The History of Crimean Conflicts: A Few Little Green Men At The Pointy End of A Propaganda Coup.

Decades after von Manstein’s epic battles, Putin took the Crimean peninsula with no such drama. Exhibiting deft tactical slight of hand together with misinformation overload, the peninsula was taken without a shot fired. Here’s how Putin did it…

Peter Winn-Brown
29 min readAug 24, 2023
The dramatic beauty of the Crimean peninsula. The Valley Of Ghosts In The Crimean Mountains (The South Demerdzhi Mountain). Photo by Alexey Fedenkov on Unsplash

“There are certain special characteristics and I think they have to do with values. I think that a Russian person, or, to speak more broadly, a person of the Russian World, thinks, first, that man has a moral purpose, a higher moral basis. The is why the Russian person, a person of the Russian World, is focused not so much on his own self…/…these are the deep roots of our patriotism. This is where mass heroism comes from in war, and self-sacrifice in peacetime. This is the origin of mutual aid, and of family values.”

Vladimir Putin, April 17th 2014. Televised address, in the days following Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea.

2013/14: The Euromaidan…homosexuality & Nazism?

The Bolotnaya protests in 2011 that followed the fake elections that had returned Vladimir Putin to the Presidency for an unprecedented third term, were discredited in the media by associating those who expressed anti-Russian ideas as being infected by the disease of homosexuality emanating from a perverted, homosexualised West.

In this, or indeed any other context, anti-Putin is indistinguishable from anti-Russia. Russia is Putin. Putin is Russia. Period.

Across Europe, Russian backed Western politicians pushed the narrative, giving it credence and a presence in the Western media. Marine Le Pen, during a visit to Russia in 2013 followed the line, saying that the Western push for gay rights was part of a neo-liberal conspiracy against innocent nations like Russia. Le Pen said, “homophilia is one of the elements of globalisation,” and Russia and France must resist this “new international empire infected by the virus of commercialisation,” the implication in her words went down well with the Russian hierarchy (1).

The Russian line had always been that Russian men were too innocent to be infected by AIDS, therefore the the disease must have been brought in by corrupt ‘others’ from the outside; a deliberate ploy by a homosexualised West to destroy Russian innocence.

In late 2013, when Ukrainians began to gather in Maidan Square, Kyiv, to protest Viktor Yanukovych’s refusal to support closer relations with the EU, the Kremlin propaganda machine swung into action, once again employing the same anti-gay message that had slurred the 2011 protests.

The narrative was simple enough; the EU was homosexual, therefore those Ukrainians who supported closer union with the EU must also be homosexual.

Russian society was presented as being a living organism, and the Russian public were becoming accustomed to being instructed on the subject of their own innocence. Thus, the embodiment of a living, breathing Russian society was an innocent organism, being threatened by aggressive, homosexual actors from outside the nation with hostile penetration.

Sexual innuendo and verbal imagery was rife.

Konstantin Malofeev, a close Putin confidente, known in Russia as “the Orthodox oligarch,” was an outspoken anti-sodomite and virulent Russian imperialist, who said of the troubles, “Ukraine is a part of Russia. I can’t consider the Ukrainian people as non-Russian.” He saw that Europe would try to “spread sodomy as a norm in Ukrainian society,” and as such Ukraine needed saving from itself.

The stage was set.

Euromaidan protest in Kyiv in 2014 with many people protesting and waving Ukrainian flags.
The Euromaidan protests in 2014 that gave Putin the excuse he was looking for to illegally annex Crimea and start the war with Ukraine.

The Pythagoreans, by way of Aristotle, by way of my piano teacher, said ‘The whole heaven is a musical scale and number.’ This old teacher taught me music. He taught me about God. He warned me about the power of love.

In Soviet times, it was dangerous to believe in God, and it was dangerous to love. Some love is okay — the love of Lenin, love of Stalin — but there’s a certain type of love that can kill you. A deeper kind. A kind that possesses, disorientates. The love of family is dangerous enough. But then there’s a kind of love that when discovered, wants to survive like a disease, and it will ruin you as you try to protect it.

Kalani Pickhart, from I will Die in a Foreign Land (2). A novel about the Ukrainian Euromaidan revolution that was used a pretext by Putin for the illegal annexation of Crimea, 2014.

Nuremberg, 1938…German frailty becomes German mastery.

In his closing speech at the National Socialist Congress in 1938 Adolf Hitler railed against democrats within Germany, and democracies outside of Germany, setting out his logic for the coming invasion of Czechoslovakia.

