Neutrality on a Russian Frontier

8280621771_b31b1245fd_oBy Megan Toon

It was six o’clock in the morning, and the first rays of sunlight were slowly dispersing across six students huddled around a battered, paint-stained radio. A brief crackle of static sliced through the room. “We were all nervous: was this going to be the moment President Putin declared Russia was at war?” Fran Palmer, one of the students, vividly recalled. The day before, President Putin had pledged to employ military force against Ukraine if President Viktor Yanukovych did not withdraw Ukrainian troops from the Crimea by six o’ clock the following morning. Though Fran had woken early with her housemates to hear the consequences of the President’s threat, nothing happened. “The president continued to deny Russia’s military involvement in Ukraine, and the Russian people continued with their day-to-day lives,” she said.

When Russia first came into conflict with Ukraine in February 2014, Fran was six months into a yearlong study abroad program in St Petersburg. That month, soldiers in unmarked uniforms took control of the Crimea. Western analysts referred to the unidentified men as Russian Special Forces; President Putin, eager to keep Russian military involvement clandestine, remained silent. In late 2013, the Kremlin had warned President Yanukovych that a free trade agreement with the European Union would void the bilateral treaty delineating the border between their two countries, implying the possibility of hostility if the agreement passed. Thomas Graham, a senior fellow at the Jackson Institute of Global Affairs and an advisor to the U.S. National Security Council, the State Department, and senior officials of the Kremlin, believes he has not met a Russian in the Kremlin “who does not deeply believe that the Crimea is sacred Russian territory and rightfully belongs inside the Russian Federation.” Pro-Russian activists in Ukraine reinforced the Kremlin’s sanction and prematurely ousted Yanukovych from government, causing the country to descend into civil anarchy. It was not until a number of months later that Putin revised his defense and alleged Russia’s involvement was to provide security for ethnic Russians living in Crimea.

The Kremlin’s denial extended to the media. “Local news bulletins rarely had reports on the conflict,” Fran said. When the conflict was covered in the news, local issues such as city crime and economic analyses conveniently obscured it. In order to keep up to date on the latest developments, Fran had to read Western media, such as the BBC. Pravda, a Russian media outlet, provided the most frequent coverage of the conflict, but the articles were only ever a synopsis—never extensive and never on the front page. Fran discussed her observations with the professor of her mass media class, but the teacher immediately accused the Western media of overemphasizing Russian involvement “She claimed the West was blowing the conflict out of proportion, and that Russia had only two objectives in relation to Ukraine: one, defend the humanitarian rights of Ethnic Russians living in Crimea; and two, preserve Russia’s international trade assets.” It seemed that as long as the fraught situation did not
 affect citizens’ personal well being, the people of St Petersburg saw no reason to intervene.

The Russian students in Fran’s classes were similarly unprepared to discuss the conflict. On the morning President Putin was to enforce his threat of military intervention in Ukraine—the morning Fran and other international students sat around the radio, consumed by the day’s political resolutions—their Russian housemates slept soundly. Eight months later, with the United States and the United Kingdom threatening to intervene, it is likely that locals have begun to rethink their initial complacency. Graham, who has spent thirty years trying to build constructive relations between the United States and Russia as a government official, was shocked by how “quickly and totally bilateral contacts were severed at the beginning of the crisis.” He found it “deeply disturbing that the demonization of Putin, itself a poor foundation for policy, has slowly transformed into the demonization of Russia as a whole.” Fran grew increasingly conscious of her Western identity, but the escalation of the conflict incited the same indifference in her friends as it did in the tightly monitored media. Part of this may be because many Russians consider Ukraine an historical part of Russian territory and, therefore, the conflict to some extent natural. To Fran, the silence manifested itself as a lack of interest. Even as international furor erupted over Russia’s actions, the conflict between Russia and Ukraine had little impact on her experience in St Petersburg. It simply was not a prevalent topic on Russia’s radar of social interaction.

*Author’s note: Francesca Palmer, BA (Hons) Russian Studies at the University of Manchester, studied at the Benedict School 
in St Petersburg from September of 2013 to June of 2014.

Megan Toon ’16 is a Classics major in Trumbull College. She can be reached at megan.