In the West, Russia’s annexation of Crimea appears to be a modern-day Anschluss, ominous proof that the Russian bear has awoken after a three-decade hibernation. In Russia, unsurprisingly, the annexation of Crimea is perceived differently. According to recent opinion polls, which give President Vladimir Putin an enviable 80 percent approval rating, Crimea is Putin’s greatest political success. It is rivaled on Putin’s resume only by the long-term resuscitation of the post-socialist economy, a success whose roots stretch to the devaluation of the ruble in August 1998, not to Putin’s ascension to the presidency of the Russian Federation at the end of 1999. The reasons Russians look so fondly on the annexation of Crimea, despite its obvious parallels with the prelude to the Second World War, have less to do with an oft-cited sense of post-imperial rage and humilation vis-à-vis the United States. (Although this too is present: a friend, on faculty at another American university, reported at dinner on Thursday night that she had been berated earlier in the day by a Russian archivist, apparently because she is an American of Ukrainian birth.) Instead, similar to the war in Georgia in 2008, most Russians believe they occupy the moral high ground. After all, the Crimeans themselves voted overwhelmingly for annexation in March. While there are good reasons to doubt the fairness of those elections—which occurred under the purview of masked Russian soldiers wearing no insignias—there is little doubt that most Crimeans prefer a future with a comparatively affluent Russia than with an uncertain government in Kiev, whose pro-Ukrainian language policies engender fear. Moreover, Russia claims deep historical and cultural connections to Crimea, which became part of the Russian Empire under Catherine the Great. Even the most ardent Ukrainian nationalists admit that their connections to Crimea are tenuous: it was gifted from Russia to Ukraine in 1954 by Nikita Khrushchev to mark the 300th anniversary of the Treaty of Pereyaslav. As Putin noted in his annexation speech, a historical mistake has finally been righted.
Yet there are good reasons to believe that Crimea may one day prove more complicated for Putin than the unalloyed success it has been since March. Even now billboards are appearing on Moscow’s streets, sponsored by the organization Probоk.Net, which declare “We have returned Crimea, and we will return parking for cars,” and in a different version, “We have returned Crimea, and we will return a Moscow without traffic jams.” The complaints of Moscow’s drivers are legion. In a streetscape that is part medieval hodgepodge and part Stalin-era grandeur, the automobile was for too long an afterthought for municipal planners. As a result, streets are jammed from dawn to dusk with the new European and Asian makes preferred by Moscow’s burgeoning middle and upper classes. (Fortunately, Soviet automobiles, with their suffocating tailpipe emissions, have disappeared almost entirely from the capital.) A recent taxi ride to the city center from Domodedovo Airport, less than 50 kilometers to the south, took two hours, which is by no means unusual. Probok.Net’s campaign on behalf of frustrated drivers is savvy because it throws down the Crimean gauntlet. It implies that a government that has returned Crimea to the fold, and that now pledges billions to develop the peninsula’s tourism economy, can solve Moscow’s traffic crisis. It thus links Crimea with the quality of life of residents in distant Moscow. Yet what will happen to Putin’s approval ratings if Moscow’s traffic crisis proves intractable? What will happen if other public organizations, with their seemingly innocuous, non-political agendas, adopt similar rhetoric? Will Russians come to the conclusion that the quality of their lives has been sacrificed on the imperial altar?