After Annexing Crimea, Euphoric Russia Turns Thoughts To Ukraine

MOSCOW, Russia -- The event in Moscow last week was billed as an expert discussion, not a political one, on Ukraine’s future.

But Sergei Y. Glazyev, an economic adviser to President Vladimir V. Putin with a distinctive Stalinist bent, unleashed some rather overtly political remarks.

“Those Nazis were educated by the United States,” he said about Kiev’s newly elected government.

“The Americans are clearly fanning a war between Russia and Europe.”

Across town, in an arty cafe adorned with contemporary friezes of cavorting Greco-Roman couples, an entirely different discourse unspooled.

There, a panel of Russian and Ukrainian intellectuals was supposedly discussing the conflict’s negative ripples.

The moderators broached topics like Russia’s “tele-fascism,” or the idea that Ukraine is looking to the future while Russia is mired in the past.

But panelists interrupted with various lengthy diatribes, like the Ukrainian poet determined to repeat her earlier performance of screaming “MAIDAN!” into the microphone a lot.

Maidan is, of course, the main square in Kiev, where the protest movement that toppled Ukraine’s government in February arose.

Ukraine continues to dominate public discourse in Russia.

Nothing else really competes.

Not perennial public concerns like inadequate housing.

Not thorny political issues like the new law allowing the government to designate nongovernmental organizations as “foreign agents,” replacing the previous version of registering themselves.

In this country of unapologetic smokers, not even a ban on lighting up indoors that went into effect this month dented Ukraine’s predominance.

Various factors fuel all the attention.

First, naturally, is the worry that a full-blown war could erupt out of the skirmishing just across the border, with the Russian military involved overtly or covertly.

Second is the sense that the fates of the two countries are intertwined, rooted in a shared history and culture, as well as myriad family ties.

Third, and perhaps most telling, the March annexation of Crimea put most Russians in a euphoric mood that has not diminished.

The fact that the annexation has infused the public with a sense of greatness they had lost sent Mr. Putin’s favorability ratings soaring above 80 percent month after month, and the government itself keeps its focus firmly on Ukraine.

His political allies are ecstatic.

The high rating “means that it is unfashionable not to support the president,” said Olga Timofeyeva, a Putin ally in Parliament.

Others are more sanguine.

“It is not a rating for Putin; it is the rating for Putin’s decision to annex Crimea,” said Alexei Venediktov, the editor in chief of Ekho Moskvy, a radio station among the shrinking public outlets for opposition voices.

Behind the euphoria lies the worrying question about how to defuse the Ukraine crisis.

The conflict has deepened over the past couple of days with the downing of a Ukrainian military transport plane, killing almost 50 people, and with accusations from the United States and Ukraine that Russia dispatched a few tanks across the border.

Moscow denied sending tanks.

On the eventual outcome, the government line — granting some measure of autonomy for the East and protecting the Russian language — dominates the discussion.

These days, any Ukraine discussion is often accompanied by thinly disguised anger that a week after his June 7 inauguration, President Petro O. Poroshenko has not halted the offensive of the Ukrainian security forces against the separatists.

“They are trying to take a multilingual, multicultural society and build it into a monolithic, monolingual country,” Alexander Voloshin, Mr. Putin’s former chief of staff, told a civil society forum.

“They are trying to turn it into a country of ethnic Ukrainians,” he said, rather than negotiate the compromises needed to end the crisis.

Despite the simmering conflict next door, experts of all stripes note a distinctive shift in mood that remains firmly in place three months after Crimea’s annexation.

Ukraine and its Western allies condemn the annexation as illegal, but there is no sign anyone is trying to get Crimea back.

“Today, there is a kind of renaissance, people are feeling that their country is strong again, but it is not about aggression,” said Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a sociologist who specializes in studying Russia’s political elite.

“After the Soviet Union collapsed, we were losing territories — losing and losing and losing. Now, Crimea is a symbol that we have stopped losing, we are gaining.”

Even habitual critics of things Russian tend to root for the home team on this one.

For Artemy Lebedev, the founder of a cutting-edge design firm who has never been shy about criticizing what he laments as Russia’s lack of professionalism, Crimea was different — fast and bloodless.

“Maybe they used someone from Hollywood who told them what the army of the future should look like,” he said in an interview, echoing remarks on his blog about how sharp, fit, polite and just downright good looking those soldiers were.

Mr. Lebedev garnered some abuse online from Putin opponents, but he said his feelings were about pride and achievement, not endorsing the president.

“I was born in the U.S.S.R., and I felt bitter when 14 different countries split off from my country,” he wrote.

“It is just that it happened a long time ago, and everyone got used to it.”

Members of the young generation who oppose Mr. Putin said they had learned to shut up about it, at least in public, because of the prevailing bliss.

Even the sense that Crimea is going to cost Russians a fortune has not dampened the public mood.

For example, cost estimates for the Kerch Strait bridge that will ultimately become the first land link to Russia have risen repeatedly to more than $8 billion.

While noting recently that those funds would have to be siphoned off from other projects, Alexei Kudrin, the former finance minister, said, “The price is something that I think the society is willing to pay.”

Crimea crops up everywhere, not just in political debates.

One company introduced a new chocolate bar this month called “Crimea. Just Try to Take It.”

The wrapper shows a superhero dressed in the colors of the Russian flag.

Customers mobbed a department store in Moscow that started selling T-shirts last week glorifying Mr. Putin and the annexation.

In the southern city of Krasnodar, the fable of Little Red Riding Hood was rewritten for a stage production as a parable about the annexation with Crimea as the wee heroine, Russia as granny and the United States as (want to guess?) the big, bad wolf.

Mr. Putin brings up Crimea often.

On Thursday, Russia’s national day, he said: “This year, we celebrate our national holiday with a special mood, special elation. Crimea and Sevastopol have returned to Russia, to their Motherland.”

Yet amid the elation, pollsters also note rising concerns about Ukraine.

The number of Russians who support the annexation of southeastern Ukraine dropped to less than a quarter from about 60 percent right after the acquisition of Crimea, said Lev Gudkov, the Levada Center director.

Several factors were behind that, including modest inflation prompted partly by sanctions.

Mr. Putin’s high ratings are undoubtedly linked to the relentless propaganda across state-controlled television that still flogs annexing Crimea as a historic feat.

But that campaign also echoes public sentiment.

“Propaganda does not work unless people want to believe it,” Mr. Gudkov said.

“They fully understand that it is propaganda, but at the same time, they enjoy this imperialistic rhetoric, so they play along. Most people we ask say that his main victory is that he managed to restore Russia’s reputation as a world power.” 

War-inflated enthusiasm is notoriously soft, and Mr. Gudkov and others are not quite sure what might sustain the current mood.

“I don’t think the euphoria will last,” he said.

Source: The New York Times