Vladimir Putin has been making plenty of headlines since the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis last November — and never in a good light.
Whenever a new crisis hits the news, from the Malaysia plane crash, to street battles in Odessa, to the controversial aid convoy this summer, it’s cited as another example of Russian aggression masterminded by Putin.
And with President Obama’s UN speech last month where he he ranked Russia among the top threats to world peace, it’s starting to sound a lot like the Cold War era all over again.
After watching Russian friends and families tear each other apart on social media all winter, and hearing conflicting news stories coming out of Ukraine and Crimea, I was dying to find out for myself what’s really going on.
I grew up in Russia before moving to Seattle as a teen, and every summer for the past four years, I’ve traveled back to different parts of the country to visit. The majority of people I’d encounter would have negative opinions of President Putin’s policies and the general situation in Russia. Many talked of immigrating to Europe or the U.S. someday.
However, this last visit was different. All the new people I met along the way praised their president’s actions in the Ukrainian crisis — and some old acquaintances that used to curse at the sound of Putin’s name are now completely supporting him.
To understand their change of heart, you have to look at things from the Russian point of view. Ukraine is not just a neighboring country and an economic partner to Russians. It’s much closer as many Russians have relatives there —myself included — and the two share so much history. Most Russians see the escalation of the conflict as perpetrated from the Western side.
“Why would Russia purposefully destabilize its neighboring country Ukraine?” said Anton Sergeev, 22, from the Moscow region. “That doesn’t make any sense. If you take a look at the U.S. and NATO plans for Ukraine it becomes clear who would profit from this tragedy.”
Ukraine is very important to Russia geopolitically. Which way Ukraine leans can make or break Russia’s influence in Eastern Europe, particularly in terms of the newly forming Eurasian Economic Union. Many Russians think that NATO’s eyeing Ukraine and Crimea to join them was the reason for Western support of the Maidan protests and the current government.
Let’s go back to March, when Crimea went from an autonomous republic in the Ukraine to a Republic to a district of the Russian Federation. The Western media called it “illegal annexation” where tanks and troops were on every street and people were more or less forced at gunpoint to vote in a referendum for union with Russia.
Russian media, on the other hand, reported that no Russian troops were present in Crimea besides those already stationed in Sevastopol, and that the Russian-speaking population needed protection from the advancement of the pro-Kiev forces. Biased coverage from all sides was filling up my news feed. I didn’t know what to trust.
So in August, I went to see for myself. I traveled to Sudak, a small town on the shore of the Black Sea with a centuries old Genoese Fortress towering over it.
The place I stayed was far from the beach, and on my walk to the sea each day, I passed Russian flags waving atop of almost every house, café, and car on the street. I heard Russian anthem playing on the waterfront at night.
Having visited Crimea numerous times when it was still a part of Ukraine, I didn’t know how to feel. While I may support many of Russia’s actions in the crisis, division of a country that’s so dear to me is almost unbearable to watch. Locals, who were always ready to answer my questions, convinced me that, at least for now, Crimea becoming a part of Russia might be a good thing.
“We are just glad we don’t have the horrific war that we see in Eastern Ukraine,” said Ivan Polyakov, a tourist guide who used to box under Ukrainian flag. “Right now Russia is the best option for us.”
During the 22 years under Ukraine’s rule, the Crimean economy and infrastructure suffered, and people relied on the summer season for Russian tourist wave to keep them afloat.
According to Polyakov, things are already starting to brighten up, especially after Crimea started its transition to a Russian pension system. By the end of 2014, Putin promised to complete the transition, which has already doubled salaries and pensions on the peninsula.
“My grandfather, for example, was living on a pension and income that was totaling about $500 a month,” he said. “Now, he is getting twice as much.”
Sergeev lived in Crimea for seven years before moving to Moscow, and watched it deteriorate under Ukrainian control.
“People needed changes and Russia could provide them,” Sergeev said. “You didn’t need to make people go to voting stations. It was their conscious choice.”
Western sanctions imposed in response to the Crimea crisis don’t seem to be scaring most Russians (though they did make it harder for me to attend an international youth forum held in Crimea – but that’s another story). In fact, many believe they’ll be a good thing in the long term, finally forcing Russia to invest in its domestic food market and open up Russia to new world markets such as China and Latin America.
Russia has already turned to China to weather Western sanctions. In May of this year the two nations signed a $400 billion gas deal and dozens of other energy, trade and finance deals between the two countries were inked earlier this month.
Of course, not everyone in Russia is thrilled with all these changes. There are those who are cautious about Putin’s motives in Ukraine and despise the government for all of its reported corruption, greed, and tyranny. But they definitely a minority of the people I encountered on this trip.
Russia’s tarnished international reputation has had an impact on those of us living or traveling outside of the country.
My cousin told me that on her trip to Europe this summer a lot of people had a negative reaction when they learned she was Russian. One of the most memorable quotes she told me was from a guy in Rome:
“I’m not Russian, so I don’t like Putin. But if I was, I would love the man.”
With domestic support for his leadership over eighty percent, Putin must be doing something right.
A number of my Russian friends and acquaintances who grew up in the U.S. are now moving back to Russia — it’s looking a lot more appealing since Putin came to power. By many, he is seen as someone who is finally representing Russia’s interests and is challenging the unilateral world leadership currently held by the United States.
Everybody loves to see their country succeed and people don’t like to see other nations challenging their way of life. The difficult fact is that the U.S. and Russian interests collide on almost every single foreign policy issue, and it’s a pretty obvious choice for most Russians.
“Don’t tease the bear,” says Sergeev, voicing this national pride. “If you start going into its lair and poke it with a stick, not much good can come from this.”
For me, as a proud Russian with strong roots in the U.S. it’s sad to see two cultures that are part of my upbringing see each other as enemies. It might be hard to believe, but regular Americans and Russians have a lot more in common than the media and politicians lead us to believe, even if our politics put us in conflict.
And while I’m not sure yet where I’ll pursue my own future, I know from personal experience that Russia has become a much better place on Putin’s watch.