Putin's provocations are met with ridicule in Ukraine

Putin's provocations are met with ridicule in Ukraine
© Getty Images

Dictators fear being ridiculed with humor. Jokes about Stalin were punished by prison or death. In China, a TV anchor was threatened for jokes mocking Mao Zedong. In Venezuela, the Maduro government counts anti-Chavismo satire as punishable by censorship, cancellation or even jail.

In Russia, Putin has signed a law that imposes fines and jail for online material that disrespects the state, the constitution and bodies exercising state power.  

ADVERTISEMENT

A popular Russian joke goes: “If you criticize the authorities, you’ll be prosecuted under the law against insulting officials. If you praise the authorities, you’ll be prosecuted under the law against fake news.”

The new president of Ukraine, comedian and TV star Volodymyr Zelensky, as a graduate of improvisational comedy, understands the power of lampooning political opponents. This skill earned him an unlikely landslide victory in the crowded Ukrainian presidential race.

It is therefore no surprise that he chose to respond to his first provocation from Putin with his characteristic combination of humor, satire and ridicule.

Putin’s provocation was to offer Russian passports to citizens of the two self-proclaimed breakaway republics of Ukraine — the People’s Republic of Donetsk and the People’s Republic of Luhansk. These two republics are currently puppets of Moscow.

Under the Minsk accords, they are supposed to be eventually reintegrated into Ukraine. The offer of Russian passports is a quasi-annexation of Donetsk and Luhansk into the Russian Federation. (The Kremlin however has made clear that a Russian passport does not mean Russian pensions).

Rather than respond with outrage as would a career politician, Zelensky chose to take Putin to task with ridicule. In a Facebook response written in both Ukrainian and Russian (notably Russian is Zelensky’s first language), Zelensky writes to Putin:

With regards to the declaration of the President of the Russian Federation Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinJoe Walsh 'strongly, strongly considering' a primary challenge to Trump GOP group calls on Republican senators to stand up to McConnell on election security in new ads Trump, France's Macron discuss G-7 ahead of annual meeting MORE, I note the following: First, I would not encourage Russian authorities to waste time trying to lure the citizens of Ukraine with Russian passports. It is possible to find some who are still under the influence of propaganda. Some may do this to earn money or to hide from criminal investigation. We can even deliver to Vladimir Putin a list of citizens of Ukraine who in the near future will be very uncomfortable in the country they cynically plundered using their high positions. Let Russia decide where they need such “professionals” the most — in Rostov [headquarters of Russian forces] or Magadan [a labor camp location].

Then, Zelensky jabbed the needle in Putin’s side, writing:

In contrast, in Ukraine we have freedom of speech, a free media, and free internet. Therefore, we perfectly understand what a Russian passport means: the right to be arrested at a peaceful protest, the right not to have free and competitive elections, and the right to ignore natural rights and human freedom. Therefore you should not reckon that many Ukrainians will want to become the "new oil," into which Russian authorities are trying to transform their people.

Zelensky then goes to the heart of Putin’s worst fears about an independent Ukraine with the following taunt:

Ukraine will not decline to serve as the example for post-Soviet countries. And part of this mission will be to offer a haven and Ukrainian citizenship to all who are prepared to fight for freedom ... We will offer Ukrainian citizenship to all people who suffer from authoritarian and corrupt regimes. In first order — to Russians who today suffer as much as anyone ... Ukraine will never give up Donbass and also Crimea. But I hope that Russia will prefer to talk rather than to shoot.

To date, no head of state has treated Putin’s provocations and often outrageous behavior with this combination of ridicule and threat.

Although more subtle and understated than President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpSarah Huckabee Sanders becomes Fox News contributor The US-Iranian scuffle over a ship is a sideshow to events in the Gulf South Korea: US, North Korea to resume nuclear talks 'soon' MORE’s tweets, they serve much the same purpose: to deflate opponents, make them look small and petty and reveal their weaknesses.

Putin is undoubtedly a rich target for ridicule:

his bare-shirted, bareback horsemanship,

his bald lies of no troops being in Ukraine,

his palaces,

his comic-opera inaugurations,

his claims of no Russian intervention in foreign elections,

his alleged cosmetic surgery, and

his annihilation of hapless judo opponents.

Instead, heads of state treat Putin with great respect as a master chess player in diplomatic war games. They do not contradict his more outrageous statements for fear of riling him up.

ADVERTISEMENT

In his short remarks, Zelensky lays bare some of Putin’s most ridiculous claims, such as freedom of assembly, competitive elections, unfettered speech and corruption. In closing, he homes in on Putin’s biggest fear: a non-corrupt, democratic and prosperous Ukraine on Russia’s border.

The Western world and Ukraine have had reservations concerning the election of a young, political novice with popular appeal based upon a career in show business.

Zelensky’s handling of his first foreign policy challenge suggests a velvet-gloved Donald Trump willing to fight back but with a smile on his face and with carefully chosen words. Zelensky is off to a good start, but we have to recognize that he is not playing with a deck of strong cards.

Paul Gregory is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and the author or coauthor of 12 books on economic history, the Soviet economy, transition economies, comparative economics and economic demography.