MOSCOW — Most Western media coverage of Russia's annexation of Crimea and of President Vladimir Putin’s newly assertive tone has been about Putin himself. Headlines question what is going on in Putin's mind, portray him as a neo-imperialist, revanchist fascist, or a man with a big score to settle, ready to use Russia's military might to do so.
But what is happening in Russia today is about Russians themselves. Putin is as much a creature of modern Russia as he is the architect of the country’s military actions.
Responsibility for Putin’s actions in Ukraine belongs both to Putin and the Russian public.
Polls conducted by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center find that more than 75 percent of Russians support Putin’s actions in Ukraine.
Pro-Kremlin media claims of the need to rescue Russian-speaking Crimeans from the alleged abuses of nationalist Ukrainians are partially responsible for Putin’s approval ratings, but support for him goes deeper. He has successfully tapped into the public’s Soviet psyche to ensure his legitimacy as a leader – not in the eyes of the law, but in the minds of the Russian public.
The spike in public support for Putin after Russia’s use of force in Ukraine also occurred after Russia’s intervention in Georgia in 2008. It is not accidental. In the 23 years since the end of the Soviet Union, the Russian state has failed to achieve a new identity and remains Soviet in nature.
Some former Soviet satellites successfully recovered their national identities, severing the umbilical cord with the Soviet empire. Russia remains the sole true heir of the Soviet Union.
A new Russian state with its own national identity was never born; the country retained the body of the Soviet Union but with amputated limbs, suffering from surges of phantom pains. Open borders and freedom of movement — viewed by the West as catalysts for transformation and open minds — have had a negligible effect on the democratization.
For most Russians, there is no alternative to Putin. He reflects the militaristic mindset of many of his countrymen, who believe that military intervention in neighboring countries is the most effective way to bolster Russia’s standing. Putin is not Hitler or Stalin, but he shares an asset they once had: the support of a population readily assenting to the use of military force.
Both Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin lost public support as they attempted to free Russia from the phantom pains of the past. Unlike them, Putin exploits these insecurities to gain public support.
In the 15 years that Putin has ruled Russia formally and informally, his only obvious, available option for retaining public support has been to appeal to aspirations rooted in Soviet times. He has accomplished this by demolishing civic institutions conceived under Gorbachev and Yeltsin and employing force and military might as his governing principles, trampling the law.
As Russia makes its own history in the shadow of the Soviet past, the Russian people bear responsibility for the future of the country. The US and European reaction to Putin’s intervention in Ukraine needs to go further than sanctioning only Putin’s cronies. The West needs to give Russians a reason to question Putin’s “protection” and show them that Putin does not bring them dignity.
If future aggression by Russia is to be stopped, the international community should hold the Russian public responsible for their support of Putin by imposing broad economic sanctions. In a prison mentality, where might makes right, it is only when the “protector” is slapped hard that the others notice.
Elisha Milashina is an editor at Novaya Gazeta, a liberal opposition newspaper in Moscow. Ella Asoyan is a senior program officer at Freedom House in Washington.