…/…Dishonesty sets in the minute these democracies claim to represent government by the people and decry authoritarian states as dictatorships. I believe that I can confidently state that today there are only two world powers who can honestly claim to have 99 percent of their people backing the government. What in other countries goes by the name of democracy is in most cases little other than the apt manipulation of public opinion by means of money and the press, and the equally apt manipulation of the results hereby achieved. How easily, however, are these supposed democracies stripped bare of their pretences when one takes a close look at their stance in matters of foreign policy which constantly change to suit the purpose of the moment…/…

Then going on to verbally abuse the Bolsheviks, before turning his ire on the French and their association with Czechoslovakia, who he claimed was being used politically by the French, (wrongly) accusing them of having a military base there to be used for the sole purpose of “…launching aerial attacks and dropping bombs upon German cities and industrial plants.”

Returning to the usual theme of the Treaty of Versailles, he accused the Czech government of silencing non-ethnic Czechs in the name of democracy as set out in the treaty. The largest faction of these non-Czechs were some 3.5 million ethnic Germans, who have been “…robbed of their right to self-determination in the name of the right to self-determination as construed by a certain Mister (Woodrow) Wilson.”

Accusing the democratic Czechs of persecuting and beating up the German minority simply because they were German, and the German people more widely were being beaten by democratic nations who had introduced “abnormal structures,” such as the borders that created the state of Czechoslovakia; borders that had divided the eternally victimised German people. Such a state of affairs, he said, had only stood because Germany was made weak by Versailles, and despite the victimisation, had stood thereafter because the downtrodden German people had borne the humiliation in the name of peace, because they were above all a peaceful people. But he raged, “…this self-denial and self-discipline on the part of Germany has been misinterpreted as a sign of weakness…/…(however,) there is a limit as to how much one can sacrifice.

Now, he said, Germany is finally reasserting itself and fulfilling its sacred duty to the oppressed Germans of Czechoslovakia.

A few months later Germany invaded Czechoslovakia.

Aerial shot of thousands of Muscovites protesting in Bolotnaya Square 2011.
The Bolotnaya protestors in 2011 fill the square.

“Who controls the past, controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.”

George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four.

“All propaganda must be popular and its intellectual level must be adjusted to the most limited intelligence among those it is addressed to. Consequently the greater the mass it is intended to reach, the lower its purely intellectual level will have to be…The receptivity of the great masses is very limited, their intelligence is small, but their power of forgetting is enormous. In consequence of these facts, all effective propaganda must be limited to a very few points and must harp on these in slogans until the last member of the public understands what you want him to understand by your slogan.”

Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf.

Moscow, 2014…control of the past…

On 26th January 2014 TV Rain (Dozhd in Russian) ran an online poll on its website, and also Tweeted the question the poll was based on (3). They asked a very simple question: Should the Soviet Union have surrendered Leningrad (during WWII) to the Germans to prevent the tremendous loss of life the siege had caused?

The poll ran for approximately 30 minutes before it was removed. The Tweet for a paltry 8 minutes before it was deleted. But it was too late. The damage had been done (3).

It was the 70th anniversary of the end of the siege in Russia and it was very much in the public eye once again. But questioning Stalin’s decisions during the Great Patriotic War was forbidden. Such transgressions never go unpunished, especially one that so flagrantly challenged the myth of the nations most sacred sacrifice.

Within days most of the staff of TV Rain had lost their jobs; those that remained were forced to take a 30% pay cut (3). The company lost all their sponsors, their licence to broadcast, their satellite connections and their offices. Their new location was a pokey, private apartment.

The bosses blamed the campaign against them, led by the ever-present Dmitry Peskov, on a film they had broadcast two months earlier; an exposé by Aleksei Navalny revealing endemic corruption at the highest levels of the Kremlin.

Masha, a journalist at TV Rain at the time, disagreed. She was convinced the poll itself was to blame (3). She resigned.

Seven years later in 2021 TV Rain was forced to register itself as a ‘Foreign Agent,’ and then just a few months later, in March 2022, in the days after Putin’s full scale invasion began, they were forced out of business and out of Russia altogether.

New offices in Riga, Latvia lasted only a few months. Since 2023 TV Rain has been broadcasting from its new home in the Netherlands.

Masha, who had just returned to Moscow as the fiasco broke in 2014, had been in Kyiv where she had been covering the Euromaidan protests for TV Rain. A few days after resigning she got a phone call from a friend who invited her Crimea. “Everyone is here now!” the friend had said, “You should come! (3)”

Igor Stravinsky. A line drawing by Pablo Picasso, 1920.
Igor Stravinsky, drawn by Pablo Picasso, 1920 — Bibliothèque nationale de France, PD-US,

Exiled composer Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971) once said, “My earliest memory is of the sound of the ice breaking on the river Neva in St. Petersburg near where I was born. It was the sound that marked the beginning of new year, a new Spring.

My other memory is of the Church.

But perhaps the strongest memory of my childhood is of the country fairs I was taken to in the Ukraine. The songs which I heard and the dances which I saw have stayed in my imagination all my life.”

