Both politicians and the general public overestimate the role of individuals in history, Peter Turchin suggests:
Presumably that’s why, when Russia annexed Crimea, much of the debate in the US press revolved around the personal motivations of Putin. In reality, however, individual statesmen have a limited ability to affect international relations, which are primarily driven by geopolitical and sociocultural forces. Putin is an important player, no doubt, but only insofar as he reflects the values and goals of his support groups in Russia: his inner circle, a broader coalition of the elites that back him, and, no less importantly, the general population.
All parties represented in the Duma (Russian Parliament) are solidly behind Putin. In the Duma vote, 445 votes were for the annexation with only one against. It was hardly surprising that Putin’s party, United Russia, supported him. But the other three parties, Just Russia, the Liberal Democrats and even the Communists, were also solidly behind him. That is less usual.
Even more importantly, the general population overwhelmingly supports Putin on this issue. In a large sociological study that polled almost 50,000 Russians, more than 90 per cent said that they wanted Crimea to become part of Russia. Only 5 per cent were opposed. Putin’s policy of ‘reunification with Crimea’ is extremely popular. His approval ratings soared from an already high 60 per cent to 76 per cent. Sociologists such as Alexander Oslon, of the Public Opinion Foundation, and Olga Kryshtanovskaya, who studies Russian elites, say they have never before seen such a degree of unity on any issue in Russia.
I grew up in Russia, and I was very struck – in a way that no US commentator appears to have been – at how insistently Putin’s annexation speech of March 18 drew upon Russia’s systems of shared meaning. Early in his speech, Putin reminded his audience that Crimea was where Saint Vladimir was baptised in the 10th century. It was he, as Grand Prince Vladimir, who converted Russia to Christianity, thus laying the foundations of the Russian civilisation. Putin also referred to the bones of Russian soldiers, buried all across the peninsula. ‘All these places are sacred to us,’ he said.
In another little-noticed part of his address, Putin evoked the image of NATO establishing a naval base in Sevastopol should Crimea slip out of Russian control. There is a suspicion among Russian policymakers that the real motive of the US in detaching Ukraine from Russia is to expel the Black Sea Fleet from Sevastopol and replace it with a NATO military base. It doesn’t matter whether this is really the US goal; what matters is that the thought of NATO boots on Sevastopol’s hallowed soil is intolerable to many Russians. As Putin remarked: ‘I simply cannot imagine that we would travel to Sevastopol to visit NATO sailors.’
Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel is said to have claimed that Putin ‘lives in another world’. She is right. Putin’s world is the Russian cultural space, which is quite different from the western Europe in which Merkel now operates. ‘Putin has done what our hearts were longing for,’ a Crimean pensioner told the news agency Reuters. ‘This finally brings things back to what they should be after all those years. For me, for my family, there can be no bigger joy, for us this is sacred.’