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Europe and Ukraine : Putin’s Project

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A revolutionary situation always favors extremists, and watchfulness is certainly in order. It is quite striking, however, that Kiev and Ukraine returned to order immediately after the revolution, and that the new government has taken an almost unbelievably calm stance in the face of Russian invasion. The only scenario in which Ukrainian extremists actually come to the fore is one in which Russia actually tries to invade the rest of the country. If presidential elections proceed as planned in May, then the unpopularity and weakness of the Ukrainian far right will be revealed. This is why Moscow opposes those elections.

People who criticize only the Ukrainian right often fail to notice two very important things. The first is that the revolution in Ukraine came from the Left. Its enemy was an authoritarian kleptocrat, and its central program was social justice and the rule of law. It was initiated by a journalist of Afghan background, its first two mortal casualties were an Armenian and a Belarusian, and it was supported by the Muslim Crimean Tatar community as well as many Ukrainian Jews. A Jewish Red Army veteran was among those killed in the sniper massacre. Multiple IDF veterans returned from Israel to Ukraine to fight for freedom.

The Maidan functioned in two languages simultaneously, Ukrainian and Russian, because Kiev is a bilingual city and Ukraine is a bilingual country and Ukrainians are bilingual people. Indeed, the motor of the revolution was the Russian-speaking middle class of Kiev. The current government is unselfconsciously multiethnic and multilingual. Ukraine is a cosmopolitan place where considerations of language and ethnicity count for less then we think. In fact, Ukraine is now the site of the largest and most important free media in the Russian language, since all important media in Ukraine appear in Russian, and since freedom of speech prevails. Putin’s idea of defending Russian speakers in Ukraine is absurd on many levels, but one of them is this: people can say what they like in Russian in Ukraine, but they cannot do so in Russia itself.

This is the second thing that goes unnoticed. The authoritarian far right in Russia is infinitely more dangerous than the authoritarian far right in Ukraine. It is in power, for one thing. It has no meaningful rivals, for another. It does not have to accommodate itself to international expectations, for a third. And it is now pursuing a foreign policy that is based openly upon the ethnicization of the world. It does not matter who an individual is according to law or his own preferences: that fact that he speaks Russian makes him a Volksgenosse requiring Russian protection, which is to say invasion. The Russian parliament granted Putin the authority to invade the entirety of Ukraine and to transform its social and political structure, which is an extraordinarily radical goal. It also sent a missive to the Polish foreign ministry proposing a partition of Ukraine. On popular Russian television Jews are blamed for the Holocaust; in the major newspaper Izvestiia Hitler is rehabilitated as a reasonable statesman responding to unreasonable western pressure. The pro-war demonstrations supporting the invasion of Ukraine are composed of people who wear monochrome uniforms and march in formation. The Russian intervention in eastern Ukraine involves generating ethnic violence, not suppressing it. The man who raised the Russian flag in Donetsk was a member of a neo-Nazi party.

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