Crimea, 2014…control of the present…

A few days earlier, whilst in Kyiv for TV Rain, Masha had taken the unusual step of interviewing members of the Berkut, the Ukrainian Paramilitary Police, who had been told they were present at the Euromaidan protests to protect the public (3).

Sent in by pro-Russian puppet Yanukovych, many of them considered they were doing the right thing. Masha explains that they weren’t particularly enamoured of Yanukovych; they simply wanted to maintain peace, public order and believed they were protecting the public from the radical elements they’d been told were at the protests (3).

They tried to justify their presence by likening the protests to the anti-Putin protests in Bolotnaya, Moscow in 2011 and 2012. Masha has been a part of those protests. There was a world of difference between Bolotnaya and the protests in Maidan. The interviewees said that was a good thing. Masha wasn’t so sure (3).

She wrote in her piece for TV Rain, that “Ukraine is some sort of parallel reality-Russia. Everything is completely different there (in Kyiv).” She was sure it would end differently from Bolotnaya too (3).

On February 18th 20,000 protesters marched on the Verkhovna Rada, the Ukrainian parliament. At just past five O’clock the Berkut attacked with grenades, AK-74 assault rifles, killing an estimated 28 people. Ten police among that number. Negotiations aimed at quelling the violence failed, and the next day another 70–80 protesters were shot dead (1).

Many shocked and injured protesters shelter beneath St. Michael’s golden domed monastery, getting their wounds tended to by doctors who had been on their way to work. The dead, covered by white sheets that acted as shrouds, lay silently beside the bleeding.

Pickhart’s spare, economical novel (2) lists the names of all those killed; the ‘Heavenly Hundred’ she calls them.

Such moving words without any prose at all. How is that possible?

On the 21st February the Maidan is over. Viktor Yanukovych had fled, back to Russia, back to sob into Putin’s apron strings, “Why are they so unruly, these Ukrainians? Why won’t they do what they’re told?

The new interim Ukrainian government restored the constitution. And Putin announced military exercises in Crimea, putting tens of thousands of troops on alert.

Masha got a phone call from the Berkut policeman she’d interviewed. His partner had been killed. Masha was unsure how to feel; she’d interviewed him as well.

She went to Crimea (3).

And the people in Kyiv mourned the dead, singing a local folk song:

“My dear mother, what will happen to me

if I die in a foreign land?”

“Oh my dearest

you will be buried by strangers (2).”

Six days later on February 27th Russian special forces without insignia invade Crimea. But they were far the first Russians in Crimea that Winter.

Vladimir Surkov, Putin’s propaganda tsar at the time, had sent his political technologists some time before. Drip, drip, drip…unnoticed, they began the war on reality. The war on truth began sometime before the men with guns and ski masks appeared.

Surkov, a wily, intelligent man prone to using verses from the Bible to give meaning to “his own superior creation (1).”

One such verse was from Corinthians, 13:13; “Uncertainty gives hope. Faith. Love.” words that he inverted to mean that citizens can be kept uncertain by the manufacture of repeated crises, their emotions controlled and pointed where directed. The idea immortalised in his novel Almost Zero, when, with a direct attack on the value of truth he wrote, “knowledge gives only knowledge, but uncertainty gives hope (1).”

Russian TV star Dmitry Kiselev summed up this disruptive approach; “Information war is now the main type of war,” and the war was being waged against the factuality of Ukrainian lives; against any version of Ukrainian reality; but most of all against the Ukrainian version of Ukraine.

Tim Snyder (1) explains how the invasion of the Crimea was the most sophisticated propaganda campaign the world has ever seen. The war was waged on the airwaves, in social media, but most of all in the minds of Russians, Ukrainians, Europeans, and Americans. The military part of the equation was almost inconsequential.

Waged on two levels, the first was an assault on factuality; denying a war was taking place, even as the troops were putting up road blocks, taking over the TV stations, the port and the power stations. And secondly, with a devout proclamation of Russian innocence; Russia could do no wrong, and even if it did, then any action would be warranted by virtue of their innocence.

In the end legitimacy for the invasion was given as an impending genocide of Russian speakers in the Crimea. A blatant falsehood, Russia had been equating the narrative with the Great Patriotic War since the early days of the Euromaidan. Mythologising the past, with Russia as the eternal victim — just as Hitler had made Germans the victims before — of a brutalising, vengeful West, was an age old trick hungover from Soviet times and from Hitler’s Germany.

Claiming the interim government in Kyiv had been identified as far-right, Russian hating extremists — they were calledBanderites’ in the mould of Stepan Bandera — the Ukrainian nationalist leader, the subsequent evolution of the Ukrainians into fully fledged Nazis, a reinforcement of the Banderite narrative, rather than a replacement (4) *.

I don’t want to live in a country run by fascists,” said Sergei Gaenko, a retired law enforcement official, echoing a widespread view pushed by Russia, that Mr. Yanukovych had been ousted by the political descendants of Bandera.

