A Second Crimean War looks more possible today than it did even last Tuesday, when I connected it to the Russian nationalist liturgy we witnessed at the opening ceremonies of the Sochi Olympics. The fracas in the Ukraine was explosively timed, but it backfired on Russia.
Will the Russians destabilize Ukraine, or even carve out a protectorate in eastern Ukraine, the way they have in much smaller states like Georgia and Moldova? Foreign Policy has an interesting look at the stakes for the Kremlin, especially when another major player is Beijing.
But the tug-of-war over Ukraine isn’t a card game with rational players, like some American corporate banana war. Rather, there are sites in Ukraine that have a holy significance in the cult of the Russian nation-state. Contemporary Russian politicians can powerfully (and safely) evoke the glory of the Soviet Union by celebrating country’s heroic sacrifice in the Great Patriotic War.
Putin laying a wreath for the defenders of Sevastopol in 2000.
Sevastopol, in the Crimea, is sacred ground with holy significance in the cult of Russia. Besieged in the city in 1942, the Soviet army suffered nearly 100,000 casualties. Soviet soldiers reportedly resorted to suicide and cannibalism rather than surrender to the Nazis. Time ran a good story about a Russian nationalist biker gang, the Night Wolves, descending on the city:
Among Russian veterans and, more broadly, for the Russian state, that history has bestowed a special status on the city, one that goes a long way toward explaining the ferocity of Russia’s defense of Sevastopol throughout the years, and most recently during this year’s revolution in Ukraine. It is not only the home of a strategic military base, but a memorial to an earlier generation’s sacrifice and a site of potent Russian nationalism.
Effective politicians speak through symbols, and few symbols are more powerful than those drawn from what Walter Benjamin called the “depraved mysticism of war.” In the aftermath of 9/11, Chris Hedges writes in War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, a ‘religious aura’ sanctioned the American security state. The German author Ernst Jünger — the literary mystic of war in Benjamin’s case — was never interested in shoring up the cult of the nation-state. He is on to something more primordial; the nation-state is merely an effective vehicle to mobilize for war, just as the Christian church and its liturgy is access point for a community to encounter sacramental transcendence. There is a parallel in Carl Schmitt’s work (although Jünger was too elitist to look kindly upon his Nazi admirers) where politics is organized around the transcendent “political” — a war against the enemy — and the sovereign is the priest who consecrates the zone of exception.
War is more than a symbol, then, and even more than a totem representing a people. Facing the reality of war, a reality which gives meaning to human lives, is to face a dark icon. War shows the meaning of “History” (in the Hegelian sense of meaningful history) but also has existential lessons for individuals. In the peril of warfare, one comes face to face with the fact of one’s existence; Dasein grasps itself; the threat of violence cements the bond of comradeship with others. Jünger celebrates war, and Hedges warns us against its “intoxicating” addiction. But it is the Judge, the horrific villain of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian who comes to divinize war, and even to personify this divinity:
“[W]ar is the truest form of divination. It is the testing of one’s will and the will of another within that larger will which because it binds them and is therefore forced to select. War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. War is god” (249).
As I wonder what the Kremlin won’t risk for Crimea, I begin to wonder if they will fight a new war over the memory of an old war. Is the god of war — or the god War — really in charge?