Photo Credit: Bohan Shen
I was walking through a Russian park during the summer of 2011 with my Muscovite friend Katia, whom I had met through my intensive language study abroad program, when the conversation drifted towards US-Russian relations, specifically the space race. I was warned during my pre-departure orientation to steer clear of controversial topics between our two countries, so the idea of discussing the space race with my limited Russian language abilities made me nervous. Katia bluntly asked who I thought won the space race and without much consideration I exclaimed “America of course!” to which she half smiled and asked “yes, but who actually made it to space first?”
This was one of the first times in my life when I experienced a significant paradigm shift in perspectives. Katia, so sure that Russia had made it to space first and had therefore won the title of victor that came with it, and myself who had been taught about the race to the moon as the real challenge and thought of the US claim of victory as nothing short of fact. However, in reality, each claim was based on a different perspective. When we look below the surface of the claim from each country, we can conclude that the claims of victory are not solely contingent upon who won and who lost, but are based on a much deeper and motivating emotion: pride.
Russian pride, particularly of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has been clearly on display in recent years, such as when Putin infamously claimed that the break up of the Soviet Union was the greatest geo-political disaster of the 20th century, when Russia invaded Georgia, when Russia joined BRICS, when it created a trade union with former Soviet satellite countries, and when Russia annexed Crimea and invaded Eastern Ukraine. Putin yearns for the days where the only world powers were the United States and the Soviet Union. Putin craves the status of a superpower and cannot stand being treated as a second-class nation. Like a child who breaks things to get attention, Putin haphazardly creates scenarios that draw the eyes of the world.
Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the arguable leader of Western Europe, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, immediately called Putin to find a diplomatic solution to the situation. French President Francois Hollande was at Merkel’s side to press Putin to stop his transgressions. The United States and Great Britain both called for a withdrawal of troops and imposed arguably effective sanctions. Whether this attention was good or bad was never the point; Russia and therefore Putin was getting the attention it so desperately wanted from the rest of the world. When receiving this attention, Putin is able to turn it into propaganda to curry support at home. As of February 2015, Putin’s approval rating was at 86% despite Western sanctions and falling oil prices. According to Freedom House, Russia is ranked 176 out of 196 in global freedom press rankings and therefore has the ability to sway public opinion favorably towards the Kremlin and Russian intervention in Ukraine. However, this hardly seems difficult to do when 94% of Russians receive their news from domestic television networks and 44% of Russians consider foreign media outlets to be biased. With all of these factors put together, it can be easy to see why there has been a gradual uptick in Russian nationalism, especially when it looks like the whole world is against you.
In the 2005 speech naming the fall of the Soviet Union as one of the greatest geo-political disasters in the 20th century, Putin says so in part because it left “tens of millions of our co-citizens and co-patriots…outside Russian territory.” Thus, the annexation of the Crimea peninsula is part of that mission to re-assimilate those native Russians back into Russia. Putin considers himself a protector of Russian people as the president, so when his media claims that his annexation of Crimea is legitimate it is not difficult to see why native Russians may sympathize with his decision. In the eyes of the average Russian citizen, the whole world is against them. When sanctions cause inflation and a scarcity of goods at the supermarket, it is not Putin they blame, but the Western nations who do not understand why their leader is doing what he is doing, which gives them a greater reason to rally behind him.
Putin has elbowed his way into the limelight of the world by forcing the narrative in the direction he wants. Putin is a very proactive tactician, and can therefore control the movement of his own people and much more easily predict the reactions of other world leaders. What is the downside to the invasion of a sovereign nation when sanctions can be used to garner domestic support? While it is understandable that Putin will not be invited to the G7 conference, and the build up of NATO forces unsurprising, we can also not be surprised when Russia increases its military patrols in foreign water and airspace or continues to build military force along the Russian-Ukrainian border. Putin has amassed many casualties in this conflict – Ukrainian civilians, Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, Ukrainian separatists, and Russian troops – he has shown he is not too proud to sacrifice more.
Evan Sieradzki is a recent graduate from Ohio State University with degrees in Russian and International Studies. He has spent time studying at Russian State University for the Humanities in Moscow and currently lives in Washington, D.C.