The first troops had arrived on the 24th. They were filmed marching through Crimean territory at the same time as Putin was on TV, denying he had any “…intention of sending troops to Crimea (1).”

Soldiers, Russian speaking, but lacking insignia & with their faces covered stand guard their arms crossed in front of their weapons.
Soldiers, Russian speaking, but lacking insignia & with their faces covered, became known as little green men, because like aliens, no one knew for sure where they were from.

Katie Stallard (5), then a reporter for Sky News, was stopped at one of the road blocks near midnight as they made their way from Moscow to Crimea to cover the story…if indeed, there was a story. No one knew for sure…

The faceless man in the darkness, weapon shouldered, only relaxed when Stallard’s camera operator swore at the man in rough Russian as he tried to grab the equipment. The soldier apologised, saying he did not know where they were from. Then the soldier, probably bored and lonely, eagerly explains he was guarding the road against Ukrainian Nazis; apparently, he told Stallard, they’d taken over the capital, Kyiv.

In Sevastopol unidentified men, faces covered, black uniforms with no insignia, just like the one at the roadblock, had taken over the airport. Locals were calling them ‘little green men,’ because like aliens, no one knew where they had come from. The only telltale sign being the lack of Ukrainian language, but a rapid acknowledgement of Russian.

When Masha finally arrived she realised everything had changed there. The streets were full of armed men in unidentified uniforms. They were posing for photos with grinning locals; the faceless men were saying they’d come to “save the people from the Maidan (3).”

When confronted by reporters with the facts, Putin laughed at them, said these faceless men were Ukrainians who were playing at dressing up. Go to any post-Soviet state he said, “you can go to a store and buy any kind of uniform (1).”

Masha wrote a report for the American magazine ‘New Republic;’ “Right now in Crimea, the strangest war I’ve seen in my 30 years is unfolding,” with hastily installed pro-Russian, but illegitimate Crimean leaders insisting they were “demilitarizing the entire Black Sea region,” which Masha wrote (3), “looked real (but) only on the internet.

In Kyiv the new government was asking for international assistance as the denials continued. But the blank Russian denials in face of the facts had everyone chasing their tails.

The aim of the propaganda was not to convince anyone Russia had not invaded Crimea, but to create a union of acceptance between the Ukrainian and the Russian peoples, who recognised Putin was lying, but were to believe what he was saying nonetheless.

Putin was appealing to their emotions, making belief in his words a morality issue (see Demographic Dangers, Part Four). By calling the Ukrainian government Nazis and invoking the memory of the Great Patriotic War, Putin was inviting them to cohere around the moral fight against Nazism, despite all evidence to the contrary.

Charles Glover wrote that “Putin has correctly surmised that lies unite rather than divide Russia’s political class, The greater and more obvious the lie, the more his subjects demonstrate their loyalty by accepting it, and the more they participate in the great sacral mystery of Kremlin power (1).” And this, a few years later, the very tactic Trump employed, and continues to employ, so successfully as he used his ‘big lie’ to ensnare the Republican Party.

Goebbels had said just the same thing in reference to Hitler and his own propaganda campaign; “In the big lie there is always the power of believability. The broad masses of a population are always easily corrupted. In the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victim to the big lie than the small one (6).”

And just like Trump’s big lie, that has railroaded all discussion of policy in Republican circles, so Putin’s lies and denials became the subject of global news reports, and not the invasion itself. By giving Putin and his supporters the airspace to perpetuate his myths, they were giving it credence, value and substance, making the newspapers, TV stations, and online reports all part of the lie, the myth of Russian invasion.

The media became the cement that held the lies together as believable unreality. Russian soldiers without insignia became just that; an integral part of the narrative issued from the Kremlin, because every time the media retold the story of Ukrainians dressing up the myth of Russian forces without insignia was repeated.

It was brilliant. A propaganda coup to back up the military takeover. As Peter Pomerantsev says (7), if “…nothing is true (then) everything (becomes) possible.”

The only truth is there is no truth, and if you can get the Western media parroting your narrative you’ve won the information war. And the war of the minds is lost in a whirlwind of misdirection.

On March 16th a hastily organised referendum confirmed gave the gloss of democratic ‘legitimisation’ to the annexation.

Crimea was Russian once again.

Ukrainian forces fire towards Russian positions in Kreminna, Luhansk.
Nine years after it began, the war in the Donbas rages on. Ukrainian forces fire towards Russian positions in Kreminna, Luhansk, last week. Image from The Sunday Times.

“A Heavenly Hundred died in Kyiv. Thirteen thousand from the war in Donetsk. Two hundred and ninety eight on a crashed Malaysia airlines flight. A million by Gulag. Ten million by starvation. One and twenty thousand murdered Jewish Poles in L’viv.”

“The land, ripe with coal and wheat, is also rich with blood.”

