernizers, such as Herzen, Belinksy and Bakunin opposed these ideas vehemently, and declared that salvation of Russia lay in the adoption of Western ideas of Enlightenment, very much in the tradition introduced by Peter (the Great), then Catherine (the Great.)
Putin, in spite of his KGB roots, and Marxist-Leninist indoctrination while growing up was following many of the anti-western policies that a Slavophile would advocate and cherish. The harsh treatment meted out to political opponent Alexei Navalny is a case in point. In fact, one can show that the sum total of Putin’s actions since he came to power reveal the desire of an earlier day Slavophile to stand up to the (Latin) West and nurture the Eastern (Orthodox) polity.
The Berlin wall came crashing down in 1989. As a KGB officer stationed in East Germany, Putin was shocked; this was too much for a Cold War warrior trained with the very elite cadres of the Soviet state apparatus. He drew several lessons. First, the West was out to crush the Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR) of their dreams. Second, party bureaucrats such as Gorbachev were too soft, and accommodating in their acceptance of the West. Third, the correct response should have been one of strength, and not the one demonstrated by party top brass, including Gorbachev. The disintegration of the USSR and its satellite (east European) states that took place, accompanied by social turmoil, coups and counter coups in Moscow and other centers of powers must have been disorienting to an ordinary Russian.
To Putin, and his comrades, these events helped solidify their resolve to stand up to the encroachment of the West on their borders, as well as within Russia itself. In many ways then, this is reminiscent of the Slavophiles of 1830s and 1840s, Khomyakov and others, in their determination to preserve, and enhance the unique characteristics of the Russian society /soul – Eastern Orthodox Christianity, the autocratic Tsar, and the Russian peasants against the Latin West. Thus, since his KGB days in East Germany, Putin has been someone who plays with danger. He remembers the confusion for those fighting on the wrong side of history and learnt its lessons. It is only logical to expect that he will use these lessons to his own advantage, by holding onto power for as long as he can.
Since Putin came into power in 2000, much has happened in Russia, beginning with the Gorbachev, followed by the Yeltsin years. For the past twenty years (2000 – 2020), the former KGB officer has managed to solidify his hold on power through various manipulations, chicanery, and often brute force. The persecution of Alexei Navalny is a strong reminder of how far Putin and his erstwhile comrades will stoop to in order to maintain their grip. And certainly, this is not the first instance of such attitude towards dissidents.
In recent years, there has been a worrisome trend in Russia – that of the glorification of the cruel dictator, Josef Stalin. Putin has welcomed this trend with open arms. The collective memory in the Soviet Union is replete with instances of brutal persecution by Stalin and his secret police; hardly any family exists that have not been impacted. Yet there is a whitewashing going on of Stalin’s image, at least a forgetfulness of his sins has been underway for quite some time.
This is in line with Putin’s vision of a strong Russia that can stand up to its western foes, much as Stalin had vanquished Hitler in the Second World War. The Slavophiles of the 1870s had predicted the oncoming conflict between the Slavs, and the Teutons (Germans). Stalin’s victory over Hitler was a confirmation of this, and to Putin, it showed that his vision of a strong Russia victorious was possible when a Stalin-like figure took over power in Russia. This of course necessitated the fading from memory of Stalin’s atrocities, the repression that is now known all too well in the west.
Russia has emerged as the largest and the single most powerful state after the former Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. Even before that, they were mighty powerful with the Russian Tsars, and later the Bolsheviks who came to power after the 1917 Russian Revolution. It is well known that “Ukraine and Russia share much of their history… From the mid-17th century Ukraine was gradually absorbed into the Russian Empire, which was completed in the late 18th century with the Partitions of Poland… After the end of World War I, Ukraine became a battleground in the Russian Civil War and both Russians and Ukrainians fought in nearly all armies based on their political belief… In 1922, Ukraine and Russia were two of the founding members of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and were the signatories of the treaty that terminated the union in December 1991.”
Since then, “several acute disputes have formed between the two countries… Ukraine’s attempts to join the EU and NATO in 2015 were seen as a change of course to only a pro-Western, anti-Russian orientation of Ukraine and thus as a sign of hostility… In February 2008 Russia unilaterally withdrew from the Ukrainian-Russian intergovernmental agreement signed in 1997 while the US supported Ukraine’s bid to join NATO; the latter launched in January 2008 as an effort to obtain the NATO Membership.” Russia strongly opposed any prospect of Ukraine and Georgia becoming NATO members. The current crisis began when Ukraine decided not to sign a political and trade agreement with the European Union in the fall of 2013. The demonstrations began soon thereafter, led by students and workers fighting corruption aimed at toppling the regime of pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych, which succeeded three months later. The so-called Euromaidan revolution was strongly backed and financed by western NGOs, and US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland (married to influential neoconservative historian Robert Kagan, Yale ’80) encouraged the leaders of the protest movement in no uncertain terms. On 17 December 2013 Putin agreed to lend Ukraine 15 billion dollars in financial aid, and a treaty was signed amid massive, ongoing protests by Ukrainians for closer ties between Ukraine and the European Union.
With Putin holding the reins, Russia continues to have a history of imperialist policies in the surrounding countries of Eastern Europe. It is said that if Russia sneezes, any of these nations can catch a major cold. Such was the case in Ukraine in 2013 – 2014 that includes a much-condemned military annexation of Crimea in 2014, and not so subtle interference in southeastern Ukraine for a while.
According to Harvard historian Lubmyr Hajda, there are three basic regions in Ukraine. The center, including Kiev, is what most considers the heart of Ukraine. Influenced by Byzantine Christianity, and proud of the development of Slavic alphabet, this region was ruled by Cossacks, only to be conquered by Russia by the late 18th century. The Byzantine Christianity later became Orthodox Christianity after the Roman and Byzantine churches split over various doctrinal polemics.
