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Crimea River, Kiev

Why Russia will never leave Crimea: reminiscences of a career in Russian and Ukrainian politics

My Ukrainian friend Oleg Sheremet predicted Russia would retake Crimea by 2012. He was only off by about a year, but he will never know. It’s for the best: Watching Russia’s recent invasion might have stopped his heart.

Oleg made his prediction in 2007, when we worked together on a Ukrainian parliament campaign. I was a general consultant and he was our campaign manager. In former Soviet Union races, nobody wants to see American faces. So global experts hide behind local managers who execute Western-standard campaign plans.

Oleg was a master of his craft and a world-class operative in his own right. He was brilliant and cunning and could tell a story over a vodka bottle like nobody else. As our candidate rose unexpectedly in the polls, Oleg got the credit. He also got the blame.

I spoke no Ukrainian and Oleg wasn’t an English speaker. We talked politics, business, music, and film through his translator. He would tap his barrel chest when he talked about his country. For him, and for most Ukrainians, every political move affects them, so it becomes quite personal.

Our dark horse candidate won on Election Day. All the Kiev wags were shocked and Oleg, most of all: An assassin put six rounds from a Kalashnikov into his chest. His children witnessed their father’s murder.

What I learned then the world knows now: Ukrainian politics ain’t beanbag.

The author, Michael Caputo, with fellow Western New Yorker Gary Kellner, campaign manager Oleg Sheremet (assassinated days later), and political consultant Todd Wilder.

It’s always been harder for me to enter Ukraine than to leave. The worst was in 1997, when I traveled from Moscow to Kiev with Kremlin officials to talk politics with leaders of Ukraine’s parliament. It was maddening.

I was detained for an hour, out of contact with my Russian travel companions. Mostly, I just sat and waited for the fat Ukrainian border policeman to return with my passport. When he did, and grunted to dismiss me, I let fly a string of English expletives under my breath as I left the interrogation room.

“What’s wrong, Urrigone?” The Russian deputy prime minister I worked for had taken to calling me their word for hurricane. There were dozens of DPM’s scattered throughout the halls of the Kremlin. Mine was a comedian.

“The border guards always hold me up here,” I said. The five members of my delegation laughed and chided me in Russian. The DPM laughed loudest. He loved to laugh.

“You have to understand: For Russians, going to Kiev is like Americans flying to Atlanta,” he said. He lowered his voice: “Speaking frankly, Michael, Ukraine is Russia, and it always will be Russia.” He wasn’t kidding.

This comment, from a pro-democracy Kremlin leader, frames my perspective of Russia’s recent annexation of Crimea: What took them so long?

Older Russians wax on about the Czarist era of Crimea and Soviet history being made in the region, but Crimea is mostly about drinking vodka. Muscovites of all ages tell tales of boozy Crimean vacations and retreats. I drank myself silly there three times in the 1990s. It’s Russia’s Wildwood, New Jersey, without good pizza.

• • •

The Russians lost the Crimean War in 1856 almost entirely because of vodka. Bring it up in Moscow conversation and you’ll get a wince: Peasant soldiers were plastered, their officers stayed smashed. Vodka was guzzled before battle and chaos ensued. Forces from Britain, France, and Sardinia easily mopped the place up.

When Soviet authorities transfered the peninsula to the Ukraine Soviet Socialist Republic in 1954, the move brought back bad memories. If you think the fabled 19th-century failure wasn’t on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s mind as he marched on Crimea, you’re dead wrong.

In 1997, Russia and Ukraine hammered out a new status for Crimea as a semi-autonomous region of Ukraine. The agreement took forever and was a bitter pill for Russians of all political stripes: Their most important naval port, a place synonymous with 200 years of Russian culture, was reduced to a lease from a former vassal. It was emasculating for one of the most masculine regimes in history.

While diplomats hammered out the details of the post-Soviet pact, Russian news outlets all lamented the loss of Crimea. Liberals, fascists, Communists, even anarchists all spat when talk turned to handing over the favorite seaside resort of czars, Bolsheviks, and Russian bureaucrats.

I tended to run with reform-minded Russian politicians, but as a lobbyist I worked closely with everyone—Communist and fascist leaders too. Every Russian I ever met, of every ideology—even rock stars with no politics at all—thought Ukraine owned Crimea only temporarily. They disagreed on how to get her back, but all Russians knew she would be home soon.

Even today, independent of Russia for more than two decades, Crimea is 60 percent Russian, mostly because Russian Navy officers and enlisted men retire there. Think Norfolk, Virginia, but with wild dogs roaming city streets and mafiosi ignoring speed limits in their Bentleys.

Organized crime is everywhere in the former Soviet Union. In the 1990s, I lived right next door to my krisha—Russian for “roof,” or the guy who doesn’t let it rain on you. Businesses in our area of Moscow paid him monthly to stay dry. Apparently he liked me, because I got a pass. And our street was the safest in the area, if you could wheel your way through the dozen-plus black Mercedes lined up outside the local don’s lair.