A song by Kobzari (a Ukrainian troubadour), lamenting Russian involvement in Ukraine, 2014 (2)

The memory war played out in a re-run of the Great Patriotc War…

The Russian media narrative of the Euromaidan and the events in Crimea bore little or no relation to reality. The Russian media were fed the various threads of the story, including the highly selected, and selective historical backgrounds during weekly meetings with the Kremlin’s political technologists (4).

Accused of engineering conditions akin to those of 1930’s Germany, the new interim Ukrainian government was controlled by ruthless Western-governments and institutions, such as NATO. The Maidan, also allegedly funded by an immoral West, had led to streets “covered in Swastikas,” full of “destroyed Jewish shops,” and a Nazi inspired coup that resulted in the expulsion of Yanukovych, an event that was compared to Hitler’s ‘Night of the Long Knives.’

Implying this was an internal Russian matter occurring in territory the world knew was Russian, the media insisted the immoral West had knowingly installed a Russian-hating, Nazi regime in Kyiv. (4)

And as McGlynn rightly points out, there were some elements of right-wing extremism in Ukraine (4), but no more than in France, Germany, the U.S., and most certainly not as many as there were in Russia itself.

But facts, or any version of the truth was never a part of the narrative.

Rather than giving a nuanced view of the facts, the Russian media doubled down on the falsehoods, and following the introduction of the first round of Western sanctions after the annexation, NATO was labelled a modern day SS.

Then to compound the West’s supposed political immorality and ideological confusion, one reporter said, “Does this mean the West is supporting Nazis? (But) there are heaps of of super-rich Jews (in Europe)? (4)”

The implied message being that only Russia had the wherewithall and courage to tell the truth of what the lying hypocritical West was up to? And as such, they were therefore the only ones equipped to fight the re-run of the Great Patriotic War.

The Russian media story had four highly, conflated underlying themes that each took prominence at various stages of the narrative. They were the painting of the interim government as anti-Russian Banderites; the behaviour of both the Ukrainian and Western governments as highly Nazified; the war as a re-run of the Great Patriotic War with Russians once again defeating the Nazis, and finally, the uncoiling of the Russian spring (following the repression and exploitation of Russia by the West after the collapse of the Soviet Union) which inevitably led to yet another heroic victory with the welcome return of Crimea (4).

In Russia, a common media strategy, as directed by the Kremlin (no doubt) is to portray enemies as Nazis, and rather bizarrely the latest recipient of this is one-time, latter-day war hero, Yevgeny Prigozhin. This past week the state media has gone overboard in its efforts to paint Prigozhin as a treasonous, ungrateful thief of state funds, leading him to be compared to Hitler.

A spokesman for Russian state-controlled oil company Rosneft, Mikhail Leontiev, was bluntly comparing Prigozhin to Hitler. “They say, Prigozhin was telling the truth. So what? These are obvious things, about corruption, and so on,” Leontiev said. Eighty percent of what the Nazi leader said after invading the U.S.S.R. was true, “but that doesn’t stop him from being Hitler.

As Tim Snyder points out (1), this differs from history’s version of Nazism in that anyone who is deemed to be anti-Russian, or Russian-hating, is in effect a Nazi, with ideology, facts or relevance becoming an irrelevance.

The conflation of the Maidan and the subsequent onset of the war with Ukraine saw an increasing instance of comparison between current events and those of the Great Patriotic War, with Putin himself equating supporters of the new interim government to traitorous collaborators, who deserve only to be judged according the actions of the original Banderites.

This portrayal of Ukrainians as collaborators was skilfully woven to turn them into disloyal Russian, once again implying the whole affair was an internal one, and that foreign interference and any acknowledgement of Ukrainian independence as unwelcome and unwanted.

Again Russians were the victims of a despicable Western plot to take Russia away from the Russians.

“This isn’t about destroying a state (Ukraine) that is centred in Moscow. Achieving this historical objective would never solve the problem once and for all. Instead the issue is more about destroying the Russians as a people, of splitting up the Slavs…/…this is the programme that is currently being implemented in the Ukraine under the direction of the USA {referenced in McGlynn (4)}.”

Russian media continued to invoke the memory of the Great Patriotic War, making historical comparisons between Nazi atrocities and actions of Ukrainian forces who resisted Russian military actions. Often such comparisons equated the actions of individual WWII Nazis with those of Ukrainians, and those of the Russian troops with Red Army heroes, often drawing genealogical conclusions regardless of any biological relation, thereby raising the ethno-nationalist undertones so prevalent across all forms of the media.

Video and photographic evidence, released in a timely manner by the Russian archives, gave the opportunity for the media to get creative with, for example, scenes from Nazi concentration camps used to illustrate the actions of disloyal Ukrainians (4).

A destroyed Russian armored vehicle on the Ukriane-Russia front line, 2023. Tyler Hicks-Image from the NYT.

