At the beginning of August, Russia’s dull political scene was the setting for an unusually exciting episode. Opposition politician Sergei Udaltsov was released from prison after being sentenced for “organizing anti-Putin street actions” and spending four and a half years behind bars. Not long after his release, he held a press conference, where, instead of sharply criticizing the government, the opposition politico suddenly praised Putin’s actions in Crimea. He also expressed support for the marionette statelets “DNR” and “LNR” being overseen by Putin’s right-hand man, Vladislav Surkov. The one-time leader of Russia’s “Left Front” sounded more like a Russian nationalist-imperialist than a leftist.
“I support the decision of the residents of Crimea,” said Udaltsov. “I’m confident that this was the will of the people to be with Russia. That’s what Crimeans wanted. And as a leftist of democratic convictions, I cannot oppose this.” Udaltsov made no mention of Russia’s military invasion of Crimea or about the false nature of the referendum. How a forced takeover of the peninsula by the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation might be compatible with Udaltsov’s “leftist, democratic convictions” is a mystery.
The politician talked about the militants of “DNR” and “LNR” in the same vein, referring to them as “heroes, brave men who are not sitting around in the bushes.” And once more, not a word about the underhanded, covert use of the Russian army in Ukraine, about the invasion in Ilovaisk, about the secret funerals of Russian soldiers who have died in Donbas. The one-time “victim of the regime” and “enemy of Putin” is now spouting Kremlin propaganda.
This little episode confirmed for the umpteenth time a long-recognized truth in Ukraine: that Ukrainophobia typically brings Russia’s government and its opposition together. Clearly, there’s little basis for Ukrainians to comfort themselves with the thought that, once Putin is gone, Russia will return stolen territories, complete with an apology and compensation.
And yet there are many in Ukraine who continue to believe and hope in the Russian opposition. It’s easy to hear such comments as “Oil is getting cheaper, Russia’s economy is in decline, so Russians will soon be disillusioned enough with Putin to have their own revolution. The government will change and the war will end.”
This illusion is so powerful that even Alexei Navalny’s completely unambiguous statement that “Crimea is not a sandwich that can just be returned” and similar messages from Mikhail Khodorkovsky have done little to dispel it. Clearly, it’s time for Ukrainians to part company with this myth. The reality is that most often “forces that are friendly towards us” in the Russian Federation turn out to be as cannibalistic as Putin & Co.
The story with Udaltsov is hardly unique. There have been other high-profile opposition politicians like Viacheslav Maltsev, who ran for the State Duma as #2 on the party list for the liberal PARNAS party led by ex-PM Mikhail Kasianov. In one of his interviews in early 2014, Maltsev proposed taking advantage of the Euromaidan revolution in Ukraine to grab a big swath of the country.
“Right now, I can see that the Maidan is good for the Russian people,” he said in February 2014. “Firstly because it shows the path for our people to take. Secondly, because this situation offers an opportunity to snatch away the southeastern oblasts. We can already help ourselves to Crimea... Of course, those oblasts that were under the Poles and the Austro-Hungarian Empire are already lost forever to Russia. But Russia needs to gather Russian lands. How might they be gathered? To do that, first of all we have to break them up. This is the main issue that no one is talking about because everyone says they are for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. But I’m against Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
In July 2017, Maltsev left Russia just ahead of being arrested. He was being persecuted because of his criticisms of those in power. Astonishingly, he tried to flee repression in Ukraine, which he himself had suggested capturing and destroying. But Ukraine’s border service refused him entry and he was forced to flee from Putin to a different country.
This story would be funny if it did not say something disturbing about Russia’s opposition. When a “liberal opposition politician” whom people began to consider a victim of the Putin regime in 2017 talks in terms that are even more bloodthirsty than the regime itself, the truth is that there is, in fact, no difference between Russia’s opposition and those in power. Their worldviews are identical and any conflict between them arises only over who will more effectively pander to the imperial ambitions of Russians.
Are there other politicians in Russia who sympathize with Ukraine and defend its sovereignty? Yes, there are, but they are a marginalized group with minimal support among ordinary Russians. The most famous friend of Ukraine was Boris Nemtsov, who was assassinated in central Moscow in February 2015. His ally Illya Yashin continues to support Ukraine openly, but it’s hard to say that he’s popular in Russia. According to polls, most Russians support the takeover of Crimea and genuinely believe that Ukraine is a fascist country and a puppet of the US. The Russian Public Opinion Research Center (WCIOM) ran a survey in 2016 that showed that nearly two thirds of Russians support the Kremlin’s policies towards Ukraine, with 26% of respondents calling it “completely correct” and another 38% calling it “mostly correct.”
Given this, even the most liberal Russian politician is forced to make “bloodthirsty” statements regarding Ukraine from time to time in order to satisfy voters. Anyone who refuses to pander to the public is unlikely to find any support. Opinion polls in Russia today show that even the voters with the most pro-western parties crave Ukrainian territory and Ukrainian blood. In part, television is to blame for this, as Russian TV has deliberately stoked hatred towards Ukrainians for several years now. Still, it’s not the main reason. Propaganda has simply awakened the underlying thinking. For all the years since the USSR collapsed, Russians still have not adjusted to the fact that Ukraine is an independent state with a right to its own path and no duty to agree any of its policies with Moscow. Many Russians are convinced that by having independent policies, Ukraine is betraying Russia and deserves to be punished.
Some Russians who want to justify this position dehumanize Ukrainians and invent horror stories about “terrible banderites” who need to be killed in self-defense. Others don’t even need such clumsy excuses. In their minds, Ukraine is guilty because it is not willing to become part of Russian plans to restore the “great empire,” and so the country should be destroyed.
How likely, then, is it that, if Putin is replaced by Navalny, Maltsev, Udaltsov or anyone else like them, the Russian-Ukrainian conflict will be resolved? Not very. Any Russian politician will have to work mainly with the existing electorate and to be guided by its demands. They can sympathize with Ukrainians as much as they like, but Ukrainians don’t vote in Russian elections. But one-time “militia,” “cossacks” and pensioners who are nostalgic for the USSR will. This means that Ukraine will be unable to establish good relations with the Kremlin for the foreseeable future, even if there is a revolution in Moscow and someone like Navalny or Udaltsov ends up running the country.