Ukraine is no exception, and Crimea is lousy with biznesmeni—private-sector hoods getting rich in the rackets. Some say these tough-talking wise guys, mixed up in politics, graft, and extortion, helped force the snap referendum last week. Western media stationed in eastern Ukraine are reporting that mafiosi there are very clearly organizing pro-Russian dissent.

Crimea was in woeful disrepair when I was last there; even the famous Swallow’s Nest castle overlooking the Cape of Ai-Todor was crumbling. In the 1990s, Russia and Ukraine let remarkable historic buildings rot while oligarchs swiped billions from the national treasury.

Still, Crimea was a great place to take a Russian girlfriend who had trouble getting visas to better places. Friends tell me the place isn’t much improved today—except now biznesmeni own all the castles. Today the cliffside Swallow’s Nest is an exclusive Italian restaurant no normal Russian or Ukrainian can afford.

• • •

Anyone watching news of Putin’s invasion of Crimea knows upwards of 17 percent of Ukrainian is ethnic Russian. Few know that one in 20 people you meet in Moscow and St. Petersburg is Ukrainian. They share history, but scratch the surface and there is hate.

My Ukrainian wife, Maryna—my dead friend Oleg’s translator, in fact—monitors the Internet constantly for news of her homeland and tells me Russian-Ukrainian relations are breaking down. While the governments of Kiev and Moscow seem hell-bent on a conflagration, Russian and Ukrainian friends are flaming and unfriending each other on Facebook. Wild rumors, stoked by the Kremlin-controlled Russian media in both countries, are ruining lifelong friendships.

The author at a 1994 protest against Boris Yeltsin outside the Kremlin in Moscow.

To my great shock and disappointment, some Russian musicians, actors, writers, and intellectuals I know believe neo-Nazis commanded protestors on Kiev’s Maidan Square. I remember one beautiful Russian girl in particular: In 1998, she stood in my Moscow university classroom reciting Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” like she wrote it. Today she recites straight-up Kremlin propaganda on social media.

At first, Maidan didn’t inspire my Ukrainian friend Tanya Mulkidzhanova: She would drop by the protest from work during lunch, or after happy hour. But like millions of others, she grew offended, got caught up, and donated money and medicine. She is proud of her friends among the devoted Maidan protestors. Tanya knows the truth: A few neo-Nazis were there, but none had a leadership role in the unrest, as the Kremlin alleges.

While there are many Russians in Ukraine, there are far fewer now with Crimea gone. The country is now likely 90 percent Ukrainian, and most have a jaundiced view of Russia.

Chief among the reasons Ukrainians distrust Russia: Josef Stalin starved 12 million of them to death. In the 1932-33 Holodomor famine, the Soviet leader shipped scarce food supplies out of Ukraine to feed Russians elsewhere. Every Ukrainian family has a horror story about their forebears.

At seven years old, my wife’s grandmother was walking with her mother, navigating their way through corpses on the street. Suddenly, a neighbor jumped out and snatched the little girl, intent on eating her. She got away and hid for days. Maryna’s grandfather lived, too—one of eight children abandoned by their parents and left to survive on their own.

• • •

I’ve always had trouble communicating in Ukraine. While most Ukrainians speak Russian, many refuse to speak it with me. Older Ukrainians hate Russia so much, they can’t hide it and won’t speak the language. But outside Kiev, Ukrainians are confused about what happened in Maidan Square because the truth is hard to find.

“There is another version of Maidan events, delivered by the Russian media and widely spread through the east of Ukraine,” Tanya wrote recently. “My family is from there, in the pro-Russian Donetsk region, so I heard the views from that part of the country as well. It’s propaganda, and it’s working.

“Many people are surprised to hear that a large population could be swayed by disinformation. But large areas of Russia and Ukraine don’t have Internet access and only receive government TV channels,” according to Tanya. She thinks Russians and many Ukrainians are especially susceptible to government propaganda because the Kremlin has been carefully grooming them all for years, preparing for this moment.

She may be right: A few of Maryna’s Crimean relatives—descendants of those Holodomor survivors—voted to join Russia. Putin promised to double their paltry pensions on television.

I hope Putin stops at Crimea, but Russia will never leave. Certainly, my 1997 conversation with the Russian minister predicted more than just regaining the strategic peninsula. If you believe my Kremlin colleague, Crimea is an appetizer.

One thing is abundantly clear: Many elite Russians are growing fed up with all sides of the Crimean crisis. I know, because birthdays are very important in Russia, and mine was last weekend. Every year, I’m bombarded with emails and Tweets and Facebook posts from Moscow. This annual torrent of Russian bear hugs is my favorite part of every birthday.

Sunday morning, a dear friend in Russia’s entertainment business wrote with birthday wishes. I asked what he thought about his country and Ukraine and his reply was good summary: “Shit, Mikey, they’re all assholes.”

He’s right, of course. But these assholes are trying to start World War III.

Michael Caputo lived in Moscow from 1994 to 1999 and served as an advisor to the administration of Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Today he lives with his wife and children in East Aurora.

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