Sergei Diaghilev, the Russian ballet impresario, when he heard the first notes of The Rite of Spring, said, ‘My God, how long does it go on like that?’

And Stravinsky, the madman, says, ‘Until the end my dear.’

But imagine. A riot on the streets of Paris because of a Russian ballet. That bassoon rises like cigarette smoke from the orchestra pit, twisting like a spine, and the audience goes mad —

Only a Russian could do that. Only a Russian could make the whole world go mad.

Pickhart (2).

But in pre-war Germany, would they have said the same about Nietzsche? ‘Only a German could make the whole world go mad.’ Just like Putin’s Russia, Nazi Germany railed against the decadent West.

“The German belief that the West is decadent reached its clearest expression in Spengler. Utilitarianism is interpreted as a sure sign of decadence. Except in the East — to which Germany belongs — idealism is dead. The West has lost its biological vitality, its will to life and power. So run the arguments. The Nazis’ revolt towards paganism as a spring from which Life can be renewed, and their systematic anti-intellectualism, are both reflections from Nietzsche, who denounced the concepts of ‘the good, the true, and the beautiful’ as arresters of Life. Good, true, and beautiful, are only relative. They are the values of impotent, humble, feeble men with slave minds. The morality of bold, vigorous, healthy men is different. Their ethic is an ethic of strength, cruelty, combativeness, vigor and joy. Caution, humility, cleverness, pacifism, are only virtues for slaves, who can best advance themselves by the cultivation of these qualities.”

Dorothy Thompson, Foreign Affairs, 1941.

Moscow, 2014…control of the future…

Masha Gessen (3) says every Russian story begins in Crimea. “It is the place where childhood friendships (are) struck, romances (are) kindled, virginity (is) lost, drugs (are) tried, and all sorts of memories (are) made.

New Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gave Crimea to Ukraine in 1954 when he redrew the borders of some constituent parts of the Soviet Union. He gave no reason at the time, and speculation was rife that it was in some part atonement for the Red Famine of the 1930’s that had killed so many Ukrainians.

Stalin had previously ethnically cleansed Crimea of its native Tartars, leaving the vast majority of the remaining population as ethnic Russians. Some suggested the ‘gift’ had been part of a colonising action. Mere political expediency; a way to increase the percentage of ethnic Russians in Ukraine by more than a million at the stroke of a pen.

Although William Taubman (8) offers an interesting insight into Khrushchev’s mindset on this when, in his position as Ukrainian Viceroy under Stalin, a decade before he actually ‘gifted’ the peninsula to Ukraine, he mused aloud to Stalin about Ukrainian expansion into the Carpathians and Transcarpathian Ukraine, an area that had been a part of Czechoslovakia before the war.

He suggested to Stalin that the Carpathian populace “greatly aspired” to be a part of Soviet Ukraine. And in due course it became so. At the same time he tried to engineer a similar situation in Crimea. Khrushchev saw an opening in the wake of Stalin’s cleansing of the peninsula that had left the area short of peasants to work the land.

Ukraine is in ruins,” he said, “but everyone wants something from it. Now what if it received the Crimea in return? (8)” And whilst the annexation of the post-WWII years failed, the idea bore fruit, as Ukrainian peasants were introduced and both coal and agricultural production increased dramatically.

Is it possible the ‘gift’ had been in Khrushchev’s mind all along?

But, for most Russians at the time, Khrushchev’s gift was neither here nor there. Ukraine was after all, still part of the Soviet Union; to all intents and purposes it was Russian, just like Ukraine was Russian. Certainly to most Russian anyway…!

However, 1991 changed all that. The disintegration of the Soviet Union meant that all of a sudden Russia’s favourite holiday camp became a part of another country, with a different currency, a different language. A passport and a visa was now needed just to go on holiday.

Overnight the memories took on a different pallor. The loss of the connection was a painful one for many Russians, even if it remained the object of many young Russians summer dreams and ideals.

Two days after the sham referendum took place Putin addressed a collective gathering of both houses of the Russian parliament. Flanked by three newly installed representatives of the Crimea, Putin and the puppets signed a treaty of rejoinder, bringing Crimea and Russia together once again.

Putin then spoke for forty minutes giving justification for his actions in Crimea, perhaps a strange acknowledgement of the fact that they required justification at all. However, almost every sentence was cheered as if he were a sportsman attaining some unheard of high. Gessen (3) says it was like a scene from a mafia movie, with the family acknowledging the power and status of the ‘Godfather’ patriarch with every ‘hurrah’.

The historical connection between Russian and Crimea ran thick through Putin’s words. As in his 2021 essay, the facts were twisted, some were forgotten entirely, while others were highly conflated for effect, but all with aim of providing evidence of the ancient connection between Ukraine, the Crimea and Russia.

