The Battle of Legitimacy

Russian Naval Vessel in Ukrainian Port

(The Ukraine List (UKL) #468 – Dominique Arel – 2 March 2014)

Chair of Ukrainian Studies, University of Ottawa –

The unimaginable is now before us: the Higher Chamber of the Russian parliament has authorized Russia to send troops “on the territory of Ukraine,” leaving open the possibility that the Russian army, currently occupying Crimea, may be dispatched elsewhere on Ukrainian territory. In seeking to legitimate its military operation, Russia invokes political, ethnic, and security arguments. None stand up to analysis.

The political argument is that Ukraine is in the throes of an illegitimate political regime that came to power a week ago as a result of a “fascist coup.” “Fascism” means something very specific in Russian discourse: since World War II, the invasion by Germany has always been presented as an invasion of “fascists.” The fascists are the Nazis and their collaborators. In Western Ukraine, a violent Ukrainian insurgency against the Soviet Union tactically allied with Germany during the war. Russian discourse labels these insurgents “fascists” (or “Banderites”, after their leader Stepan Bandera, a term that acquired equivalent meaning). Since key groups on Maidan (the parliamentary party Svoboda and the popular movement Pravyi sector) claim lineage to the wartime insurgency, the collapse of the Yanukovych regime is portrayed in Russia as an internal fascist invasion. This narrative omits three basic points. The first is that the regime collapsed because all police forces withdrew on Friday February 21, leaving government buildings unprotected. They withdrew, not because they were overcome by armed militants, but because of demoralization, caused either for having previously used live ammunitions or for becoming unwilling to defend a regime perceived as widely corrupt. The second is that it is not the insurgents that attacked civilians (unlike wartime insurgents, who attacked Jewish and Polish civilians), but rather the state, and in the end the state security forces gave up. The third is that the political pillars of the previous regime, the Party of Regions and the Communist Party of Ukraine, have both recognized the legitimacy of the new government. The Communists, who depicts wartime insurgents as “fascists,” have voted en bloc for all constitutional changes in the past week.

The ethnic argument is that the life of Russia’s “compatriots” is in danger. The resolution of the Russian parliament refers both to “citizens,” who, outside of Sevastopol, are in principle not too numerous, since dual citizenship is illegal in Ukraine, and to this vague category of “compatriots,” which has no standing in international law. Compatriots is code word for ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers, in the context where most residents of Eastern Ukraine prefer to speak Russian. It is this undifferentiated “Russian” mass that the Russian state now sees as under threat by the “nationalists” that have taken power in Kiev (“nationalist”, since the Soviet days, has been used as a synonym for “fascist”). This narrative assumes that, in the defining moment that Ukraine is now experiencing, Eastern Ukrainians will choose Russian protection over “Ukrainian nationalist” rule. Russia’s power play could actually have the opposite effect of further crystallizing Ukrainian identity in the East. There is no organized Russian community in Eastern Ukraine -unlike in Crimea-because many, if not most “Russians” are partly of Ukrainian background, and many “Ukrainians” are partly Russian. This ethnic mixity likely explain the ambivalence expressed by Eastern Ukrainians towards Russia. Under quasi-war conditions, the ambivalence could lead way to a greater assertion of Ukrainian identity. The fact that mass demonstrations are now occurring in Eastern Ukraine, a traditionally passive society, could be seen as a barometer of a rising attachment to the nation, defined in civic terms.

The security argument is that the events that have “destabilized” Ukraine are the results of Western meddling on a territory that has historically belonged to the Russian sphere of interests. (The Russian historical narrative actually places Kiev as the “mother of all Russian cities”) Russian President Putin appears to firmly believes that Maidan was instigated by Western powers, a claim obliquely repeated by former Ukrainian President Yanukovych in his Rostov press conference. The “meddling,” however, was declarative, with Western powers expressing support for the right of Maidan demonstrators to peacefully air their grievances and repeatedly inviting the Ukrainian authorities to find a political solution and avoid the use of violence. Up until the protests turned into mass killing, the EU and the United States were in fact criticized in the West for how little concrete help they provided to Maidan, the EU resisting, for instance, the imposition of personal sanctions until the very end, when the police began shooting at demonstrators. The argument of Western intervention, however, operates on a higher plane than immediate support on the ground, taking the form of the claim, also often made in Western liberal and leftist circles, that the West’s ulterior motive is to secure military bases in Russia’s backyard and to make the Ukrainian market available for cheap labor fto the benefit of advanced Western economies. While these points merit a rigorous hearing, primarily or exclusively focusing on them evacuates the profoundly civic dimension of the Ukrainian rebellion. Maidan, initially a protest for Europe, became a protest against police brutality, large-scale corruption, and the lack of political accountability. Since all these features are also associated with the current Russian state, opposing them became a symbolic reaffirmation of “European” values (even if the free trade agreement was no longer talked about). It is easy to be dismissive of the weight of “values,” but the fact is that insurgents were willing to risk and pay for their lives and it is their stance that ultimately broke the will of the Yanukovych regime. The meddling, in the end, was of “European” ideas and they, in themselves, are seen as an infringement on the security not of Russia, but of the Russian political system developed under President Putin. The logical fallacy is that since Western powers could benefit from the bottom-up Ukrainian civic uprising, then they must have caused it. They did not.

Map of Ukraine, Including Crimea, and Neighbors, Including Russia