By Amalie Nohe-Moren
Over eight years ago, in February of 2014, Russia annexed the disputed territory of Crimea. Four days after the anniversary of the annexation, this year in 2022, Russia invades Ukraine. Understanding the disputes over Crimea, even the name and whether it is “the autonomous republic” or just “the republic” of Crimea is part of a long and complex history.
In essence, Crimea is a land with overlap, in people, language, military presence, from both Ukraine and Russia. By most Western powers, including the European Union, it was considered part of Ukraine, and Russian President Vladimir Putin disagreed, then forcefully tried to make it part of Russia again, as it was in the USSR under Khrushchev.
However, these disputes are only the backdrop of what I want to talk about today. Just know that this conflict, the strife, and bloodshed in Ukraine, has been going on for many years and only worsened with these most recent escalations. This context is a large part of what can help us understand the current situation.
This underlying problem is one felt all over the world right now: In Ukraine, across Europe, in Russia, and here in the United States. It’s the common condition of fear and anxiety which seems to be becoming more prevalent. This may seem abstract and in many ways is, but I found it to be something which the effects of are clear once you look at the situation with this in mind.
I was introduced to a cat named Pumpkin while doing my research. Pumpkin had previously lived with two other families but been given away again and now has become a bit distrusting and scared of people. However, Pumpkin, like their owner Liza, has found a home here in Baltimore which I was kindly allowed in despite the tension of the world.
Liza moved to America from Siberia to pursue an arts education here, and just in this introduction, I began to understand the real fear of this situation. Liza asked me to not include her full name which is very reasonable as in her home country the danger of being antiwar and even expressing dissent in any way is real. As I spoke with her and our conversation got deeper, I found we came to the base state of the Russian people and how all the politics are built off of that.
We spoke a lot about the influence of the Russian government on people’s opinion. The tactics they use to create cooperation and suppress dissent. She feels this even here and fears what will happen if spotted at an anti-war protest and if there will be consequences. In Russia quality information is inaccessible and what people do learn about the war is mostly state propaganda. These narratives are spread through every aspect of life. She describes it as feeling like “a country of the absurd, black is white, war is peace ‒ there is no truth at all right now”.
All the media in Russia is controlled by the government now and has become more controlled as of late. Sources considered more “independent” online are often part of Russian propaganda as well and have become prevalent all across the internet. Russians have nowhere to turn.
Even in higher education and grade school, which people like to have faith in as teaching more critical thinking, has become an environment that is mandated to re-enforce the biased Russian view of the war with Ukraine. Students have mandatory seminars in high school where they learn about the righteousness of Putin’s “special military operation” as calling it a “war” would in itself be a risky offense.
Liza tells me that college professors in Russian have been telling their students they are at risk of losing their college scholarship funding or of being kicked out entirely from the university if they go out to protest the war. Even if students do go out to protest Russian police are extremely brutal and the threat would not just be to your freedom and education but of being seriously hurt as well.
Many Russians oppose the war, the representation that it has high approval ratings is mostly a result of fear of the consequences of expressing dissent. However, as the government’s grip on information tightens and time passes the nationalism and support for the war seems to be increasing. Of course, this shouldn’t be excused but it does show an important incitement into the role of this war for Russians. When describing were she is from in Russia she says: “In Siberia where I lived (outside) our apartment building, if you walk a couple blocks there would be wooden houses. They don’t even have bathrooms inside – when you have to live like that what do you have to be proud of? I don’t know”.
Many Russians are living through hard times in their economic situation on top of the increasing government repression. This war has become a marketing campaign to the Russian people in many ways. A campaign that seeks to stoke nationalism and pride in a people that in many ways may feel defeated.
“You don’t have many options like if we choose not to veil our that Russia is so powerful then we are going to realize that we live a terrible life.”
It is a tool to get civilians to feel pride and strength when in many parts of their lives and in their country’s situation there has been a feeling of being weak or defeated compared to “The West”. Putin portrays himself as strong, he is getting back at western powers, fighting fascism, Russians don’t need international trade, they can fight and rely on themselves!
For people living through hard times, Putin’s nationalist rhetoric becomes much more attractive. The tight situation also leads to people not having the energy or will to be politically aware. People know they could face consequences from the government if they speak out and can’t afford to deal with that.
People who feel beaten down by the circumstances of their lives want a chance to feel strong again, to fight back, that feeling is something easy to exploit under a worsening dictatorship. This same issue is not unique to Russia. A central element of this war is Putin’s claims of combating fascist militias that have taken over Ukraine.
Though his acts of bombing civilians, stopping medical aid, and cutting the Ukrainian people off from the world shows his motives are not to liberate the people of Ukraine their is some complexity to this claim. Ukraine does have a sort of unofficial military that has been fighting Russia in Crimea for for many years now. This military is not officially Ukrainian but acts as defenders of the country and has connections to the government.
These militias are composed of regular citizens not within the formal government system and some are part of organized fascist militant groups. The most well known of these is Azof which is a Ukrainian far right ultra nationalist and white supremacist militia. However, it is important to understand the only reason these groups have any formal part in the defense of their country is because Ukraine has been put in such a desperate position.
Poverty, ongoing war with little aid, and a weak military unable to fight Russia lead to facist groups being able to gain power and recruit while there was so much desperation and fear in their country. Just as Nationalism and violently prideful politics have taken hold of Russian in their worsening circumstances the same has happened in Ukraine just in a different form.
Fascism takes advantage of the feelings of defeat and fear in a people which is only given more fuel when the country is under attack with little support from the rest of the world. When I asked Liza if she had any last thoughts on this matter she emphasized to me how something should have been done sooner to prevent this.
“Why did you have to wait for thousands of people to die on the Ukrainian and Russian side to do anything?”
The world has watched for years as Ukraine has faced more and more aggression from Russia along with many other harmful acts by the nation. Instead of pulling away European reliance on Russian oil Germany was in the middle of building a new oil pipeline as this war broke out.
Sanctions that were in place before the war and become even broader in recent weeks do little to change Putin’s actions, most just affecting the quality of life of the Russian people. The ongoing aggression felt by Ukraine from Russia has created a sad, tragic situation, and has already caused so much pain, especially to thousands of innocents in Ukraine but even to drafted Russians as well.
The world should not have allowed the acts of the Russian government to go unpunished for so long and in all parts of the world it is important to not tolerate dictatorship, and cruelty because this type of bloody conflict is the result.
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