Russia, and the Russian people were the eternal victims of a jealous, scheming and amoral West who sought only to divide the Russian people, and take what they had. The suffering of ethnic Russians over the centuries was blown out of all proportion, especially by comparison with Russian ethnic minorities.

Putin shrugged off the ethnic cleansing of the tartars as little more than a historical footnote besides the interminable suffering of ethnic Russians. “Yes, there was a time when Crimean Tartars, like some other peoples of the USSR, were subjected to injustice. I’ll say one thing: millions suffered from repression in those times, and most of those people were, of course, Russians.

The inference being that the majority who had suffered in Crimea were ethnic Russians, which was patently untrue. This only became a truth if one took the Soviet Union as a single unit, and then it was only true because ethnic Russians were by far the ethnic majority across the USSR as a whole.

But by clouding the facts about Crimea in haze of truth about the Soviet Union as an entity, Putin was once again portraying Russians as the innocent victims — even if the ones victimising them were other Russians at the time. That part was left unspecified; after all the leader of the Great Patriotic War could not be at fault. Stalin’s name was to be left unbesmirched.

And when it came to Crimea, the demise of the Soviet Union, Putin said, left the victimised ethnic Russians to go tosleep in their own country, only to awaken in a different one. Overnight they had become ethnic minorities in former Union republics. The Russian people became one of the largest, if not the largest, divided nations in the world.

Like Hitler’s Germany before, a weakened Russia in the wake of its collapse, had fallen victim to an vengeful West. Too weak to resist, Putin said Crimea became a part of Ukraine, but under significant duress. Like the Germans in Sudetenland, the Russian people were now divided by borders that were not of their making.

And just like the Germans, who Hitler said fell foul of the vicious Czechs, the ethnic Russians in Crimea were being similarly victimised by the Ukrainians under direction from the U.S.

“Crimea — Russian speaking Crimea — was the first in line for the crackdown. Because of this the people of Crimea…asked Russia to protect their rights and their very lives…Of course we had to respond to this plea. We could not abandon Crimea and its people to their plight. It would have been a betrayal.”

Gessen (3) goes onto to explain the crude nuances of the Russian language used by Putin to make his point, and to once again illustrate his version of the homosexualised West.

Putin said that Russia’s invasion was the right thing to do, using, what he said was a precedent set by the U.S. when it helped facilitate the succession of Kosovo from Serbia. The difference being that the U.S. had the support of the UN, an organisation that thought it could make the rules in the post-Cold War world. “They had us all with that,” the official translation of his speech said. But Gessen points out he used the Russian crudity ‘nagnuli,’ making a far more accurate translation of his words to be, “…they had everyone up the ass.

Going on to blame the US for inciting a host of ‘colour revolutions’ forcing people ‘to accept standards unsuitable for (their) way of life, tradition and culture,’ which led, too one lie too many as they coerced nation after nation to join NATO. In placing their military outposts at our borders, they kept telling us that “it was none of our business. That’s easy for them to say,” he railed.

And just Germany had reasserted itself with its invasion of Czechoslovakia, so Russia had with Ukraine. It wasn’t possible for Russia to take it any longer, he said, “…like a spring that had been wound too tight…” it had uncoiled (3).

In the final analysis Putin’s speech pulled together threads from many previous speeches, but the parallels between this speech and Hitler’s in 1938 were undeniable and rung the same dull totalitarian bells that sent shudders through the spines of those who recognised the lifeless thud of a regime turning its back on freedom, and welcoming back a familiar guest.

Putin had once again made Russia into a totalitarian state; one for the present, that controls the past with a view to deciding the future direction of the Russian people.

Hannah Arendt (9) wrote, “…the force possessed by totalitarian propaganda — before the movements have the power to drop iron curtains to prevent anyone’s disturbing, by the slightest reality, the gruesome quiet of an entirely imaginary world — lies in its ability to shut the masses off from the rest of the world. The only signs which the real world world still offers to the understanding of the unintegrated and disintegrating masses — whom every new stroke of luck makes more gullible — are, so to speak, its lacunae, the questions it does not care to discuss publicly, or the rumours it does not dare to contradict because they hit, although in an exaggerated or deformed way, some sore spot.”

“From these sore spots the lies of totalitarian propaganda derive the elements of truthfulness and real experience they need to bridge the gulf between reality and fiction.”

Ukrainian forces fire towards Russian positions in Kreminna, Luhansk.
Ukrainian forces fore towards Russian positions in Kreminna, Luhansk.

“If previously, domestic affairs were secondary to the dominant military agenda, the reverse may come true. The war could become a backdrop to more urgent domestic challenges. At home, Russia’s future appears bleak, marked by ever-greater fractiousness among elites, Putin’s shrinking influence, and a more ideological and stricter regime in which security services play a more prominent role.”

Tatiana Stanovaya, Foreign Affairs, August 2023.

