On March 18, Russia marked the first anniversary of the annexation of Crimea. The extent of the celebrations in southern Russia varied dramatically, according to Kavkazsky Uzel news agency reporters who were on the scene. Twenty people gathered for celebrations in Sochi, but about 13,000 people reportedly rallied in the city of Krasnodar. The variation in the zeal of the Crimea celebrations in the North Caucasian republics was also quite substantial. About 3,000 people rallied in the city of Cherkessk, Karachaevo-Cherkessia, while another 5,000 people participated in celebrations in Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkaria, and 1,500 people rallied in Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia. Chechnya, as always, gathered the largest number of participants, with 10,000 people marking the anniversary in Grozny. The formal nature of the rallies was evident, especially in the North Caucasus. The event in Vladikavkaz reportedly lasted only half an hour (Kavkazsky Uzel, March 18).
Participants in the Grozny celebrations told Kavkazsky Uzel that they were forced to participate. Ramzan N., an employee of a government agency told the website: “Two days before the gathering, we were informed that, at 5 p.m., on March 18, we would have to take part in a rally in support of joining Crimea to Russia. Yesterday, on March 18, by the end of the day, we were given a variety of posters and banners, portraits of Putin and Kadyrov, and then they bused us to the center of city.” Several students also reported that they were brought to the celebrations against their wishes. As an anonymous non-governmental organization (NGO) leader told the news agency, heads of government departments receive orders from the republican government requiring them to send certain numbers of people to public events and they have to comply with these requests (Kavkazsky Uzel, March 19).
This return of Soviet-style public rallies in support of government policies in Russia came with Soviet-style slogans and proclamations. At the rally celebrating Crimea’s annexation, in Makhachkala, Dagestan, the chief of the government-sponsored professional unions, Abdulla Magomedov, proclaimed: “Dagestan’s professional unions believe that the citizens of Crimea, as well as citizens of other countries, have the right to decide their own destiny, and not live by rules dictated to them by the overseas patrons of and advisors to the Kyiv authorities.” Russia, he added, averted war in Crimea by preventively annexing the peninsula and saving its population from the horrors of war like those seen in eastern Ukraine. “Reactionary circles of America and the European Union are haunted by this [Russia’s prudent move to annex Crimea] and declared a sanctions war on Russia,” continued Magomadov, in what could have been a typical speech of a Soviet-era apparatchik. “Under these circumstances, we welcome the fraternal peoples of Crimea, strongly protest against any attacks on the freedom and independence of Crimea and Russia. We are also against the US policy of double standards. No to sanctions, no to war!” The Dagestani union leader called on his audience to close ranks around the national leader, Vladimir Putin, to counter plots by foreign enemies (Riadagestan.ru, March 18).
Such ritual proclamations and reassurances about the Soviet Union’s peaceful intentions, in contrast to its hawkish Western counterparts, were quite common during the Soviet period. The main difference, of course, is that today there is no ideological justification for fighting the West; only vague nationalistic motives set the tone for battle. The objectives of the battle are also quite unclear as well.
According to on-the-scene reports, despite the state-sponsored propaganda, ordinary Russian citizens differ substantially in their attitudes toward the annexation of Crimea. A professor at the local university in Grozny told Kavkazsky Uzel: “Crimea’s incorporation into Russia is the most important achievement of Russia in recent years. If Putin had not incorporated Crimea when he did, [US President Barack] Obama would already have installed missiles there that would have posed a threat to Russia’s security.” Another anonymous respondent told the agency that he believed that the annexation of Crimea was “a gross violation of all international agreements and rights by the Russian Federation,” even though he still approved of the move as a way to avoid the bloodshed that has occurred in eastern Ukraine (Kavkazsky Uzel, March 19).
This patriotic frenzy at least to some extent incentivizes the Kremlin to keep the war in Ukraine going and to attempt further territorial grabs. At the same time, of course, both the West and Russia’s neighbors are now on guard for further aggressive Russian moves in its neighborhood and beyond. This puts constraints on Putin’s next move. It is plausible that Russia’s leadership will weigh both the international repercussions and domestic expectations to prepare for the next foreign policy move. What the Kremlin cannot afford now is to do nothing.