‘Russia is wherever we are’

Peter Pomerantsev

The games the Kremlin is playing in the Ukrainian theatre of almost-war are an extrapolation of the techniques it uses in Russia. Postmodern authoritarianism – or whatever you want to call the 21st-century system the Kremlin has developed with its puppet politicians and simulated ideologies and pretend conflicts and real killing and corporate KGBism – is going on tour.

The Kremlin’s Ukrainian adventure seemed to slide off the end of the Olympics, whose opening and closing ceremonies celebrated Russian history as a sequence of performances and hallucinations. The Night Wolves, the Kremlin-sponsored religious-imperialist Hells Angels out to save the soul of Holy Russia from the satanic West, rode their Harleys down to Crimea: ‘Russia is wherever we are,’ their leader has often said. ‘Ukraine and Russia should reunite,’ he has now announced. On TV the leader of the Eurasia party, Aleksandr Dugin, called for Ukraine to be split along racial lines; the Eurasianist presidential advisor Sergey Glazyev said Russia would leave the global financial system and create its own behind a high white wall. Does anyone who has real power in Russia believe any of this? The ‘shareholders of the system’, as they’re known in Russia, with their children at Western business schools and their investments in Geneva? Really? Do they? Or are the Night Wolves and the Glazyevs just pushed forward to intimidate? Don’t mess with us, we have madmen in our midst! And it works.

Then, just as you were trying to get your bearings over the weekend, the news was suddenly dominated by senators approving Putin’s request to authorise the invasion of Ukraine, in speeches that quoted directly from the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan, spoken in the same graveyard tones last heard in 1980, by men in awful suits in a room whose very colour-coding screams ‘USSR’. And watching it all you can’t help but think: ‘My God, they really do believe it’s the Cold War.' And then you calm down: does the Kremlin really still think it’s 1980? Or is this just the calculated use, utterly contemporary, of Cold War quotes to unnerve the enemy? Yes. Yes, you tell yourself, that makes much more sense. But: they just declared war! Real war!

And while you’re still pinching yourself, there’s one of the sane, modern spokesmen (maybe Medvedev, maybe just Naryshkin), contacting the government in Kiev and promising, in the most rational, sensible terms, that ‘of course there will be no invasion of mainland Ukraine. We all live in the modern world, don’t we?’ And it comes as such a relief you’re willing to accept its terms, however skewed they are, just for the world to make sense again. But the moment you’ve calmed down there are crowds of thousands springing up in Odessa, Donetsk, Kharkiv, calling on Russia to save them from Ukraine. And everyone’s talking about civil war. And there are women wailing to the cameras they're afraid being attacked by roving gangs of Nazis from Kiev. But all the reliable news sources say there are no roving gangs of Nazis from Kiev. And why do the same women appear in every meeting in different cities: are they rented? Is the civil war rented? Are all these crowds, which appear so suddenly and just as suddenly disperse, all extras? But what of all those millions who really did vote for Yanukovich? Who really do love Putin? They’re real. Aren’t they? And you sink deeper into the scripted reality show designed to to disorientate, provoke, intimidate, with its scare puppets that might just come alive and the invocation of nightmares to give you nightmares in which you can’t quite really tell what’s simulated and what isn't.

And then comes Putin. And now you think the games will stop. Everything will become clear. War or peace. Madness or sanity. And he begins to speak, and he says, in essence: 'War? What war? We would never dream of starting war! We respect all territorial integrities.' And you relax. It was all just a little sabre-rattling to get back in the global game. And then he says: ‘But of course we might invade if Russians in Ukraine ask us. And maybe the borders should be changed, in which case it wouldn’t even be invasion.' And then he says: ‘Soldiers? What soldiers? We have no Russian soldiers in Crimea.’ And now you feel reality is slipping faster than ever, because if there was one real thing in all this it was real Russian troops arriving in Crimea (they even said they were Russian troops, though they have no Russian army insignia). And off Putin goes, invoking his defence of human rights and snatches of Nazi history and Americans treating Europeans like lab rats. And is he doing all this to send us mad with his use, in the US state department phrase, of ‘startling fiction’? Or because, in the alleged words of Angela Merkel, he’s lost all contact with reality?

