Putin Stokes Fear of Phantom Fascists in Crimea

Putin
Many credit Putin with saving Crimea’s Russophonic population from genocide. Alexei Nikolsky/RIA Novosti/Kremlin/Reuters

On March 18, as Crimea marked the anniversary of its return under Russian rule, a set of speakers outside the train station in its capital, Simferopol, reminded passersby of the day’s historical significance: “Happy holiday, dear friends! Exactly one year ago we succeeded together in driving the brown plague from our peninsula.”

That evening, on the city’s central Lenin Square, local politicians praised the “return home” as an existential moment for Crimea and its people. The black and orange colors of the St. George’s ribbon, a symbol in Russia of the victory over Axis forces in World War II now used by the separatist movement in Ukraine’s east, adorned the banners that flew over the crowds and served as a backdrop to the stage from which musicians later performed.

A year after Crimea’s annexation by Russia was signed into force in the grand halls of Moscow’s Kremlin, a week of celebrations has been punctuated by a palpable sense of relief. The self-defense teams which sprang up last spring to defend the peninsula from the imagined fascist threat continue to patrol Simferopol’s streets, and many continue to credit Russia’s President Vladimir Putin with saving Crimea’s Russophonic population from genocide.

After 12 months, which have brought little change on the ground, a simple disarming slogan continues to function as the justification for Russia’s internationally condemned annexation: “At least they’re not shooting here.”

Crimea’s population had been primed psychologically for Moscow’s “rescue operation” last spring. Once the Euro-Maidan revolution in Kiev had succeeded in ousting Ukraine’s corrupt President Viktor Yanukovych, rumor began to spread in earnest across the peninsula that a trainload of armed Ukrainian fascists was making its way south.

The so-called self-defense groupings emerged to combat the coming threat, a scene given extensive coverage in a three-hour documentary recently aired on Russian television. By the time the story was exposed as a hoax, the unmarked soldiers later branded “little green men” had arrived from Russia to commandeer the peninsula and create conditions for the referendum that sealed its fate.

Today, that invented fascist threat functions as the primary narrative that consolidates Crimea’s population behind the new government. Whatever happens to Crimea under Russian rule, so the narrative goes, it cannot be worse than what’s happening in Ukraine. Broken pledges to improve crumbling infrastructure and replace potholed roads can be excused so long as war and rabid nationalism is prevented from creeping across Ukraine’s southern border.

In Sevastopol, home of the Black Sea Fleet and the heart of pro-Russian sentiment in Crimea, the anniversary parade on March 18 was organized by “Sevastopol Without Fascism,” a group almost identical in name to the 10 or so other civic initiatives that made up the procession.

Many of those who gathered that day to shout “thank you!” felt genuinely indebted to the passing columns of camouflage-clad men for saving them from a threat they’ve been conditioned to fear. And it is with a mandate to protect the people from the alleged outbreak of fascism in Ukraine that the heightened military presence on Crimea’s streets continues.

In the public psyche, those among Crimea’s inhabitants who see through that narrative and oppose Russian rule must, by default, be collaborators in that outbreak and facilitators of its spread: the Crimean Tatars who can just as convincingly claim the peninsula as their homeland, and the ethnic Ukrainians suddenly forced to endorse a government with which their compatriots are now at war.

As long as Ukraine’s struggle against economic collapse and the insurgency in its east continues, that narrative will retain traction among a majority primed to imbibe the messages Russia’s media machine projects. That’s why prolonged instability in Ukraine is a crucial element of Russia’s campaign to legitimize not only the Crimean annexation but also its broader policy toward the conflict on its southwestern border.

Matthew Luxmore is a freelance journalist based in Moscow. This article first appeared on the Foreign Policy Association site.