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Putin re-writes Russian history as Ukraine celebrates a milestone

The month of August has seen a ramping up of violence and diplomatic activity over the Ukrainian conflict

Published: Updated:

The month of August has seen a ramping up of violence and diplomatic activity over the Ukrainian conflict. It started with claims from Vladimir Putin that Russia had arrested a handful of “saboteur-terrorists” after they allegedly sneaked into the contested territory of Crimea to hamper the provisioning of the region annexed by Russia two years ago. The Russian president also alluded to an increase in Ukrainian bombings to divert attention and allow the “terrorists” to operate.

Both claims were vehemently denied by Kiev and unconfirmed by the international OSCE observers. Yet these allegations initiated a series of intimidations from both sides and an increase in the number of casualties. Vladimir Putin himself made a surprise visit to Crimea on August 19 to oversee military maneuvers while his Ukrainian counterpart warned of the risk of “large scale invasion” to gather international support and reaffirm his country’s independence.

These military developments and the ensuing martial rhetoric coincided with a month of August that held important symbolic value for both sides of the conflict. Twenty-five years ago, in August 1991, both countries experienced events that were historical turning points as the Soviet Union brutally collapsed, opening the door for the end of the Cold War and the accession to independence of former soviet republics, including Ukraine.

Sending signals to Moscow

Last Wednesday, the streets of Kiev were the theater of the largest military parade in Ukrainian history to mark the celebration of the National Day. President Poroshenko ostensibly used the opportunity as a show of strength and multiplied signals that Ukraine’s history and future was outside Russian grasp. On that day, he first placed a wreath of flowers at the feet of the statue of Taras Shevchenko, the 19th century poet who faced numerous arrest and persecutions because of the Russian tsarist censorship. He later watched over the celebrations on Maidan, the very square where in 2013 the Kyiv population forced pro-Russian president Yanukovych to flee and seek asylum in Russia.

On the Russian side, the attitude was diametrically opposed. No commemorations were organized to mark the tumbling of the communist regime. August 1991 is a doomed month in Russian history with the failed military coup against the parliament and the rise to power of Boris Yeltsin who introduced his country to the market economy. Vladimir Putin always referred to this period as a tragedy. In the eyes of Russia, the collapse of the Soviet Union was the major geopolitical disaster of the century, a national drama. The Kremlin sees the August 1991 events as the start of an epidemic of disintegration which infected the country and trapped millions of Russian co-patriots outside Russian territory.

These events have progressively faded away from the Russian common memory as showed by a recent poll conducted by the Russian Levada Institute. When asked what side of the putsch they felt most sympathetic to, only 21% of Russian had a clear opinion, showing confusion by backing almost equally both sides, while most expressed their lack of understanding of the event themselves. Since his arrival to the Kremlin, Putin has constantly tried to place his administration in direct line with Russian history pre-1991 and to erase the traces left by Yeltsin’s years in power.

Monopolizing attention

The visit to Crimea on the very anniversary date of the failed military coup was thus an attempt to monopolize attention away from any commemoration. It however also pointed out to the fragile situation of the Ukrainian provinces under pro-Russian control. Two years after the start of a conflict that already claimed the lives of 1300 people, the Russian promises of economic recovery have not been met. Crimea is logistically very vulnerable and depends almost exclusively on military credits. If attempts to relaunch the tourism industry have been successful to attract new Russian visitors, their limited purchasing power does not make up for the loss of European tourists.

Disillusionment is also taking over the separatist regions of eastern Ukraine. Several figures such as the Colonel Igor Strelkov, former defense minister of the secessionist regions, have become very critical of the Kremlin and of what they refer to as a lack of ambition. In truth, Vladimir Putin does not have the economic means to go beyond sporadic burst of assertiveness.

Economic indicators published recently in Russia are not good. The national economy continues to decline while the Russian budget has not been adjusted to the new level of oil prices. In an attempt to keep the deficit within reasonable limits, the Russian government had to freeze wages and pensions while reducing capital and current expenditure. Yet this proves insufficient. Unable to borrow funds on global financial markets and unwilling to privatize – and therefore lose control over – part of its economy, the government is now heavily dependent on its "reserve fund" which is further dwindling every month.

Under those conditions, Russia is unlikely to provide the necessary economic impetus to the Ukrainian separatist regions. Putin needs instead to display economic results ahead of the 2018 elections by improving the appalling investment climate and breaking away from Western sanctions that isolate the Russian economy. This will be the central topic of conversation between Putin, Hollande and Merkel as they meet during the G20 summit in China next week.