For some sort of madness is implicit in the system. If at one end of the spectrum there's Vladislav Surkov in his 2010 pomp, switching through the gears of contradicting narratives with triumphant cynicism (he sped through East Ukraine just before all these new performances were set in motion), then at the other end is the figure of Boris Berezovsky, the progenitor of the system who became its absurd reflection, bankrupt, making no sense in an English courtroom where he was told by a judge that he ‘deluded himself into believing his own version of events’ (after that, all that was left for him was suicide). And somewhere in the middle is a minigarch I met in Moscow who was convinced he was the messiah, and rich and powerful enough to organise his world to foster the illusion.

But for all this loose talk of ‘madness’, look underneath the Kremlin’s whirligig and don’t you see the most precise, hard calculations? The Crimea was always easy to take over. Secretly, some in Kiev might well want rid of it (it sucks out money; it's too Russian; though you’d be politically dead if you were to ever say that publicly). If one part of the Kremlin system is all about performance, another part is about slow, patient co-option. The Kremlin has been co-opting Europe for years: the fate of British shareholders is tied to Rosneft because it controls BP; the fate of German exports is tied to Russian passion for BMWs and Mercedes. And that’s not to mention Gazprom. The Kremlin knows there may be a red line somewhere on the horizon, but there's a long way to go before it even comes into focus. London, Berlin, Paris have all so far said no to sanctions. And for every announcement about war and peace made by Moscow, equity prices rise madly up or down, and someone, somewhere very near to Putin, is making a killing on the markets.

When you talk to members of the elite in Moscow, no one serious thinks in terms of the Cold War. The metaphor I heard most often – from liberals and oilmen and corporate spooks – is ‘we are minority shareholders in globalisation.' Which, given the specifics of Russian capitalism, may mean the best way to imagine the Kremlin's idea of its position in today’s world is as a ‘corporate reider’: the ultra-violent cousin of western corporate raiders. ‘Reiding’ is how most of the Russian elite made their first money, buying into a company and then using any means possible (arrests, guns, seizures, explosions, bribery, blackmail) to take it over. The Kremlin is the great corporate reider inside globalisation. But though it may want to take the system hostage, that means – doesn't it? – that it can’t go all the way and actually destroy it. Because then what would it feed from?


  • 6 March 2014 at 6:29pm
    Geoff Roberts says:
    And there are some commentators in Western Europe who think that Putin is rational, interested only in legal processes - Yanukovich was elected, wasn't he? Chased out by Nazis who threatened his life, wasn't he? And for Obama to talk about 'invading a country on a false pretext" - what about Irak, huh?
    Seems to me that the political leaders - from Putin to Obama, Merkel to Hollande have lost their places in the script. We should lock them up in Davos, where they can be comfortable and not let them out until they start making sense. (Merkel is talking about Germany 'playing a larger role in world affairs'. Heaven help us.)

  • 6 March 2014 at 7:50pm
    stettiner says:
    "And why do the same women appear in every meeting in different cities: are they rented?"

    Well, it worked perfectly against Israel in the latest Libanon war; the same woman lamenting the loss of her house at different locations; why wouldn't it work in Ukraine? All you have to do is desperately want to believe...

    • 10 March 2014 at 9:42pm
      arandomreader says: @ stettiner
      yes of course Israel never destroyed any house during its last war against Lebanon, it was all stage-managed by cunning propagandists to twist reality and turn world opinion against Israel. Of course.
      or maybe you just missed the point of the entire article?

    • 11 March 2014 at 6:07am
      Swedish Observer says: @ arandomreader
      How many Palestinian women have we not seen lamenting the loss of their house when it was blown up by Israeli soldiers because someone in the family had resisted the occupation? Or was it the same woman appearing outside different ruins?

  • 6 March 2014 at 8:01pm
    Michael Bollinger says:
    Crimea is Russian de jure. But there is no crisis there now. Crisis was made by the US & EU in Kiev by supporting the rebel-fascists all the time before. It is now clear to everyone in Eastern Europe the US wants a civil war and thus will be completely responsible for that. Now watch what they do to burn the Ukraine down blaming the russians for that. They could just force Kiev to go back to the FULLY represented government and put down the weapons against normal people. That's stated in the Agreement of the 21st of February 2014 between the legal president Yanukovitsch and 3 EU ministers. Done so the dialog could go on. But that Agreement is now a toilet paper for them... So fuck EU – she said it. Now THIS will have consequences for sure. 'Thank' US, not Russia.

