James Meek writes: Things weren’t easy in Ukraine when I lived there in the early 1990s, just after the country voted to break from Moscow. There was hyperinflation. People lost their savings. There were petrol shortages. The airport in Kiev would close for days at a time for lack of fuel. Nothing got repaired; nothing got built.
But nobody starved. Nobody froze. The electricity was never cut off. The trains kept running, schools and hospitals limped from day to day. Most importantly, horrifying as it was for Ukrainians to watch on the television news how long-peaceful places they knew, such as Georgia, Moldova and Chechnya, were suddenly on fire with heavily armed men strutting across them, they were far away.
There was much grumbling about the Ukrainian government, its incompetence, its corruption. There always seemed the possibility, in the abstract, that Russia might try to come back. In the mid-1990s I wrote an article for the Guardian suggesting a scenario for a new Yugoslavia in the east, with Ukraine as Croatia, Crimea as Bosnia and Russia as Serbia. But I felt I’d pushed it. After all, Boris Yeltsin was no Milosevic.
I remember visiting Ukraine one springtime in the mid-1990s. Days earlier, in Chechnya, I’d seen shell-ruined buildings, terrified civilians, battle-hardened separatists and frightened Russian conscripts. In Ukraine I drove past Ukrainian soldiers gathered around a radar truck; each one was blissfully asleep, bathed in the soft May sunshine. It made me smile. After all, what did they have to worry about? Ukraine had given away its nuclear weapons and in return, the country’s territorial integrity was guaranteed in a document signed by Russia, the US and Britain.
And then Russia got its Milosevic. Like his Serbian counterpart, Vladimir Putin is clever, articulate, popular, untrustworthy to those who are not his friends, ruthless, cynical to the point of absurdity and unable to account for his personal wealth. Like Milosevic, he has no compunction in exploiting the messianic, victim-narrative strain of his country’s patriotism. Unlike Milosevic, because of Russia’s nuclear arsenal, he is invulnerable to military attack from outside. Unlike Milosevic, he has had many years of income from raw materials exports with which to build up powerful, well-equipped security forces to carry out a well-targeted upgrade of Russia’s military, to turn the media into a government mouthpiece, to repress or buy off dissenters, and to offer the outside world the convincing illusion that his country is prospering. (It is true that Russian pensioners are somewhat less miserably poor than those in Ukraine.)
Now, a generation later, long after it had been unthinkable, those same chaotic figures with Kalashnikovs and fatigues have appeared in Ukraine, under Russian sponsorship and, all evidence suggests, direction. [Continue reading…]