All this psychodrama over food and mis-feeding, over Soviet and post-Soviet identity, points to something fundamental: modern Russia has never had an enemy quite like Ukraine. As we have seen, the country is not just on the border: etymologically and culturally, it is the border. And the border is a conceptual challenge. As the limit case to national geography, it is both of the land and outside of it. When we consider what is involved in making an enemy of Ukraine, with historical, cultural, and familial ties as well as recent historical wounds, the animosity seems both unlikely and overdetermined. The fundamental obstacle in the Russian media and government is the refusal to see Ukraine as entirely separate and other, hence the continual, dismissive use of the Ukrainian term “незалежний” (independent) to mock rather than reaffirm the country’s autonomous status.
Instead of simply criticizing this attitude, let us follow us where it leads. After all, one of the questions hanging over Russia’s Ukrainian adventure concerns strategy: what is the Russian government’s endgame here? Certainly, grabbing Crimea responded to a decade-long sense that the region’s assimilation to Ukraine was an injustice to Russians, and Crimea also has strategic military value. But how do we explain the inconsistent commitment to the rebels in Donetsk and Luhansk? The denial of Ukrainian selfhood leads to a conclusion that was already easy to make. A domestic drama, the war in Ukraine has been invaluable to the Russian government as matter of domestic politics. Civil war in Ukraine is a reminder of the eternal boogeyman of post-Soviet Russia: civil war in the Russian Federation. This is why the Russian media have been so intent on linking Maidan to any manifestation of dissent at home, and is also the logic of the “Anti-Maidan” movement built in Russian in the months following the events in Kiev.
The war in Ukraine is a proxy war, but not, as Russian conspirologists would have it, between Russia and the U.S. or Russia and Europe. It is a proxy for a war between Russia and itself. So far, it is also a war that the regime has clearly won. Before Maidan, Putin’s third term looked like it was going to be the story of popular protest and government concession. Instead, we have the state’s consolidation of power in the media, culture, and popular opinion.