The western Ukraine, although like the center, was ruled by Poland with Roman Catholic influence, and was later part of the Austrian empire. This is the ‘European’ Ukraine if you will. Finally, the Southeast was settled by the nomads from central Asian steppes, then the Slavs and the Russians. It was heavily industrialized. Call this the ‘Russian’ Ukraine. There are two regions, Donetsk, and Luhansk (Lugansk in Russian), that are de facto Russian enclaves, and the focus of Putin’s efforts at destabilizing Ukraine should Kiev (alternately spelled as Kyiv) lean heavily towards Europe and the USA. About an equal number of residents in each city identify as Russian or Ukrainian, although the majority speak Russian.
Russia was profoundly upset by these developments in Ukraine. As a response, Russia occupied Crimea, and encouraged an active rebellion in eastern Ukraine to split from Kiev. The United States imposed heavy economic sanctions on Russia as a punishment. The Cold War policy of containment promulgated by George Kennan has come back to rule the US-Russia relations again after many years. The ceasefires that were signed, only to be broken did not stop the violence in the conflicted zone. According to an U.N. estimate, “More than 6,500 people have been killed since fighting between Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian rebels,” the latter in search of independence from Kiev.
Currently in its seventh year, “this complex international campaign of destabilization features everything from traditional military components to economic, informational, religious, and cyber dimensions. It has already brought the world to the brink of a new Cold War, and there is currently no end in sight to the conflict.” “Ever since 2014, international efforts have concentrated on ending the shooting war in eastern Ukraine. This has proven only partially successful. The latest in a long line of ceasefires came into effect in late July, offering cause for renewed optimism. However, even if this ceasefire proves more durable than the many previous failed attempts, large swathes of eastern Ukraine will remain under Russian occupation. Furthermore, over the past year, the Kremlin has moved to cement its hold over these occupied regions via the mass distribution of Russian passports.”
The question that is on everyone’s mind is this: What did Putin want in Ukraine, and more broadly in Eastern Europe? The answer varies from the simple to complex. In the simplest scenario, Putin’s intervention in Ukraine through the Russian separatists was an attempt by the former KGB spymaster (Putin) at tweaking the regional power balance between NATO, bent on bringing Ukraine into its orbit of influence, and Russia. If Kiev leans pro-western, the Russian sympathizers in eastern Ukraine start agitating heavily, destroy Ukrainian property, and cause major mayhem. This kept Kiev governments of Poroshenko and Zelensky on its toes. This is the so called ‘managed instability’ theory. There was speculation that Putin wanted to encourage the agitations, with the eventual goal of taking over the port city of Mariupol, still in Ukrainian hands, on the Sea of Azov.
There are various speculations about what Putin wants. He knows the entire world is watching him and much depends on him, and what he wants not only in Ukraine, but in its orbit of influence in Eastern Europe. Given the serious strains on the economy, ultimately, he may have no choice but to decide in favor of peace. He will then have to rein in the separatists in eastern Ukraine, and give up on the idea of recapturing Mariupol, opening a land corridor to the Crimean Peninsula.
On the domestic front Russia itself has been reeling under heavy western economic sanctions, and the falling oil prices are not helping either. The Covid-19 situation is affecting Russian economy as it is facing deep recession. In 2020 Russia’s GDP growth was an eleven year low because of the pandemic, oil crisis and rise in unemployment, according to the World Bank’s latest Russia Economic Report. It is in no position to undertake another war/annexation, some argue. The most complex scenario, however, is that of a few who argue that Putin is bent on exporting instability to all of eastern Europe, beginning with Estonia, a NATO member with 25 percent ethnic Russian population. Should Estonia succumb to unrest by the Russian sympathizers/agitators, NATO will have to defend it by invoking article V of the NATO charter. This is a major escalation of the conflict between Putin and the West and will surely lead to unintended consequences.
Alternately, should the Russian economy improve, Putin may decide to escalate, and pursue the dream of a bigger conflagration, beginning with Estonia. There are many options in between. It is noteworthy to mention that he is playing a very dangerous game to expand Russian power by using covert actions to destabilize the region. It is only logical to expect that he will use these lessons to his own advantage, by holding onto power for as long as he can. The only fear for Europe, NATO, and the USA is that Vladimir Putin may drag down many nations in his orbit of influence through the process.
Three European diplomats have been expelled by the Russian Foreign Ministry for joining the anti- Putin protests in recent weeks. What stands out from this case is that Russia does not care what the Europeans think. It is considered an ‘internal matter’, as Dmitry Peskov had said.
Sending Navalny to prison is a striking blow to the anti-Putin movement. Does the Navalny camp have a plan B? Will Yulia be persuaded to take up the cause while her husband serves his term in prison? Yulia has been described as highly intelligent, with a good stage presence. She had dealt with Navalny’s multiple detentions and fits the definition of a political prisoner’s wife the way Winnie Mandela of South Africa or Svetlana Tikhanovskaya of Belarus did while their husbands had been jailed. Or will Russia’s anti-Putin demonstrations simply end with the jailing of Alexei Navalny?
Zeenat Khan is a former special education teacher who had taught middle school children with learning disabilities at Our Lady of Victory in Washington DC. She now writes fiction, non-fiction, and columns for different journals. At her best friend’s insistence, she is contemplating the start of a food blog about the new dishes that she has been making with enhanced elegance during the pandemic.
Ferdous Khan is a theoretical nuclear physicist. His interest in Russian history and literature go back to his High School days (inspired by Professor Humayun Kabir of Bengal.) As an undergraduate at Yale University in the late ‘70s, he took courses with some of the well-known historians and professors there on the subject. They live in Maryland, USA.