Putin’s 2023 reality…the real present…

Whatever reasons Putin gave for the annexation and the initiation of the unrest in the Donbas, it seems likely it was little more than opportunism. And what’s more, opportunism that wasn’t of his own making.

In 2009 Alexander Dugin, the man some have, perhaps mistakenly, called ‘Putin’s Brain,’ but perhaps better known in the West of late for the murder of his daughter, Daria, in a car bomb in Moscow in August last year, prophesied that Ukraine would split into two; one part, in the West, pro-Western; the other pro-Russian in the East.

The diametrically opposed halves of Ukraine; one Ukrainian speaking, the other Russian speaking, had ‘fundamentally different geopolitical orientations.’ According to Dugin, this meant Ukraine could not possibly be a nation state, because the split was pre-ordained (2).

The only question he said back then, was whether the split would be amicable or violent (2).

One of Dugin’s powerful allies was Konstantin Malofeyev — a billionaire and, as I said above, a close confidante of Putin’s — took up this idea and put it into a memorandum he delivered to the Kremlin. Written prior to Yanukovych’s political demise, the paper also suggested the Maidan was the result of Polish and British secret services meddling in Russian affairs.

But perhaps, most pertinent of all, it proposed a way to hit back at the West by organising unrest in south-eastern Ukraine, centred around the Donbas (2).

And, as we have seen, so it was.

On April 17th 2014, some 7 weeks after the little green men had invaded Crimea, Putin held his annual televised ‘hotline’ where pre-selected people could ask their President pre-selected questions.

One of the hosts on the night introduced the four hour long marathon by saying, “If things were different, I might have said this will be yet another conversation, but on this day we a different country listening to us. Russia is now united with Crimea and the city of Sevastopol. We have been waiting for this moment for twenty-three long years, ever since the Soviet Union fell apart. For this reason every question today will either be directly related to Crimea or or will have a sub-text coloured by Crimea (2).

The carefully curated questions and prepared answers gave Putin the opportunity to put this annexation on a pedestal, up there with the immense sacrifice of Russians in the Great Patriotic War. After all, no one would quibble…

Putin denounced anyone who disagreed with the annexation as traitors to be condemned by their own actions. Of course, had Putin taken this win, and stopped there, he may well have rewritten the book as a Russian hero of the post-Cold War age; but his ego wouldn’t allow that. The reasons why are for another discussion; the facts are that no-one knows for sure what was in Putin’s mind except Putin, or how he imagined the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2024 would go.

If we take what we hear as being accurate, then a 3 day walkover with minimal Ukrainian resistance followed by the installation of a pro-Russian, anti-Western puppet government would have been what was expected.

That didn’t happen, and the longer the war goes on, and perhaps more especially since Yevgeny Prigozhin’s rebellion (though today, as I publish this, he is reported to have killed), and Putin’s weak, insipid response to this monumental event, uncertainty, indecision and a distinct lack of confidence would seem to be the new norm.

This, combined with Ukraine’s ability to bring Russia’s war right to the doorsteps of Muscovites — something that is most certainly not part of the social contract Putin has with the Russian people —as well as threaten and severely shake Russian ego’s with attacks on the Kerch Bridge and several incursions by Ukrainian backed Russian partisans into Belgorad, have made Putin seem like he has lost control of the narrative. His rather mute, passive response to these attacks on Russian soil, have left him seeming to be rather detached, out of touch and more distant than ever, just when perhaps the Russian people need their strongman leader more than ever…Putin would appear to be absent.

Thanks for reading.

*For completeness it’s important to say that there is a far-right extremist element in Ukraine, the same as there is in every Western nation. But the proportion of extremists is miniscule. While some idolised Stepan Bandera, right-wing views were prevalent in the original Azov Regiment. However, since the regiments founder, Andry Bilitsky, left in 2016 to try (and fail) to take his views mainstream, such extremist views have been watered down within the regiment.

  1. The Road to Unfreedom; Russia, Europe, America; Timothy Snyder, 2018.
  2. I Will Die in a Foreign Land: A novel; Kalani Pickhart, 2021.
  3. The Future is History; How totalitarianism reclaimed Russia; Masha Gessen, 2017.
  4. Memory Makers; The politics of the past in Putin’s Russia; Jade McGlynn, 2023.
  5. Dancing on Bones: History and Power in China, Russia, and North Korea; Katie Stallard, 2022.
  6. Nazis: The Road to Power; BBC Sounds, Episode 8, The Big Lie. Feb 1st 2023.
  7. Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: Adventures in Modern Russia; Peter Pomerantsev, 2015.
  8. Khrushchev: The man, his era; William Taubman, 2005.
  9. The Origins of Totalitarianism; Hannah Arendt, 1951.



Peter Winn-Brown

The past can illuminate the present if we shine the light of inquiry openly, truthfully, with attention to detail & care for the salient facts.