The struggle over Ukraine’s future might seem simply like a contest of raw power between Russia and the West. In the past three weeks, Russian troops have infiltrated Crimea, making sure a referendum on Sunday came out in favor of the peninsula joining Russia. On Monday, the European Union and United States retaliated by freezing the financial assets of top Russian leaders.
If Moscow now annexes Crimea or takes other parts of Ukraine by force, President Obama and the EU threaten even tougher sanctions. Further provocations by Russia will “diminish its place in the world,” warns Mr. Obama.
If there is one thing President Vladimir Putin seeks in Ukraine, it is to assert a place in the world for what he calls “Russian civilization” – which he extends to any large group of Russian speakers. Unlike in the West, where the individual is seen as free to shape society by consensus, Mr. Putin seeks to define an identity for Russians – almost anywhere. In a 2012 article, he wrote that Russians are “state builders.”
“Their great mission is to unite and bind together a civilization,” he stated. “This kind of civilizational identity is based on preserving the dominance of Russian culture.”
Such assertions that the state can dictate personal identity could perhaps be a cynical way for Putin to fend off domestic opponents and stay in power. But his actions in Ukraine have been popular among Russians in his country, mainly because they stoke historical notions of the West as threatening. In Ukraine, however, his actions aren’t as popular. About half of Ukraine’s 46 million people speak Russian. Many prefer to be independent of Moscow. The uprising in the capital, Kiev, last November revealed a strong desire for Ukraine to join the EU as a way to ensure basic freedoms.
Putin’s worldview, as German leader Angela Merkel pointed out last week, is set in the 19th century. That was a time when Karl Marx and many other intellectuals proposed that individuals are merely the product of their social and economic circumstances. A person’s reality was seen as defined by class, or how others exerted power to control them. Even truth itself was seen as relative, based on one’s place in an oppressive society.
Such views can reduce public life to one of a struggle for power rather than a free debate of competing ideas and a democratic means to resolve them. Lies become acceptable as a way to expose the power of oppressors.
For Putin, the convenient oppressor has become the West, which he describes as dangerous and decadent to Russian civilization as well as a cause for the collapse of the Soviet Union. “Hostile forces,” he wrote, have been trying to break Russian civilization for decades.
As the West and Russia now use their respective tools of power in a contest over Ukraine, it is important to remember what’s really at stake. It is not over territory, Russian civilization, or a naval base on the Black Sea. Rather, it is the idea that individuals can be free and capable to determine their identity in concert with others.