  • 6 March 2014 at 8:15pm
    Michael Bollinger says:
    Does anyone know about snipers killing both parties at Maidan? How they threatened Yanukovitsch all the time until he subscribed the Agreement and most important, after that? How they attacked his house and property? He HAD to flee, or be killed. But he is alive now and he is a legal president of Ukraine and they have to deal with that no matter if they want it or not.

  • 8 March 2014 at 8:19pm
    DanJ says:
    Predictably enough, on a lucid and balanced article, here comes some troll spouting ludicrous Kremlin fabrications.

    'Michael Bollinger', I presume you are aware that there were fascists already in the 'FULLY represented' government before the revolution? That Yanukovitch actually refused to sign the agreement you are talking about - as did Russia? That there are several Jews in the 'fascist' interim govenment, and that the only Russian national to die in Ukraine so far was killed protesting against Yanukovich? Im sure you are, but they are inconvenient to your cartoon version of the world where everything is down to big bad America, so they are, of course, omitted. Cant wait for your next round of conspiracy theory gossip.

  • 13 March 2014 at 1:03pm
    stettiner says:
    I'm talking about lazy reporting appealing to believers. Because you know Israel is the bully, you are not disturbed by photo after photo depicting the same women in front of different buildings. You must surely know, my dear Swedish Observer, how the Swedish media call the 2006 nightly assault over the border by Lebanese forces, done under cover of heavy artillery against Israeli civilian targets? That's right, it's called "Israel's attack on Lebanon".

    So when Russia Today shows hundreds of thousands of refugees seeking their way to the Motherland, using old images from the Ukraine-Poland border, you believe. Because you want to.

  • 15 March 2014 at 7:41pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    This piece seems to have stimulated some magical thinking among those stalwart souls who, to turn an old Soviet phrase on its head are “the mad running dogs of Russian imperialism”, boundless in their loyalty to both strongman-clown Putinello and some hazy, weepy notion of an unfairly assailed “Mother Russia” (a mother who wears combat boots, putting her on the same fashion page as Pussy Riot, though she prefers stepping on your face to singing). Who’s kidding whom here? While the Western response is tainted by various inconsistencies and hypocrisies, it is no more so than the defenders of Putin and the criminal entrepreneur formerly known as President Yanukovych (a veritable Prince of his realm). Both sides have people of fascist inclinations on their teams, but Putin seems more ready and willing to unleash his while he tars his opponents with the broad brush of old-style USSR propaganda, the kind that makes you laugh out loud. But don’t laugh while you’re close to a “real patriot” or a cop. Crimea may well return to Russian rule. The enthusiasts for that particular deadly embrace are going to just love that – wait a few years and you’ll hear them howling if Putin doesn’t dump a ton of money on them, which will only wind up in the hands of their own little Putins anyway. And if it does return to Mom, there may be sufficient historical and demographic reasons and justifications for it to pass quietly off the front pages if the West just leaves it alone. On the other hand at least half the citizens of Ukraine have their own old historical affiliations with powers and cultures to the west (the portions once part of the old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and, after that, the portions under Habsburg rule). And they want to go west, because, with all its internal problems the West and the EU must look far more promising than what Putin and Russia have to offer them. So Bollinger and Stettiner and their ilk should just relax, read some xenophobic Dostoyevsky so they can wallow in the superiority of Russian soulfulness, and raise a glass of vodka to the little man from the KGB, where dreams and nightmares are interchangeable and often come true, to the regret of all but the dreamers.

    • 17 March 2014 at 9:06pm
      stettiner says: @ Timothy Rogers
      Surely, Timothy, this must be some kind of misunderstanding....

    • 18 March 2014 at 5:03pm
      Timothy Rogers says: @ stettiner
      If it is, then you have my apology, and I pledge to eat a pound of crow.

    • 18 March 2014 at 8:01pm
      stettiner says: @ Timothy Rogers
      Bon appétit...

    • 27 March 2014 at 4:45pm
      Timothy Rogers says: @ stettiner
      Aaarrrgh! It tastes every bit as bad as I remember it from the last time I ate crow(thereby contradicting the old saw that people become more cautious after being chastened by experience).

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