Crimea River: What the Hell is Happening in Ukraine?

Over the weekend, Russia essentially declared war on Ukraine, authorizing military force in Crimea and sending troops to occupy the area.  As I write this, there are rumors that they will strike overnight, or provoke violence so as to retaliate, or fabricate violence so as to retaliate.  Ukraine and Russia have a shared cultural and linguistic history – what the hell is happening?

Picture of protestors in Crimea holding handmade signs
The one on the left says “No war, we are for peace,” the one in the middle says “I am Russian and I am opposed to this Crimean ‘custody'”, and the one on the right (my sister-in-law) says “I live in Crimea, I am a citizen of Ukraine, Putin, this is a crime.”

Angela Merkel, talking to President Obama, reportedly said that “after talking to Vladimir Putin she was unsure whether the Russian president was ‘in touch with reality,’” saying that Putin is “in another world.”

Senator John Kerry was similarly perplexed, saying, “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pre-text.”

Certainly Putin’s actions over the past few days point to somebody who has lost the ability to think rationally.  It seems that nobody in the west believes his excuses for authorizing military force in Crimea, and he’s already facing some very real consequences including a plunging stock market, which has lost nearly 60 billion dollars and counting, sanctions, and world nations disallowing him to sit at the big kid table.

Graph showing the Russian Stock Market plunging after the occupation started.
Down goes Russia’s stock market. Maybe occupation wasn’t such a good idea. Graphic published at Pravda.

It makes no sense, from a logical point of view.  He is alienating the entire world, his justifications (to protect Russians from the tyrannical Ukrainian government) are so transparent as to be laughable, and he basically already had control of Crimea anyway.  If you need some context on Crimea, this is a great article, but the long and short of it is that there already was a Russian naval base in Crimea, many Crimeans felt a strong affiliation with Russia, and because of its special status within Ukraine, the government there had a lot of freedom to act accordingly (technically, the name of the region is “The Autonomous Republic of Crimea”).

But this isn’t about sense.

If you haven’t seen this video of ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych snapping a pen in two at a press conference, it will only take about 25 seconds of your life, and it is, to me, the best illustration of what is happening at this point in time in Ukraine.

Viktor Yanukovych isn’t Vladimir Putin.  For starters, Putin is much, much smarter than Yanukovych.  However, they have kept in close company, and Russia right now is harboring Yanukovych, and the aggression exhibited in the above video is an extension of this:

Picture of a shirtless Putin on horseback.
Photo by AFP/Getty Images, found on Soompi

and this:

Putin is dominating somebody else in Taekwondo
Photo by Newscom/File, found on

and this:

Putin with a crossbow on a boat
Photo by the AP, found on Fox News

Putin has built his empire based on his machismo.  He was KGB.  He fights bears.  He shoots things.  He hates gay people.  Nobody can mess with him.

But that’s just it.  In day-to-day life, many women have learned to avoid hypermasculine men, because the flip side of shirtless photos with guns is too often machismo and violence in the home – an inability to solve problems with words and emotions, a need for control and power, vulnerability being seen as enemy #1.

Which brings me back to What The Hell Is Happening in Crimea.  Putin’s actions don’t make sense in terms of a world leader who has generally been brilliant, calculating, and strong.  They do make sense if you think of Putin not as a president, but as a hypermasculine man.

When Ukrainians rose up against their authoritarian leader, it was very easy to draw the parallels between Ukraine and Russia.  If Ukrainians can do it, the strategists said, so can Russians.  This kind of uprising, in the world of social media and Arab Springs and viral videos, tends to spread.

Putin’s moves in Crimea are not about international strategy, or geopolitical advantages, or even, as he claims, defense of his own people.  Instead, he is the abusive husband whose neighbor has just gone to jail for domestic abuse. Yanukovych’s body language in the above video when he breaks that pen screams violent partner who has just been arrested.

Putin needs to send a message to his own people – he is stronger than Yanukovych, he is meaner than Yanukovych, and if they even think about calling the cops on him, he will crush them.  When wives turn in their husbands for abuse, the message says, there are consequences.

There are people who legitimately believe that Putin is acting wisely, that Russians in Crimea need to be defended.  There are others, like my sister-in-law who lives in Simferopol, who are literally putting their lives on the line to attend protests against the occupation (pictured above).  In the end, it doesn’t matter what the people think, because Putin is, as Merkel said, “in another world.”  A world that has been created by the belief that men being manly is good so men being extra manly is better, a world where hypermasculinity gets you a presidency instead of social condemnation.

The only thing is, I think Merkel is wrong.  Because that’s not another world.  That’s this world.  And Putin is used to using his muscles to get his way – we should expect nothing else from him in the coming days.

Additional reading: I found this article to be extremely interesting with regards to hypermasculinity and world violence.


By Susan

I am old and wise. Perhaps more old than wise, but once you're old, you don't give a shit about details anymore.

5 replies on “Crimea River: What the Hell is Happening in Ukraine?”

I appreciate this perspective — it makes a lot of sense. When people are mystified by someone’s behavior, the answer is often to look at things for nuance and context, but in the case of unchecked aggression, the motivation is actually a lot simpler.

Good article, and probably true, but power, eh? Anyone holding together a massive state like Russia *needs* to act like this. He wants his empire, and so far, nobody has tried (or dared) to stop him. The problems in Ukraine are only loosely connected to this, I think, but act as a nice excuse for him to be manly and aggressive. Funny how everything seems so brave and good when uprisings start, only to reveal a ton of problems that nobody knows how to deal with afterwards. This has happened before so. Many. Times.

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