By Alyssa McMurtry
As a grand display of fireworks exploded into the triumphant Russian air, marking the end of the Sochi Winter Olympics, Vladimir Putin’s shiny, youthful and slightly frozen face switched from proud to preoccupied throughout the ceremony. Instead of reveling in his successfully executed dream, he had bigger things to worry about.
The same day, February 23, Ukraine woke up to news that the whereabouts of former president Viktor Yanukovych, who had been impeached the day before, were still unknown. After months of protests against Yanukovych for his refusal to sign a trade agreement with the European Union, a new government had begun to consolidate its power in Kiev.
At the same time, thousands had gathered Russian flags and attended a protest in Sevastopol, on Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. The crowd declared their intention to become part of Russia. On March 16, Crimeans overwhelmingly voted to join the Russian Federation. The election was denounced as invalid by the Ukraine and western powers, but Putin quickly signed a bill to absorb the region into Russia. On March 24, Crimea adopted the rouble as its official currency.
“They all want to live in a mighty country but they don’t care about living in a happy country… I can’t say all Russians, but many still think the state should go ahead of the person.”
Although it would be pure speculation to argue that Russia’s aggressive moves in the Ukraine were triggered by the afterglow of a successful Sochi games, some suggest there is a relationship. Mugambi Jouet, a human rights lawyer, argues that the Olympic Games emboldened Putin’s moves.
“I think it’s important to keep in mind why any country would want to host the Olympics—for power, prestige and prosperity,” Jouet said. “The reason why Putin was so excited to host the Olympics was that he wanted to reassert the power of Russia in the global community.”
Today, that reassertion has moved far beyond the symbolic spectacle of opening and closing ceremonies. Most of the international community agrees that Putin’s move in Crimea violated international law, but hyperbole, fear, and hubris exists on both sides. Both the Russian and Western governments have played with rhetoric unheard of since the Cold War. The West denies the validity of the referendum and Russia says the West has no moral authority due to their actions in Iraq, Libya, or Kosovo. As Eastern Ukraine descends deeper into rebellion, threatening a civil war, both sides accuse each other of being behind the unrest.
But divisions also exist within the individual countries. Even though most Russians agree that Crimea should be a Russian territory, some have voiced their dissent. Worried that Putin’s actions would lead to war or harm Ukraine, approximately 50,000 people gathered for a Peace Rally in Moscow, which was sanctioned by Russian authorities on March 15.
Victoria Ivleva, a freelance war correspondent and photographer, marched with a group of photographers at the end of the procession. They carried 80 large photographs, many of which she had taken, which depicted the brutal horrors of war. She wanted to show fellow Russians the “horrible, dirty, awful, disgusting…blood and tears,” that she witnessed in other Russian wars.
Ivleva said she couldn’t empathize with her fellow Russian’s support of the invasion.
“They all want to live in a mighty country but they don’t care about living in a happy country… I can’t say all Russians, but many still think the state should go ahead of the person,” she said.
“There is a sense that when Russia does something they are working under some kind of darker geopolitical structure to resurrect the Soviet Union. There isn’t a lot of real will to understand Russian frustration and psychology.”
Victor Mischenko is Ukrainian but also an ethnic Russian. He lives in Donetsk, an industrial city in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian separatists have seized control of government buildings and demanded autonomy from the Ukrainian government.
The recent unrest in Donetsk worries Mischenko because of the potential for violence and economic problems. Nevertheless, he hopes that his region will become part of Russia because he expects that salaries would increase, because he dislikes the Ukrainian language, and because he believes a “bigger Russia is better.”
Unlike Crimea, Mischenko said, his region would be split in half over whether to join the Russian Federation but thinks it could be possible. He spoke about a conversation he had with his nephew who, Mischenko claimed, was spewing Ukrainian propaganda.
“I couldn’t stand it so I tried to convince him that what he was saying was not right,” he said. “They say that joining the EU will help the economy—that’s a lie. They say the 100 people who died in the protests were killed by Yanukovych, which is absolute nonsense, it’s clear that they were killed by the protestors themselves to instigate people to protest more vigorously and take out the government.”
While Mischenko’s second statement is considered to be wildly misinformed, his aversion to the EU is easier to understand. Putin recently announced his decision to double the pensions paid to retirees in Crimea, which raises them to the average levels paid in Russia.
The average monthly pension in Russia in 2013 was about $285, compared to the Ukraine average of $160. Furthermore, the Eastern Ukrainian economy has strong ties to Russia, and joining the EU could deliver a major blow to their manufacturing sector as standards would have to change, said Jeff Sahadeo, a professor at Carleton University in Ottawa who specializes in Eurasia.
“I don’t think it’s fair that the western media has bought into this narrative that Russians are bad guys,” Sahadeo said. “For example, there is a sense that when Russia does something they are working under some kind of darker geopolitical structure to resurrect the Soviet Union. There isn’t a lot of real will to understand Russian frustration and psychology.”
However much may be unclear about Ukraine’s future, this much is true: Russia won the Olympics and is now a peninsula larger.
Vladimir Gromov is a Russian screenwriter living in Kiev. He is married to a Ukrainian woman and has children there. He said he is upset with how Russians view Putin and the Ukraine, but understands it because he lived there for most of his life.
“I think it’s a tragedy of Russian character, Russians in many ways feel themselves victims of the cold war,” he said. Many dream of the rebirth of a Russian empire, but “it’s a tragedy because Russians live with dreams and ideas, not material interests, and now Putin gives the Russians this idea but it’s a fantastic idea and we know how it will end.”
Professor Joan DeBardeleben, Associate Director of Carleton’s Institute of European, Russian and Eurasian Studies, agreed that Russian and Western perspectives are vastly different. Although she condemned Russia’s actions, she said it is important to understand the Russian state of mind.
“In the West there is a view that countries tried to help Russia after the Soviet Union collapsed through aid, credits, and advice. In Russia, it looks like all that produced an economic decline in the 1990s, that the western model brought hardship and the decline of the ability of the state to function efficiently. They see Putin’s effort to strengthen the state and reinforce traditional values as a response to that.”
She also pointed to the expansion of NATO around Russia’s borders as an important source of tension in Russia.
Just as the morally-ambiguous Sochi Olympics ended with a puzzled look on Putin’s face, the international community now sits uneasily watching the deepening crisis in Ukraine unfold. The importance of understanding what lies behind Russia’s actions has never been higher. Because however much may be unclear about Ukraine’s future, this much is true: Russia won the Olympics and is now a peninsula larger.
Alyssa McMurtry is a Canadian journalist who has reported from India and Spain. She recently graduated from the journalism program at Carleton University and will soon begin work at the Saskatoon Star Phoenix. Her work has appeared in Embassy Magazine, Canadian Dimension, and The Hindu.