MOSCOW – There’s one ploy Russian President Vladimir Putin has mastered and perfected in his 14 years in power: If something appears to threaten your power, create its evil twin.
When radical young Russians started organizing against him, he responded by generously funding a cluster of pro-Kremlin youth movements.
When the Russian blogosphere turned hostile, pro-Kremlin resources sprang up and hundreds of active Putin-friendly commentators emerged.
When, in 2011, the Moscow middle class protested a rigged parliamentary election by holding mass rallies, Putin’s staff sought to organize bigger gatherings by ordering public sector workers out on the streets with preprinted signs.
Recently, even the anti-corruption agenda of blogger Alexei Navalny, who has been banned from posting while under house arrest, has been replicated by the Putin-created All-Russian People’s Front as mild criticism of the government auction system. Putin’s fake civil society dwarfs the genuine one, because it is a more efficient social ladder.
Now the same sort of mimicry is happening in eastern Ukraine. Anyone who watched the Ukrainian protests that led to the overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych must be feeling a sense of deja vu. People are seizing government buildings, erecting barricades, burning tires and waving flags, only the flags are Russian and the people waving them are vehemently opposed to the post-Yanukovych regime in Kiev.
There’s one notable difference: The anti-Kiev forces include heavily armed paramilitaries. Their unmarked uniforms are different from those worn by Russian occupying troops in Crimea last month, but the forces appear well-organized. In numerous videos of the attacks, they do not sound Ukrainian. In fact, they often freely admit that they are Russian. In one video, the man assuming command of local policemen in Gorlovka says he is a lieutenant colonel in the Russian Army, and in Slavyansk, the commander of the group that seized the mayor’s office told a reporter for Echo Moskvy radio that he was an entrepreneur from a Moscow suburb.
Although Moscow has not openly admitted that Russians are taking part in inciting the eastern Ukraine protests, they clearly are, whether in an official capacity or as volunteers. And they haven’t been ordered to keep their mouths shut, or have been lax about following their orders.
That makes eastern Ukraine’s pro-Russian “uprising” something less than convincing to an international audience, as evidenced by the thrashing Russia got at Sunday’s meeting of the United Nations Security Council, which it had called itself to show off the rebellion. Some Russians, too, are struck by the imitative nature of the “federalization” drive in the Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine. Political scientist Ekaterina Shulman, writing on Facebook, called it “costume play.” “What if we dress up as real people — will that make us real? You liked those guys wearing helmets, so why don’t you like these guys wearing helmets? Why do you prefer a real-life woman to a rubber one?” she wrote. “I don’t see any difference, and you’ve got double standards.”
Putin’s re-enactment of the Kiev revolt is logical in his personal world, where the original riots in Kiev were the handiwork of Western powers out to diminish Russian influence. To those who do not buy the conspiracy theory — and no one who saw events unfold from up close could buy it — Putin’s response is asymmetrical. Putin’s faux movements do have some basis in reality. Actual people take part in his schemes for all kinds of complicated reasons. Eastern Ukraine has thousands of genuine protesters: grim men who hate Ukrainian nationalists and Kiev as such; middle-age women with strong cases of Soviet nostalgia; local bureaucrats, cops and underworld kingpins who feel threatened by the way power changed hands in the capital. They make the protest movement difficult for the pitifully weak Kiev government to quash.
Last Sunday, acting Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov announced an “anti-terrorist operation” in Slavyansk, population 120,000, but the Ukrainian special forces did not even get to the center of town. After reportedly losing two officers in a shootout with locals, they retreated from the city’s outskirts.
A subsequent ultimatum by acting President Oleksandr Turchynov failed to produce results. Taking out a few hundred deniable Russian volunteers should not be impossible for the demoralized, underfed Ukrainian military. But fighting the local population of industrial towns is a task for which Yanukovych’s successors have no stomach.
The rebellion is also real enough for some Ukrainian nationalists to wonder whether their country might not be better off without the eastern regions such as the Donbas coal region, where Slavyansk is located. “The increasingly improverished Donbas will be the source of votes for populist and anti-European parties financed by the local oligarchs,” columnist Sergei Vysotsky wrote on Liga.net. “The topic of Donbas holds more questions than answers, and one of them in particular cannot be avoided: Can we, in the end, live as a single nation? And do we want to?”
Leonid Bershidsky writes on Russia, Europe and technology for Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter: @Bershidsky.